Bigger gets better.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price (MSRP) $25,921
As Tested (MSRP) $39,493
Chevy's Suburban was totally redesigned and re-engineered for 2000. New engines offered substantially more power; a more rigid frame and a re-engineered suspension provided excellent handling; brakes were greatly improved for pedal feel and performance; and the interior was upgraded for greater comfort and convenience.
The whole vehicle was so vastly improved and refined that you might think the engineers would take a year off, but they haven't: 2001 brings more horsepower for the 2500 model's standard 6.0-liter V8. And a new 8.1-liter V8 is now available for 2500-series models for behemoth towing tasks.
For all these changes, however, the Suburban retains the same folksy qualities that people have loved since its 1935 inception: a cavernous interior, strong torque for towing, off-road capability, and a stable, comfortable ride for long-distance travel.
Suburban comes with a choice of two or four-wheel drive and is available in two load ranges, 1500 and 2500. Three trim levels are available: base, LS and LT. Suburban 1500s come equipped with a 5.3-liter V8. The 2500s are available with a choice of 6.0-liter or 8.1-liter V8s.
Base 1500 models list for $25,921 in 2WD and $28,837 in 4WD. Base-trim 2500s go for $27,780 in 2WD and $30,780 in 4WD. To these prices add $7,423 to upgrade to an LS, or $11,000-plus to move up to the LT. (Exact LT prices are different for 1500s and 2500s, and are discounted slightly if you also opt for the $1,095 power sliding sunroof.)
All Suburbans come with four-wheel anti-lock brakes, dual front air bags and dual side-impact air bags, but air conditioning is a $1,542 option on base models.
Moving up through the trim levels brings nicer interiors: LS and LT come with power windows, front and rear air conditioning, a compass and remote keyless entry. LS gets a nicer cloth reclining front bench seat with adjustable lumbar support; and bucket seats are an option. LT is fitted with leather seating surfaces and premium full-function heated front bucket seats. LT also comes with electronic climate control, premium CD stereo, the HomeLink universal garage door opener, and GM's OnStar system. Otherwise, the primary functional difference is that LT comes with Chevy's ZW7 Premium Ride Suspension.
Today's Suburban looks strikingly different from pre-2000 models, yet familiar at the same time. All the sheet metal was new for 2000. The entire vehicle looks smoother and more aerodynamic. Sharp edges have been rounded. Most noticeable are the new headlights.
Two tailgate configurations are available. A lightweight, one-piece rear hatch similar to those found on compact SUVs is useful for families and can be opened with one hand. Chevrolet lists it as a no-cost option. Our test Suburban came with traditional side-by-side cargo doors, which I like because they open wide and allow a closer working position to the vehicle's storage area. Cargo doors are also useful when pulling trailers because they will usually clear the trailer tongue jack. And I like them because it's easier to control my dog when I open them. The hinges have been re-engineered for a more finished appearance; and they let the doors open wide without having to disconnect the hinges.
A puddle lamp mounted below the side mirrors shines down to light up the perimeter of the Suburban. It's a nice feature that can be turned on using the keyless remote when approaching the Suburban in a dark parking garage, as it illuminates underneath the vehicle. It can also be used in the backwoods to help you avoid stepping into mud puddles.
Suburban is about 17 inches longer than the Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon, and nearly identical to the GMC Yukon XL, which was called the GMC Suburban until last year.
Seating has been cleverly designed. The third-row seatback folds down without having to remove the headrests, then the whole thing flips forward to substantially increase cargo capacity. A short prop rod locks it into place. This bench seat can be easily removed as it's mounted on wheels; it weighs 75 pounds, however, so get some help before pulling it out the back end of the Suburban. After removing the third-row seat, flip the seat bottom of the second row forward, fold the seatback down (no need to remove the headrests), flip the floor extension down and you've got a huge, flat cargo space behind the driver's seat. Loading cargo is easy because there's plenty of space for it; lift-over height is lower than that of the Ford Excursion. The spare tire has been moved underneath the vehicle to free up rear cargo space.
The optional cloth bucket seats in our LS were okay, but don't offer as much support as I'd like. LT's leather seats seem more supportive. The second row is quite comfortable. Headphone jacks allow rear-seat passengers to listen to CDs while those up front turn on the radio. Sitting in the third row is surprisingly comfortable for an adult; slide your feet under the seat in front of you and you can ride back there fairly long distances. Getting back there requires folding and flipping the seat out of the way.
