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Going low tech with the 2011 Chevrolet Traverse

We spend a good deal of time reviewing cars that are packed to the gills with cabin tech, but we've never turned down a chance to check out even a low-tech ride.

We were recently handed the keys to a 2011 Chevrolet Traverse rental vehicle. With only 6,000 miles on the odometer, the Traverse had thus far avoided any obvious rental car abuses. However, like all fleet vehicles, cabin tech was sparse.
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Last week, we took a look at Hertz Rent-A-Car's NeverLost navigation system, but in order to do so we had to first rent a car, which is how we found ourselves behind the wheel of this 2011 Chevrolet Traverse. Now, we spend a good deal of time reviewing cars that are packed to the gills with cabin tech, but we've never turned down a chance to check out even a low-tech ride. With that in mind, we decided to check out what this seven-passenger SUV had to offer.

Fleet vehicles--which is what rental cars are--are often of low trim level or (at the very least) lack any optional equipment. This means no navigation, no premium audio, and no advanced safety features. Occasionally, however, they feature custom equipment variations from their showroom-bound siblings. For example, our Traverse was built without GM's OnStar telematics system, which means no Automatic Crash Response, Emergency Services, Roadside Assistance, Turn-by-Turn Navigation, or Hands Free Calling.

Audio playback was handled by a single-slot CD player with AM/FM radio.
Audio playback was handled by a single-slot CD player with AM/FM radio. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

What we did get was the base AM/FM radio with a single-slot CD-player. The optical drive handles MP3-encoded disks, but otherwise you're stuck using the standard analog auxiliary input to connect your iPod, smartphone, or portable digital audio player. Retail purchasers of the Traverse are able to spec DVD-based navigation with USB/iPod integration, a 10-speaker Bose premium audio system, and flip-down rear seat DVD entertainment. Bluetooth hands-free calling isn't standard, but can be added as an option or included in one of the higher trim level packages.

Our 1LT trim model featured a rear-park assist feature that uses an ultrasonic distance sensor that beeps with increasing intensity as you approach an obstruction while in reverse. The system is useful for avoiding fender benders due to poor rearward visibility, but we found that the system was a bit generous with its tolerances, reaching max intensity with plenty of space to spare. Admittedly, most people will appreciate this extra bit of wiggle room, but every inch counts on the crowded streets of San Francisco. This niggle combined with the lack of a front-facing sensor means that parallel parking is still a harrowing experience. A better solution is the Traverse's available rear view camera, which displays through a small LCD behind the rear view mirror.

A vehicle the size of the Traverse should be able to haul people and bulky items, and fortunately the SUV excels in that respect. Available in seven- or eight-passenger configurations, the Traverse features a third-row bench seat that, while a bit cramped for adults, should fit up to three children with ease. Getting in and out of that third row is also quite easy thanks to a sliding 60/40 split second row bench that collapses at the pull of a lever or optional second row buckets that offer a clear central path to the rear seats at the expense of one second row seating position. The third row folds flat with a single pull, doubling the rear cargo. The second row doesn't fold flat, but can be slid forward to create even more cargo space. Spec a 2LT or LTZ trim level, and you'll even get a power rear tailgate to make loading even easier.

For all of our longing for cabin tech that we didn't have on our tester, we were treated to the full drivetrain tech experience. That's likely because the Traverse is available with only one engine/transmission configuration: a 3.6-liter, direct-injected V-6 that sends 281-horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque through a six-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is estimated at 17 city and 24 highway mpg. Buyers are at least given the option of front or all-wheel drive. However, choosing the latter will cost you one mpg on the highway and in the city.

We were satisfied with the 4,700 pound SUV's get-up-and-go; 281 horsepower seems like the right amount of grunt for this vehicle. However, we were surprisingly pleased with its road handling. Now, there's nothing nimble about the way the Traverse tackles corners and its turning radius is quite wide, but the term "carlike" does spring to mind from behind the wheel. With its fully independent suspension, the Traverse does a good job of hiding its truck roots with a controlled ride quality not unlike that of a large (err, very large) sedan. In fact, on more than one occasion we found ourselves confusing the Traverse with its smaller car-based relative, the Equinox. However, driven like the rental car that it is, the Traverse's weight makes itself known with a 0-60 time that's best described as "eventually" and what feels like huge amounts of body movement and weight transfer that threw the standard traction control system into a tizzy. It should go without saying that there will probably never be a Traverse SS.

Sadly, most of the improvements made to the Traverse since we last saw it two model years ago aren't reflected on our stripped-down rental--for example, USB connectivity on the Premium audio rig and updated OnStar functions. That said, we can still see a few areas where the Chevy need improvement. As a 2011 model vehicle, Bluetooth should really be standard across trim levels, yet it is unavailable on the base level and is an additional cost for the LT. Most likely, GM is pushing OnStar as its entry-level hands-free solution, but nearly every automaker is making Bluetooth standard these days. We'd also like to see that USB port as a standard feature and the DVD-based navigation option replaced with something hard drive-based.

All things considered, we still think that the Traverse has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with our current favorite people-hauling SUV, the Ford Flex. Yet, with superior cabin technology, we also still give the edge to the Ford.