February 11, 2008

Shotgun! A Postphenomenological Exegesis On Gendered Motors' Launch Of The Chevy Traverse

I'm so stoked that DT regular GFR took a break from preparing his presentation for the College Art Association, to do some investigative blogging at the Chicago Auto Show.

As you will see from his first dispatch, which he titled, "Marketing Chevy’s Traverse – 'Crossing Over' to the 'Involved Dad'?" you can take the dad out of the CAA, but you can't take the CAA out of the dad.

After the jump, GFR's close, textual reading of the semiotics of riding shotgun; traversing traditional gender roles in a family car; and the bonus phrase, "nothing less than a Pontiac Aztek in chain mail." And yes, this will be on the final.


Marketing Chevy’s Traverse – "Crossing Over" to the "Involved Dad"?

One of the big “family-car” announcements at the show was the unveiling of the Traverse, Chevy’s entry into the “crossover” market that includes vehicles like Mazda’s CX-9. This segment is of especial interest to me, and to daddytypes readers, because it seems to play into the 21st century anxiety over station wagons, minivans and SUVs. Station wagons are presumably not cool anymore, minivans have been coded “Mom” by the media, while SUVs are now tainted as not-green enough.

Enter the Traverse, which is not only a crossover between car and truck (as everyone at the show was at great pains to explain to me), but also a somewhat-strained attempt to “traverse” the perceived divide between the family car, typically marketed towards moms, and something “cool enough” for dad.

This strain was nowhere more apparent than the ceremony launching the Traverse (In the interest of full disclosure, I witnessed the launch from somewhat of a distance because of an initial snafu with my press pass [d'oh, sorry! -ed.], and much of this report relies on the transcript of the ceremony and photographs generously provided by GM).


The Traverse was driven on stage and introduced by General Motors Vehicle Line Director Sue Wilson, which I thought was a pretty cool move on GM’s part since it drew attention to the crucial role of female executives within their company.

I also appreciated that instead of just driving the kids, she was also driving her husband, who was in the passenger seat, an atypical arrangement in most “family car” depictions in the media. As a professor married to a female executive myself, I was also heartened by the acknowledgment of Kevin’s job as a teacher and coach given that most Americans seem uncomfortable with women who earn more than their male spouses.

Yet this minor flaunting of convention was quickly dispensed when the script explained that Kevin is “usually the driver on most of our family trips,” as if drawing attention to the abnormality and incorrectness of Kevin riding shotgun. And while Kevin briefly pitched the car’s safety, roominess and fuel efficiency, it was only a brief, awkward aside.

For the rest of the performance he just stood there on stage looking slightly uncomfortable while his wife played the role of harried executive/mom, simultaneously explaining the car and ushering the kids around the stage. The script thus restored Kevin to a more traditional role in which the dad only drives the “family car” on family trips and doesn’t help out with the kids.

The subtle, but not insignificant presumption was that he would also be uninvolved in picking the kids up after school or making trips to the grocery store in the Traverse. Consequently, and despite an initially progressive gesture of crossing over the gender divide surrounding the “family car,” the script catered to the more traditional association of family cars with moms, albeit in this case the working mom.

Now, my interpretation is probably a little over-determined, but it seems that GM missed an opportunity to address the fluidity of domestic/workplace roles among modern families in which fathers have become more involved in raising their kids. And I also want to clarify that my judgments of the performance are just that – judgments of the script and its characters, not the actors on the stage.

I have no idea what role Kevin actually plays in raising his kids or how involved Sue is in her family. But if GM is going to trot out “real-world families,” as they described the Wilsons, it would be nice to see them take even more risks with that representation. The proof, I suspect, will be in the advertising campaign surrounding this and other crossover vehicles that try to hit that “sweet spot” between car/truck to create a “family car” for both mothers and fathers.

Onto the car itself: Like most crossovers, the Traverse features a unibody, car-like platform, with the added space of a mid-sized sport utility vehicle. This includes a third row of seats that were actually quite comfortable, especially by comparison to the Toyota Highlander, for example. The addition of easily collapsing and sliding 2nd row seats made it especially easy to get in and out of that third row. Of all the crossovers I tried at the Auto Show, the Traverse’s third row seating was the best and easily fit adults up to 6 feet.

