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Which Generation of Used Chevrolet Suburban Is the Best?

Here in the Midwest, a used Suburban (or similar General Motors product) is a more common sight than a used Camry or Accord. So many people willingly tolerate the gas-guzzling to pilot these giant beasts, as they comfortably haul large families without the stigma of owning a minivan. Used Suburbans are also fairly reliable and widely available at cheap prices, so it actually makes some sense to buy one — but deciding which of the three previous generations of used offerings to buy can be tough.

The true Chevy geeks divide these trucks by their chassis designation: GMT 400, GMT 800 and GMT 900. The letters stand for General Motors Truck, and, yes, the Suburban does have the same chassis as the Silverado, Sierra, Tahoe, Yukon and Escalade. Since these shared platforms also share drivetrains, they also share many similar benefits and downsides — but for now, let’s focus on the big ol’ bowtie-badged Suburban.

GMT 400: 1992-1999

The boxiest of the bunch is also the most basic, as the thought of going full-out luxury on a large SUV wasn’t as prevalent in the ’90s. The coolest of these Suburbans still roaming the road are the aftermarket conversions from coachbuilders like Regency and Southern Comfort. The blank canvas of this chassis lent well to weird customizations such as pillow-top seats, mood lighting and solid oak consoles. Compared to more modern generations, the old 5.7-liter V8 in half-ton versions is underpowered — but this was the last Suburban with a mostly flat floor, which is ideal for hauling cargo. While these are certainly the most affordable of the three generations, their age may make it harder to locate one with lower miles and less wear and tear.

Benefits: Flat cargo area, lowest price, simple mechanics, many custom conversion models, easiest to maneuver around a parking lot

Problems: Narrow track has greater rollover risk, less safety equipment, transmissions not as durable for towing, half-ton version is underpowered, leaks from plastic intakes, most rust-prone

GMT 800: 2000-2006

Despite its age, driving this generation of Suburban still feels very modern — while also having a few throwbacks to things from the good old days. It’s the last of the Suburbans to have plush, thick-foamed seats that make long road trips feel like you’re riding in a La-Z-Boy on wheels, but things also got more upscale, with a lot more luxury features available than the previous generation. The 5.3-liter Vortec V8 of this era is nearly indestructible, and its transmissions more durable as well. This was also the last generation of Suburban offered with the big-block 8.1 liter V8 — a rare beast that’s still coveted by Chevy fans looking for the family hauler that can also tow a small planet.

Benefits: Bulletproof mechanics, good towing capability, extremely comfortable seats, modern luxuries, easy/affordable maintenance, Z71 and high trim packages available, affordable pricing with great examples readily available

Problems: Fuel pumps fail regularly/without warning, knock sensor underneath intake prone to water damage, sunroof sealing and operation issues, hard plastic interiors that wear poorly

GMT 900: 2007-2014

This generation of Suburban benefited greatly by the improvements in materials for the interior — and finally, the Suburban was given a luxury treatment comparable to the Denali and Escalade. Although the 2500 Suburban was still offered, the engine was downsized to the 6.0 V8 — but the 5.3 Vortec of this generation was improved for greater power and fuel efficiency. This was also the first generation to get a serious modern infotainment system — which has actually aged pretty well.

Benefits: Modern technology and safety equipment, most luxurious, higher-quality interior materials, improvements in power and fuel efficiency, infinite examples available at a wide range of pricing

Problems: 5.3 engine issues with oil sludging requiring engine teardown, exterior door handles breaking, power hatch failures, more expensive for nice examples, higher maintenance costs/least DIY friendly

The Verdict?

While the thought of having a custom-conversion GMT 400 with oak cabinetry is tempting, as well as all the technology and safety features with the newer GMT 900, if I were shopping for a used Suburban with for around $10,000, the GMT 800 would be the winner for me. The comfortable seats and invincible mechanics outweigh the boring cosmetics and cheaper interior materials. That’s my personal opinion, but there’s really no bad choice with these fantastic machines.

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  1. Due to the way the factory running boards attach, the GMT800 series rusts way worse then the GMT400 series.  Now that the 800 series is >12 years old, you have a better chance of finding a 400 series without rocker rot than finding an 800  series with clean rockers.  One of your ‘cons’ on the 400 series is simple untrue but should be listed as a con for the 800 series instead.

  2. You can’t really say the GMT400 is under powered since it is the lightest of the 3.  According to Edmunds a 2wd 1999 Suburban weights 4634lbs, a 2005 burb 5268lbs, and a 2010 5743lbs.  The power to weight ratio of the 3 generations are within 1/2 pound per horsepower.  They all are rated at 335lbft but the 99 peaks at 2800 versus 4000 of the other 2 meaning you won’t have to rev it as high to achieve the same acceleration most of the time.  While giving up some on safety it does have the smallest footprint without giving up much, if any, interior volume.  
    I bought a 96 suburban 5 years ago for $2800 with 111k miles on it and it has been great as a 2nd car for when family comes to visit, hauling stuff for the house, camping/road trips, and a car I don’t mind the kids beat up.  Love the big windows and skinny A-pillars you don’t get on newer cars.  I have had to fix/replace things that wear out but they are cheap and easily available.  Each generation has their issues so I wouldn’t say one is more reliable than the other as than the other given the age.
  3. Sharing a North-Eastern European viewpoint, i gotta say the GMT400 Suburban, in both the 5.7 ‘guzzoline’ and 6.5 diesel variety. The older 73-91 generation has long since turned to fine flakes of rust if kept outside and the newer GMT800 generation, the Suburbans (if available) outprice the Tahoes at 60-100% premium (as in a good 1995-97 Suburban and a good 2000-2005 Tahoe both cost arounf 5000 euros locally).

    The 1500K Suburbans may have anemic power with their gasoline engines, but if a 20 year old american truck beats much newer 120 or 150 series diesel Land Cruisers in acceleration, comfort, in fording deep snow, and LPG vs diesel fuel economy while towing (6 vs 8mpg respectively), then the choice is pretty obvious. Which is why people living outside of major towns swear by these. Just add a 30-45gallon LPG tank (or 100gal if committed) and the fuel cost drops from $6.2/gal to $2.8/gal. If one frequents to Russia and back, then $1.4/gal.

  4. Slightly off-topic, but I’m watching the modern series of Hawaii 5-0 just now, and they’re destroying GMT800 Suburban’s at a ridiculous rate. Almost all the crashes involve one or more GMT800 Suburban’s (or Yukon’s). Its a real shame.

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