2021 Chevrolet Tahoe First Drive Review: Raising the Standard

The Tahoe and Suburban used to be marvels of modern automotive packaging.

I don’t mean that in a good way. I spent over 1000 miles in the back row of a Suburban on a road trip in my early 20s, and I couldn’t wrap my head around how something so big could be so tight inside.

Chevrolet acknowledges as much when I pick up the new 2021 Tahoe in RST guise for a 24-hour test. The company stresses that it listened to existing owner feedback when designing its new truck-based SUVs, and a common request was better use of those big dimensions. So the company has given the rear suspension a rethink, opting for an independent setup. The move, alongside modest increases in length and wheelbase, has freed up relative acres of space inside the Bow Tie behemoths. It’s also addressed another bugbear: ride quality. The new 2021 Chevy Tahoe doesn’t reinvent the body-on-frame SUV, but these and other smart detail changes have turned it into a vastly better all-rounder, no longer requiring customers to make sacrifices over the unibody competition.

Mean muggin’

It isn’t all-new suspension magic—though we’ll delve deeper on that later. Chevrolet has gone down the ol’ stretch-it-out path, extending the Suburban a little over an inch to 225.7 (5,733 mm) in length. The Tahoe grows more, shrinking the gap between the two, with length now at 210.7 inches (5,352 mm). Wheelbases are also up, to 120.9 inches (3,071 mm) in the Tahoe and 134.1 (3,406 mm) in the ’Burb.

No matter which length of SUV you opt for, both the Tahoe and Suburban adopt a similar bluff visage. It’s all squinty aggression a la Silverado, though different trims see unique lower fascias. The Z71, for example, has a shorter nose, providing it with a better breakover angle for off-roading. That same chopped schnoz means the Z71 can’t accept the Duramax 3.0-liter diesel six-cylinder either, which is available on every other trim. Fear not, lovers of the torquey wonder: Chevy reps confirmed the engineering team is already hard at work on potentially rectifying this.

My tester isn’t the rough-and-tumble Z71 nor the lux High Country trim, but the road-biased RST. All three names were packages on the last Tahoe, but they’ve graduated to dedicated trim levels for 2021. It certainly looks the part of street cruiser: the Shadow Gray paint is a cool-temp hue that gives the Tahoe a smart monochrome look while avoiding the airport-shuttle look of an all-black model.

The standard engine in nearly all Tahoes is the General’s tried-and-true 5.3-liter small-block V8. The exception is the top-shelf High Country trim, which is—at least at launch—the only way to get the larger 6.2-liter. So if for some reason you find yourself lining up with a previous RST at a drag strip, it will gap you. I don’t know why you’d be in that situation, but that’s not my job.

What I can tell you is that the smaller engine feels perfectly serviceable in day-to-day driving. The smooth-shifting 10-speed auto doles out the torque nicely, kicking down quickly when you ask more of it. It feels ever so slightly strained when tasked with a highway pass, but I’m chalking that up to the sheer volume of air the Tahoe needs to displace when traveling at 70 mph.

Running as an independent

The biggest news beyond the Tahoe’s embiggened dimensions is that aforementioned independent rear suspension. Ditching the live rear axle, when combined with the extra inches in the wheelbase, has done wonders for third-row passenger space. Chevrolet quotes a frankly unheard of 66-percent increase in rear legroom. It checks out too: no longer do you need to detach your lower half, LEGO minifigure style, to fit in the way-back as an adult.

With the standard sliding second-row pushed all the way aft, I’m still able to sit in the back, with roughly a finger’s width separating my knees from the seatbacks ahead. If you don’t have the same Calvin-like proportions you might find it a little tighter, but with 10 inches of sliding room for the second row, it shouldn’t be a problem finding the right balance when full up.

The new suspension has another knock-on effect: a lower load floor. Now some five inches (125 mm) closer to the ground, it makes loading and unloading much easier. The resulting storage space is simply staggering too: fold both rows down and the Tahoe swallows 123 cubic feet (3,480 liters) of stuff. That’s more than the previous-gen Suburban. Look at my laptop bag up there, looking utterly tiny.

Passengers will be a lot more comfortable once the Tahoe is on the move too. The independent suspension has done wonders for the ride here. My tester doesn’t get the fancy air suspension of higher trims, but it still sails over bumps in a way that would’ve upset the old model. You still get that distinct body-on-frame feel, with more direction-change hesitation than something like a Mercedes GLS. Despite that badge, the RST isn’t what you’d call sporty, but that’s no mark against it. Stiffening up the suspension would ruin the loose-limbed, easy-going nature that makes the Tahoe feel imperious on the road.

Keeping an eye (or nine) out

The Tahoe has now caught up to the pack in terms of active safety features. Automated emergency braking with pedestrian sensing is standard on all trims, plus front collision alert. Unfortunately, adaptive cruise control remains either unavailable on lower trims, or merely optional on the Premier and High Country. GM’s Teen Driver mode returns, allowing you to limit specific features and force all driving aids on at all times.

My well-optioned tester comes with added goodies, including the very helpful 360-degree camera. It offers no less than nine camera views, helping place the big brute with ease. My building has a tight underground parking garage: the Tahoe just fit in the door, and the different views made it possible to slot into a spot without fear of scrapes.

Other niceties include a rear-seat entertainment setup, also optional. The two 12.6-inch screens accept HDMI inputs or, for Android users, wireless simulcast. With the outlet in the center console, you could even bring a PlayStation 4 onboard. Middle-row folks can send navigation requests up to the front infotainment screen, a clean, 10.2-inch item. There, the driver or passenger can accept the reco or dismiss it. The OS is a good one, with a lightning-fast startup and quick responses. It’s a function-over-form system, which feels bang-on for the Tahoe.

There’s no need for wires up front, either: new Tahoes built from August onward feature wireless compatibility for both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. A charging pad is present too. The cabin itself is smart and spacious, with plenty of natural light from the optional panoramic sunroof. The mega-comfy front thrones come in black leather with red contrast stitching, the only option for the RST.

The transmission buttons, mounted up high to the right of the steering wheel, take some getting used to. I never thought I’d lament the loss of a shifter stalk, but here we are. Similarly, I’m not entirely sold on Chevy’s electronic sliding center console. I dig the various folding configurations it houses, but the slow slide to the second row seems more theater than useful. It’s the opposite of the infotainment system, then.

My biggest gripe with ingress and egress in the Tahoe came down to the driver-side scuff plate. Having to climb up into the seat, I found this little strip of plastic very slippery. This is a pre-production unit, however, so it may be different on dealer lots.

The new Tahoe starts at a very reasonable $50,295, including destination ($58,398 in Canada). Dive into the options list for a four-wheel-drive High Country and you can spend the thick end of $80 grand in America, or just shy of six figures in Canada. Tellingly, Chevrolet expects roughly 20 percent of buyers to opt for the trim—the same with the Z71.

The mid-level RST will likely account for a little less, at around 15 percent. It starts at $61,395 ($71,298 CAD) with 4WD, and my well-optioned tester adds another $8k or so on top of that.

Regardless of trim, Chevy will sell just as many new Tahoes, if not more, than the previous generation. It keeps that desired blue-collar family workhorse image, while adding much-needed third-row space and a new level of ride refinement. Those that need a vehicle with the Tahoe’s abilities will want to get behind the wheel to see how much it’s improved. And now, you won’t even mind a 12-hour ride in the back row.

this review first appeared on AutoGuide

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