2012 Chevrolet Tahoe Road Test Review

Trevor Hofmann - CAP staff
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The Tahoe is so "last decade." So why do I still love it? I suppose I appreciate what it stands for. Gas-guzzling excess? Hardly. Hauling family, friends and gear. Camping. Towing boats. Off-roading. Just getting away. While some might think of the Tahoe as a mammoth anachronism of yesteryear, a reminder of a less environmentally conscious era, every time I see one (after first checking whether or not a traffic cop is at the wheel) I get this urge to go on a road trip somewhere wild and untamed. I suppose, to me, the Tahoe represents freedom to go where I want whenever I want to, whether sunny, raining, or snowing, on paved or gravel roads, or muddy, rocky trails. The Tahoe will get me there.

Of course there are a lot of other SUVs on the market with such credentials. Toyota, lauded for its eco-friendly Prius and myriad other hybrid models offers one of the largest in the full-size segment, although sighting a Sequoia on the road seems to be about as rare as finding a Prius on the trail. Nissan, builder of the all-electric Leaf, also offers its similarly huge Armada, while Ford, Dodge and others continue to build large 4x4 capable SUVs alongside more fuel-friendly models, just like Chevrolet with its Volt and various hybrids. The SUV is a vehicle type that's here to stay for the long haul, if not as popular as it once was.

I suppose why I love the Tahoe so much is its place in history. When I was a kid a common sight when my dad and I were off the beaten path was the K5 Blazer. It was one of the first real SUVs, and while Chevy has refined the concept into near luxury status over the years (and into luxury leadership with its Tahoe-based Cadillac Escalade), it remains the do-all, go-anywhere, truck-based SUV that it always was. True to its roots and completely honest about its purpose. No wonder Tahoe fans are so loyal.

Chevy makes two distinctive types of Tahoe, and no I don't mean regular strength and light. Sure there's the regular one, in three trims, LS, LT and LTZ, but there's also the Tahoe Hybrid, which could be seen as the "lite" one, if we're talking about treading lightly on the environment by using less fuel. While most of the Tahoe's I've driven in recent years have had the green treatment, I was glad GM supplied me with a regular model for this particular test, as it's the one most Tahoe buyers prefer for all the reasons previously stated.

Under the hood is Chevy's trusty 5.3-litre V8 engine, a workhorse that's equal part brute and refinement, with surprisingly better economy than you might expect. The numbers read 14.3 city and 9.4 highway if you get the rear-wheel drive model, and 14.4 and 9.5 if you opt for four-wheel drive, so don't go with 2WD just to save a nickel on fuel, because that's about all you'll gain. While those figures might at first seem high, they're really quite good for this full-size SUV class. For instance, the most fuel-efficient engine in Toyota's Sequoia can only manage 16.0 city and 11.1 highway, while Ford's Expedition is rated even worse at 16.4 and 11.3, respectively, and Dodge's smaller Durango sucks back 16.6 and 10.1 when mated to its optional V8. If you think that's bad, try living with Nissan's Armada at a claimed 18.1 and 11.7! The Tahoe's 14.3 city and 9.4 highway rating is looking pretty good now, isn't it?

Chevy achieves the Tahoe's best-in-class fuel economy through sound engineering, which partly includes common technologies like Variable Valve Timing, but also features a less common cylinder-deactivation system called Active Fuel Management that shuts down half the cylinders when not needed and imperceptibly engages them when additional throttle puts them back to work. GM also boasts E85 compatibility, which is short for 85-percent ethanol/15-percent gasoline, but unless you happen to live somewhere near Canada's five public E85 refueling stations, all located in Ontario, or spend a lot of time driving through the U.S. where E85 is more common, it's of no benefit to you.

On the road, the Tahoe is no slouch, as 320-horsepower and 335 lb-ft of torque is good enough if not as robust as its closest rivals. Again, factor in fuel economy when measuring performance, because these days money saved outweighs a little fun with the go pedal. The Tahoe's 6-speed automatic shifts crisply and always seems to find the right gear for quick acceleration, whether sprinting away from a standing start or passing on the highway.

I've never driven a Tahoe with rear-wheel drive so I'll just have to guess it feels much the same as the 4x4 models I've tested, which have been really stable on the highway with decent enough through the curves. Don't fool yourself into thinking your Tahoe can keep up to a Cadillac SRX crossover when the road starts to bend, or even a Chevy Traverse. That's not its intended purpose, so you're best to simply slow down and enjoy the scenery. It will provide excellent ride quality, however, and when that road ends and the trail begins, you're in a vehicle that few can match.

