Tahoe offers tough competition

Friday, July 11, 2003

Test-driving the Tahoe brings back memories of old Suburban

I can't remember my first ride in an SUV. The Chevy Suburban, introduced in 1936, has been around longer than I have, so I was too young to remember.

My uncle drove Suburbans from his home in Eagle Pass, Texas, to his ranch in Mexico, and I recall the long, hot, dusty ride over unpaved Mexican roads of the 1950s. "Texas Cadillacs" Uncle Tito called his Suburbans, but I never understood why ... they rattled and rode like an old pickup truck, which is what they were. Coil springs hadn't appeared yet --that didn't happen until 1963. And there was no such thing as air conditioning. It got so hot in there you could refry your frijoles.

My Aunt Ludie had a real Cadillacs, and it even had a cloth headliner, which the Suburban did not. I guess that was an option back then. My Uncle Tito is resting in peace, but his old Suburban is probably still rattling around somewhere down in Central America. Built "like a rock," you know.

Well that was then, and this is 2003. Although Chevy has built millions of Suburbans over the past 60 years, it is no longer America's best-selling full-size SUV. But, its little brother, Tahoe, is. The sample I test drove for this article was provided by Brennecke Chevrolet of Jackson, and after spending a couple of days in its luxurious interior, it was easy to see why it's so popular. For one thing, it has a very nice headliner.

First, I rounded up two other "gear heads" who remember the good old days, and we drove over to Cape for lunch, via highway 25, a curvy and sometimes bumpy two-laner. I found the ride a bit stiff, but Ken and Bob thought it was just right. So it was two against one. I discovered this Tahoe is equipped with the off-road Z71 package, which includes 17-inch off-road tires, gas-charged shocks and re-tuned spring rates ... just what you need for those Mexican roads I was talking about. But Tahoe offers two other suspension packages: Premium ride, and auto ride, for guys like me who prefer Missouri roads. Premium ride utilizes air suspension at the rear. Auto ride is even more sophisticated, automatically varying the amount of shock damping by sensing different road conditions, speed, steering and load.

Numerous engineering changes

The 2003 Chevy Tahoe looks like last year's model, which belies all the changes underneath. Numerous engineering revisions make it a safer, more reliable vehicle. It's an attractive truck, because it is essentially a shortened version of the current Suburban. The Tahoe is 21 inches shorter than the Suburban and nearly 8 inches shorter than the Ford Expedition. Tahoe offers two engine choices, the standard Vortec 4800 with 275 horsepower and 290 pounds-feet of torque, and the optional Vortec 5.3 liter rated at 285 horsepower. More important is the difference in torque: the 4800 is rated at 290 pounds-feet, while the 5300 is rated at 325 foot-pounds. (Torque is the force that gets you moving, and it is especially important for towing.) This truck had the high-torque engine, and it delivered strong acceleration and earned an EPA-estimated 14/18-mpg city/highway.

As mentioned, this Tahoe is the Z71 version, a $4,547 premium package for off-pavement driving. I could list all the options the package includes, but there's not enough room in this article. Just trust me, there's more stuff here than on a Mexican restaurant menu. But I will tell you about the huge side mirrors that fold in at the push of a button. The left mirror automatically dims for headlamp glare. All these goodies bring the total ticket to $46,787, but you won't pay that much because Chevy is offering a $3,000 rebate.

Thanks to a great four-wheel-drive system, Tahoe will go most places most of us want to go, including really bad Mexican roads. There are four driving modes. Two-wheel drive offers the best fuel economy. Press the Auto 4WD button and all the power goes to the rear wheels when there's good grip, but any loss of traction will send power to the front wheels as well. Press the 4HI button when standard four-wheel drive is needed for driving on roads covered by snow and ice. The 4LO setting is used for the last five miles to Uncle Tito's ranch.

Did I mention air-conditioning? It's standard! And rattles? Not a one! I would have driven this Chevy down to Mexico, but Brennecke only gave me one tank of gas.

Pass the frijoles!

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian.

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