2012 Chevrolet Tahoe Review

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The Car Connection Expert Review

Bengt Halvorson Bengt Halvorson Deputy Editor
January 31, 2012

The 2012 Chevrolet Tahoe is no longer fresh-faced, but it remains one of the best bets for those needing tough, true truck capability and plenty of passenger space.

The 2012 Chevrolet Tahoe is arguably a relic of another time, when gas was a bit cheaper and many more U.S. families looked to truck-based SUVs for everyday use. That time has passed—and there are a number of much better, more passenger-friendly crossover wagons like Chevrolet's own Traverse just for passenger duty. But the body-on-frame sport-utility vehicle is still relevant today if you need truck toughness or good tow ratings along with good passenger space. And to give the Tahoe an added touch of relevance for today's more fuel-economy-minded shoppers, there's the 2012 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, which has EPA ratings of up to 23 mpg.

With styling that's definitely dated, the 2012 Tahoe probably won't charm you over from a more contemporary design, but it's still handsome next to any of the competition. Inside, the Tahoe has a lower-set, more carlike instrument panel, with rounded edges and a less 'macho' look than rival models such as the Toyota Sequoia and Nissan Armada. In lower trims it can look a little plasticky, but move up to the LTZ and the look is decidedly premium. There's not much to distinguish the Tahoe Hybrid model, but it does have several subtle modifications that improve aerodynamics and reduce weight, along with a number of Hybrid badges and, inside, a different display screen.

A 320-horsepower, 5.3-liter V-8 and six-speed automatic transmission provide power for most of the Tahoe lineup. It's an excellent, seamless duo, with steady and smooth acceleration and a hint of muscle-car sound. Variable valve timing and cylinder deactivation help keep it smooth yet fuel-saving, plus it's E85 capable, which some shoppers in farm states might appreciate. Hybrids instead get a big 332-horsepower, 6.0-liter V-8 is augmented with electric motors and battery power, using a version of the Two-Mode Hybrid system developed by GM with BMW, Daimler and Chrysler. As such, the Tahoe Hybrid can accelerate lightly on battery power alone or mix both, saving significant miles from each gallon, and the system isn't delicate—it's approved for towing and typical weekend-truck use.

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Built on GM's full-size SUV platform, with a fully boxed frame, coil-over-shock front suspension, and rack-and-pinion steering, the Chevy Tahoe shares its package as well as most running gear with the GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade. At its best, the Tahoe is as responsive as any 5,600-pound vehicle can be and feels much more maneuverable than it should. Base versions of the Tahoe don't quite ride as well as top-of-the-line Yukon and Escalade models with the magnetic suspension, however, so check those out if you're looking to splurge a little.

Simple and straightforward, yet supremely comfortable is the best way to describe the Tahoe's interior. Most Tahoe models come with large, supportive front bucket seats, and in both the first and second rows there's plenty of headroom and legroom. But getting back to the third row is a challenge, and even getting feet and knees past the thick B-pillar for the second row will be an issue for some. Suburban models get several more inches of third-row space, thanks to their added length, but access isn't all that much easier.

The Tahoe lives up to its impression of security and solidity, with excellent four- and five-star ratings from the federal government in frontal and side impact. The IIHS hasn't rated the Tahoe or the nearly identical Yukon. Side-curtain bags in the Tahoe cover all three rows.

Even the base Tahoe LS comes equipped like an entry-luxury model, and while the serious towing ability is there many Tahoes are used first and foremost as tough and secure yet comfortable transportation. LT and LTZ models add more features, with the top-of-the-line LTZ getting serious load-bearing upgrades like a heavy-duty locking differential, Autoride load-leveling suspension, and 20-inch wheels, in addition to an upgraded Bose Centerpoint audio system, a nav system with voice recognition, heated and cooled front seats, heated second-row seats, remote starting, and power-adjustable pedals. Bluetooth hands-free now comes in all models.

The Tahoe Hybrid gets many of the same features as the LT, and can be equipped with LTZ features as options.

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2012 Chevrolet Tahoe

Styling

It still looks smart and traditional, but the Chevy Tahoe can get lost among the attention-getters in the class.

The look is a few years old now, and was conservative from the start. Even so, we still can appreciate the well-sculpted lines of the 2012 Chevy Tahoe, since it's not too overwrought--not like some of the vehicles in its own family, or like some of the gargantuan SUVs from other automakers.

