2003 Chevrolet Suburban Review

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John Pearley Huffman John Pearley Huffman Editor
April 11, 2003



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Chevy’s Suburban has been around since 1935 but it didn’t really hit its stride until the 1990s. Before then it was a minor player — a vehicle usually more attractive to institutions than individuals.

Now with regular-grade gas hovering around $2 a gallon in California and new crossover SUVs chewing into the market, is the Suburban being shoved to the margins again? Is the Suburban a vehicle whose time has finally come…and finally gone?

Oh yeah, and this year the 3/4-ton Suburban 2500 can is available with four-wheel steering. Why, that’s fully twice as many wheels that steer than ever before!

Not just familiar – very familiar

Every Suburban GM has ever built has had a ladder frame and a solid rear axle underneath it. This latest generation Sub, which appeared first as a 2000 model, is no different. And what’s changed since that introduction has been evolutionary in most ways and potentially revolutionary in the way it steers.

Based on the latest generation of GM full-size pickups, the current Suburban has always been well mannered for a behemoth and impressively taut in its structure. Nimble? Nah. But comfortable and well behaved? Yeah. Most of the credit goes to the stiff ladder frame, the excellent double-A-arm-and-torsion-bar front suspension, and the responsiveness of the Vortec V-8 engines. But while half-ton Subs use a coil-spring rear suspension, the 3/4-tonners rely on a less compliant, more rugged, higher-capacity leaf spring system.

Standard power in the Suburban 2500 is the 6.0-liter Vortec 6000 OHV V-8 rated at 320 horsepower (the slightly higher compression, premium fuel “recommended but not required” Vortec 6000 used in the Cadillac Escalade and other trucks is rated at 345 horsepower) and 360 pound-feet of peak torque at 4000 rpm. In a two-wheel-drive pickup, the 6000 has some real athletic ability, but in a 3/4-ton, 4x4 Suburban weighing 5796 pounds, it’s at the outer edge of its comfort zone. The 340-horsepower and 455-lb-ft 8.1-liter Vortec 8100 is obviously a better choice in the Sub 2500. All Suburbans (and the virtually identical GMC Yukon XL) use only four-speed automatic transmissions.

Despite the less robust base engine and the heavy full-time four-wheel-drive system (with electronically selectable low-range or two-wheel drive operation), the big Sub with the Vortec 6000 can still get out of its own way even though it’s substantially less than swift. The engine is even-tempered, forgiving, and newly endowed with electronic throttle control, the transmission is stolid and stalwart and there’s little mechanical intrusion whatsoever. Having written that, it’s about time that the five-speed Allison automatic transmission (or a lighter duty version of it) migrated over from GM’s Heavy Duty pickups. And where are the variable valve-timing schemes that could help the once class-leading Vortec V-8s regain their leadership over Dodge’s brilliant new Hemi?

Inexcusably, the excellent Duramax 6600 6.6-liter turbodiesel V-8 from the Silverado HD isn’t offered in the Suburban. The 300-horsepower diesel’s excellent economy and 520 lb-ft of trailer yanking torque make perfect sense for the Sub.

While half-ton Subs can now be had with GM’s StabiliTrak system, 3/4-tonners still rely on their mass and good old gravity to do most of the stabilizing work. Appreciated refinements on all Suburbans include electrically adjustable pedals, LATCH system tethering for child seats in the front passenger, second row and third row seats, a new passenger-sensing, dual-level airbag system (a display in the rear view mirror handily informs the driver that the passenger airbag is disabled because — if he hasn’t already noticed — THERE’S NO ONE SITTING THERE), a new dual-zone climate control system, and of course things like GM’s OnStar system, XM radio, and a DVD player with a ceiling-mounted, drop-down screen are optional.

Worthy of special note (a middle C with vibrato) is a new steering wheel with a small airbag and eight buttons which facilitate access to most of the “infotainment” (an awkward word tragically gaining acceptance) systems and the LED display in the instrumentation that scrolls through numerous functions effectively.

