By Chris Haak
I was in Boy Scouts when I was a kid. We had our meetings each Tuesday night at a local gun club, since they were my troop’s sponsoring organization. Aside from parental motivation and self-motivation to succeed at earning my Eagle Scout award, perhaps another factor was the Chevrolet Suburban.
You see, one of the perks of attending Boy Scout meetings at a gun club off the beaten path rather than in the basement of a church in some town is that there was a half mile long stone-covered lane to get to the clubhouse where the meetings were held. All of the fathers in my Boy Scout troop allowed their sons to pilot their cars from the road to the clubhouse, then the other direction after the meeting’s conclusion, once we turned 14.
From the time I was 14 until I finally got my driver’s license at age 16, my mom drove a Suburban (a Steel Gray Metallic 1988 half ton Silverado 4×4 with rally wheels). My dad, a used car dealer, also had a Suburban of his own that he was fond of – a 1977 brown metallic half ton 4×2 Silverado with a factory 454. So, one could argue that I learned to drive (albeit at less than 20 MPH) in a Suburban, with my seat time coming a half mile at a time on that lane each week.
Even though I’ve spent a lot of time riding in Chevy or GMC Suburbans (or Yukon XLs), I haven’t actually spent a lot of time driving them, especially in recent years. I drove part of the trip from Pennsylvania to Detroit a few years ago for the auto show in my mom’s 2007 LTZ 4×4, but other than that – not much behind-the-wheel time for me.
I learned in a week (and about 250 miles) that these dinosaurs certainly have their place in today’s automotive landscape, but they also have a very specialized niche that isn’t right for everyone. Though there aren’t nearly as many casual “image” Suburban buyers today as there were ten years ago, I can think of at least one friend who probably still falls into that category.
This vehicle is very large, and not very maneuverable. The rear backup camera is a must-have, and does make it manageable. However, driving in tight quarters – such as in a parking garage – it’s necessary to take wider turns than with most other vehicles. Just when you think you need to turn the wheel to the left, you wait an extra second and then spin the steering wheel. Land yacht jokes aside, there really are similarities in the behind-the-wheel experience between a Suburban and a seagoing vessel.
Compared to the Tahoe, and certainly to the gaudy Ford Expedition, the Suburban is a handsome vehicle. Against the Tahoe, the extra wheelbase and rear overhang actually make the vehicle’s proportions look a bit better in my eyes. The Sub’s back doors aren’t cut out for the wheel opening as they are in the Tahoe, which makes rear seat ingress and egress easier – especially for passengers with larger shoe sizes. There are tasteful bulges over the fenders, and the 20 inch wheels appear to be perfectly sized for the Sub’s size. The front end, while arguably among the more attractive variants of the GMT-900 full size truck chassis, has headlights that look a bit like a Jeep Grand Cherokee’s from 1999. It is an attractive interpretation of Chevrolet’s current horizontally-split grille theme applied nearly globally (except for the Camaro and Corvette).
My test vehicle was equipped with the LTZ package and 20 inch five-spoke polished aluminum wheels. The big wheels – though with a diameter that’s still two inches shy of the biggest wheels you’ll find on the Escalade side of the house – do a credible job of filling the Sub’s large wheel openings and offer a decent compromise between ride comfort on one side and handling/looks on the other. Aside from chrome adornment on the grille, body side moldings, and door handles, there just isn’t a lot of decoration present on the outside of the Suburban. It boasts a clean, classic SUV shape, and if you were in a coma from 1967 to 2011 and just woke up, you’d be able to recognize it as a Suburban.
