Best in class and an ideal size.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price (MSRP) $25,604
As Tested (MSRP) $36,760
Chevrolet's Tahoe seems at times the perfect size. It can carry a lot more cargo than a compact or mid-size sport-utility, with or without four passengers. And it more easily handles a trailer. Yet it's far more maneuverable than a Suburban, important in crowded parking lots, underground garages, or when parallel parking.
On the road, it's smooth and stable, a rock. There's plenty of power and the brakes work well. Its cabin is comfortable and familiar, friendly and functional. Turn off the highway and the Tahoe handles gravel, rugged two-tracks, mud, and snow.
Three models are available: base, LS, and LT.
The base model is a stripped-down vinyl-seat work truck sold in small quantities. Base 4X2 retails for $24,941, while 4X4 goes for $27,857. Custom cloth front seatsThese base models come equipped with the Vortec 4800 V8.
Most people opt for the LS and LT models, which come with the Vortec 5300 V8. Sold as packages, LS adds $6,164 to the base model prices, while LT adds $10,638 to the bottom line.
Tahoe 2WD LS ($31,105) and 4WD LS ($34,021) come with a comfortable cloth interior and most of the features most of us want.
Tahoe 2WD LT ($35,579) and LT 4X4 ($38,495) come loaded with leather upholstery, power seats, premium ride suspension, OnStar driver assistance, automatic climate control, and other features.
Also available is a Z71 model with a specially tuned off-road suspension with special shocks and jounce bumpers, skid plates, a locking rear differential, and a roof rack with lights.
Other options include a power sliding sunroof package ($1095) with HomeLink and the Autoride suspension ($700) with variable shock dampening.
Conservative styling means the Tahoe doesn't stand out, but it is an attractive truck. It shares much in common with the Suburban and the Silverado pickup. Pull door handles are easy to use.
At the rear, there's a choice of a traditional hatch with a flip-up window or panel doors, also known as barn doors or cargo doors. Choosing between them is a matter of lifestyle and personal preference. Cargo doors are standard on the base Tahoe and optional on the LS and LT models; cargo doors are more convenient when towing and for other truck chores, and they make it easier to control a dog. The traditional hatch is made of aluminum for light weight; being able to open just the glass is often more convenient when loading groceries or outdoor gear, especially since it can be operated with the keyless remote. Once annoyance on our Tahoe: The doors were programmed to lock every time we shifted into Drive; when we'd stop, get out, walk to the back and open the hatch, the alarm would sound. The automatic locking feature can be turned off by the dealer.
Tahoe's interior is comfortable, user-friendly, and attractive. Step-in height is lower than it is with pre-2000 models, making it easier to climb in and out. Controls are mounted within easy reach. Visibility is very good through big windows.
It's comfortable up front with nice cloth or leather seats, well-designed switchgear, and map lights that can be aimed. The cupholders are nicely designed and there's a place for a sunglasses case or wallet. Radio buttons are big with pre-set tone controls for each station, so you don't have to adjust the bass and treble response when you flip from an AM news station to rock, country & western or classical. Double visors with extenders keep the sun out of your eyes. Three power outlets in front and one in back deliver electricity for accessories.
It's also quite comfortable in the second row. Separate rear audio and heating and air conditioning controls are available. Cupholders are close by no matter where you're sitting in the Tahoe. A pair of map lights flanks each dome light on the second and third row, a great feature when traveling or accessing gear.
Folding the second-row seats down provides enormous cargo capacity, useful for outdoor activities and home-improvement weekends. Folding the second-row down is easy; headrests stay in place.
The Tahoe is most comfortable with four or five passengers, but it can seat seven with its third-row seat. Getting in and out of the third row isn't easy, however. And once back there, it's uncomfortable for an adult. The seat height is low relative to your feet, sort of like sitting on the floor. So if you think you'll be using that third row on a daily basis, then step over to the other side of the showroom and take a look at the Suburban. The Suburban is far more practical than the Tahoe for carrying six or seven people on a regular basis.
In terms of flexibility, however, the Tahoe's third-row seats comprise one of the best designs in the business. They can be quickly folded and flipped out of they way. Better yet, they're easy to remove: just fold down, flip up, grab the release handle, and roll them out on their wheels. They're not light, but one person can remove each of the two seats. Storing them in the garage is a good idea as it opens up more cargo space. This leaves room for five people and lots of cargo. There's plenty of room back there for a big dog. Fold down one of the second-row seats and he can walk up and put his head on your shoulder. Throw a rubber mat over the cargo area and you have a serious cargo area. Reinstalling the third-row seats is a snap.
The Tahoe rides smoothly and it's stable and comfortable at higher speeds. It handles bumpy roads well. The Z71 package seems to improve the ride quality on gravel and washboard surfaces.
