It still suffers a tad from Chevy's inability to make plastic interior parts look anything but cheap. But its running gear, power plant, style (a word long missing from Chevy's truck vocabulary) and roominess make the Tahoe a winner.
The full-size 2001 Tahoe, "little brother" to Chevy's giant Suburban, is built on the re-engineered light-truck platform that is helping General Motors Corp. challenge Ford Motor Co.'s superiority in the SUV market. The Tahoe and its upscale GMC sibling, the Yukon, outsold the competing Ford Expedition-Lincoln Navigator duo by 25,000 units for the first six months of the year. That's testimony both to the importance of a completely redesigned model--which almost always draws more buyers than a modestly revamped version of one that has been around a few years--and to buyer perceptions that, this time around, the GMs might just be a better deal than the Fords.
The Tahoe, which is 6 inches shorter in length than the Expedition, is a bit more maneuverable and carries almost as much cargo and just as many people, although the optional third-row seat is a lot more cramped than Ford's.
On the highway the ride is smooth and stable, power from the 5.3-liter Vortec V-8 engine is plentiful, and so is stopping power from the four-wheel, anti-lock disc brakes.
We tested the specially equipped Z71 off-road version, and despite the truck's stiffer suspension, the wife, whose bottom is far more sensitive to these things than my more amply padded one, found the ride quite comfortable on and off the asphalt.
Steering with the 4x4's speed-sensitive power-steering setup was smooth and effortless; it behaved well at high speeds on the freeways and made the big truck easy to use in tight quarters off-road.
We spent half a day wandering in four-wheel drive over dirt, gravel and rock paths on the backside of Big Bear, and with one exception we had no problems.
That exception came when we took a turn we shouldn't have and found ourselves facing a path that would have been difficult even for a hiked-up, off-road Jeep. Backing out, we caught a large boulder that had been hiding in a patch of weeds and scraped over it, bending the tailpipe out of alignment.
The result revealed a design flaw: The bottom half of the body panel behind the rear wheels is made of plastic molding, and the tailpipe, if bent upward, gets hot enough to melt that plastic.
(Those clear-coat metallic paint jobs that look so nice in the showroom also aren't the best thing for off-roading if you go where there are trees and tall brush crowding the trails. The Tahoe is pretty wide, so you may end up with a lot of surface scratching and a big bill for rubbing compound.)
That said, the Z71 was impressively agile off the road. And though not the best choice for the serious rock climber, it will go most anywhere the casual off-roader would care--or dare--to go.
And in 4x4 or two-wheel-drive trim, the new Tahoe still looks good enough to park out front at the country club.
Styling isn't dramatic, but that's not a bad thing in the truck-loving circles from which GM dealers pull many of their customers.
Chevy added soft curves and bulges to what had been an awfully rectangular package. In doing so, the designers improved the eye appeal just enough to let the world know this is a new Tahoe but not so much that it now resembles one of the truck wannabes some manufacturers have turned out in hopes of attracting what they like to call "untraditional" buyers to the market.
The Tahoe comes in three basic models. The workhorse base version with vinyl seats and a 4.8-liter, 220-horsepower V-8 is sold in fairly small numbers despite a fairly small price tag--$24,941 for the two-wheel-drive package and $27,857 for the 4x4. The next step up is the LS, a package that adds a bit more than $6,000 to the base prices in both versions. Topping the line is the luxury LT, which boosts the starting price by a hefty $10,600.
The LS and LT use the bigger 5.3-liter engine, rated at 285 horsepower and 335 foot-pounds of torque, a system that gives the two models, in both two- and four-wheel-drive versions, plenty of pulling power for boats, camping trailers and other towables--up to 8,700 pounds' worth.
The base price ratchets to almost $38,500 for the LT with a host of goodies, including leather upholstery; heated, power-adjustable front bucket seats; GM's OnStar wireless navigation and assistance package; and automatic climate control.
The Z71 model, an upgraded four-wheel-drive version of the LS, adds a tuned off-road suspension with special shocks, skid plates, a locking rear differential, 17-inch wheels and tires, a year of basic OnStar service, special lower-body molding and flared wheel wells, and a roof rack with lights and a roller to help slide bulky objects like canoes and kayaks atop a cabin roof that towers 74 inches above the road. The fully loaded Z71 we tested was priced at $38,279.
Another nice feature of the high-volume models is that the rear cargo compartment door comes either as a traditional flip-up hatch--with separate flip-up glass that opens via the key fob remote--or with optional side-hinged doors (standard on the base model) that swing open from the center.
The frame is stiffer than that of the previous model, for a smoother ride. And in redesigning the whole thing, GM engineers were able to make the door sills lower, for easier access, without sacrificing road clearance.
Inside there is plenty of room, and instruments are easy to see and use--the curving instrument panel is a big improvement over the boxy industrial truck look of the predecessor model's. The windows are large and the pillars don't get in the way, so visibility is good.
There are lots of cup holders and door pockets, three power outlets in the front and one in the cargo area, and overhead map lights for every row of seats (optional third row included).
The second-row seats fold flat to give the Tahoe 108 cubic feet of cargo room, just 2 cubic feet shy of the Expedition's.
Final words: The 2001 Tahoe is a serious sport-utility with emphasis on utility. It will haul people in serious comfort, carry a peck of parcels and tow a ton (or four) with ease. It brings a welcome competitive addition to the fairly limited full-size SUV segment.