On the Road Again: Traverse City, Michigan, in a 2018 Chevrolet Traverse

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2018 Chevrolet Traverse Media Event
(Photo by Santa Fabio for Chevrolet)

I Just Can’t Wait to Get on the Road Again…Actually, Yeah, I Can

There is no other experience as quintessentially American as the road trip, cruising our nation’s highways, marveling at the majestic vistas of the deserts of Utah, the fairy tale forests of the Pacific Northwest, or the misty and mysterious hills of Tennessee, all of which, unfortunately, take about 30 minutes total to experience. The other 918 hours are spent admiring such magnificent views as the glorious set of giant camouflage truck nuts through a haze of diesel exhaust, the mind boggling interchanges of places like Dallas that were apparently designed by M.C. Escher after a particularly bad acid trip, or the vast, barren wasteland that is 99.992% of the state of Kansas. In fact, having driven through said wasteland a number of times, I’m not entirely convinced that anything even exists beyond I-70. I think the government accidentally destroyed Kansas in some horrible nuclear accident in the ’50s and just put up walls along I-70 to hide everything. I’m almost positive I’ve seen the same scenery go by multiple times, Flintstones-animation-style.

High Five interchange
There’s no way this isn’t the end result of a drunken dare among a group of civil engineers. Image By: fatguyinalittlecoat CC BY 2.0

That’s why I take my cue from that famous familial explorer, Clark W. Griswold, rather than those such as Kerouak, Pirsig, and Kesey (two out of three of whom, by the way, required the aid of amphetamines and hallucinogens to make their adventure worth writing about). It’s no accident that after attempting road trips both in the US and Europe, the Griswold family stayed home for their next vacation and made everyone come to them. Thanks to technology and the U.S. Interstate System, the days of Route 66 and roadside cafes serving up ample helpings of fried meat and Listeria have gone the way of smoking in hospitals. I’m not saying there is no value in a road trip if the journey itself is the purpose of the trip — one of my greatest pleasures is driving through the Colorado Rockies in the fall — but choosing to drive to a final destination rather than fly is the occupation of the insane.

Nevertheless, there will necessarily be times where one must travel by road, whether it’s to a destination not serviced by airports or one near enough to make flying economically unjustifiable. This was the situation I found myself in earlier this month. I was invited by General Motors to come to Michigan and experience a family vacation in a new 2018 Chevrolet Traverse. While I clearly have no love of long car rides, despite being something of a car guy who actually enjoys the physical act of driving, I still signed up for the 4 hour drive to Traverse City from Detroit. As a consummate professional, it is my duty to as thoroughly as possible educate my readers on the ever-changing technology of the automotive world and keep them abreast of the myriad advancements in safety, comfort, and in-vehicle entertainment. Also, free vacation.

…Seein’ Things That I Thought I’d Seen Before

Day one of our trip was spent at Shed 5 at Detroit’s Eastern Market. The representatives from Chevrolet had set up an entire warehouse where we could walk around and learn all about the new Traverse, from design and engineering to safety and connectivity.

Actually, let me back up a bit. Before we even left home, I wanted to know a little bit more about the Traverse. Naturally, the best place to learn about a vehicle is from someone who sells them, so I went to a used car dealership where they were super helpful, knew everything there was to know about every vehicle on the lot, and didn’t at all use manipulative sales techniques to get me to drive home in a new vehicle that day, right then, quickly, before someone else buys it, do it, do it, DO IT!

I’m kidding, of course. I wouldn’t be caught dead within 100 yards of a used car dealership unless I were actually looking to buy a used car or I was feeling overly optimistic about humanity. No, instead, I turned to Google, that stalwart companion of the socially anxious. I looked up the Chevy Traverse and upon seeing the first images, let out a resounding, “Meh.” Not that there was anything particularly wrong with it. I am just personally not a fan of schizophrenic vehicles that don’t really know what they want to be, a.k.a. “crossovers”. I’m a car! I’m a minivan! I’m an SUV! Please love me! What never occurred to me was that the 2018 model might be any different.

So, back to the Eastern Market. The Chevrolet representatives picked us up from the airport and as we pulled up, I got my first look at the 2018 Traverse. Gone were the all the rounded-off features of the 2017 model that made it look like a minivan/car/SUV hybrid. The 2018 is, in my opinion, pure SUV, and I would liken its feel and appearance to a Ford Explorer or Jeep Grand Cherokee. While it’s still slung pretty low — no one will be crawling rocks in it — the incredible vertical range of the powered driver’s seat, combined with the impressive front head room, should please both car and SUV drivers.

