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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.
Hanging from the ceiling of the long interior space were not one, but two screens for rear-seat entertainment. The disc player in the dashboard can handle Blu-ray movies for the rear screens, which can also take input from a composite video and a USB port. Wireless headphones and a dedicated remote control let rear-seat passengers focus on their favorite videos or games instead of the passing scenery.
Playing a Blu-ray in the Suburban, both drop-down screens showed excellent definition. I found the remote control intuitive to use for selecting Blu-ray menu screens or switching video sources. However, when deployed these screens blocked the rearview mirror.
Making up for that loss of visibility were big side mirrors, a blind-spot monitor system, and a very good rearview camera with object detection. That rearview camera was essential in the Suburban, where the high back end and tinted rear glass compromised rear visibility. I was especially thankful for the cross-traffic alert system, which warned me when it sensed cars crossing the path behind me.
In a trick taken from Cadillac, the Suburban gets what GM calls its Safety Alert Seat. When the car wanted to warn me about traffic in my blind spot, stopped traffic ahead, or rear cross traffic, the seat buzzed on either or both sides. This butt buzz seemed kind of funny, but it definitely got my attention.
As a further aid to parking, an instrument cluster LCD showed distance lines to objects on all sides of the Suburban, data gathered from the vehicle's external sonar sensors. That LCD also showed me navigation, audio, phone, and trip information. When I hit the long highway and set the Suburban's adaptive cruise control, this display included my set speed and the following distance I had set for following traffic ahead.
In the center of the dashboard, the LTZ-trim Suburban came with an 8-inch touchscreen showing Chevy's MyLink infotainment system. I found MyLink's icon-based home screen very easy to navigate. I also liked the way that MyLink maintains icons for navigation, phone, and audio at the top of the map or stereo screen, giving instant access to each function. Another nice thing about Chevy's MyLink interface is that the company can add new icons for different functions easily, as there are multiple pages.
Bootup and response times for MyLink were a bit slow. I found this frustrating when I jumped in the Suburban, fired up the engine, and wanted to enter a destination. The lengthy boot time had me twiddling my thumbs, watching load screens and then the map slowly filling the screen.
I did like the look of the maps and appreciated the live traffic data. The system included dynamic routing to avoid serious traffic problems. Entering addresses was a bit tedious using the onscreen keyboard, but very easy with voice command, which interpreted a complete address string accurately.
There was no button for online destination search within the navigation app, but Chevy equipped the Suburban with the latest version of OnStar, which includes integration with the OnStar Remote Link app. With OnStar, I could have pushed the blue button on the rearview mirror to request a destination by business name, or used MapQuest on my home PC to come up with a route and send it to the car.
The MyLink interface made other apps easy to use, with large, intuitive menus for the hands-free phone system and stereo. I would have liked a screen showing all the available media sources for the stereo. Instead, I had to keep pushing a button below the touchscreen labeled Media, toggling through the various sources.
The stereo supports both HD Radio and satellite radio, and a big Pandora icon on the touchscreen showed that it would integrate with that app on my iPhone for Internet radio. You can also stream audio via Bluetooth, of course, and Chevy was extremely generous with the USB ports. There were two ports at the bottom of the stack, two more in the console, one hidden behind the motorized touchscreen, and another on the rear-seat entertainment system controls. As passengers will be relying on USB ports to keep their personal electronics charged, this profusion is very welcome.
I could easily browse music on a drive or my iPhone when plugged into a USB port, or use voice command to request specific music. However, when playing music over Bluetooth, MyLink only offered controls for skipping or pausing, with no music library browsing.
If Chevy had gone to unibody construction for the 2015 Suburban, it could have shaved weight to get better fuel economy, similar to what Ford and Dodge have done. Likewise, losing the solid axle in favor of an independent rear suspension would open up some more cargo area.
However, the boxy body design seems like a sign that Chevy wants to keep the Suburban closer to its roots. The vehicle has a long history and there are certainly buyers who will appreciate the solidity of body-on-frame architecture.
And, at least in LTZ trim, Chevy uses technology to overcome some of the issues of this style of construction. The Magnetic Ride Control is particularly good, proven for sport cars and now giving the big Suburban a more pliable ride. The new V-8, with direct injection and cylinder deactivation, does what it can for fuel economy. I have to wonder if an eight-speed transmission might have helped the Suburban achieve even better highway fuel economy.
The driver assistance technologies Chevy offers definitely help to make the Suburban safer and more drivable in urban environments. And with the MyLink infotainment system and profusion of USB ports, Chevy gives the Suburban a modern edge. It will certainly satisfy a host of younger passengers for long trips.
The fuel economy will be a sticking point for many buyers. I have to wonder if the Suburban will appeal more as a fleet and business vehicle rather than as a family SUV.
|Model||2015 Chevrolet Suburban|
|Power train||5.3-liter V-8 engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, 4-wheel drive|
|EPA fuel economy||15 mpg city/22 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||16.7 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional, with live traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Internet-based streaming, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, SD card, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Bose 10-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, collision alert, blind-spot monitor, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$71,590|