God bless Alan Johnson. The good Mr. Johnson is a friend of Automobile Magazine, and early last fall, he borrowed our long-term Chevrolet Suburban for some weekend hauling. Upon returning the truck, as is the custom, he wrote a few of his thoughts and comments in the Chevy's logbook. One of those remarks--short, sweet, and to the point--stood out.
"This," Alan penned, "is the best vehicle in the world."
Call it exaggeration or call it fawning praise, but if you're talking pure versatility, this statement isn't far from the truth--there's little that the Suburban can't do. In the twelve months it spent in Ann Arbor, our big Chevy hauled, towed, and trekked from one end of the country to the other, and it did so with few complaints. Its detractors called it outdated and decried its old-think live axle and cabin layout, but its fans lauded its incredible adaptability, over-the-road ease, and old-school purposefulness. One thing is for sure: few other Four Seasons cars or trucks have done as much towing, traveled as many miles in as little time (10,000 in the first two months alone), or carried as much junk on such a regular basis.
For 2007, Chevrolet's Suburban (along with its Tahoe and GMC Yukon siblings) was gifted with a major--albeit not complete--revamp. Gone were the torsion-bar front springs found in previous Suburbans; in their place came an independent coil-over-shock setup, along with new rack-and-pinion steering aimed at delivering better feel. Gone, too, was the cheap-looking if rugged interior, replaced by much more attractive and expensive-appearing soft-touch materials. The new exterior styling, while not revolutionary or overly imaginative, at least brought the Suburban's looks into the twenty-first century.
That said, sheer capability and fancy new duds aren't everything, and the Suburban initially struggled to impress. "The ride quality and the vibration through the steering wheel remind me of a 1980s Chevy Blazer," said road test editor Marc Noordeloos. Technical editor Don Sherman echoed Noordeloos's thoughts: "GM's aspirations were too modest; they addressed known shortcomings instead of shooting for the moon with a clean-sheet approach. Interior quality and fit are vastly improved, but the poor packaging--rear cargo and passenger space are consumed by the rear axle--carries over."
More than a few other complaints reared their heads in the truck's first few months. A nasty highway-speed driveline vibration cropped up at roughly 2500 miles, along with a lack of straight-line stability and a hearty dose of chassis and body creaks. A new right front tire, a realigned front suspension, a steering shim kit, a lubed intermediate shaft, and some repositioned underbody insulation seemed to fix the Suburban's issues.
Newly broken-in and debugged, our Chevy was free to go about doing what most Suburbans do best: work. In the months that followed, it hauled both race cars and street cars, towed motorcycles and campers, carried a vintage Honda Passport motorbike (inside, with the tailgate closed), lugged Christmas trees, helped move four households, and performed countless other messy tasks without breaking a sweat. One staff member even hooked it up to a six-by-fourteen-foot double-axle hydraulic dump trailer full of eight cubic yards of wood chips (yes, some of us moonlight as lawn-care guys; yes, journalism pays that poorly). The Suburban simply trudged along, unfazed.
Unfazed, that is, with a few exceptions. Throughout its stay here, our hefty hauler repeatedly received criticism for two crucial flaws: its fuel mileage and its four-speed automatic. Even though our truck's 5.3-liter, 310-hp, aluminum-block V-8 featured GM's Active Fuel Management cylinder deactivation, it consumed a surprising amount of fuel under all conditions. Copy editor Rusty Blackwell traveled some 2000 highway miles with his wife and three relatives for Thanksgiving weekend: "We got about 16 mpg on regular unleaded, which is hard to eco-stomach and nowhere near the EPA highway rating of 20 mpg. I love the Suburban's sinister, bad-ass looks, but any good minivan would have been more comfortable, used less fuel, and held almost as much luggage."
Others saw similar results, and few drivers experienced the displacement-on-demand feature for any length of time. "No matter the conditions," wrote senior editor Joe DeMatio, "I wasn't able to get the 'V-4' to illuminate for more than a couple of seconds." And on the few occasions when we were able to find a gas station that offered E85, mileage dropped an average of twenty percent.
Our Suburban's poor fuel economy can be blamed partly on its specification. We equipped our LTZ with a 4.10:1 rear gear to aid in towing thrust (3.73:1 is standard), a choice that no doubt contributed to the truck's greater-than-expected thirst. (A 6000-pound curb weight probably didn't help either.) Fuel mileage remained disappointingly low throughout the year; we averaged just 14 mpg overall.
The installation of shorter final-drive gearing clearly helped acceleration when compared with Suburbans equipped with the base ratio, but our Chevy's passing power and towing ability were hampered by its four-speed automatic. The transmission's widely spaced ratios put a noticeable wet blanket on towing ability and seemed primitively at odds with the rest of the truck. The presence of two more cogs--as in the Silverado HD pickup--would no doubt help both grunt and fuel economy. (Unfortunately, toward the end of its stay with us, the Suburban's shift quality greatly worsened; it was accompanied by an increase in driveline noise. At press time, the local dealer had yet to determine the cause.)
That's not to say that things were all negative. On the contrary, the Suburban's looks and imposing presence were largely a hit. "Other than one dude in downtown Detroit who told me to `go give your mom her car back,' " said one intern, "everyone looks at the Suburban like it's a Bentley. I don't know why people bother throwing down the cash for an Escalade; this is enough of a status symbol right here." And although the Chevy's optional twenty-inch chrome-plated wheels and 275/55 Bridgestones contributed greatly to its fidgety ride quality, they certainly looked great.
When all is said and done, you may be surprised to hear our final verdict: in spite of all the Suburban's flaws, we really liked it. Few other SUVs are as capable, as comfortable, or as versatile.
By the end of its stay, the Chevy had even grown on the notoriously critical Noordeloos: "It has its own charm, and I like that it's classless. It fits in equally well at a black-tie event or a county fair."
Best vehicle in the world? No, not quite. But regardless, the Suburban still satisfies. It's a true-truck leftover in a world of ever-more-carlike SUVs, and what it loses in the details, it makes up for with sheer world-hauling capability. As one staff member put it, "The Suburban isn't perfect, but it serves its purpose pretty well. It was around long before the SUV craze, and it's probably going to be around long after. All the soccer moms and stereotypes aside, it's just an honest truck."