Other than rounding off the edges, the only other changes from the 2017 to the 2018 were the overall length, engine, performance, fuel efficiency, transmission, wheel-base, cargo space, leg room, storage, access to third row seating, and multiple convenience and safety features. Frankly, it’s not even justified calling it the same vehicle, and my guess is that the only reason it is still named Traverse is because “Sexy Mini-Tahoe” tested poorly in focus groups.

I won’t go into detail about my afternoon at the Eastern Market. There were plenty of chats about fuel injection, gear ratios, paint, leather, and sound, as well as good food, ice cream, and, of course — we were in Detroit after all — plenty of Faygo, and discussing them all in-depth would require an entire series of articles. However, there was one immersive experience I want to mention that I think is going to be the future of all vehicles. Having driven the Suburban, I was already familiar with Chevrolet’s backup camera technology. It’s a great feature that helps guide the vehicle into a parking spot or right up to a trailer hitch. What I had not seen before was the rear-view mirror camera, the front camera, and the “Surround Vision” overhead view. Now that I have experienced them all working together, I never want to go back.

Not only does the rear-view mirror camera give a crystal clear picture of everything behind the vehicle, the field of view is vastly increased. I drove all weekend using it, and when a poorly timed splash obscured the camera and I had to switch back, it highlighted what a small percentage of the road is visible in the traditional rear-view mirror. While I personally found little use in the front camera alone — the visibility from the driver’s seat was sufficient for me to see well enough to know where the front bumper was — when it was combined with the other cameras to create the overhead view, it was a whole new experience in parallel parking and overall vehicle spatial awareness.

Surround Vision and Rear-View Camera System
Surround Vision and Rear-View Camera System

…Life I Love Is Playing Music With My Phone

We spent that evening in Detroit, and the next morning, we grabbed the keys from the valet, jumped in the Traverse, and hit the open road.

Well, almost.

First, I had to curse loudly and, if I may say so, quite creatively at the infotainment system. It wasn’t necessarily the fault of the nice GPS lady who kept trying earnestly to get me to Traverse City that I now associate her voice with other well-known women like GLaDOS and Dolores Umbridge. Rather, it was the system’s dogged insistence that I wanted to be listening to music at all times. Try to turn up the GPS using the volume knob, and the radio comes on. Try to look at the different audio options available, and the radio comes on. Signal to change lanes, and the radio comes on.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a little, but of all the features on the 2018 Traverse that I absolutely loved, and there were plenty, this one was quite irritating. I recognize I’m likely in the minority in that I don’t listen to the radio at all while driving, so this will not be as big an issue for most. I did let the folks at Chevrolet know about my experience, and they were very appreciative of the feedback, so here’s hoping there’s an update that incorporates play and stop buttons and not just a mute.

“Wait just a damn minute,” I can hear someone out there in reader-land yelling. “You don’t listen to the radio? No music? No news? No forehead-vein-throbbing, hate-screeching political talk radio?! What’s wrong with you?!”

Lots, probably, but in regards to this specific thing, it’s a combination of sensory overstimulation and lack of control. Having music playing while people are holding conversations is overwhelming to me. Bars are a nightmare, and even fast food restaurants that are playing yet another Journey song a little too loudly raise my blood pressure.

But even if there is nobody else in the vehicle, I despise the lack of control when it comes to what I am listening to (although I do admit to turning on Morning Edition if I’m on the road at that time). I dumped cable TV and switched to all streaming video services about eight years ago. The only time my antenna gets any use is during the World Cup, the Olympics, and Broncos football. Even with Google Play and Spotify suggested playlists I find myself hitting skip so often it sounds like my computer has gained sentience and is trying to communicate with me, ala Bumblebee in Transformers. I meticulously curate my playlists to include the songs I want to hear based on whatever mood I’m in such as Metal for concentration, Scrubs soundtrack for mellowing out, or Michael Jackson and Neil Diamond for shower sing-alongs (that these two never did a duet is a crime against music).

Android Auto
Plug in your Android smart phone, and with a few clicks, you’re ready to go. (Also works with iPhone)
Android Auto
Photo courtesy Chevrolet

All that may soon be changing. With the combination of unlimited high speed wi-fi built-in and Android Auto integrated into the infotainment system, I can stream my Google Play playlists directly from my phone and into the Bose audio system. No more seeking the FM stations or flipping back and forth between the two satellite radio stations I enjoy, waiting to see which terrible song is going to end first: whatever garbage by The Eagles is playing on the ’80s channel or The Offspring on the Alternative channel1. As a bonus, I can use the Google Maps GPS I’ve grown to love as well as the voice-controlled Google Assistant while I’m driving because you never know when you’ll have to educate your kids right at that very moment when the conversation of Michigan musicians prompts the question, “Who is John Lee Hooker?”

