Traverse. Replacing the Family Van on a Road Trip

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I’ve never been much of a van fan but with three kids in car seats, it was unavoidable. It seems many families feel the same way and automotive manufacturers are starting to listen.

GM Canada’s crossover vehicle, the 2012 Traverse, is designed to give families the seating flexibility of a van without the cargo box feel. We had the chance to put one to the test, and by test I mean five of us in a Traverse for 10 days driving over 5,300 on a Florida road trip. We’ve done this road trip many times and although I might complain about being a van mom, I have become accustom to many of the van’s conveniences on road trips. I was curious to find out if the Traverse would deliver.


Traverse: Seating

Like most standard cars, the Traverse seats four (or five) in the first two rows but what brings it closer to a van is its ability to seat seven (or eight) with an additional bench seat in the third row. With three kids, two of which are in booster seats, having some separation while in the car for 8-hours is not just a nice feature; it’s a necessity. We used the full three rows.

Let’s be honest, the third row seating was great, for the kids. The seats were much higher and more comfortable than the third row bench in our van. Designed with theatre-style seating, passengers in the third row sit a little higher so they can still see out the front and the single DVD screen in the ceiling. However, I couldn’t see grandma sitting back there. Even my 9-year old daughter found the legroom a little cramped.

As far as accessing the third row, you can slide the second row seats forward but the entry space is awkward and small. This option becomes really inconvenient if you have a booster seat in the second tow too. Although you can get the second row bench seat as a standard feature in the entry level Traverse LS, I would opt for the two captain’s chairs instead (standard in our test model, the Traverse 2LT). The captain’s seats (without the middle console) are more comfortable for sitting, plus the aisle between the two seats was more convenient for the kids to get back into the third row.

Traverse: Entertainment

Remember those road trips where the kids entertained themselves, quietly? Yeah, I don’t either. Good or bad, technology has become a necessity for a peaceful family road trip or any long car ride. The Traverse can be equipped with some of these features (and in my mind, these are required features).

The most obvious one is the DVD entertainment system. Even though the Traverse we travelled in only came with one DVD screen versus the dual-screen within our van, the theatre seating enabled my son, who was sitting in the third row, to see the screen just fine without any crazy contortionist moves. And really, we hardly use the two screens in our van. The wireless headsets are a must. The vehicle comes with two but we were please to see our headsets from the van also worked on the rear entertainment system. The headsets meant the kids could watch their movies while we enjoyed listening to our own entertainment, music.


Which brings me to another entertainment feature within the Traverse: The XM Satellite radio. Being able to get guaranteed music reception no matter where we travelled was amazing. I remember the days of traveling across country and loosing a station and having to find a new one. Or travelling through parts of the US where only one type of music was available. Yes, satellite radio is a must for any vehicle I own. Although the kids could listen to their own radio stations in the back, using the wireless headsets, they could only do this if they were listening to standard radio. A nice feature would have been giving front and back seat passengers the option to listen to different satellite stations, at the same time (via headsets in the back of course).

The USB plug was great for charging our phone and iPads and the 12V standard plug came in handy for changing the DS gaming systems we brought along.

Traverse: Navigation

Okay, I’ll say it right up front, when I found out our Traverse wasn’t equipped with dashboard GPS navigation, I was a little disappointed. The vehicle did come with a navigation system but it was OnStar based. Now I have never used Onstar but the thought of calling in to get my directions wasn’t very thrilling.

Both my husband and I were surprised at how well the OnStar system did work (and believe me, we started the trip with out mind set that we would hate it). Yes you do have to call in with your address information. Unlike our van’s in-dash navigation system, we could do this while driving (the van required you to be stopped to enter destination information). Speaking to someone in person, they were able to do multiple searches should you be missing some information. That part was pretty cool. More than once it took the OnStar person to help us find where we were going since our information was inaccurate. The In-dash GPS couldn’t do that.

Although I use my van’s navigation features to get from A to B, the main benefit for me is the automatic correction. Should I encounter a detour or miss my turn, I love that my navigation system reroutes me automatically. That means no panic attacks should a road be closed on my route. However, not having the visual map on screen did prove to be a problem, especially when the navigation system detoured us. We ran into some highway construction that confused the navigation but we didn’t have a visual map to reassure us that we were still en-route.

The voice-activated system was great for making route changes while actually driving but you do have to make passengers (i.e., kids) aware that you are doing this. We had a route changed when the navigation system picked up one of the kids yelling (in response to a question it was asking of course; not randomly changing on its own).