The Tahoe's styling is simple to the point of plainness. The grille's split by a wide band studded by a bowtie logo, and it's flanked by a pair of very big headlights, squared off into the fenders. The proportions are classic two-box ute, rounded mildly at the corners and tapered slightly at the tail. There's almost no extraneous metallic trim, only very subtle flaring at the fenders, and really, not much to distinguish the tailgate from a minivan.

The Hybrid model is nearly identical, but it gets some subtle add-ons that help the Tahoe smooth out its aerodynamics. It also wears a number of Hybrid badges and, inside, a different display on the console's LCD screen.

The cabin look is rather simple and straightforward as well. There are actually two different instrument-panel looks offered in the Tahoe. A more work-oriented interior is fitted to the base Tahoe, but the well-trimmed LTZ's interior could have been lifted from a premium German sedan. On that one, a wide band of trim runs across the dash and gives the cabin a spacious appearance, and large, well-marked gauges are framed by the steering wheel, with a wide center console alongside, encasing clearly marked secondary controls.

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2012 Chevrolet Tahoe

Performance

The Chevy Tahoe's one of the more responsive full-size SUVs, and acceleration is strong.

The Chevrolet Tahoe makes the most of its truck hardware when it comes to performance.

The mainstream powertrain in the 2012 Tahoe couples a 5.3-liter V-8 with 320 horsepower, to a six-speed automatic transmission. It's a well-executed combo that doles out smooth, steady acceleration as well as a little of the unmistakable big V-8 sound. It's also flexible-fuel-capable, and has cylinder deactivation--which shuts off fuel to half the cylinders under low power demand--to give it acceptable gas mileage of 15/21 mpg. Across the non-hybrid Tahoe lineup, rear-wheel drive is standard, with a dual-range four-wheel-drive system available.

Beneath the angular sheetmetal is a classic truck chassis with a boxed frame, coil-over-shock front suspension, and rack-and-pinion steering. Tuned for good on-road feel, the Tahoe's steering and suspension feel as responsive as any 5,600-pound vehicle can be, much more maneuverable than any Tahoe from the past. Roadholding and grip are good, especially for such a tall vehicle. The big Tahoe rides smoothly on its coil-spring suspension, but beware that as you move up in wheel and tire size, ride quality suffers (we recommend the 17- or 18-inch wheels over the 20-inchers. The ride is remarkably refined overall, though with its solid rear axle, passengers will know when the rear wheels hit a rough patch.

The Tahoe Hybrid is substantially different from the gas-only model, thanks to a host of electronics that meld its batteries and motors with V-8 power. The Hybrid sports a 6.0-liter V-8 that puts out 332 horsepower, and a two-mode hybrid system like the one found in GM's big pickups--the one developed by GM with BMW, Daimler and Chrysler, but now pretty much used by GM alone. The Tahoe Hybrid can drive on electric power alone at speeds of up to 27 mph, at which point gas and electric power blend together while the engine shuts off fuel delivery to half its cylinders, all to save gas. While tow ratings stay as high as 5,000 pounds, the Tahoe Hybrid's gas mileage rises to 20/23 mpg.

The Hybrid models have a similar driving feel, though the electric-assisted steering lacks feedback, and regenerative braking makes stops a little less coordinated. The Hybrid's four-wheel-drive system is a more sophisticated, electronically switched system.

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2012 Chevrolet Tahoe

Comfort & Quality

A kludgy third-row seat takes away from the Chevy Tahoe's otherwise roomy, useful interior.

The Tahoe's big interior room doesn't translate into an easily-accessed third-row seat, but in other positions, most passengers will find good comfort.

It's especially true in front, where the Tahoe's wide, somewhat flat bucket seats are split by a wide console that still leaves plenty of leg and knee room. Head room isn't an issue, either, though we've noticed the big GM SUVs have front seats that don't power down to as low a driving position as we might want. There's an option for a front bench seat, on base Tahoes intended for more rugged daily duty.

The second-row seat can also sit three across, and it's possible for them all to be larger adults, it just won't be quite as comfortable as the Tahoe's size may imply. The available third-row bench is disappointing: it's one of the more difficult of its kind, because the second-row seats don't move forward enough to make access a snap. Not only is it tough to clamber into, but leg and head room aren't great, the seat cushion is low to the floor, and on Hybrids, the battery takes up valuable space under the second-row seat.