1 if this doesn’t pull in at least one angry comment, I am going to be severely disappointed.

…Like a Band of Zombies We Go Down the Highway

Lest your eyes glazed over that last paragraph, or you suffered an aneurysm hearing me say The Eagles suck, let me repeat. Unlimited. High Speed. Wi-Fi. If you’ve never traveled with teenagers before, there’s a real risk that they may forget to download a playlist, movie, or YouTube video before they leave, and they’ll have to suffer the millennial’s greatest foe: boredom.

Look, I’m not going to be one of those people who blame this generation for being somehow worse than all others, nor am I going to pretend to be one of those parents who claim their kids are so awesome that they can enjoy just gazing at the beauty of a blade of grass for days at a time. Personally, if a teenager is content staring out the window at the nothingness of a highway shoulder for four hours, I’d check their sock drawer.

I will say, however, that I am sometimes struck dumb at how my kids are able to engage in so many distractions at once. My youngest will have a live stream YouTube video running while playing along with the game that’s live streaming while listening to whatever ’80s hair metal band he’s into this week. My other son will watch an anime in a language he doesn’t even speak while teaching himself to play the Ocarina from a YouTube video on his laptop and texting with his girlfriend. Kids are just really good at keeping themselves entertained. So yes, while I love having conversations with my kids in the car — and we do quite frequently — I’m not so naive to think they wouldn’t be happier slaying Bokoblins or raid battling for a Mewtwo, and of the top ten things required for a successful family vacation with teens, keeping them happy is at least six of them.

Portrait of a Millennial
I should custom print a phone case with his face on the back.

On our drive from Detroit to Traverse City, there were four people using five different internet-connected devices, and there was never once a hiccup with the 4G LTE wi-fi provided by AT&T and OnStar. I get that GM likely has a deal with Sirius satellite radio, so of course they are going to tell me how awesome it is as well, but in my opinion, unless you’re driving far from any cellular signal, satellite radio is an outdated idea, soon to go the way of cassette tapes and advertising-saturated FM radio. Music curated by someone else, whose tastes may differ vastly from your own, is simply no comparison to individual and friend-generated playlists. All of that plus the fact that you get internet connectivity, and choosing between in-vehicle wi-fi and satellite radio becomes a no-brainer.

…Insisting That the Tours Are Handled Our Way

Friday night we arrived safely, and sanely, in Traverse City where we were treated to dinner by GM and where my wife learned the valuable lesson of not trying to be polite and order bottom-shelf cocktails just because someone else is paying. After a rousing debate about the very existence of the concept of “taupe”2, as well as some hastily engineered room reconstruction3, we settled down to prepare for our excursion the following day.

2 As a person who is color blind, this type of argument is not a new one in our family.

3 A note to architects: while I will acknowledge that some aspects of hotel room bathroom design are fluid (heh) and open to taste (ew), doors are not one of them. Absolutely nobody wants curtains, or beads, or artistically stacked milk crates, or loosely fitting sliding barn doors separating them from the rest of their family while they are seeing a man about a horse…particularly if it’s an entire team of horses and those horses have been fed a steady diet of road snacks and Starbucks, if you catch my drift.

Despite on and off rain the previous two days, Saturday dawned a sunny 70-some degrees, and it was our day to turn off GeekDad mode and switch into vacation mode. There are no shortage of things to do in Northern Michigan. Top of the list is anything to do with the water, as there is generally a lot of it up there. We researched and discussed a number of different options from Mackinac Island, to Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, to taking a boat tour on the lake.

The problem with the standard vacation activities is they frequently include, or even primarily consist of, a heaving mass of bodies being herded from one location to another, people jockeying for prime viewing position, with varying degrees of hygiene and self-awareness, many under the impression that the entire trip, and perhaps the span of all of reality, exists solely for their individual entertainment. Even this is tolerable if the experience is enjoyable enough, but when you combine all that with half of your group having social anxiety and one of you with sensory processing disorder, your options become a bit more limited. We finally decided to throw caution to the wind, kick the budget to the curb, and sail for six hours on “Scout”, a private yacht run by the Traverse Tall Ship Co on the Grand Traverse Bay.

Best. Decision. Ever.

Scout sailboat

We met Captain Amber and Dave, the boat’s owner, on the docks at 9:45. After a short tour of the boat that included showing the two teenage boys the supply of unlimited snacks and sodas as well as instructions on how to work the toilet, or “head” (it was something like pump, pump, turn, pump, turn, rinse, pump, turn, pray, pump, pump, sneak quietly away and blame the kid), we cast off and headed into the bay toward Power Island.