The interior is, of course, gigantic. There are three rows of seats, and the first and second rows have plenty of space. There are very few vehicles in which I could even consider raising my seat above floor level (I’m six-foot-four), but full-size trucks and SUVs are one category where it helps to jack the seat up a bit to improve visibility, and there’s plenty of headroom even with the seat raised a bit. Legroom is abundant in the first row and good in the second row, and hip and shoulder room are excellent. The test vehicle was equipped with second-row captain’s chairs, which can recline but do not have adjustable headrests. That last point made effective car seat installation a challenge – and that’s something that is probably important to Suburban buyers. For better or worse, there is no console between the second row captain’s chairs, so passengers in that row need to find storage and cupholders elswehere. On the upside, access to the third row is possible without folding either of the second-row seats. That’s an important consideration for families that have car seats affixed to the second row seats.
The third row, however, is put to shame by a minivan’s third row. How a vehicle this big can have such a cramped third seat has to be one of the seven wonders of the world. I’m long-legged, but when trying to sit in the third row, my knees were tight against the back of the second row seats. Hip, shoulder, and head room in the third row are also pretty snug. Not helping is the fact that the Suburban’s live axle suspension takes up a good deal of undercarriage space that might otherwise be allocated to passengers and cargo.
This is not to say that there’s not an immense cargo area in the Suburban. It’s just not quite as immese as you might imagine it to be. Thanks again to the live axle suspension, you can’t fold the third row flat into the floor as you might in a minivan or crossover - or even a Ford Expedition for that matter. The seats throughout the Suburban are soft and fairly flat, with minimal lateral support. They feel fine even on long trips, though.
The Suburban’s interior features large quantities of hard plastic everywhere. The top, front, and bottom of the dash are covered in pebble-grained hard plastic, as are the entire door panels front and back. The only pieces soft to the touch are the armrests (and the center console armrest is large, wide, and comfy under one’s elbow) and the vertical portion of the door panel above the armrest. While it doesn’t feel good or premium (as one might expect given this particular Suburban’s $58,245 price, it does look decent. The two-color scheme with fake wood and fake metallic accents around the vents adds a bit of a premium flair to front-row accommodations, at least.
My biggest disappointment with the Suburban’s interior, however, was its terrible center stack design and old-technology navigation system. For a truck as big as the Suburban (indeed, all of GM’s full-size pickups and SUVs), it’s amazing that the HVAC buttons are such tiny Chiclets – all of which are identically sized and hard to understand at a glance. Then there’s the radio. It sounds fine – the LTZ model tested here includes a Bose Centerpoint surround sound system – but unfortunately has a number of problems and needs to be replaced as soon as possible. For instance, an iPhone connected to the truck via USB (because it doesn’t have Bluetooth streaming audio) will only display the first five playlists when the vehicle is moving. If you stop, the page down button un-grays and you can move to the next page. Stupid. Bluetooth phone pairing, as with all GM vehicles, requires voice command rather than being a menu-driven task on the display. The screen is far too low on the dash to make it safe to refer to quickly while driving, the maps lack sufficient detail, and often make unclear directions that result in wrong turns. Then its slow processor takes precious seconds to re-route you as you barrel along further off course, potentially missing opportunities to find the right track. I really don’t understand the need to have such a wide center stack with giant three inch wide fake wood strips on each side where that wasted real estate could be used for larger buttons and a larger navigation display.
When GM pushed forward the introduction of the 2007 model year GMT900 SUVs in early 2006, the company did not have its new six-speed automatic transmissions ready, and the trucks and SUVs rolled out with antiquated four speed units. The six speed is now standard in the Suburban – and it’s one of very few changes that the big boy has seen since its introduction over five years ago. I’d tell you what is new for 2011 in the Suburban, but all of the press materials I received describe updates for 2010. Those included adding a USB port. The 2011 model gets a new color, which is on this one – called Ice Blue Metallic. It’s not a color for everyone, but it does draw its share of complements. Otherwise, besides the addition of a trailer brake controller, the six speed automatic, and the optional $500 side blind zone alert, this Suburban is the same as the 2007 model (built in 2006) that my mother owned for several years.
