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Sixty years of continuous model production may seem impressive for the Chevrolet Corvette, but the 2015 Chevrolet Suburban trumps it by 20 years. Yes, Chevy's Suburban model began production in the 1930s, even serving in World War II, and hasn't missed a year since.
And while it adds modern elements such as a 4G/LTE connection for OnStar, adaptive cruise control, and a Blu-ray player, it retains the body-on-frame architecture of its oldest predecessor.
Body-on-frame versus unibody construction is something of a controversy in the SUV world. Both the Dodge Durango and Ford Explorer SUVs have gone to a unibody design, which ostensibly creates a more comfortable ride and better handling. Body-on-frame proponents tout toughness and better towing capability.
I had the unique opportunity to test the ride quality of the new Suburban by using it as a camera car during a video shoot of the Ferrari FF. Conveniently for this use, the rear window opens separately from the hatch, which allowed Charlie, a CNET videographer, to sit in the cargo area and aim a camera out of the back.
Driving up Highway 1 north of San Francisco, we captured stunning scenery and the equally stunning Ferrari FF handling the twisty turns. Charlie was pleased with the steadiness of the platform, letting him keep the lens focused on the FF following the Suburban. Likewise, a GoPro stuck to the hood let us get follow shots of the Ferrari.
The CNET camera crew gave the new Suburban a thumbs-up as a comfortable and stable camera platform.
Contributing to the ride quality was Chevy's Magnetic Ride Control technology, which came standard in the top-LTZ-trim model I drove. This suspension tech, also used in the Corvette, relies on hydraulic fluid in the dampers with suspended metal particles. Magnetic coils wrapped around the dampers change the viscosity of the fluid, letting the dampers become more rigid or looser, as needed.
In the Suburban, Magnetic Ride Control sensed how the suspension was responding to the road and automatically adjusted the dampers. I was impressed by the ride quality, which never felt particularly loose or soft. It remained relatively unchanged no matter what type of road surface I drove over. Obviously, the lesser-trim Suburbans without this technology won't handle the road quite as well.
And despite the Suburban's 5,896-pound curb weight and 20-inch wheels, its electric power steering required little effort, even at low speeds. Its turning radius was surprisingly good, too, and very useful considering the overall length of almost 19 feet.
Moving this mass was a 5.3-liter V-8 engine, part of Chevy's Ecotec line, using direct injection and cylinder deactivation to increase fuel economy. Output comes to 355 horsepower and 383 pound-feet of torque on regular gasoline. In addition, Chevy cites numbers of 380 horsepower and 416 pound-feet of torque when running on E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. That's an impressive boost from burning a more renewable form of fuel.
A six-speed automatic transmission runs power to the wheels, all four in the Suburban LTZ I drove. This is a true four-wheel-drive system available on the Suburban with a dial on the dashboard letting me switch between two-wheel drive, automatic mode, four high, and four low. Considering the pleasant roads and dry weather in which I was driving, two-wheel drive was the best option for fuel savings. The automatic mode sends torque between the front and rear axles as needed.
Chevy tuned the power delivery and steering with a gradual note, so that nothing happened abruptly when I was behind the wheel. For the first half of the throttle, power came on slowly, not only helping the Suburban save fuel but hopefully preventing a driver from plowing into people or objects ahead with an accidental tap on the gas. When I needed acceleration for a merge or pass on the highway, the Suburban responded with an adequate amount of power, but nothing overwhelming.
For such a massive vehicle, the throttle tuning was appropriate, especially considering the Suburban is designed for use as a tow vehicle. There was nothing nimble about its cornering, and I found myself moderating speed when going into a turn.
Chevy did what it could for fuel economy, including using cylinder deactivation to drop the V-8 down to four cylinders under low-load driving conditions. I was impressed how the Suburban changed seamlessly from eight to four cylinders as I drove down the freeway. Even with all that, fuel economy comes in at an EPA-rated 15 mpg city and 22 mpg highway. I averaged 16.4 mpg, a bit on the low side but still within the range.
Eschewing anything like modern crossover design, the Suburban begins with a very truck-like front end, a big, squared-off nose that rises like a cliff from the front bumper. That boxy style continues on back, as if Chevrolet was trying to teach 1980s Volvo something about automotive design.
Inside, the length of the Suburban allows for three rows of seating, with captain chairs in the middle row. Surprisingly, there is still ample cargo room behind the third row, although the height from cargo floor to ceiling appears a little short. Adding convenience in this LTZ trim Suburban, both the middle and third rows fold down automatically at the push of a button.