It’s probably important to point out that our family has lived in both Indiana and Colorado, neither location famous for a rich sailing history. As such, none of us had ever been on a sailboat before. If you were born on the east coast, or a boat, or your name is John Silver, I’m sure you can imagine what’s coming and are laughing your nautical ass off. For everyone else, let me take a moment to explain the science of sailing.

A sailboat moves forward by redirecting the force of the wind into the sail. (I’ve also learned that sailboats quite frequently also move forward by exploding gasoline in a compressed chamber, which turns a crankshaft, but that’s a different science lesson.) While this wind moves the boat forward, it also moves it to the side. The keel underneath the boat exerts an opposite force from the force against the sail allowing the boat to move forward.

So, wind hits sail, boat moves forward. Simple right? What may not be so readily apparent is that when that wind hits the sail, there is a certain amount of “heeling”, or “tipping” involved. How much depends on the speed of the wind, the direction of travel, and the sadism of the captain, and can range from, “Grab your drink so it doesn’t go sliding off,” to, “OH GOD, OH GOD, WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE.” In our case, the time between the boys helping raise the sail to me sliding across the deck on my ass, catching the railing with my feet, and staring between said feet, downward, at the water rushing by was about 0.66 seconds. This is also, coincidentally, the amount of time it took me to realize why the instructions for using the head were perfunctory; the captain was fully aware after the first heeling, none of us would be needing it, anyway.

A sailboat heeling
“Heeling”, not the same thing as “capsizing”, despite how it may feel.

It didn’t take us long, however, to discover our “sea legs” — it turns out they were hidden at the bottom of a pint of Moomer’s Ice Cream, a local delicacy — and soon we were all lurching about the deck like, well, like a bunch of giddy Midwesterners who had never sailed before. Still, though, we were confidently incompetent, and that counts for something.

We anchored near Power Island and Captain Amber dinghied us over to spend some time walking through the forest and doing some geocaching. It’s a cute little island with lots of short trails criss-crossing it, but we didn’t stay long. It’s also a popular landing spot for the “motorboat” crowd who, as we were all now officially sailors, we were required to look down on with contempt.

The rest of the day was spent simply being on the water. My oldest, and highly impressionable, son spoke at great length with Captain Dave about his career as a sailor, and is now convinced he would make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts. My youngest was simply happy to be away from the crowds, experiencing the joy of being on the water and helping Captain Amber with the various ropes and whatnot without having to share it with 50 other people. I took lots of photos and ate too many Oreos. And my wife, who could teach a master class on the art of “nautical relaxation”, went to work in earnest further honing her skill. We all talked at length with Captain Amber and Dave on topics ranging from sailing to school to nothing really at all, and by the time 4:00pm came around all too quickly, we were happy, exhausted, and two new friends richer.

We finished off Saturday walking down the main street of Traverse City, playing Pokemon Go and eating pizza and ice cream. Sunday morning, we headed back to Detroit for our flight home.

…And I Can’t Wait to Get on the Road Again

The rest of the 2018 Chevrolet Traverse test drive was fairly unremarkable, which is a good thing when you’re road tripping with the family. Just like my Suburban test drive, I once again fell in love with the Traverse’s blind spot indicators on the side mirrors, which are a literal life-saver in high speed highway traffic. The 2018 Traverse is packed with storage nooks and crannies for devices and snacks, as well as littered with power outlets for the connected family. The boys, who are both approximately 90% legs, loved the adjustable seats in the second row. From my perspective as the driver, it handled beautifully and the cockpit was roomy while keeping everything within reach. I’ve mentioned the impressive range of motion of the driver’s seat, but one thing I’d like to see in the future is a lumbar support that can be adjusted up and down and not just in and out. Different body shapes and driving postures make the lumbar support hit and miss.

We’ve covered the teen driver features from GM in the past, and after turning it on, I can attest to it making me a more aware driver regarding seat belts, speed, acceleration, and braking. There are other features such as vehicle location that you can incorporate, which will allow parents to, for example, know when a vehicle is at a certain location at a certain time and send alerts if it’s not, track the location of the vehicle, or set up a perimeter and be alerted when the vehicle leaves that perimeter. I know every parent is different, and to each their own, but for myself, I’d file these features under, “Cool, but intrusive as hell, and not really indicative of a trusting relationship between a parent and their nearly-adult child.”

Overall, the 2018 Traverse is a sexy, zippy SUV packed full of safety and convenience features that outshines its predecessor in every way. Thanks to the folks at Chevrolet for allowing me to experience both the 2018 Traverse and Pure Michigan.

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