Automakers are a lot like high schoolers. Most tend to slack off a bit when they know something doesn't matter. A compact sedan? In today's world, why try? An EV during a time of cheap gas prices? Tomorrow's problem. But like the high schooler, when the time comes for that crucial, make-or-break exam, automakers are capable of rising to the highest of occasions.
Take the 2021 Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe siblings. After the mixed bag that was the Chevrolet Silverado, Chevy knew it needed to ace the test of redesigning its iconic (and very profitable) body-on-frame trucks, especially following renewed competition from the Ford Expedition. And Chevy is darn close to earning honors. The 2021 Suburban is a fine take on the full-size, three-row, truck-based SUV – a segment the Bow Tie essentially created – matching a cavernous and well-equipped cabin with family-friendly design and a refined, pleasant driving character. But this is only a solid B+ vehicle.
Why not an A? As it turns out, Chevy left a few questions on this test unanswered. Having only sampled the range-topping High Country model (blame the coronavirus for torpedoing another vehicle launch), we're concerned that the Suburban will follow the trail blazed by the Silverado with a cabin that fails to distinguish itself from cheaper variants. And as per usual for a GM vehicle, the option packaging is poor, with valuable safety features relegated to pricey equipment groups.
Class Is In Session
Despite these concerns, one thing is very clear: the Suburban High Country is a joy to drive on long journeys. A freeway-heavy, 250-mile cruise revealed a vehicle with the hardware to make road trips a breeze on the driver.
This powertrain, as in the Silverado, is a gem. Powerful and willing, the 6.2-liter V8 produces 420 horsepower and a massive 460 pound-feet of torque. Despite the high torque peak typical of a naturally aspirated engine (4,100 rpm, in this case) the big 6.2 offers smooth, predictable twist from a standstill up to redline. This is a wonderful engine that's free of idiosyncrasies, treating its driver to a rich V8 bellow while providing plenty to work with while accelerating.
But it's not the only engine coming to the Suburban and Tahoe. In fact, as with the Silverado, the 6.2-liter is the range-topping mill. The more common choice will be a 5.3-liter V8 with 355 hp and 383 lb-ft, but only because the bigger V8 is exclusive to the High Country trim.
A small number of Suburbans – just 10 to 12 percent sold, according to Chevy – will feature a 3.0-liter turbodiesel. We’ve had good experiences with the 5.3-liter, but the 6.2 is flat-out better. And if the 3.0-liter is as charming in the Suburban as in the Silverado, it'll likely be a fantastic choice for long-distance running.
While the diesel will likely be the most efficient option, both V8s feature Chevrolet's impressive Dynamic Fuel Management system, which can seamlessly shut down individual cylinders based on driving conditions. Along with the ultra-smooth 10-speed automatic transmission, the EPA estimates the 6.2-liter Suburban will return 14 miles per gallon city, 19 highway, and 16 combined with four-wheel drive. We did one better than the combined rating, although considering how much of our 250-mile run was on the highway, that number is just a tiny bit disappointing.
The big Sub's base tow rating bests its cross-town rival, although the Ford is still the better choice for really heavy loads.
As per usual, the Suburban has impressive towing metrics. According to Chevy, it can haul between 7,500 and 8,300 pounds, depending on configuration. That means the big Sub's base tow rating bests its cross-town rival, although the Ford is still the better choice for really heavy loads – the Expedition Max can manage 6,600 to 9,000 pounds. It's a wash on features, too. The Chevy is available with the same brilliant towing and camera suite as the Silverado, while the Expedition boasts Ford's ProTrailer Backup Assist. It's a tough choice.
Gym Class Hero
The day Chevrolet revealed the Suburban in December 2019 – which feels like nine years ago – the company invited media to its Milford, Michigan proving grounds for a close look at the new car. Sprinkled amongst the (many) PowerPoints, the company's engineers took us on back-to-back rides along a hilly handling course. The first run was in the Ford Expedition, while the second was in a heavily camouflaged Suburban featuring the new-for-2021 four-corner air suspension. The difference between the two SUVs was night and day.
Paired with magnetic dampers, the Chevy’s air suspension effectively soaked up bumps while exhibiting excellent body control when pushed around the handling course. The same was true seven months on when we tested the Suburban on public roads. The Bow Tie has the most comfortable ride of any body-on-frame SUV in its class. On most roads, the air suspension offers a planted and pleasant character, managing successions of small bumps exceedingly well. The electric power-assisted steering exhibits perfect manners at speeds, too, with high on-center stability and predictable weighting during lane changes.
