Room for a large family – and everyone’s stuff
by Brendan R. Appel
The week before Chevrolet dropped off their all-new 2021 Suburban for this review we drove Ram’s new 1500 TRX. These might seem like two totally different vehicles: on the one hand, the TRX is a pick-up truck while the Suburban is, of course, an SUV – but in several crucial respects these two pinnacles of American automotive largess are very similar. For starters, both the TRX and Suburban comfortably fit very large people. If your family resembles the starting lineup of a basketball team, you should probably check out both. Next is their go anywhere, 4WD capability – we had both vehicles during snowstorms here in Chicago, and both performed admirably (although of the two, the TRX is the better off-road choice due to its more heavy treaded tires). Then there’s the room for all your family’s stuff: the TRX has a large pickup bed open to the elements, while the Suburban boasts best in class cargo space that will protect your stuff from the weather. And if your stuff needs a trailer, both vehicles more than pull their own weight: 8,100 lbs for the TRX and 7,900 lbs for the Suburban. Continuing in the similarities, both shared in fairly dismal as-tested fuel economy. While the Suburban’s optional 6.2L V-8 made a normally stout 420hp, its refined nature and quiet operation didn’t seem to goad us into stoplight launches as the Hellcat motor in the TRX always did. So, while we saw 8.2mpg in the Ram, we saw a barely improved 12 mpg (with copious highway driving) in the Suburban. For those looking for better economy, there is a new 6-cylinder diesel Suburban coming for 2021. Finally, there’s the price, with the TRX’s as-tested sticker at less than a 10% premium over the Chevy’s $84,045 as-tested price tag. Needless to say, both are huge cash cows for their respective manufacturers and dealer networks.
But that’s where the similarities end. The Suburban will appeal to the more sophisticated, less ostentatious clientele, one whose four-wheel-drive adventures will mostly involve snow and an occasional gravel or dirt road on the way to a KOA campsite pulling a nice fifth-wheel trailer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – the beauty of having so many choices in vehicles these days is that you can almost certainly find a car, truck or SUV that is tailored to your exact needs. And the Suburban High Country package fits that bill for large suburban families with, say, a lot of hockey gear to tote around.
About that “High Country” designation – this is a new top-level trim for Tahoe and Suburban and is distinguished by a unique grille with bronze accents and, to our eyes a bit gaudy, very large and bright High Country badging. The interior includes High Country labeled sill plates and seat embroidery, along with expanded color and trim choices. You also get the more powerful 6.2L V-8 engine with Magnetic Ride Control, 22-inch wheels with chrome inserts, Rear Pedestrian Alert, a Head-Up Display, HD Surround Vision and a Rear Camera Mirror as standard.
Having just won the Midwest Automotive Media Association’s (MAMA for short, of which we are voting members) Family Vehicle of the Year Award, you would expect the Suburban to excel at most things, and it certainly does. Remote starting the vehicle on cold winter days brings the first welcome surprise – a halo of lights emanating from the running boards, illuminating your approach from any angle. Open a door and the automatic power running boards quickly lower on that side to ease your entry into the Suburban (definitely not the case in the TRX), where comfy and – by now – warmed seats await you. Once you actually start the car for real, however, the heated seats and heated steering wheel turn off, something we wished didn’t happen as now we have to toggle each one back on – every time. Thankfully, the heated seats are controlled by a button within easy reach in the center stack and, in a move bordering on genius, the heated steering wheel button is located … wait for it … on the steering wheel. No more hunting all over the place – or worse, in a screen menu – to turn your heated wheel on or off. At about this time your Suburban, if equipped with the optional Air Ride Adaptive Suspension as ours was – will begin to rise and level itself up to 4-inches from its parked height. Parking and turning off the Suburban performs the same feat in reverse (along with air-releasing hisses from the suspension). Combined with Magnetic Ride Control, the overall effect of the Air Ride Suspension is a moderately firm, confident and comfortable (but not plush) ride.