Though my height-challenged mother-in-law found getting into the Suburban a bit of a step up, it isn't a problem for those of standard stature. Step-in height is actually lower than before because of the new fully boxed frame. She liked the optional running boards, which make getting in easier.
This new Suburban offers excellent handling for a big, heavy truck; and the steering provides better feel than previously. Driving quickly over wet pavement through the San Juan Mountains, high above Colorado's Delores River, we never lost traction. I took turns driving the Suburban on the wet, winding road with the road test editor from one of the major enthusiast magazines. Each of us has extensive racing experience, but we were unable to get the Suburban to come unglued. We drove into wet turns as quickly as we'd ever want to go in a Suburban and never lost grip. We were impressed. The frame is completely re-engineered. The entire front part of the frame is hydro-formed from one piece of metal and is far more rigid than a bunch of pieces welded together.
Ride quality in the Suburban 1500 is smooth, greatly improved over the previous-generation Suburban. The optional Premium Ride suspension features a hydraulically controlled rear self-leveling system to keep the Suburban at normal ride height even when carrying heavy loads. This system offered a good ride quality on the Suburban I drove. The more sophisticated optional Auto-Ride suspension system uses computer-controlled shock damping for improved ride quality over uneven pavement. Whether towing a horse trailer or picking up a soccer team, Auto-Ride continually adjusts the suspension for optimum ride and handling. This technology also helps reduce dive on braking (so that the nose of the vehicle doesn't dip down unduly), and body roll (or lean) during cornering. Most people find the 1500 models meet their needs.
The 2500 models, often referred to as the 3/4-ton versions, are only needed for those who tow heavy trailers. Rated to tow up to 10,500 pounds, they effectively match the towing capacity of the Ford Excursion. Suburban 2500 will ride a bit harsher because its rear suspension uses leaf springs instead of the coil-springs used on the 1500. But the 2500 rides surprisingly well, given its load range, a big improvement over the previous-generation 2500 models and smoother than the big Ford Excursion.
Until last year, Suburbans came with mushy brakes. You had to tromp on them to get the thing to stop. GM redesigned the brake system to address this. The pedal on the new Suburban works smoothly and progressively, which makes is easier to stop without drama. A new Dynamic Rear Proportioning system modulates the pressure applied to the rear brakes for more effective braking. Brake pads and rotors are 40 percent larger and use twin-piston calipers. This new four-wheel-disc brake system reduces 60-mph stopping distances by 20 feet, according to Chevrolet, and the pads are expected to last 40 percent longer.
Cost is the main consideration on whether to get four-wheel drive. Those in the Sunbelt may not see justification for it. But even if you aren't an off-road driver, four-wheel drive can keep you going through snow, or on sandy, unpaved roads, or help pull a boat up a slippery boat ramp. If you don't get a 4WD model, consider the optional traction-assist system for the 2WD models. 4WD models offer several modes of travel and shifting among them is as easy as changing stations on the radio. Press 2WD Hi, then, as conditions grow worse, press the 4WD Hi and 4WD Lo buttons to operate the system like a traditional part-time four-wheel-drive. If conditions are fluctuating, hit the Auto 4WD button and the Autotrac all-wheel-drive system automatically transfers power from a slipping wheel to the wheels with the best traction; no input is needed from the driver.
For 2001, the 2500's 6.0-liter V8 has aluminum heads and a revised camshaft, producing a nice, round 300 horsepower. We haven't tried the new 8.1-liter V8, but responsiveness from either the 5.3 or 6.0 is excellent.
Suburban's automatic transmission comes with a tow/haul mode. Pressing a switch on the end of the column shifter changes the shift points of the transmission. The tow/haul mode improves performance while towing and lessens wear on the transmission. Even when not towing, it works well when driving through mountainous terrain.
We love the Suburban. It's a great vehicle for moving cargo, towing trailers, or hauling people. Get sleepy on a long trip and you can simply pull over and stretch out in back.
While Ford's giant Excursion has taken the Suburban's long-held position as the largest sport-utility vehicle, it doesn't match the smooth ride and all-around utility of the 'Burb. Excursion is not a good choice if you're just moving people around. Suburban's greater maneuverability makes it a much more sensible choice for that role.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.