Chevy equips the Tahoe with a traditional two-speed transfer case for 4x4 enthusiasts or an optional single-speed system that's ideal for lighter-duty use. Both systems are available across the line, except top-line LTZ models don't offer the single-speed system. I've driven the AWD model and it's perfect for colder climes where four-wheel grip makes a difference over rear-drive models that simply rely on traction and stability control to overcome slippery conditions. I've experienced the two-speed system too, on and off the road, and it's fully capable of most anything thrown in front of it. Watching recent news coverage of super storm Sandy drove this point home, as footage of Tahoe police and rescue vehicles trudged through water- and sand-filled NYC and Jersey roadways where most other vehicles wouldn't dare venture. My experience with the Tahoe was more enjoyable, tackling road and trail and always coming out smiling. It can handle some of the worst terrain, yet its suspension seems to soak everything up to the point that back and behind aren't bruised and battered like with with some off-roaders.

Chevy also makes sure you'll be comfortable with the Tahoe's surroundings, providing large, supportive cloth-covered front seats set up in a 40/20/40 bench formation in base LS trim, the driver's portion six-way powered, plus a 60/40 split-folding second row bench, and a 50/50 split-folding removable third row, all positions capable of seating adults in relative comfort. Standard items like tri-zone manual air conditioning and an auxiliary heater in the rear keep everyone at the right temperature, while a tilt leather-wrapped steering wheel features audio controls to toggle through the various modes and functions of its AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system that comes with an auxiliary input and USB port, satellite radio and Bluetooth hands-free, all there to make sure you're not feeling disconnected from the world even when exploring the wilderness. On that note OnStar is also standard, as is a host of safety equipment including airbags for all window seats, while automatic headlamps add convenience, as do standard assist steps, heated mirrors, variable intermittent wipers, remote start, driver information display, and the list goes on. Chevy even includes a weight-distributing trailer hitch platform with a 7-pin connector on its standard list, because the folks in Oshawa know how you're going to use this SUV.

The mid-grade LT model I tested wasn't hooked up to a trailer, nor did I have enough time with it to enjoy any such recreational activity, but nevertheless it was good to know it could easily haul up to 3,720 kilos (8,200 lbs); the rear-drive Tahoe does a little better at 3,856 kilograms (8,500 lbs). Its massive cargo hold can load up to 3,084 litres of cargo with a payload capability topping out at 786 kilos. Rather, I got comfortable in this model's heated leather bucket seats, set the power-adjustable pedals just right, basked in its tri-zone automatic climate control and dialed in my favourite tunes via its upgraded sound system with nine Bose speakers. The front passenger gets a six-way powered seat, too, and those in the second-row can adjust audio settings via their own controls. The rear parking assist the LT comes with is a must-have, and some would say the same about the roof rack crossbars that make the standard side rails functional. I wouldn't want my Tahoe without body-colour mirror caps and door handles either, although I could do without the faux woodgrain interior accents; just leave mine with the nice brushed aluminum that comes standard. There's more to the Tahoe LT, but I've covered most of the important stuff.

If you still want more luxury, Chevy has an LTZ model that comes close to the Escalade's feature-set, with massive 20-inch alloy rims, chrome door handles, a chrome grille surround and GMC Denali-inspired chrome mesh insert, power-folding mirrors with driver's side auto-dimming and puddle lamps, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a heated steering wheel, navigation, a 10-speaker audio upgrade, 12-way driver and passenger power-adjustable perforated leather heated and cooled seats, second-row power fold-and-tumble reclining heated bucket seats, a rearview camera, and side blind zone alert, not to mention special electronically controlled AutoRide shocks with air-assist rear leveling to make its ride even more comfortable.

Of course, there's a price to pay for such luxuries, which fortunately is nowhere near as much as you'd need in order to step up to an Escalade. Instead, the Tahoe LTZ 4×4 retails for $71,595 including destination, not too bad for a luxury-lined off-roader. My LT 4x4 tester goes for a more reasonable $61,010, while you can get into a base Tahoe LS 4x2 for $51,050 or LS 4x4 for $55,510. And I'm not even factoring in the massive discounts available for 2012 models right now, while you'll probably even find that new 2013s can be purchased for significant savings if you go into the dealer fully armed with good information.

Either way, the Tahoe delivers acres of space for all your family, friends and cargo, in a very well made, fuel-efficient package. That it looks great is just a bonus.

©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: SUV, Chevrolet, 2012, Tahoe, $50,000 - $74,999,

Geographic location: Chevrolet Tahoe Road, Tahoe

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