Henry Ford is generally credited with inventing suburbs by building cars that any working stiff could afford. His mobility breakthrough inspired Ford employees, not to mention every other worker, to reside farther from their places of employment. In 1935, Chevrolet christened this cultural shift with the first all-metal-bodied station wagon called the Carryall Suburban. Two years later, GMC added a Suburban (without the Carryall first name) to its lineup.
Fast forward a dozen generations: Chevy has a fresh Suburban full-size SUV groomed for the 2021 model year. Little has survived the 85-year evolutionary process beyond the basic concept—a voluminous people and parcels hauler—and the eponymous nameplate. A slightly smaller Tahoe sister ship is also on the ’21 agenda, while both GMC and Cadillac will follow suit with fresh flagships next year.
Responding to customers’ desire for more of everything, the new Suburban and Tahoe are larger, roomier, and 50–200 pounds heavier. The Tahoe gains 4.9 inches of wheelbase and 6.7 inches of overall length, while Suburban gains 4.1 inches and 1.3 inches, respectively. With overall lengths averaging 18 feet, these three-row SUVs are genuine garage stuffers.
Keeping with past tradition, the new Suburban and Tahoe share many chassis and powertrain components with the Silverado full-size pickup. And while every exterior surface except for the windshield has been massaged, the real news is found under the body, where a new multi-link independent rear suspension replaces the classic live axle.
There are three justifications for this move. First, the archrival Ford Expedition has benefited from IRS and air springs since 2003. Second, fixing the differential to the frame allows engineers to drop the body’s floor five inches, yielding major gains in seating and cargo space. Finally, suspending each rear wheel independently enables significant ride and handling improvements.
To one-up the Expedition, there are three distinct suspension configurations spread across the Suburban/Tahoe’s six trim levels: coil springs with passive dampers, coil springs with Magnetic Ride Control (MRC) dampers, and air springs damped with MRC shocks. The new smart, adaptive air suspension lifts the vehicle two inches for off-road excursions, lowers the climb aboard two inches for loading passengers and cargo, and drops the body nearly an inch for more fuel-efficient highway cruising.
Powertrain choices are also expanded for 2021. The base 5.3-liter 355-hp V-8 and the optional 6.2-liter 420-hp V-8 are upgraded with stop-start and cylinder deactivation for improved efficiency. In addition, a class-exclusive 3.0-liter, 277-hp DOHC inline-six turbodiesel will be available in some trim levels. A push-button-controlled 10-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel-drive are standard fare while all-wheel drive is optional.
To better serve the wealth of creature comforts, safety features, and the eventual move to plug-in propulsion, the Suburban/Tahoe’s electrical architecture has been upgraded to speed communications between electronic control modules by a factor of five. Customers will revel in an interior blessed with up to five electronic display screens: A reconfigurable instrument cluster for the driver, an optional 15-inch head-up display, a 10-inch center-dash touch screen, and two 12.6-inch second-row entertainment screens.
According to chief engineer Tim Asoklis, “To maintain our dominance in the full-size SUV category, 1500 GM engineers invested three years of their time in designing and developing the all new Suburban and Tahoe. We consider our class leadership something we’ve earned and we intend to keep it.”
The new Suburban/Tahoe provides ample room for up to nine occupants. Raising the driver’s seat an inch and dropping the beltline the same amount amount fosters that master-of-the-road feeling full-size SUV operators adore. Tahoe owners will enjoy three inches more second-row legroom and an additional 10 inches of third-row legroom. Suburban gains are roughly two inches for both rows. For the first time, the second row seats adjust five inches fore and aft and lower to create a level load surface when they’re stowed. Gains in cargo capacity are substantial, especially in the Tahoe. With seats in use, there’s 10 more cubic feet of storage space in the Tahoe and a 1.8-cubic foot gain in the Suburban. With both back rows folded, soccer-ball space rises to 123 cubic feet in the Tahoe and 145 cubic feet in the Suburban.
Back seat rides in pre-production vehicles revealed that Chevy definitely has a leg up on the Ford Expedition in ride quality over rough proving grounds test roads. Assessments of the drivability gains will have to wait until production begins next June. The same is true of pricing and fuel economy details. Given today’s base Tahoe costs just under $50,000, and a Suburban starts just over $52,000, these SUVs are definitely not for K-Mart shoppers. A few check marks on the order form could easily haul the sale price north of $80,000.
From an enthusiast’s point of view, grander Suburbans and Tahoes are a mixed blessing. There’s certainly nothing better for towing a racer or vintage car hither and yon. One downside is that moms distracted by texting and/or misbehaving off-springs often monopolize the passing lane in these cruiser-class SUVs. And seeing one in police pursuit trim in your mirrors can ruin your day… and driving record.
But thank your lucky stars that GM’s design staff made the new Suburban and Tahoe pleasing to look at, inside and out. And hope that the return on investment gained selling these new Chevy flagships funds a growing family of Corvettes.