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Chevy takes the high road in full size SUV contest

By Marc Stengel

DECEMBER 20, 1999:  As you read this, all-new Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban sport/utilities are rolling into showrooms in preparation for their official Jan. 1, 2000, debut. Taken together, these two vehicles represent the backbone of General Motors' SUV fleet. While an entire industry is frenetically making hay in the truck segment, Tahoe and Suburban consistently stand apart from the fray as the reigning full-size haymakers.

Auto enthusiasts salivating over the prospect of a cat fight for "Biggest, Baddest SUV" honors between the venerable Suburban and Ford's upstart Excursion will be sorely disappointed. Aside from the occasional winking reference to "brand X" during the Suburban's recent media debut in Maryland, Chevrolet officials betray not the least conspicuous concern about the first vehicle to challenge Suburban--in terms of size, at least--for some 25 years. Asked pointedly if the Excursion had him churning inside, maybe just a little, Steve Ramsey, Chevy's brand manager for the Suburban and Tahoe, didn't even hesitate to reply, "We're taking the high road on this one." If he's churning at all, it's a better butter he's after.

Not to say that the irony of the "high road" escapes Ramsey's notice: He's all too happy to point out that the Suburban 1500 is some 6.5 inches shorter than the Excursion. This very discrepancy all too often spells the difference between reaching a slot in a parking garage and circling the block like a planetary orbiter looking for a 20-foot-long vacancy along the curb. But it is attitude far more than altitude on which Chevy is placing its hopes for the Suburban. Because it's built on the half-ton platform of the redesigned Silverado 1500 pickup introduced for '99, the new Suburban 1500 is, by definition, eminently more nimble than the Excursion on its own three-quarter-ton commercial truck underpinnings.

Of course, there's a commercial-grade Suburban 2500 available as well for 2000. Powered by a 6.0-liter, 300-horsepower V8, it aims to give Excursion a run for the money in the grimly contested tug-'n'-grunt category of tow vehicles. Chevy claims a 500-lb. advantage over the Ford with its 10,500-lb. tow rating, although at such humongoid levels of trailer-grunt, a 5-percent difference will matter to very few. Base prices for the Suburban 2500 start at $28,305 for 2WD and $31,305 for 4WD. Together, Chevy predicts the 2500 will account for just 10 percent of Suburban sales.

The other 90 percent of buyers will flock to the 1500 for a variety of reasons, but none more compelling than Chevrolet's new multi-link coil spring rear suspension, with which the Tahoe is equipped as well. This new half-ton Suburban rides with remarkable poise, particularly on irregular surfaces such as corrugated fire roads or urban potholes. Moreover, a clever Autoride self-adjusting suspension option monitors ride and handling criteria 20 times a second to give both the Suburban 1500 and Tahoe an unmatched stability, especially when towing or when hauling heavy payloads inside. Comfort-under-load is further enhanced by the inclusion of a "tow/haul" switch that reprograms the transmission to avoid the condition known as "seeking," when gears shift erratically during changing road conditions. A "plug-and-play" integrated wiring package rounds out the trailering capabilities of the new Suburban/Tahoe.

Both vehicles, remarkably, seat up to nine passengers--with a newly optional third-row bench in the case of the Tahoe. And it is this new feature in the Tahoe that actually revolutionizes this vehicle, whereas the Suburban's interior is mostly just new-and-improved. With a nine-seater Tahoe, rearmost seating can be configured many ways: Use the bench to seat three, or remove it altogether; remove half and retain a seat on either side; snap down one or both seat backs to gain flat stowage at two levels. The Suburban's rear bench behaves in a very similar way, revealing cavernous stowage potential that can only be considered vast--particularly now that the spare tire rides beneath the truck. But by giving the Tahoe more versatile choices for seating and cargo than it has ever known before, Chevy has genuinely altered its status from Suburban's little brother to its potential arch-rival.

Favorite changes to both vehicles fall under the category of clever refinements--derived, no doubt, from listening to Chevy's loyal, vocal customers. An optional full-auto HVAC system is finally available, with fore-and-aft zone control. Seat belts are now integral to the seats themselves, eliminating that profusion of straps streaming down throughout earlier models like swinging vines in Tarzan's jungle. The optional roof rack no longer requires a special tool to adjust; it's all manual now. Gone are the exposed hinges on Suburbans with optional side-by-side rear cargo doors. Big deal, you say? If the grease on those hinges has ever ruined one of your favorite sweaters or jackets, you can bet that's a big deal. Both Suburban and Tahoe even feature "crush caps" at the front ends of their respective frames that can be surgically removed and replaced by the body shop in the event of minor crashes--rather than jigging and straightening the entire frame.

Argue what you will about the deleterious effects of sprawl upon our communities; but for the foreseeable future, Chevrolet's two newest full-size sport/utilities are the veritable poster trucks for suburbiosis. Comfortable, spacious, powerful--and now even more of all three--the perennially popular Suburban sticks a finger in the eye of conscientious urban planners everywhere. "Or if you can't take that," Chevy seems to say by way of consolation, "hie thee to Tahoe, and be done with you!"


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