2017 Chevrolet Suburban LT Review: The Original Canyonero Is a Little Long In the Tooth
Giants still roam the Earth in 2017...but for how much longer?
Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2017 Chevrolet Suburban LT.
The year was 1999. Gas was a whopping ninety-two cents a gallon, the first Dot Com bubble was nearing its peak, and the cultural cartographers at The Simpsons finally dove into America's decade-long love affair with outlandish sport utility vehicles. In the episode, Homer cashes in his 401K to buy a massive Canyonero SUV—"10 yards long, two lanes wide, 65 tons of American pride"—only to foist it off on Marge when he realizes the model he bought is marketed towards soccer moms. Marge thinks giant trucks are completely ridiculous and excessive, but a day in the driver's seat transforms her into more than a believer: She falls in love with the feeling of power, of size, of capability, of presence. Oh, and she also becomes a road-raging aggro monster.
Sound familiar? Like Marge, Americans originally greeted the SUV with general apprehension, but our rapid acceptance of them over the last few decades has changed both us, as consumers, and the automotive market at large. We all know the story by now: Americans aren't buying sedans anymore, because gas is cheap, people like sitting up high, and no one wants to be the only short car on a highway full of crossovers. But almost three decades into this torrid love affair with sport-utes, we're not buying Canyoneros in massive numbers, either. Instead, the SUVs of today are designed with gas mileage, creature comforts, and driveability in mind, instead of toughness and off-road capability.
Well, except for a few, like today's subject. Starting out in 1935, the Chevrolet Suburban is actually the longest-running automotive nameplate still in production. And when you strip away the leather interior and the updated sheet metal and the suite of modern safety features, surprisingly little has changed over those 80-odd years. It still uses steel body-on-frame construction. It's still designed to haul a crapload of people and stuff, ideally at the same time. It's still one of the largest passenger vehicles you can buy in America. At its heart, at its very core, it's still a truck.
The one thing that has changed? The price. The barebones, rear-wheel-drive Suburban starts at just over $51,000 (including delivery). The top-of-the-line Premier edition, with its heated and cooled leather seats and Magnetic Ride Control, clocks in at almost $70,000 if you throw in four-wheel-drive. Do the old-school underpinnings really warrant that kind of money? The Drive borrowed a new Chevrolet Suburban LT from GM for a few days to find out, taking it on the most fitting adventure we could think of—a high-speed haul from L.A. to Las Vegas and back.
- I'm not going to try to convince you that the Chevrolet Suburban isn't 18-and-a-half feet long, or that it's great for first-time SUV drivers. It's not. But while most cars have ballooned in size over the last 30 years, the Suburban has only grown a paltry four inches in length since 1973. So yes, it's big, but it doesn't stick out quite like it used to.
- And with that size comes some seriously impressive numbers: 76.7 cubic feet of cargo space with the third row down, and 121.7 cubes with the second row folded. And with an optional nine-passenger configuration and an 8,300-pound towing capacity with the available Max Trailering package, the Suburban can handle practically anything you throw at (or in) it.
- I drove from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to attend SEMA last week, blasting off from L.A. at around 4:30 a.m. and arriving on the strip just in time for breakfast. It's a roughly 280-mile haul, and there are few cars or trucks better suited to a casual long-distance jaunt than the Suburban. You have a battleship captain's view of the road, the cushy seats are GM at its finest, and the weightiness of the truck is a perfect match for the smooth, flowing highways of the American Southwest. It's built to eat up miles with an insatiable hunger, and that it does. There's a reason that every used Suburban you find is either a rust bucket or has 300,000 miles on it—people drive these things.
- Fitting for an SUV that's built to take some abuse, almost everything about the Chevrolet Suburban feels solid and well-made. Given how most cars are built with the lightest possible materials in the name of fuel economy, it's always refreshing to grab a solid door handle and feel the weight of the thing. The switches and buttons on the center console are all fastened well and pleasant to the touch. The column shifter is everything you remember. The third row seats collapse with a satisfying whump at the touch of a button. It's got a luxurious quality, but it doesn't feel delicate or precious.
- The mid-level LT trim strikes a nice balance between features and usability. The good thing about the Suburban is that you don't really unlock more capability as you move up through the three trim levels. Really, your choices come down to how comfortable you want to be. With the LT, you get the standard tech found on the LS like Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Teen Driving mode (Don't let your teen drive a Suburban, please), plus extras like wireless charging, heated leather seats, and a nine-speaker Bose audio system. The Premier edition adds a suite of active safety features, a fancier sound system, Magnetic Ride Control, and other comforts like ventilated seats—for a $10,000 bump in price.