Next, you’ll be wanting to connect your phone to the car, and ordinarily that means hunting for a cable, but the 2021 Suburban now comes with wireless CarPlay and Android Auto, so instead you can drop your phone into the big wireless charging bay below the center dash stack while, in our case, CarPlay comes up on the 10-inch center touchscreen (the largest in this segment). It looks like it came straight out of a 2020 Corvette, and that’s just fine with us as we much enjoyed the unit there as well.
Actually driving the Suburban involves engaging the compact but not very attractive transmission buttons for the electronic-shifting, 10-speed automatic. You either pull or push your desired gear, check your surround view camera and mirrors for any mid-sized SUVs in your blind spots, and off you go. In both dry, wet and snowy weather, the Suburban was as sure-footed as anything we’ve driven, and we suspect that feeling was attributable to its automatic 4WD system, the magnetic ride and its sheer 6,026 lbs of weight pressing into the Earth. This is a confidence-inspiring vehicle, even in the middle of a blizzard (as tested). The cabin is quiet, and the ample rear seats feature some of the largest entertainment screens (12.6”) we’ve ever seen in a car not pimped out by X on MTV. There’s room-a-plenty for even larger folks in the 3rd row, plus you’ll have best-in-class cargo room beyond that. Everything behind the driver’s seat folds flat to provide a whopping 144.7 cubic feet of maximum cargo space. What’s even more incredible is that this figure represents a 23 cubic-foot increase over the 2020 Suburban. That’s almost 4 Corvette trunk/frunk combos’ worth of additional cargo capacity. And if you happen to use up all of those 144.7 cubic feet of cargo space such that you can no longer see out of the rear window, just flip the switch under the rear-view mirror to turn it into a rear-view monitor – which uses the outside rear-view camera and allows you to see right through your stuff.
Of course, not even MAMA Family Vehicle of the Year award winners are perfect, and the Suburban has some glaring faults to go along with all the goodness. First, it seems clear to us that at some point in a Chevrolet’s development, someone from Cadillac must have crashed the meeting and said, “It’s looks too good, make something look cheap so people will spend the extra dough on our version.” In this case, the Chevy designers picked on the gauges to receive the ugly step-child treatment. And we do mean ugly. While there is a very nice digital display between the gauges, this cannot hide the fact that the speedometer and tachometer look like they were sourced from what you remember a cheap 1999 Chevy rental car looking like. The sad fact is, those 1999 Chevy rental car dials probably looked better than then ones in this ‘21 Suburban. This seems like a lot of time for us to spend talking about gauges, but you have to look at them every time you drive the car, and they are that bad. At least the huge head-up display means you can avert your eyes from the dash and keep them up on the road. The Escalade, incidentally, gets a beautiful full-digital dash.
Next on the “let’s make sure people remember it’s a Chevy” is the fact that unlike a $20,000 VW Jetta, you cannot just put your hand inside the door handle with the key in your pocket to unlock the door. Nope… annoyingly, you must push a button on the door handle, which will then lock or unlock the door. Other features missing in action are headlights that automatically turn with the wheel, auto-high beams and mirrors that auto-fold on lock (especially useful for a vehicle this large).
While the Suburban has Chevy’s annoying A.S.S. system (Auto Start Stop), it thankfully offers a button to turn it off (unlike the Blazer), although in our cold weather driving it barely ever activated, suiting us just fine. As stated before, overall mileage was dismal, only rising to an average of 12.9 mpg after copious amounts of slow highway driving during the aforementioned snowstorm (up from under 10mpg in normal city driving), well below the 14 city/19 hwyEPA estimates. A final complaint of ours was a sliding armrest that would not convincingly lock into place, sliding loose anytime the driver or front passenger placed their weight on it to shift in their seat.
All in all, the Suburban represents the biggest America has to offer in SUVs, and if your family needs room for people and stuff, you can hardly go wrong here. And while $84,045 is a lot of money for an SUV, especially a Chevrolet, that’s where the market is these days. A similarly equipped Escalade ESV will set you back at least $107,000, but if it was our checkbook, we’d take the base Escalade ESV 4WD Luxury and leave out most of the options to keep it around $83,500. For that you’d get a more luxurious but almost mechanically identical vehicle (less the air suspension) with a few less bells and whistles. And you wouldn’t have to look at those horrendous gauges. Seriously, Chevy… fix those!
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