The other drawback to the OnStar navigation that we discovered is that since it’s dependant on cell service, you can run into issues with getting navigation in some areas, like the mountains in West Virginia. If you have your route set and details sent to your car before entering a dead cell zone, you were fine but if you were looking to set a route in a poor cell reception zone, you were in trouble. OnStar can record an audio track of your route if you’re in a real jam but it doesn’t give you the turn-by-turn. It’s sort of like looking at a map. But knowing that, we made sure our routes were always calculated in high cell areas (oh and we travelled with a huge road map). Even with a navigation system in your car, you should always have a road map to rely on in an emergency.

Traverse: Comfort

Well the big plus with the Traverse over our van was the comfort. We didn’t feel like we were sitting in a seat welded within a cargo van; we felt as though we were enveloped in the car. This is the one big element of the van I don’t like and I really enjoyed it in the Traverse. The seats were comfortable and I have heard that the newer Traverse may have air-cooled seats (along with heated seats). This would have been an amazing feature when hitting Florida where the interior temperature of the car was recorded as over 103F/39.5C. Ouch!


Not having the sliding doors took some getting use to, especially for the kids. They are use to being able to get in and out of the car on their own but opening the door (especially in a parking lot) was not as convenient. Sliding doors may be a pain, but they are great in parking lots and with kids.

One of my favoute features of the Traverse was the dual sunroof. The back of any large vehicle can get so dark. It was amazing at all the light that the sunroof let into the back area (though it would have been completely blocked had we travelled with our rooftop box).

Traverse: Drive

I didn’t drive the vehicle often (my husband did most of the long haul driving) but when I did, sitting in the driver seat felt more like an SUV than a van.  I felt as though I was sitting higher and more encased by the dash, door and console. The pick-up seemed to be adequate for passing and on-ramps (with the V6 engine) and there wasn’t a lot of cabin noise, though we spent most of the trip driving with either the satellite radio or the DVD system on.

My husband who drives a sportier car most of the time, always complains about how loose the van feels; how you don’t really feel like your driving, feeling the turns and moves. He always feels it’s not very unresponsive compared to his car. The Traverse on the other hand, was a better experience for him. Not as bumpy and edgy as the sports suspension on his vehicle but certainly more responsive than the van. He found it more interesting to drive and less fatiguing on the long road trip.

A big surprise for us was the fuel economy. When we moved from our SUV to a van, our fuel cost almost dropped by half. With the Traverse I was expecting a somewhat high fuel cost, but the fill-ups were pretty close to that of our van.

Traverse: Storage

Of course when you’re on a road trip, with five people, gone for 10 days, you’re going to have a bit of luggage with you, not to mention a cooler for snacks. And if your road trip takes you across the border, well then there’s shopping. Our van has loads of space plus our roof top box.

On this road trip we didn’t take the cargo box since we didn’t have the roof racks that fit. I must admit I was surprised at the trunk space the Traverse offered, even with the full three rows in use. There are a few crossover vehicles that offer only enough trunk room for a bag or two of groceries in a similar situation. With the Traverse, we had enough room for our two large bags and a cooler, plus the shopping we picked up on our trip. Of course the roof top box would have given us more room (our son in the third row was starting to feel a little crowded by the end of our trip) but for every day driving, the Traverse offered great room for doing a grocery store run, plus we could still drop a friend off after a playdate.


Traverse: The Verdict

The Traverse offered the standard entertainment features we love and need for a family road trip, along with giving us seating options and just enough storage space for all of our things. For a regular day-to-day vehicle, the Traverse delivered many things that our van already does (though we did miss the sliding and automatic doors). The styling and comfort were certainly nicer than the van too. However, the OnStar navigation system would probably deter me from owning one.

The OnStar navigation did work and had some definite benefits over our current system but I still prefer the in-screen navigation (and the GPS). I don’t think I could bring myself to buy a car without it. Perhaps if they add an in-screen version of OnStar I might feel differently (though the whole cell coverage is still a concern for me).

The Traverse proved to me that it is possible to find a vehicle other than a van, with seating, storage and features to meet a family’s everyday as well as road trip needs, and without the SUV fuel cost.

I want to thank Adria MacKenzie and the folks at GM Canada for lending us the vehicle for our trip. Testing a vehicle in a real life scenario is so much more compelling than just driving around the block for a test drive.

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