Though the six speed improves performance and economy vis a vis the old four speed, there’s only so much that the laws of physics can be bent. When a vehicle weighs about three tons with a 185 pound driver (5,836 pounds for the Sub’s curb weight), asking a 310 horsepower, 340 lb-ft 5.3 liter V8 to move that much mass with alacrity, don’t expect too much. The 5.3 liter Suburban sounds fantastic – let’s say 6/10ths of a Camaro SS’s soundtrack under acceleration – but it feels lethargic and underpowered. The transmission allows manual shifting via a button on the column lever, but the manual gear selections are mere suggestions. If you set it to fourth gear from a stop, it will pull out in first gear and make its way through second and third before stopping on fourth. It kicks down reasonably quickly when called upon for passing maneuvers. If the 5.3 bothers you and you don’t want to lose every stoplight drag race against Siennas and Odysseys, consider a Yukon Denali with the much stronger 6.2 liter V8 instead. Sadly, you can’t even get the 6.2 in the Suburban – and that engine should be standard for this model, or at the very least, standard on the top-dog LTZ.
For highway miles – aside from its fairly poor fuel economy – you can’t beat the solidity and quiet travel of a Suburban. I’ve traveled from Philadelphia to Detroit a number of times in Suburbans and Yukons, and they’re great mileage-eaters. Despite the poor fuel economy (the EPA says 15 city/21 highway; I saw 14 city and 18 highway, 15 overall), the 31 gallon fuel tank offers a theoretical range of 651 miles (21 MPG x 31 gallons). Assuming the worst-case city number applied, you can still expect over 450 miles on a tank of regular unleaded.
Wind noise is much more subdued than you’d expect for such a large, blunt, slab-sided object, and the full frame construction isolates the passenger compartment from the indignity of most bumps the way a Lincoln Town Car does. It tracks well on the highway, which is assisted by the very slow steering ratio. However, when you want to turn, expect to exercise your arms quite a bit to make it happen, only because so many turns are required. Just as in the Town Car, fingertip steering is possible (though not advised), and the wheel has a very large diameter with a very skinny rim.
The Suburban has four wheel disc brakes, and they’re fairly large (as they should be). The pedal is a bit spongy, and I’m sure repeated panic stops would trigger immense brake fade. However, driven with a degree of sanity, they are more than adequate for daily use.
And then we move to the issue of price. At $58,245, this thing isn’t cheap. And it’s not a Denali or Escalade either – expect to pay thousands (or tens of thousands in the case of the Escalade) more for those higher-end models. My tester did not include the optional sunroof or flip-down DVD player, but did have the $500 side blind zone alert, $200 trailer brake controller, and $195 Ice Blue Metallic paint. Everything else is standard on the LTZ – leather seats (first and second rows only; vinyl for the steerage class in the third row), tri-zone automatic air conditioning, power everything, remote start, Autotrac two-speed transfer case, and running boards. The Suburban starts at $42,285 (including its staggering $950 destination charge) in 2WD LS form, and goes to a base price of $57,530 in LTZ 4×4 trim. (Note that there was a $410 price increase between when this tester was built and today). That’s luxury car money without the luxury accommodations. Four wheel drive carries a roughly $3,000 premium, which is far more than most manufacturers charge for the privilege of four driving wheels (although Toyota charges even more for 4WD in its similar Sequoia). Its price is similar to other large utility vehicles’, but is also just a few thousand below a Mercedes-Benz R-Class, for instance. The R has a smaller engine, but a far nicer interior.
In the end, it’s no surprise that with many very capable crossover family haulers and other options that the Suburban is not selling near its peak volumes. But the reason its pace of update is so glacial is because its core loyal buying audience likes it just the way it is: it can tow 8,000 pounds in half ton configuration (more with the three quarter ton chassis), it holds families and all of their stuff, and it offers a commanding view of the road. If you have the means, and if you need a Suburban, then by all means buy one. I’m going to stick with a minivan, though, since I don’t tow, and they’re at least $15,000 cheaper.