The Chevrolet Suburban’s loyal following is largely composed of well-heeled owners who have specialized pursuits and recognize a good value. For them, the Suburban has always been about capability, like a great pair of boots that can be muddied without worry. Other than the Ford Excursion and Cadillac Escalade ESV (which is based on the Suburban), nothing else on the road is like the Suburban.
In light of the rising cost of fuel, however, sales of this full-scale SUV have plunged. General Motors contends this is due more to the product’s age than to high gas prices, and it’s staking a fair amount of its future corporate well-being on a full-size truck range to supplant the Suburban, Tahoe, and Silverado in 2006. These all-new sport/utes and truck are expected to provide better fuel economy, a smoother ride, more amenities, and a more stylish and better-crafted interior. Until then, the Suburban enters its final production year for this generation with minor tweaks–and all the robust capability that has made the model name legendary for half a century.
The Suburban shares the Yukon XL’s good-looking proportions, but from front to back, they’re both relatively slab-sided and plain. Borrowing a car-trim name, a special LTZ edition is added to the range with an enhanced interior and exterior featuring 20-inch wheels and chrome accents. Recent aerodynamic refinements to the monstrous Suburban have improved fuel-economy figures. The Suburban’s face has been smoothed, and when not fitted with the optional tow hooks and foglights, those respective openings are sealed for additional slipperiness. Specially designed running boards also cheat the wind. For an extra measure of convenience, the rear liftgate now has lift-up glass. New details include the combining of the OnStar and XM satellite radio antennas into a single unit and the availability of extended trailering mirrors.
Seating for six, seven, eight, or nine gives Suburban owners the ultimate in SUV passenger-carrying flexibility. Having a vehicle that is 219.3 inches long pays off when you open the tailgate to find an astonishing 45.7 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row of seats. That’s about as much space as the average midsize SUV has with its third row folded.
The Suburban interior–largely shared with every full-size pickup and SUV GM offers–is neither stylish nor well wrought. Panel gaps are large and inconsistent, and hard plastic with visible lines from the molding process abounds. Recent trim updates in LS and LT models improve the look and feel slightly, but utilitarianism is still the byword here. This is fine if you plan to haul cords of firewood, but as a neighborhood carryall, the Suburban’s cabin trails those of its competitors. Bringing a bit of high-tech to the otherwise outdated ambiance, a touch-screen navigation system is available, and the latest generation of OnStar is standard.
Half-ton versions of the Suburban powered by the 5.3-liter V-8 are equipped with StabiliTrak electronic stability control. And two-wheel-drive versions of the Suburban with a locking rear differential can be equipped with electronic traction assist. Front-row, dual-stage airbags deploy according to the severity of impact, and GM’s Passenger Sensing System won’t trigger the front passenger airbag at all if a child is belted into the seat or if the seat is unoccupied. Side airbags are available for front-row passengers. Child-safety-seat attachments are included in the rear seats. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and brake assist are standard. All Suburbans are now fitted with a tire-pressure monitoring system that alerts the driver through the electronic information screen if air is low at any corner.
The Suburban offers a choice of three engines, each with two- or four-wheel drive. The 5.3-liter/295-horse V-8 standard on all half-ton models can run on regular unleaded gasoline or a gasoline/ethanol blend of up to 85 percent ethanol. With a larger cylinder bore, the 6.0-liter/325-horse V-8 is standard on three-quarter-ton models. Both of these engines have cast-iron blocks and cast-aluminum heads. The 8.1-liter/320-horse V-8 available on three-quarter-ton versions of the 2500 series is a lower-revving unit that produces 440 lb-ft of torque at just 3,200 rpm, compared with the smaller engines’ respective outputs of 330 lb-ft and 365 lb-ft. This all-cast-iron brute isn’t terribly sophisticated or advanced; it’s just huge at 496 cubic inches. A diesel is glaringly absent from the lineup, a shame for those who use the Suburban to cover a lot of miles or pull mammoth trailers.
Each of the available engines is matched with its own size-appropriate, electronically controlled, four-speed automatic transmission. (One of the Ford Excursion models offers a five-speed automatic). Each transmission has a special mode for hauling and towing. While lacking the adaptive logic found in competitors’ transmissions, these Hydra-Matic units are as durable as if the Founding Fathers had designed them. Furthermore, smooth shifts are another trademark characteristic. Two- or four-wheel drive may be specified. A new, all-electric cooling system with a pair of electric fans and greater heat dissipation from the radiator results in quieter operation, less parasitic loss than the former system, and improved air-conditioner performance while the engine is idling.
Power-adjustable pedals, standard on the LT, LTZ, and Z71 and optional on the LS, help almost any driver find a comfortable seating position. Like its smaller relative, the Chevrolet Tahoe, this massive, truck-based SUV (as heavy as 5,796 pounds) operates with a light touch and, in true “land-yacht” fashion, isolates the driver and passengers from most everything related to the road and its condition. With strong V-8 engines, the Suburban moves along with verve despite its mass. The Suburban’s size does become an issue when parking, however, whether in a crowded lot or in the driveway. A manually controlled, tri-zone climate system with rear air-conditioning is standard. Automation of this system is an option. Diversion for passengers comes by way of many available electronic goodies including XM satellite radio; a custom Bose audio system with eight speakers and a sub-woofer; rear-seat controls that channel a second audio source; and rear DVD entertainment. The vehicle’s scale enables a large family to travel in spacious comfort, with well-padded seats and abundant storage nooks.
In addition to large families, nearly every hobbyist group is interested in the Suburban–the fly fisherman, the grouse hunter, the camper, and the flea-market super-shopper. Women and men drive them in equal numbers, and they turn up at trailheads as often as shopping centers. The three-quarter-ton version’s maximum tow rating of 12,000 pounds opens quite a few doors–trailer doors, that is. The Suburban’s heritage is hard to match, and so is its resale value. Even amid incentives, the Suburban has a strong track record for a Better than Average Cost of Ownership.
If you need a utilitarian carryall, look for a deal on the last of the 2006 Suburbans, but for more refinement, safety, and panache, wait for the new 2007 model.
For 2006, a special AWD LTZ model brings a dressed-up exterior and interior, along with a potent 6.0L powerplant. The 1500 editions see their catalytic converters moved closer to the engine for improved emissions performance, while 2500s are available with extendable trailer mirrors. A tire-pressure monitoring system is standard on all variations.
The Suburban can be configured for multiple purposes, be it local family commuter, long-haul tow duty, or off-road adventurer. The key is to outfit it realistically for the intended purpose, including buying the right-sized engine. For flash and style, the LTZ trim is a standout. The various entertainment options can help immeasurably in placating passengers on interstate vacations.