I wanted to quibble with Chevy’s notion that this car could seat 8, but having tried it I can believe it. The Traverse will be available in both front and all-wheel drive. The interior design of the car is nice if a bit overstuffed, which is typical of an American car aiming for luxury-esque appointments at a mid-level price point.

Regarding mileage estimates, Chevy’s Truck Product Director, Steve Bartolone described to me how the 3.6L V-6 (rather than a V-8), unibody chassis and .344 drag coefficient made this car as “slippery” as some of their sports car and would give it “class-leading fuel efficiency.” Although he declined to elaborate on specific figures, the Chicago Tribune is speculating it at an average of 20mpg. I’ll be eager to see the actual figures when the car is introduced in the fall of 2008, but while that might be best in class, it is far from best in show and automakers can continue to do better than that.

From a design perspective, the Traverse presents an attractive profile that trades on its length to minimize its actual bulk. Perhaps surprisingly, the car-based Traverse is a few inches longer than the Tahoe, a full-sized, truck-based SUV. Also surprisingly, it takes some nice design cues from Europe: the trapezoidal cut of the rear window frame is not unlike that of the BMW X3, as are the general lines of the vehicle, although the Traverse is much larger.

But the front of the car squanders its profile with the too-pronounced grin of its much-touted “double-smile” grill that was imported from the Chevy Malibu. Whereas the “double-smile” actually integrates with the body-color fenders of the Malibu, it falters when super-sized for the Traverse, whose “overbite” is further accentuated by a black plastic splash guard and vents on the underside. From the front it resembles nothing less than a Pontiac Aztek in chain mail.

That design issue aside, the Traverse is a promising entry into the crossover marketplace and compares favorably in most respects with the Mazda 9, especially if you’re looking for a stylish vehicle to haul 8 total passengers.


The biggest problem with the Chevy Traverse is the Saturn Outlook. And the GMC Acadia. And the Buick Enclave. While GM has avoided the dreaded curse of badge-engineering by giving each of these vehicles a very different look, at bottom they are all the same (FWIW, the Outlook FWD is rated at 16/24, so I'd expect the Traverse to be very close to those numbers).

Why buy a Traverse instead of an Outlook (or vice versa)? I don't know, but I read recently that Ford has sold nearly as many Edges as GM has sold Acadias, Outlooks and Enclaves combined--a single product makes each marketing dollar go farther.

But kudos to GM for building (four) really nice products; each one of them is an impressive effort, and if I were in the market for something like that, I'd probably buy one of those four.

I agree with the prior post that 4 versions of this GM crossover is 1 or 2 too many. But the fact that this post goes on about the car and its presentation for 16 paragraphs with no references to any of the other GM crossovers may be testament to successful badge engineering in this case. If the Mazda CX-9 is considered a comparable while no mention is given to the Outlook, Acadia or Enclave, I'd say GM has done a decent job disguising the fact that its crossovers are nearly identical under the skin.

I would also add that the Traverse (and 2008 models of the other three GM crossovers) will have the direct injection version of the V6 that is currently available in the Cadillac CTS. This engine is expected provide more power AND better efficiency. I don't know if they've released the numbers but mpgs should increase from the current crop of crossovers.

[i don't doubt that GM's people try to position each incarnation of the platform as somehow distinct or unique when, obviously, it's not. But I expect it's also partly context; GFR was covering the unusually dad-friendliness of a Traverse press event. There's also the flipside which fits at least my situation: I don't know, care about or follow GM's lineup; while I'm kind of interested in the new Ion, the Acadia and Enclave cross the road in my mind approximately never. Which has more impact on why they're not mentioned here than GM's badge engineering prowess. -ed.]

2011 Chevrolet Traverse is available as a crossover, which is associated with LTZ, LT, and LS trim levels. The trim LT is available in 2LT and 1LT sub trim levels.

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