Model year 2017 changes:
Editors' note, August 21, 2017: This review was written based on an evaluation of the 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe. See the changes for the 2017 model year above.
Driving the 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe down the California coast, I contemplated the uses I could make of this big beast. With its middle-row bucket seats, I could take five friends to its namesake Lake Tahoe. Although with only 15.3 cubic feet for cargo behind the third row, I would have to leave a couple of those friends behind. Its full 94.7 cubic feet, behind the first row, would allow an epic Ikea run.
Considering what it could tow, the Tahoe's 8,600-pound rating would let me pull a 28-foot Airstream Land Yacht for an upscale Burning Man experience. Or on the Lake Tahoe idea again, this SUV could manage a Sea Ray 280 Sundancer, although dragging a 28-foot boat on a twisty mountain highway doesn't sound particularly fun.
A big truck-based SUV like the Tahoe offers a lot of possibilities for recreation, while cylinder deactivation helps maintain reasonable fuel economy.
The Chevrolet Tahoe got a significant update for the 2015 model year, pretty recent considering the longer product cycles for this type of vehicle. Eschewing the trend of independent suspensions among SUVs, the Tahoe stuck to its solid rear axle and body-on-frame architecture. Chevrolet currently cites the Ford Expedition, Nissan Armada and Toyota Sequoia as the Tahoe's main competition.
I got behind the wheel of a 2016 Tahoe in LT trim, with rear-wheel drive instead of the available four. And despite the last-century architecture, I was impressed with the modern look, the sheet metal showing smooth sides and a neatly squared-off rear instead of the more contoured look embraced by many other automakers. The Tahoe looks like a Bauhaus office building, all sheer sides and geometrical windows.
Under the hood, a 5.3-liter V-8 makes 355 horsepower and 383 pound-feet of torque, that latter figure tuned to give the Tahoe its towing power. Tipping halfway into the throttle left me wondering if the engine was taking a nap, as the Tahoe seemed in no rush to accelerate. However, putting the pedal down to pass on a two-lane highway showed that the engine could get up and go when needed.
This throttle mapping makes for a smooth driving experience in the Tahoe, giving me a lot of leeway in pedal travel for maneuvering in the city or other tight spaces. That controlled tip-in would make even more of a difference with a trailer hitched up. But the initially light power delivery can fool you into thinking the engine doesn't have much to give.
Cruising down the highway, I appreciated the Tahoe's high seating position and view of the road, but in the city its sheer sides made me worry that I might not see a pedestrian, pet or bicyclist close in.
Lending to the Tahoe's safety, the Luxury package in the model I drove brought in blind-spot monitors, a rearview camera with cross-traffic alert and forward collision alert. And making sure I didn't miss a visual or auditory warning from these systems, I was sitting on Chevrolet's Safety Alert Seat, which buzzed either side of the seat bottom in an alert that I could not ignore.
Lane drift prevention also worked to keep the Tahoe from rolling over lane lines in an unobtrusive manner, a feature that could save drivers who fall asleep at the wheel. Oddly missing from the package is adaptive cruise control, a feature only available at the Tahoe's top trim.
Ride quality in the Tahoe, despite the truck platform, felt surprisingly good. Freeway and city driving was all smooth rolling, although I sensed the underlying firmness of a suspension designed for much more mass in the cabin. On a bumpy country road I expected a lot of bounce from the suspension, but the Tahoe smoothed the ride with reasonably soft shocks.
For an even better ride, Chevrolet offers its Magnetic Ride Control, an adaptive suspension technology that makes millisecond adjustments to damper stiffness. You will need to go up to the Tahoe's LTZ trim for that system, with an overall price pushing into the mid-60s.
The LTZ trim Tahoe comes standard with Chevrolet's MyLink navigation head unit, but I didn't miss it in the LT version I drove. My vehicle came with the non-nav version of MyLink, with an 8-inch touchscreen in the dashboard and intuitive icons. The system felt responsive, and showed digital audio and the hands-free Bluetooth phone system.
Although lacking the $495 navigation add-on, MyLink supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Being an iPhone user, I plugged my phone into one of the five USB ports in the Tahoe, and had immediate access to the handful of approved apps on the touchscreen, including Apple Maps for navigation. The biggest drawback to this sort of navigation came as I drove through areas with no cellular coverage, leaving my map screen blank.
Even without a smartphone, MyLink integrates OnStar, which has its own turn-by-turn navigation. That feature comes in addition to OnStar's many safety services, remote access and integrated 4G/LTE Wi-Fi hotspot. However, OnStar navigation is also limited to areas with cellular service.
For significant stretches on the highway, the Tahoe turned its V-8 into a V-4, this operation occurring seamlessly as I drove. Cylinder deactivation technology cuts fuel to half of the engine's cylinders, letting the Tahoe post fuel economy figures of 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway, and my average came in just above 20 mpg. That's not bad for a vehicle of this size and capability.
The 2016 Chevrolet Tahoe shows off an unadorned, down-to-business look, an easy driving experience and useful dashboard technology. In LT trim the interior adds comfort along with the excellent MyLink infotainment system. The Luxury package, with its suite of safety technologies, makes for a smart addition. However, Chevrolet should make adaptive cruise control an option below its LTZ trim.
When you dig into the specs, the Ford Expedition shows up the Tahoe with more power and cabin space, and greater towing capability. On the Chevy side of things you can move up to the Suburban, a better match for the Expedition. The Tahoe's recent update helps it out in embracing modern technologies, but Nissan is hot on its heels with a new Armada. That competitor will hit the streets soon with a more powerful engine and likely a lower base price.
Ultimately, this Tahoe takes some smart steps forward without going for a radical remake, carrying on with traditional architecture while embracing connected technologies. Its passenger carrying and towing capabilities have been key to its success, and Chevy won't hand over the keys without a fight.