Ford Flex and Chevrolet Traverse (© Ford Motor Company)Click to enlarge picture

The ideal family hauler has evolved over the years, from station wagon to minivan to SUV and now the crossover. The Ford Flex and Chevy Traverse crossovers are two of the latest — and largest — in a category that has grown in size and market share since the late 1990s.

The search for the ideal family vehicle continues. It started with the station wagon, which was the family hauler of choice from the 1950s through the '70s. Anyone over 35 years old remembers loading into the back of the family wagon, with its fake wood panels, and riding around, unbelted, in the open rear cargo area. In the 1980s the minivan courted family buyers, and in the 1990s the SUV vied for the family dollar. Those under 35 were probably either embarrassed to be toted around in a minivan that was filthy inside and out, or thought mom was pretty cool because she drove a big, macho, truck-based SUV.

While all three types of vehicles still exist, each has a drawback that turns off some customers. Station wagons and minivans are too geeky. Conversely, big truck-based SUVs are wasteful. A taste of $4 gasoline drove that point home during the summer of 2008.

So the market has shifted to satisfy changing demands. The latest development in the quest to please picky parents is the crossover utility vehicle, which features elements of all three types of vehicles. It offers the driving dynamics of a station wagon, most of the passenger and cargo space of a minivan, and the brawny good looks of an SUV without the horrible fuel mileage.

Crossovers started with compact SUVs in the late 1990s, and they have grown in size and market share since. Two of the biggest — the Chevrolet Traverse and Ford Flex — are relatively new offerings from the domestic automakers. Both are among the best vehicles offered by Detroit, and they make great family trucksters. But which one, if either, is right for you?

View Pictures:  The Ford Flex and Chevy Traverse

Before we get into a head-to-head comparison, let's look at some of the facts about each vehicle, starting with the Traverse. The fourth of four new large crossovers offered by General Motors, the Traverse debuted as a 2009 model and is the least expensive of the bunch. All these vehicles share GM's front- or all-wheel-drive Lambda architecture and all are larger than most midsize SUVs, with more interior space than even some large sport utes. All also use a 3.6-liter V6 engine with a 6-speed automatic transmission. The other vehicles in the line are the Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia and Saturn Outlook.

The Ford Flex was also released as a 2009 model. It is based on the same Volvo-sourced front- or all-wheel-drive architecture that underpins the Ford Taurus, Taurus X and the Volvo S80. Power comes from a 3.5-liter V6 matched to a 6-speed automatic transmission, and a twin turbocharged version is due for 2010. Size-wise, the Flex isn't as long or as tall as the Traverse, but is slightly wider. The upcoming Lincoln MKT will share the Flex's architecture but not its boxy styling.

So how do these two crossovers compare side-by-side? Let's take a look based on three major criteria.

Compare the Ford Flex and Chevrolet Traverse

Round 1: Road Manners
Anyone coming out of mid- or full-size truck-based SUVs will find crossovers to be far more pleasant to drive. They are much more carlike, with more direct steering, far less lean in turns and during braking, and a more nimble overall feel.

On the road, the Traverse is certainly pleasant, but its tall ride height and larger overall footprint do cause some noticeable, albeit tolerable, head toss over bumps, and lean in turns. The Flex sits lower, like a car, so those minor issues are less perceptible. The tradeoff is a lower seating position that offers a less commanding view of the road.

Both the Flex and the Traverse do an admirable job of ironing out road imperfections and delivering a smooth ride, even with their available 19- and 20-inch wheels. Handling won't inspire you to seek out twisty roads, but you won't mind hustling these vehicles through tight turns. That's never the case with a truck-based SUV.

Do the new crossovers render truck-based SUVs obsolete for American families?

Each vehicle is powered by a capable V6 engine. The Traverse's 3.6-liter V6 puts out 281 horsepower or 288 horses with the available dual exhaust. The Flex's 3.5-liter V6 makes 262 horsepower. Both use smooth-shifting 6-speed automatic transmissions, and both offer plenty of power for everyday commuting. While the Traverse's engine has a bit more pep, the Flex will add the 355-horsepower twin-turbocharged EcoBoost engine for 2010. Ford claims the EcoBoost will offer V8 power with little fuel economy penalty.