If there’s one thing about the Suburban that has always needed addressing but that still hasn’t been addressed, it’s the cheesiness of so much of the interior’s materials. The front passenger has more cheap plastic in front of him than the best tipper at a strip club next to the Detroit airport, the door panels’ plastic isn’t much better and much of the switch gear feels like Mattel’s sloppy seconds. Ergonomically there’s nothing particularly wrong with the Suburban, though it would be nice if the seats had a bit more support. And in an age of ever more clever seating systems in minivans and SUVs, it’s disappointing that the second row of seats in the Sub are so difficult to get over and around for access to the third row and that third-row seat doesn’t fold into the floor in some way or another.

The miracle of four-wheel steering

While the Suburban 2500’s primitive leaf-spring rear suspension is a disadvantage in ride quality, it does allow the easy adoption of the four-wheels steering system GM offers on pickups like the GMC Denali. And the four-wheel steering system is clearly the best thing to happen to the Suburban since the invention of the travel trailer and family vacation.

The purely electronic system works so that, at low speed, the rear wheels turn the opposite direction of the front wheels, thus shortening the turning circle. At higher speeds all four wheels turn in the same direction for better stability in lane change maneuvers. The system works spectacularly well with the Suburban and the turning circle diameter drops down from 44.5 feet to 35.2 feet.

With four-wheel steering the Suburban feels like a Saturn in parking lots. Spaces that were a three-point monster to get into before are now on an easy glide path, and U-turns that would take three tugs and a professional harbor pilot can now be executed within a two-lane road. It’s particularly useful for guiding a ball hitch under a trailer tongue. There’s something initially disconcerting about feeling the rear end swing out, but once acclimated the driver will wonder how anyone could drive this truck without it. In fact all he has to do is flick a switch to turn the system off and the Suburban drives like a regular two-wheel steering machine and, in contrast, it feels quite ponderous.

Unfortunately the four-wheel steering system also pushes the width of the Sub out past 80 inches, necessitating a set of relatively ugly rear fender flares and marker lights on those flares and the roof. The lights make the whole truck look more commercial and awkward than it actually is.

But the very worst thing about the four-wheel steering system is its $4495 option cost. At that price, many buyers will settle for less graceful turns in their Subs and that’s a dang shame. Hopefully as the four-wheel steering system becomes more ubiquitous across the GM range of products (it would be great on vans of all sizes and long Cadillac and Buick sedans in particular) the cost of the system will drop. And once it’s dropped enough, every Suburban should be equipped with it.

The 4WS’ high option cost also pushed the rather modestly equipped (base engine, no leather, no DVD player) 4x4 test truck’s price up past $50,000.

What time is it for the Suburban?

Compared to its immediate predecessors the current Suburban 2500 with four-wheel steeering is startlingly better. Compared to its only direct competition, the simple fact that the Ford Excursion is being withdrawn from the market after this model year indicates the Sub’s dominance. But it does feel archaic; a 20th century solution to problems answered more elegantly by high-tech 21st century vehicles.

For those who both tow and carry a lot of people, there really aren’t viable alternatives to the Suburban and other full-frame, full-size SUVs. But take towing out of the Suburban equation — even with its astoundingly capable 4WS system — and even the Honda Pilot or Chevy’s own long-wheelbase TrailBlazer EXT look like viable alternatives. Zeitgeist assessment is always perilous, but right now a vehicle this big doesn’t feel like the comfortable fashion statement it was a couple of years ago.

Yes, it’s the best Suburban yet. But that’s probably not enough for the near future.

2003 Chevrolet Suburban 2500
Base price: $41,005 ($50,691 as tested)
Engine: 6.0-liter V-8, 320 hp
Drivetrain: Four-speed automatic transmission, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 219.3 x 80.4 x 76.5 in
Wheelbase: 130.0 in
Curb weight: 5796 lb
Safety equipment: Dual-level front airbags, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes
Major standard equipment: Power windows/locks/mirrors, A/C, cruise control, CD player keyless entry
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles comprehensive


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