by Bob Plunkett
RENO, Nev. -- Plowing up a twin-track path etched in snow and whipped by winds swirling off the high Nevada desert, we climb steadily into eastern foothills of the Sierras on a barren landscape littered with sage and rock concealed under a blanket of snow.
Although our four-wheel-drive Chevrolet Tahoe sport-utility vehicle had moved through 2,000 vertical feet of altitude gained since leaving Reno, a prudent driver, when viewing the icy route through the windshield, would naturally assume it should not be tackled without studded tires or a snow plow as escort.
But we had our ski gear aboard and a condo waiting in the mountains, and we were armed with Chevy's latest off-road wagon -- so steep slopes and patches of snow would not turn us back, at least not without trying.
Besides, our vehicle packed powerful weapons for dicey motoring: a strong frame, big V-8 muscle, and a chassis with plenty of ground clearance. We also had a four-wheel-drive advantage Chevy calls Autotrac: the smart system automatically switches from standard rear-wheel-drive traction to a mode which channels power equally to the front as well as rear wheels when on-board sensors detect wheelspin.
How well does Autotrac work? Through a snowy curve our rear wheels began to slip out of line. In an instant, Autotrac transferred torque seamlessly to front tires, which clawed for traction. In another instant those wayward rear wheels pulled back into alignment and we proceeded through the curve safely.
Another four-wheel-drive system, InstaTrac, is the standard 4WD mechanism for Tahoe. It permits shift-on-the-fly switching from rear-wheel to four-wheel mode, and has a low gear for serious off-road work.
Traction choices rank as only the first in a long line of options for Chevrolet's sport-utility vehicle, which is available in two- and four-door editions. Three levels of trim apply to the two-door version, and two go to the four-door.
At the top of the heap stands the four-door Tahoe LT 4x4, which now offers the new Z71 off-road package of functional and appearance items. It includes color-keyed grilles and bumpers, front fog lamps, and a tough-looking front brush guard, with tubular running boards set below side doors and black rear taillamp protectors too. It also adds skid plates, 46-millimeter Bilstein gas-charged shocks and heavy-duty engine and transmission coolers, plus large 16-inch all-season tires. Inside, the Z71 Tahoe has subtle two-tone leather seat upholstery and special carpeted floor mats.
Drive Tahoe over rough terrain, and its cushy comforts will impress. So will its road manners. The basic Tahoe chassis starts with a rectangular ladder-type chassis with welded crossbars and boxed front end. This rigid platform supports the fully independent front suspension and a rear system with strong semielliptical multileaf spring. Add variable-ratio power steering and power brakes connected to a four-wheel anti-lock system and Tahoe sets the scene for confident maneuvering, off-road or on.
Then there's that big V-8 under the hood. Chevy's 5.7-liter iron-block Vortec engine, generating 255 hp, provides all the muscle you need, even for towing a big load. A single transmission, GM's smooth and intelligent electronic automatic four-speed, connects with the V-8. When outfitted with Tahoe's optional towing package, the Tahoe can pull a trailer rig weighing as much as 7,000 pounds.
For the four-door edition, trim choices of LS and LT signify that Chevy's big sport-ute starts out with all of the expected comforts, then heaps on extra luxury items. The Tahoe LS brings front bucket seats covered in soft cloth, a center console which converts to a desktop work station with storage spaces, rear heating ducts and a handy security shade that stretches across the rear space to secrete cargo from prying eyes.
In the spacious cabin with big bucket seats covered in soft leather, riders experienced no discomfort despite our wayward position. Set with fittings of the best luxury sedan, we could well have been scooting off to the country club instead of heading high into the snowy Sierras.
One driver was impressed with the thoughtful placement of storage niches throughout Tahoe's cabin -- map pockets up front, a handy rack to stow audio cassette tapes, removable coin holder in the console, cup holders even for rear-seat riders, plus a latched rear storage drawer and small hidden bays aft of rear wheel wells. Check out the room remaining in the back seat and rear cargo bay and you'll discover that Tahoe, which rides on a full-size truck chassis, could also haul three back-seat riders and a batch of camping gear, golf bags or skis.
As an added convenience, Tahoe's rear door system may be configured with dual swing-out panel doors or a fold-down tailgate with flip-up glass window. Pick either version, depending on rear-door access requirements. Also, the spare tire stows below deck to increase storage space within Tahoe's cabin.
A variety of active and passive safety systems come with the Tahoe, including four-wheel ABS, twin airbags, daytime running lights and a safety-cage structure. Tahoe's energy-absorbing steering column adjusts, and the horn may be sounded by depressing any point on the steering wheel's center pad.
Overall, Tahoe seems easy to drive and certainly comfortable for extended touring. It's rugged, powerful and big, but a good design with expansive window glass and thoughtful features make Tahoe entirely friendly to use.
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