- Beltlines have been on the rise across the industry for over a decade now, thanks in large part to enhanced safety and fuel economy regulations. Some automakers have hidden this better than others; I'd rank the Suburban's exterior design a modest success in that regard. But inside, the small windows take on a bunker-like quality, and the whole interior feels oddly tight, especially in the first two rows. Not physically small by any means, but almost indefinably cramped. It's a product of a smaller greenhouse, a low ceiling, and a high floor. That last part might be forgiven in the name of ground clearance if the front air dam didn't hang approximately two inches above the dirt and make the Suburban almost useless off road.
- I stand by the Suburban as a top-notch highway cruiser—how else are you going to roll in almost 20 feet of resplendent American luxury these days?—but without a doubt, this truck is not meant to be driven by one guy with a backpack. Like the pickups on which it's based, the Suburban needs be weighted down with goods or people to keep the back end settled. The SUV's long roof mitigates that somewhat—but unladen, it's a bouncy ride. It's not unforgivable, but it's something to consider if you'd spend more time driving around with an empty cargo area than not.
- And while it does devour the miles, it sucks down a fair amount of gas at the same time. In two-wheel-drive, Chevrolet says you can expect about 16 miles per gallon city, 23 highway, and 19 combined. That reflects what I saw—an average of 18.9, which is actually impressive, considering most of its running time was spent either in Los Angeles traffic or booking through the Mojave at 85 mph. However, that was without the extra 1,000 pounds of stuff or people that most buyers will be carting around on a daily basis. I'm not complaining about the fuel economy, and Lord knows I'd rip off that front air dam if it was my own truck. But owning something like this, especially as your main vehicle, means paying closer attention to the prices at the pump than most. Speaking of which, they're going up.
- One item that's absolutely not helping the fuel economy: the incredibly dated six-speed automatic transmission backing up the 5.3-liter EcoTec3 V8 engine. That's your only option. For 2018, GM threw the fancy 10-speed automatic from the 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 into both the 2018 Tahoe RST and the 2018 GMC Yukon Denali; frustratingly, the Suburban still has to make due without. (Likewise, the 5.3-liter V8 is perfectly adequate, delivering 355 horsepower and 383 lb-ft of torque, but the 6.2-liter V8 (420 HP, 460 lb-ft) from the Yukon Denali could only make things better.)
The 2017 Chevrolet Suburban LT, Ranked
Hauling people: 5/5
Hauling stuff: 5/5
Curb appeal: 3/5
“Wow” factor: 2/5
The Bottom Line
Here in 2017, with our headlong rush into electric and self-driving cars, the Chevrolet Suburban is something akin to an extant species of megafauna thought to have died out long ago. The truck's enduring popularity is a good reminder that a country of 300 million people isn't going to move lockstep into the future, and that there are Americans with vastly different needs out there—some that do require a massive SUV like this.
It's a more than a cliche to say that they don't make 'em like they used to in this case—it's wrong. At the same time, it's part of a dying breed for a reason. It's hard to conjure up an argument for buying a Suburban that doesn't involve the phrases "towing" or "toughness," and our current crop of more-polite crossovers continues to siphon off buyers who would have flocked to the big truck like Marge to the Canyonero 18 years ago.
Drivers, especially automotive journalists, are always demanding that vehicles like this make excuses for their size. You get a funny look when you tell people you're driving a 'Burban by yourself from L.A. to Vegas sans cargo, and rightly so; it's an odd choice. But to focus on how big it is or how wasteful it seems is to criticize water for being wet, and to miss the point of the Chevrolet Suburban entirely. It's built to haul, to tow, to carry, to road trip—just as it's always been. The rest of the SUV market has filled in beneath it, so why change what works for the customers who demand it?
The main problem, really, is the price. For a lot of repeat buyers, there is no other option besides the Suburban, so it makes sense they'd put up with such rampant inflation. For the rest of us, though, it's a bit of a stretch when you can get 80 percent of the capability (and 150 percent of the features) in just about any other SUV at that price point. Then again, no other truck lets you play-act at being an FBI agent quite like a Suburban.
(Don't do actually do that, though. It's highly illegal.)
The 2017 Chevrolet Suburban LT, By the Numbers
Price (as tested): $56,450 ($64,770)
Powertrain: 5.3-liter EcoTec3 V8 engine, 355 horsepower, 383 lb-ft of torque; six-speed automatic transmission; rear-wheel-drive with available on-demand four-wheel-drive
Fuel Economy: 16 city, 23 highway, 19 combined
0-60 MPH: 7.1 seconds (Car and Driver testing)
Number of times someone mistook me for their Uber driver: One