When it comes to cargo space, though, the two-row Tahoe is a champion, with 60.3 cubic feet available. Flip up a third-row seat in either version, and the cargo space shrinks to 16.9 cubic feet. There's storage and stowage aplenty, though; all Tahoes have cup holders for all, plus a huge glove box, a wide center console, and lots of door-panel storage.

Interior materials and trims don't quite have the high-end feel and gloss of those used in GM's Cadillac products, but they're among the best, and the Tahoe's interior is well isolated from road and wind noise.

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2012 Chevrolet Tahoe

Safety

Good crash-test performance joins with some advanced safety technology to protect the 2012 Chevy Tahoe and its passengers.

Big SUVs seem to look safe, even if many of them weren't particularly crashworthy in the past. That's not the case with the Chevy Tahoe, which earns solid crash-test scores and comes with some worthwhile add-on technology that can help drivers navigate roads more easily, despite its considerable bulk.

Though it hasn't been tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) since the group changed up its testing regimen, the Tahoe has been re-tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Under the NHTSA's new scoring system, the Tahoe earns five-star rankings in both frontal and side impact, and gets an overall score of four stars, down slightly because of its height and because it's theoretically more likely to roll over in an accident than a low-slung sportscar. 

Standard safety features include dual front, side, and curtain airbags that cover all rows of seats; traction and stability control; OnStar; and tire pressure monitors.

Outward visibility can be an issue in the Tahoe; with its very tall stance and wide pillars, parking and lane changes require some double checks—though wide side mirrors help with those lane changes. A rearview camera is an option, as are rear parking sensors and a blind-spot warning system.

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2012 Chevrolet Tahoe

Features

Its work-truck days long behind it, the 2012 Chevy Tahoe can top $50,000 in plush luxury and Hybrid trims.

As recently as the 1990s, the Chevy Tahoe was a vaguely more sporty version of a rugged SUV, one without too many luxury and entertainment features. Today's Tahoe is so radically changed, it's more luxurious than some of the sedans offered by GM's biggest brand.

The basic Tahoe LS comes with standard features that didn't even exist at the beginning of the century. Bluetooth is standard, and so are a CD player, satellite radio, a USB port, and the usual cruise control and power windows, locks, and mirrors. The Tahoe also comes standard with rear-seat audio controls, steering-wheel audio controls, and a choice of front bucket seats or a split front bench seat.

While the serious towing ability remains, many Tahoes are used first and foremost as comfortable family haulers with great towing capacity. That's why LT and LTZ versions get features like a load-leveling suspension and a heavy-duty locking differential. Chevy also offers pricey options such as a Bose Centerpoint audio system, a nav system with voice recognition, heated and cooled front seats, heated second-row seats, tri-zone climate control, remote starting, power-adjustable pedals, and additional power outlets. A power tailgate is an option, and we'd recommend it for Tahoe buyers, since the hatch is heavy and can be tough for smaller adults to operate.

The Tahoe Hybrid gets many of the same features as the LT, and can be equipped with LTZ features as options.

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2012 Chevrolet Tahoe

Fuel Economy

Hybrid Tahoes are some of the most efficient full-size SUVs, but in general the 2012 Chevy Tahoe is mediocre on the efficiency front.

With a Hybrid model earning highway fuel economy of 23 mpg, the 2012 Chevy Tahoe can be one of the greenest full-size SUVs of all, up there with the diesel edition of the Mercedes-Benz GL Class. However, the Hybrid's a very small percentage of sales, and otherwise, the Tahoe lineup gets fair overall economy--though it's still at the high end of the sport-ute range.

The standard Tahoe and its 5.3-liter V-8 earn the ute an EPA score of 15/21 mpg. Compared with vehicles like the Nissan Armada at 12/18 mpg, the Tahoe's a big improvement--but when compared to eight-passenger crossovers like the Honda Pilot (18/25 mpg), it's disappointing.

The Tahoe Hybrid is an expensive way to improve that fuel economy. With its motors and batteries, the Hybrid earns an EPA-estimated 20 mpg city, 23 highway, which means it goes nearly 50 percent farther per gallon on regular gasoline than most full-size utes--while it also has comparable performance and towing and hauling ability.

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All standard Tahoe models are also E85 (85-percent ethanol) compatible; but when you fuel up with ethanol you'll get an EPA-estimated 11 mpg city, 16 highway.
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Styling 7
Performance 7
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