Thursday, April 5, 2007

When you’ve performed a popular solo act for nearly three-quarters of a century, you’d be tempted to park on your laurels.

Chevrolet could have done that with its Suburban, which had its debut in 1935 and has owned the giant SUV niche since. But it did not. Along with the other General Motors full-size sport utility vehicles, the Suburban received a full redesign for the 2007 model year that encompassed improvements in ride, handling and power.

That should have been enough to maintain an edge because, until now, no other manufacturer has chosen to compete with the Suburban, which also was sold with a GMC badge and now shares its basics with the Cadillac Escalade EXV and the GMC Yukon Denali XL.

The Suburban finally has a direct competitor in the new Ford Expedition EL, but both are likely to be curtailed somewhat by the rise in gasoline prices. They’re not likely to go away, however. Somebody will always need these big beasts, regardless of how much it takes to operate them.

The Secret Service is an example. Check out a presidential motorcade sometime, and you’re likely to see an entire fleet of black Suburbans running interference and functioning as the rear guard for the president’s limousine.

Beaches, camping and hunting areas also provide habitat for Suburbans. When you have a big family, a load of stuff and a ways to go, there aren’t many vehicles that can substitute, fuel prices notwithstanding.

There now are many full-size SUVs on the market: Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon, Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator, Ford Expedition, Chrysler Aspen, Dodge Durango, Toyota Sequoia, Nissan Armada, Infiniti QX45 and Land Rover LR3.

But none of them has the stash space of the Suburban and the few others of its ilk. It has 46 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the third row of seats, more than in any seven-passenger minivan.

Of course, the Suburban is no minivan. It’s a hulking SUV that, with four-wheel drive, can tow a trailer weighing 4 tons, while carrying more than three-quarters of a ton of people and their gear. It’s more than 18.5 feet long, which means you have to be careful parking and maneuvering around corners.

But on the highway, it drives a lot smaller than it is. The state of suspension, steering and tire art has advanced to the point where many big American trucks, the Suburban included, handle as well as the sedans of only a decade ago. Though not pinpoint accurate, emergency maneuvers happen with little anxiety.

The tested Suburban LTZ is library quiet cruising the interstates, which is where it shines. The ride is smooth, thanks to Chevrolet’s semi-active damping control, the front seats are big and comfortable, and the outboard passengers in back fare almost as well. Even the center-rear position in the second row is not bad, although the designers neglected to provide a headrest there.

Power came from an ultrasmooth 310-horsepower, 5.3-liter V-8 engine linked to an easy-shifting four-speed automatic transmission. The transmission performed capably enough, but the Suburban’s Yukon and Escalade siblings come with six-speed automatics.Instruments and controls are nicely designed, except that the white-on-black instruments are buried in a binnacle behind the steering wheel and are difficult to read in daylight. Daytime backlighting would solve the problem.

Although you can buy a two-wheel-drive Suburban with a sticker price as low as $31,790, the price gets higher as you add four-wheel drive and other features. The test LTZ version had a base sticker price of $48,675, which included all-wheel drive, antilock brakes, stability control, side air bags and side-curtain air bags, tire-pressure monitoring, power adjustable pedals, rain-sensing windshield wipers, automatic climate control with outlets for all three rows of seats, an audio system with MP3 capability, XM radio and a six-disc CD changer, heated front and second-row seats, a garage door opener, remote locking, a power rear tailgate, and power windows and mirrors.

The tested LTZ model came to $52,250. It had a touch-screen navigation system with a rearview camera, an ultrasonic warning system to assist in parking, and remote vehicle starting. The last is a boon on any vehicle, but especially if you’ve left a big, black Suburban parked in the sun on a summer day. The remote start automatically cranks up the air conditioning so the vehicle is cool when you get in.

Chevrolet’s designers went to some lengths to enhance the Suburban’s cargo-hauling capabilities, but came up short. On the tested LTZ, there were power-release buttons on both sides that tumbled the second-row seats forward. But flipping them back up was a manual exercise.

Moreover, the third-row seats have to be removed to maximize the cargo space.

Getting them out is no big deal because they release easily and roll out. But they’re heavy and are a real chore to wrestle back in place.

The new Ford Expedition EL ups the ante on the Suburban with power folding rear seats that disappear into the floor.

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