A five-link independent rear suspension provides better ride and handling than the Ford Expedition. The front suspension is conventional in design, except for the springs. To save space, the Tahoe uses torsion bars instead of coil springs. The Tahoe's conventional ladder frame is fully boxed in the mid-section for maximum rigidity, while the front and rear portions are shaped by the same hydro-forming technique used to make Corvette frames. This design is a key to the Tahoe's excellent ride and handling. At the very front of the frame is a section that is designed to crush and absorb impacts in a crash.
Optional Premium Ride self-leveling rear shocks ($366) use hydraulics to help maintain trim height for better handling when hauling heavy cargo or pulling a trailer. Better is the optional Autoride suspension ($700), which electronically controls rear air shocks to provide real-time suspension damping. Autoride keeps your trailer from porpoising after running over railroad tracks. Press a button and GM's tow/haul mode, standard on these new SUVs, holds the transmission in gear longer and shifts more abruptly to keep the transmission cooler.
The recirculating-ball steering provides good control and feedback, even if it falls short of the rack-and-pinion steering found on the Ford Explorer. Tahoe's power steering system is designed for durability by operating at a lower temperature range.
Tahoe is relatively easy to park. It's 20 inches shorter than a Suburban with a 38.3-foot turning diameter, four feet smaller than the Suburban's turning circle. With its shorter wheelbase, shorter rear overhang and taller ground clearance, the Tahoe traverses gullies and other rugged terrain where the Suburban scrapes bottom. Likewise, the Tahoe is shorter and more maneuverable than the Ford Expedition. Even though the Tahoe is an inch wider than the Expedition, I find it easier to judge the distance between the Tahoe's right front corner and a tree. The Expedition's fenders seem taller and the Tahoe seems easier to manage off road.
Four-wheel disc brakes with dual-piston brake calipers deliver good stopping performance. We towed a heavily laden horse trailer without trailer brakes connected and were impressed with its braking ability. A dynamic proportioning system continuously balances the front and rear brakes for maximum braking without activating the ABS.
Chevy's small-block overhead-valve V8s are excellent. They rival competitors' overhead-cam engines for smoothness and efficiency, and deliver strong torque for towing. The 4.8-liter version cranks out 275 horsepower, which is 20 more than the old 5.7-liter motor. At the same time, it is quite efficient; the 2WD, 4.8-liter version, for example, earns 20 mpg on the EPA's highway mileage test. A better choice, and the one you'll probably end up with, it the 5.3-liter engine rated at 285 horsepower. It delivers strong acceleration performance and burns regular unleaded fuel; the 5.3-liter engine earns an EPA-estimated 14/17 mpg city/highway.
The Tahoe doesn't offer the off-road capability of a Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota Land Cruiser, or Land Rover Discovery. The Tahoe will, however, get to most of the places most of us want to go. Tahoe's four-wheel-drive system provides four driving modes controlled by buttons on the dash to the left of the instrument panel. Two-wheel drive offers the best fuel economy on streets and highways. Press the Auto 4WD button for inconsistent road conditions. Power will only be sent to the rear wheels when there's good grip, but any loss of traction will cause power to be directed to the front wheels. This works well when patches of snow and ice are on the road. I like using Auto 4WD on gravel roads where it seems to offer the best handling balance. Press the 4 HI button when standard four-wheel drive is needed for driving off road or on roads covered with snow and ice. The 4 LO setting is used for creeping through deep sand, deep mud, deep snow or up or down steep grades.
Two-wheel-drive Tahoes offer a limited-slip rear differential to give drivers better traction in slippery conditions. Optional traction assist cuts engine power as needed to help maintain traction to the rear tires. A second-gear winter start feature in the automatic transmission also helps get the Tahoe rolling without wheel spin under slippery conditions. These two systems should make the 4x2 Tahoe sufficient for all but those who live at the end of long driveways in snowy climates. The combination of good visibility and confident handling give the Tahoe an air of nimbleness that the Ford Expedition lacks.
All Tahoes are equipped to accept a lighting plug for trailer towing, and have provisions for connecting a trailer brake controller very easily. They also have a deeper oil pan on the transmission to provide a better supply of cool transmission fluid while towing. Our Tahoe LT equipped with the towing package included a receiver hitch and an external oil-to-air transmission cooler. Chevy says the cooler is unnecessary, but we think it's still good insurance.
Chevrolet's Tahoe makes a lot of sense for someone who wants a big sport-utility, but doesn't want to manhandle a Suburban every day. We think the Tahoe delivers a better driving experience than the Ford Expedition and some of its cargo-carrying ergonomics seem to have the edge. For many people, it's the ideal SUV.
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