The 21st-century Roadmaster: Chevy Traverse
- Auto historians say mpg mandates killed the wagon. I'm convinced it was Clark Griswold.
- Roadmaster wore its wood like a coat. The Traverse is more modest.
- The Traverse is the new wagon. And much improved.
If Rip Van Winkle awoke today from an afternoon nap in 1995, the first thing he would do is get a shave. The second thing he would do is get gas for his big family station wagon.
At that point, ol' Rip might wonder what planet he was on.
Has there been any greater physical change in our world in the last 20 years than the disappearance of the station wagon from our landscape? (Okay, that and folks aren't holding brick-sized cellphones to their heads anymore.) It's how you know you're watching a movie from last century. Today, sport utes dominate the family driveway.
Auto historians will tell you that 1970s mpg mandates killed the wagon. But I'm convinced it was Clark Griswold.
Griswold, as played by Chevy Chase in the 1983 classic "National Lampoon's "Vacation," drove his long-suffering family cross country in a Wagon Queen Family Truckster — a pea green, wood-paneled, fun-eating caricature of the American wagon. The resulting fiasco was the cultural death-knell for the once-popular family vehicle.
By the mid-nineties, wagons were as hip as eight-track tape players. Minivans were the new family transport, and they in turn were being replaced by large SUVs. The rear-wheel-drive Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon was the last hurrah. Manufactured from 1991-96, the final Roadmasters (along with sister ships the Chevy Caprice and Cadillac Fleetwood) rolled off the Arlington, Texas assembly line that was being retooled for front-wheel drive utes.
Fast forward 20 years and what should Rip buy? Say hello to the 2014 Chevy Traverse. The Roadmaster has been reincarnated as an SUV.
But unlike Clark Griswold, Rip won't need to be conned by car salesman Eugene Levy to get into the Chevy. Thanks to vehicles like the gorgeous, sleek Traverse, we hardly miss the wagon. From its wrap-around, Impala-style grille to its high-tech console to its signature Pentagon-rear window, the Traverse can haul eight passengers like the Roadmaster while turning heads, entertaining the kiddies, and still flexing some good ol' American muscle.
Still, Rip and I wipe a tear from our cheeks. There are some nostalgia pieces that wagon diehards will miss. So let's get to know our family haulers.
Why compare a Buick and Chevy, you ask? Why not apples to apples? Why not the 1995 Chevy Caprice wagon and the Chevy Traverse? Fair question. Convenience, for one. My pal (and Rip Van Winkle stand-in), The Detroit News personal finance guru Brian O'Connor, owns a '95 Roadmaster wagon. It has 194,000 miles. He's ready for a new ride.
But there are practical, market considerations as well. The all-wheel drive Traverse stickers at $47,355 which is about the same price — adjusted for inflation — as a Roadmaster would sell for today. The Traverse's Buick Enclave twin, by contrast, would lighten the wallet another $8,000. And, since the Roadmaster was the Brontosaurus of the Wagon Era, perhaps it would make sense to compare it to the equivalent SUV-saurus, the Chevy Suburban. But the Suburban — 130-inch wheelbase vs. the Buick's 116 — is in another class of big. Manhattanites are buying Suburbans as luxury apartments.
Apples to apples? The Traverse's 119-inch wheelbase is more Roadmaster like.
If the Chevy is the 21st-century station wagon, its seating position is decidedly 19th-century. Federal mpg laws inspired truck-based sport utes, but Americans' preference to ride horse-like — high in the saddle — accelerated their popularity. The lower Roadmaster feels like you're sitting on a Shetland pony. On its knees.
I'm no physicist, but the laws of nature dictate that the Traverse should feel less stable compared to the wagon's lower-center of gravity. But utes have evolved with better chassis engineering. Built on GM's sedan-like, unibody Lambda platform, the Traverse is a long way from the truck-based SUVs of 20 years ago. Add GM's Stabilitrak electronic stability control system and the Traverse is remarkably stable for a 2 ½-ton vehicle.
The 4,700-pound Roadmaster, by contrast, is as nimble as an ocean liner.
Navigating high-speed turns requires considerable concentration. It pitches like it's in choppy seas. The Buick could use a tug boat.
This ICBM may not turn, but it's a rocket in a straight line. Stomp on the gas and the small-block, 5.7-liter, 260-horse V-8 in the beast's belly — yes, the same small black as in a 1990-vintage 'Vette — roars with authority. So this is why they called it "master." Glorious. But the V-6 Traverse matches it. The six-holer pumps out 28 more horses (288 total) — while trailing the surly V-8's 335 pound-feet of torque with "only" 270 pound-feet. Naturally, that kind of power works up an appetite and the V-6 only gains 1 mpg (19 vs. 18) on the old nail — but if you want fuel economy, buy a Spark.
The Traverse and Roadmaster take strikingly different approaches to wood. The Buick wears a full coat of the stuff. Lucky it's vintage vinyl or the Roadmaster would have been plagued by woodpeckers. The Chevy is more modest, saving its wood grain paneling for the dash which is beautifully appointed. Indeed, the Traverse advances the wagon concept by maintaining everything we loved about 20th-century wagons while stuffing it with 21st-century technology.
The Traverse's center console is a candy box of goodies from a 6.5-inch MyLink, color infotainment touchscreen to controls for collision alert, blind-spot assist, hands-free calling, heated steering wheel, dual-climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, and a direct line to the Oval Office (just kidding about that last one). The Roadmaster? It has a radio.
Mimicking the wagon, you can flatten the second and third seats in the Traverse if you need to move a grandfather clock — or just need a place to sleep for the night. The Traverse also offers the option of a second-row, digital entertainment center and "smart-sliding" captain's chairs that bow like Queen Elizabeth's subjects when you want to get into the third row.
A moment of silence for the rear-facing, third-row bench, please. I spent much of my childhood facing backwards in third-row wagon seats. Our own private space capsule. This led to innovations like the Roadmaster's rear door which was built to open like a door, lay flat like a pickup tailgate, and re-enter the earth's atmosphere at 17,000 mph (OK, made that up, too). The modern Traverse's rear hatch is automatic (more digital wizardry), but it only knows how to go up. Score one for Roadmaster.
Wipe away that tear, Rip, and get a new Traverse. Then join us again in another 20 years. By then steering wheels should have disappeared in favor of self-diving Google cars.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2014 Chevrolet Traverse
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front and all-wheel-drive, seven-or-eight-passenger sport utility vehicle
Price: $31,670 base ($47,355)
Power plant: 3.6-liter direct-injection V-6
Power: 288 horsepower, 270 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Performance: Towing capacity: 5,200 pounds
Weight: 4,956 pounds (test vehicle)
Fuel economy: EPA 16 mpg city/23 mpg highway/19 mpg combined
Highs: Attractive styling; cavernous cargo space
Lows: 5,000 pound porker; Big blind spots
1995 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagon
Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, eight-passenger station wagon
Power plant: 5.7-liter V-8
Power: 260 horsepower, 335 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Performance: Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
Weight: 4,700 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 15 mpg city/23 mpg highway/18 mpg combined
Highs: V-8 power; cavernous cargo space
Lows: Turns like an ocean liner; Ya' gotta' like vinyl wood trim