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And when presented with a corner, the air suspension steps up to the plate. Despite the Suburban High Country's 6,016-pound curb weight, its cornering behavior is surprisingly flat and predictable. The electric power-assisted steering is excellent too. This is still a cumbersome vehicle, but compared to past body-on-frame SUVs, a novice could get behind the wheel of the Suburban and feel very comfortable after just a couple miles. The toughest aspect of handling might be placing a vehicle that's nearly seven feet wide in a lane.
But even with the trick suspension technology, there are times the Suburban struggles to hide its truck-based roots. In particular, big impacts – think jarring potholes and the like – bring out some bad manners that typify vehicles built this way. The Suburban is a marked improvement over its predecessor, but if ride comfort is high on your list, an air-suspended unibody SUV like the BMW X7 or Mercedes-Benz GLS is a better choice.
The ultimate measure of a three-row SUV is how it works for families – there's a lot to like about the new Suburban. For a start, the cabin is enormous, growing in the most important interior measures. The cargo hold, for example, swells from 39.3 cubic feet to 41.1 with the third row in place. The maximum space expands even more, from 121.7 to 144.7.
You can thank the Suburban’s new and long overdue independent rear suspension for its added utility. There's an additional 2.3 inches of legroom in the second row, and the third-row bench feels genuinely usable, with the IRS helping to add 2.2 inches for a grand total of 36.7 (just over half an inch more than an Expedition). We wouldn't hesitate to put six adults in a Suburban.
You can thank the Suburban’s new and long overdue independent rear suspension for its added utility.
That's partially because of the space, but mainly due tothe overall level of comfort. In addition to the excellent ride quality, the cabin is quiet – wind and tire roar rarely disturb the interior. Every seat is comfortable, although we'd like a little more support in the front-row seats. Material quality on our High Country tester feels impressive, too, with leather scattered liberally throughout the conservatively styled cabin.
There's an appropriate amount of technology on the High Country, from the standard 10.0-inch touchscreen to the 8.0-inch instrument-cluster display. The software is the same as what you'll find on other large GM products and is for the most part fine – unfussy, functional, and more than enough for the average driver.
In back, the Suburban and its Tahoe sibling boast what Chevy is calling “the segment's most advanced rear-seat media system”. There are two 12.6-inch LCD displays mounted to the back of the front seats with twin HDMI ports, and while this package is optional, the four USB-C inputs sprinkled across the Suburban's back seats are standard. Props to Chevy for future-proofing its family-friendliest SUV.
The Suburban seems like an A effort, but there are a few demerits for this highly competent SUV.
For a start, while the interior's material quality and construction are impressive, the overall design and finishes are boring. This cabin lacks any semblance of character. It's dull. Uninteresting. It's as unspecial as a vehicle interior can get. We might accept that if our Suburban were near the line's $52,995 starting price, but this High Country has an as-tested figure of nearly $85,000 (very near the truck's max price).
We don't have a problem with the price per se – High Country actually starts a few thousand dollars cheaper than a Expedition Platinum – as we do the lack of neat details or interesting material choices to make the top-of-the-line model feel just a little bit more special than versions that cost $30,000 less.
We might forgive the High Country's cabin and lofty price if it really made its mark with equipment, but aside from some aesthetic tweaks, the 6.2-liter V8, and the air suspension, you can get everything else on the Premiere. It's optional but is all there.
Oh, and as per usual, even the High Country demands a premium for safety gear – there's a $4,605 package that adds adaptive cruise control and full-speed automatic emergency braking (at least low-speed AEB is standard on every trim). If Toyota offers standard full-speed adaptive cruise on a $20,000 Corolla, why the hell can't GM manage it on a $75,000 Suburban? And while we understand why Chevy is limiting its best engine and most advanced suspension to the High Country (economies of scale), it's still disappointing that there isn't an avenue for these items on lesser trims.
These problems are, in the grand scheme, relatively minor, especially when you consider the loyalty of truck-based SUV buyers. For long-running fans of the Suburban, the 2021 redesign represents a big leap forward in terms of comfort and refinement. This is a better family hauler than ever before, and regardless of the boring cabin or odd option packaging, that's all that matters to the thousands of customers who park Suburbans and Tahoes in their driveways each year.
Gallery: 2021 Chevrolet Suburban: First Drive
2021 Chevrolet Suburban High Country