Editor's note: This review was written in June 2012 about the 2012 Chevrolet Suburban. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2013, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Should SUVs such as the Chevrolet Suburban, a longer version of the Tahoe, be extinct? Faced with gas mileage in the teens, dimensions that hug both lines of a parking space and an outmatched V-8 that huffs more than it hauls, most shoppers will laugh their way to anything else. But for the few who need its capabilities, the Suburban has few peers.
For many, the 2012 Chevrolet Suburban is yesterday's dinosaur, but if you need an SUV of its ilk, it's actually the efficient choice.
The Suburban comes in regular-duty 1500 and heavy-duty 2500 versions, though the 2500 is hard to find. Both versions have LS and upscale LT trims; the 1500 gets a top-of-the-line LTZ trim, too. Click here to compare them.
For 2012, the Suburban adds trailer-sway control, but little else has changed. Stack up the 2012 and 2011 Suburban here. Beyond the Tahoe relation, the Suburban 1500 has upscale siblings in the GMC Yukon XL and Cadillac Escalade ESV. We tested a four-wheel-drive Suburban 1500 LTZ.
Efficient, for a Barge
The Suburban 1500 packs a curb weight of nearly 3 tons, for which GM's familiar 5.3-liter V-8 is no match. The SUV picks up speed at a leisurely pace, needing a good prod on the gas for enough passing oomph. In city driving, pronounced accelerator lag plays into the torpor: Things start off gradually, and any call for immediate power is met with initial hesitation. It's curious because our last Tahoe, by contrast, had no such accelerator issues.
The Suburban's standard six-speed automatic finds the right gear more often than not, but even as the V-8 roars to its highest revs, the acceleration is modest. At least it's a consistent sensation, regardless of load: Five adults and a few weekend bags invoked similar performance. So would, I suspect, ditching four-wheel drive, which saves 152 pounds — a sliver of the SUV's tonnage. Either way, GM needs to mix a stronger drink next time around. This 'burban is weak.
Of course, the Suburban's only direct competitor — the extended-length Ford Expedition, called the Expedition EL — is pretty weak, too. Lead-footed haulers should look to the 5.7-liter Toyota Sequoia, which is a closer competitor to the Tahoe but far swifter in the passing lane. The Suburban's passing torpor is forgivable, given the drivetrain's best-in-class EPA rating of 15/21 mpg city/highway with rear- or four-wheel drive. That beats the others by 1 to 3 mpg, which is nothing to sneeze at when mileage is in the teens. Still, make sure you need the truck-based Chevy's towing capacity. If not, car-based crossover SUVs and minivans are rated 2 to 6 mpg better in combined driving, with lower starting prices to boot.
Towing capability comes out to 8,100 pounds in the Suburban 1500, which beats the Sequoia but loses to the Expedition EL by 1,100 pounds. The Suburban 2500, meanwhile, beats the group with 9,600 pounds of capacity. It has a 6.0-liter V-8, which cranks out 352 horsepower and 382 pounds-feet of torque — 32 more hp and 47 more pounds-feet than the 1500's V-8 — and returns 12 mpg in combined city/highway ratings.
Less forgivable is the Suburban's tentative composure. Boatlike handling comes with the territory, and the SUV corners like its nautical full-size SUV peers. But in other situations, the steering still disappoints. At low speeds, the power assist finds pockets of sudden stiffness; on the highway, it feels over-assisted and jittery. Ride comfort — a longtime strength in GM's trucks — is excellent in the 1500 LTZ, which gets an optional adaptive suspension, but the need for constant, fidgety corrections brings its own brand of road-trip fatigue.
See our Tahoe review for major impressions of the interior. The Suburban gets an extra 14 inches of wheelbase and nearly 2 feet of length, which goes toward the third row and cargo area. Third-row legroom increases a huge 9.3 inches, making it habitable for adults, if not as generous as the Expedition EL's legroom. Cargo room behind all the seats, meanwhile, totals 45.8 cubic feet. That's comparable to the EL's, and nearly three times what the Tahoe has. Remove the 50/50-split third-row seats — a hefty 50 pounds for each section — and fold down the second row, and maximum cargo volume is a crossover-beating 137.4 cubic feet. Most minivans have upward of 140 cubic feet, but achieving that often requires removing second-row seats, which is an equally onerous task: The captain's chairs in a Honda Odyssey weigh 55 pounds apiece.
The Suburban seats seven to nine, depending on the layout. The first and second rows come as bucket seats or a three-position bench, while the third row has the bench only. We recommend against the front bench, however, as the center position lacks frontal airbag coverage and gets only a lap seat belt. It's odd because the second- and third-row center seats have three-point belts.
Safety, Features & Pricing
The Suburban hasn't been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rates the 1500 four out of five stars overall. The SUV earned top ratings in frontal and side impacts but just a three-star rollover rating. (Three stars is the norm for truck-based SUV rollover resistance, but the Expedition and Sequoia buck the trend with four-star ratings.) The Suburban 2500 hasn't been crash-tested.
Standard features include head-protecting side airbags for all three rows, plus the required antilock brakes and electronic stability system. Click here for a full list or here to see our evaluation of child-seat provisions in the Tahoe.
The Suburban 1500 starts just over $43,000 (including a destination charge of $995), with the 2500 running another $1,610. Standard features include tri-zone manual climate control, partial power front seats, a USB/iPod-friendly stereo and Bluetooth cellphone connectivity but not audio streaming. Heated and cooled leather seats, fully powered seat adjustments, a heated steering wheel, rear DVD entertainment and a navigation system are optional. A factory-loaded 2500 LT tops out near $60,000, and the 1500 LTZ can reach around $65,000.
Suburban in the Market
The justification behind full-size SUVs has worn thin over the years as buyers have switched to more-efficient crossovers: In the early 2000s, GM was pushing more than 115,000 Suburbans a year. Last year, the automaker sold 49,427. Still, the Suburban is the best-selling full-size SUV, with sales in the first five months of this year up 18 percent, outpacing the market's gains. In fact, if you were to combine the Suburban with its Tahoe sibling — as Ford does for the Expedition and Expedition EL — they would be 45th best-selling vehicle in America through May.
No doubt some full-size SUV shoppers are buying more car than they need, but the sales tell an undeniable truth: A certain chunk of drivers still need V-8 towing capacity with a minivan's appetite for people and cargo, and enough of them exist for the segment to stick around.
So the Suburban will continue, as it should.
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