With a long weekend of family camping planned, I tried to think of the perfect vehicle to request for a weeklong loan. Corvette? Not enough seats. Terrain? Not enough room for bikes. Sierra Denali HD? Plenty of size and space, but what if it rained and our gear got wet? Then it dawned on me: Suburban.
As I mentioned the last time I reviewed a Suburban (about a year and a half ago), I grew up riding in Suburbans, and basically learned to [prematurely] drive in one. What I didn’t mention was how my family has been going camping using Suburbans for decades, at least since the mid-1970s. So there’s a nice tie-in with my own past experiences.
In 1978, when I was three, my family drove from Pennsylvania to Orlando (Walt Disney World was the destination, naturally), in a 1973 Suburban and a travel trailer in tow. We parked at Fort Wilderness campground, which opened in 1971 when Disney World opened, and is still open today. At some point on the trip (I don’t remember if it was the trip to Florida or the return – I was just three, after all!) I remember encountering an overheating problem and having to pull over for repairs. I was trying to find the name of the color of our family Suburban, but an online copy of the brochure shows a very yellow and green-heavy color selection for that year. Call it mustard yellow, but it was probably “Spanish Gold.”
You’ll be pleased to note that the 39-years-newer 2012 Suburban had no overheating problems during its stay with my family. Nor did it show any signs of rusting fenders or rocker panels, which a five year old 1973 Suburban in the salt belt was surely showing during that trip. (I wouldn’t be surprised if its fenders had already been replaced; 1973 GM full size trucks were among the most rust-prone vehicles I have ever seen. Nearly every one that my used car dealer father acquired for sale required repair or replacement. At one point, he bought a bulk supply of left and right replacement fenders that he kept in storage for the next truck that inevitably required replacement. I’m guessing that supply of 10 left and 10 right fenders lasted less than two years.)
But, back to the present time: it really is remarkable how little the concept of the Suburban has changed over the 39 model years from that future rustbucket that my family drove to Florida and back. There are still four doors, still a wagon configuration, still a body-on-frame architecture, still V8 engines. They can still seat eight or nine people in reasonable comfort and can still tow heavy trailers.
While I have often criticized the quality of the interior materials in GM’s trucks (there is far too much hard plastic inside a vehicle that costs $58,400), the interior of the modern Suburban is nothing at all like its ancestor’s. Hard plastic is still nicer than painted metal (which was all over the lower dash and inner doors in the 1973-1991 trucks) and thick carpet covers the floors. The Suburban has a bit more than its share of very fake wood on the dash and door panels, but this is a Chevy after all. You shouldn’t expect the real stuff.
In terms of creature comforts, the Suburban excels. Heated and cooled leather seats, a heated steering wheel (wrapped in leather), navigation system, rear-seat entertainment system with a third-row DVD screen, power sunroof, heated mirrors, power-adjustable pedals, and tri-zone automatic climate control are all present. Driving a Ford Flex Limited on a cold morning today, I wished for the Suburban’s heated steering wheel.
At the very tail end of this generation’s life cycle, GM has finally outfitted the Suburban with a much-improved navigation system. The old one, present in 2007-2011 model year GMC and Chevrolet trucks, plus 2007-2012 Cadillac Escalades, was DVD-based and had 2005-vintage technology. The new one shares its software and graphics with newer GM installations such as the Cruze and Equinox. It’s far from state of the art, but hey, it’s no longer the worst navigation system on the market. It maps routes much faster since it’s not reading a DVD, but it still suffers from being located too low on the dash for a quick glance while driving.
The 5.3 liter V8 installed in the Suburban is rated at 320 horsepower. While that’s significantly better than the 155 horsepower that the 1973 Suburban’s 350 produced (not to mention better than the 230 from the 1973’s optional 454; we won’t mention the 100-horsepower 250 cubic inch six base engine), it’s still not a lot of the modern seat of the pants. GM’s 6.2 liter truck engine, unavailable in the Suburban, would be a nice option to have, but if you want it in a Suburban, your Suburban will be called a GMC Yukon XL Denali or Cadillac Escalade ESV. At least there are six forward ratios, which does allow the Suburban to make the most of what it has. If you go with the rare 3/4 ton Suburban, it comst standard with a 352-horsepower 6.0 liter V8, and can tow up to 9,600 pounds.
You will never win a race driving a stock Suburban, unless the person you’re racing against doesn’t know he or she is in a race (with a few exceptions: it could be a Smart fortwo, or a 1979 VW Diesel Rabbit). But man, can it ever swallow stuff. We had five days’ worth of camping equipment (excluding a tent, since we wimped out and rented a cabin with a/c), a box of firewood, two kid bikes, a giant 96 quart cooler, various luggage items, and several other boxes and bags of food. As you can see, no problem at all. (Annoyingly, the Suburban’s solid axle rear suspension, while it keeps costs down and durability up, prevents a fold-flat third row, so aside from removing a 100-pound seat, the next-best choice is to fold the backrest forward and flip the entire seat forward to the front of the cargo area behind the second-row captain’s chairs. It held all of our stuff while still retaining most of its unladen rearward visibility.
I didn’t tow anything with the Suburban during its time in the Autosavant Garage, but I know for sure I could have. In fact, size-wise, it fit right in at the campground, although I was surprised to see far more HD pickups with diesels towing trailers. Why is it that a 155-horsepower small block used to be sufficient to tow a travel trailer, and now 400 horsepower/800 lb-ft behemoths now seem to be the norm?
Size and capability come at a price. Our tester tipped the scales at $58,400, but I believe that the only option it lacked was four wheel drive. (Our 2011 tester, also an LTZ, was a 4×4 but lacked rear-seat entertainment, and tipped the scales at $58,245. Suburbans start at $42,545, but in LTZ trim, they are $54,890. Our tester had the $2,085 Sun & Entertainment package (rear seat entertainment, power moonroof, a full year of XM NavTraffic), the $250 heavy duty cooling package, and $200 trailer brake controller. Destination of $995 brings the total to $58,400.
There’s also a cost at the pump, of course. The EPA says the ‘Burban will get 15 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway. In my experience, about 14 mpg is more typical. It’s not easy to efficiently move three tons – what can I say? At least you look and sound good when you’re moving along.
As noted earlier, this generation of Suburban is reaching the end of its life cycle. But don’t fret: there will be another generation of the Suburban. GM makes way too much money on these things to cede the market to Ford and others. You’re getting a lot of vehicle for the pound without a lot of modern technology (infotainment excepted; we’re talking mostly about powertrains). There are few vehicles that can tow a trailer while coddling nine people (eight in our tester), and for that reason, the Suburban will continue to live on.
Chevrolet provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.