- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2006

The fall from grace of General Motors has become so publicized as to be nearly an article of dogma with anybody who pays even slight attention to the automobile industry.

Four decades ago, the general accounted for more than half of the car and light truck sales in the country. At the end of 2005, its share had fallen to 26 percent.

Despite that, there’s one area where GM can bask in some of its former glory: the full-size sport utility vehicle. Currently, about six of every 10 full-size SUVs sold come from GM divisions.

The leader is the Chevrolet Tahoe, accompanied by the Chevrolet Suburban, the GMC Yukon and Yukon XL, and the Cadillac Escalade and Escalade ESV.

They overwhelm the combined competition: the Ford Expedition, Lincoln Navigator, Infiniti QX56, Nissan Armada, Lexus LX470, and the Toyota Sequoia and Land Cruiser.

That’s why so much is riding on the redesigned 2007 Tahoe and its siblings. Although some buyers faced with escalating fuel prices have become disenchanted with the big honkers, GM leaders figure there still are enough customers who need — or think they need — a full-size sport ute.

GM figures the market for these vehicles will stabilize eventually at about 750,000 to 800,000 a year, perhaps not unreasonable in a nation of nearly 300 million people. If GM can maintain its share at 60 percent, it translates into annual sales of more than 450,000 — certainly not inconsequential for machines that return some of the highest profits in the industry.

As a result, the GM and Chevrolet designers and engineers did not stint on the redesign of the Tahoe.

The changes are reflected as well in GM’s other big SUVs, which also have enough differences to give them their own personalities and customers.

As is customary with big SUVs, the body sits on a full frame for strength and better isolation from bumps and potholes. The track — the side-to-side distance between the wheels — has been widened three inches in the front and an inch in the rear for better stability and handling.

There’s also a new front suspension system and a refined rear suspension system, along with new rack-and-pinion steering. The result is a big vehicle that doesn’t feel big on the highway.

On winding roads, the Tahoe certainly is no sharp carver of turns. But it handles as well or better than other big trucks, despite some lean in corners.

To enhance the feel of driving a smaller vehicle, the GM designers moved the instrument panel nearly six inches down and away from the driver, which also improves forward visibility. Visibility to the rear, however, is hampered by the third seat headrests and thick corner pillars, called D pillars in the industry.

The Tahoe is no lightweight, checking in at 5,537 pounds, which with a couple of passengers or cargo aboard turns it into a three-ton behemoth. To keep that bulk rolling down the highway takes power, and the Tahoe has it with a new 5.3-liter aluminum-block V-8 engine that delivers 320 horsepower and 340 foot-pounds of torque, which is a measure of low-rev power.

It gets the power to the pavement through a four-speed automatic transmission, which gives up some bragging rights to competitors that feature transmissions with more speeds. (The Cadillac Escalade and Yukon Denali models come with six-speed automatics).

Acceleration, rated at a shade less than nine seconds to 60 miles an hour, is respectable for a vehicle this large.

So is the fuel economy. The two-wheel-drive version of the Tahoe delivers 16 miles to the gallon on the EPA’s city cycle and 22 on the highway. The four-wheel drive model is not far behind, at 15 and 21.

Both sets of numbers are better than those of the previous Tahoe, as well as its competitors.

The GM folks put a lot of emphasis on refinement. The Tahoe is a quiet cruiser on the highway, with muted engine sounds and little wind or road noise. Interior materials have a quality look and workmanship, and there are no exposed nuts or bolts. Even the seat tracks are concealed.

There are three versions, ranging from the $33,990 two-wheel drive LS to the tested four-wheel drive LTZ at $46,815, with the volume-seller LT in between.

The LTZ comes standard with a full complement of air bags and three rows of seats. Access to the third row is enhanced by a clever second-row outboard seat that is spring loaded and tumbles forward at the flick of a lever. Even so, it takes some effort to get back there, and the third-row seat is punishing for adults, who wind up with their knees near chin level.

The second row offers comfort nearly as good as that of the front seats, though knee room is a bit tight. Up front, the bucket seats are deep, comfortable and supportive. All Tahoes are available with a front bench seat, which translates into seating for nine, though four of them are comfort challenged.

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