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You can plot the entire evolution of the SUV with the life path of the Chevrolet Suburban. The 1938 Suburban was a prehistoric fish, happily living in the Paleozoic waters. A 1938 Suburban functioned about as well on the road as a fish would function in Death Valley. The solid front axle crashed over bumps, the low gearing for pulling trailers wailed at highway speeds, and the interior accommodations were as sparse as the factory in which it was made. From then until the mid 1960s, there was a clear delineation: the Suburban was a covered truck to be used for truck things, while on the other side of the fence were cars meant to be used for car things.
But beginning in the 1970s, things began to change. In the same way that the late-Devonian Tiktaalik grew vestigial feet formed from fins to walk on land, the Suburban gained independent front suspension, disc brakes, and air-conditioning so it could be used as a truck and as a car. Today, the evolution is nearly complete. Like a lizard losing its vestigial dorsal fin, this newest 12th-generation Suburban has shed its solid rear axle for a softer, better handling independent rear suspension.
My tester Suburban was a top-trim High Country model with an as-tested price of $96,898. The Suburban is available in LS, LT, Z71, RST, Premiere, and High Country trims with the cheapest of all of them ringing in at $59,458 for a 2WD LT. Four-wheel drive is optional on some models but standard on others (including our test vehicle).
Underhood is one of three different engines. Some are optional and some can only be ordered with certain trim levels. The base engine is a 5.3L V8 making 355 hp and 383 lb-ft of torque. Our tester had the larger 6.2L V8 that makes a full 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque. There is also a diesel option in the form of a 3.0L I6 making 277 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque. We tested the 3.0L diesel on a GMC Sierra quad cab and were quite impressed with it, but have yet to try it in the new Suburban or Yukon.
This is the best driving Suburban that has ever been made. I have driven four generations of Suburban and it is not even close. The newest Burb glides over rough pavement, sticks to corners like a 5,500-pound Miata, and brakes with absolute confidence. Older Suburbans used to have a second resonance, though which one could feel the solid rear axle bouncing around and shaking the truck. The IRS setup has done away with that malady completely.
The High Country is equipped with GM’s nearly magical magnetic ride control. It’s what allows the massive Suburban to corner like a car, haul like a truck, and glide like a luxury car over bumps; the only thing spoiling a true magic carpet ride are the humongous 22-inch wheels. The suspension is great, but you can only do so much when working with such low-profile tires. I could do with less bling and more sidewall. One thing I particularly love about the ‘Burb is that its 4WD has an “automatic” setting. Just leave it there and power will be sent to the forward wheels whenever needed; you don’t have to switch it on and off for fear of binding the axles on pavement.
Inside, the Suburban is a very nice place to be. I love the leather and I love its rich colour. The upholstered leather pad under the central touch screen is a nice extra touch, but sometimes makes it hard to access buttons on the bottom of the screen. The High Country model boasts Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and wireless charging. One thing I don’t like is the annoying keyboard style shifter. Some of the buttons need to be pushed and others pulled, yet they all look identical from the driver’s seat. What was wrong with a column shift?
The front seat adjusts a million different ways and is reasonably comfy. But the real party trick is that real grownups can comfortably ride in all three rows of seats. Usually, the third row is just for children or occasional trips, but the Suburban’s third row is a real place one can ride in comfort. Of course, you would expect such space in a vehicle as large as the Suburban. And that leads me into my big gripe with the ‘Burb.
It’s just really big! You’d likely tell me that most people buy a Suburban because it’s big and I will reply that what people want to buy is a vehicle that is big on the inside. I know because I bought a Suburban myself. My everyday vehicle is a 1999 model that I use to tow, haul, commute, and road trip. Compared to my 1999 model, the 2021 is 15.7 cm longer on a 6.6 cm longer wheelbase, 10.4 cm wider and a full 17.5 cm taller. It’s larger in every exterior measurement compared to my 22-year-old truck. Despite that, it fits less.
First of all, my ’99 has three bench seats giving a total seating capacity of nine vs seven in the new one. You can spec a mid-row bench to seat 8. With all seats up my ’99 has 170 litres more cargo space than the 2021 – 135 litres more space than the 2021 if you fold all the seats down. Both trucks have the exact same front hip room, though the 2021 has 2.5 cm more shoulder room and 8.1 cm more front legroom.
The added girth makes it hard to park and hard to see out of. The massive hood makes forward visibility challenging at times and parking this Nimitz-class beast would be easier if the 360-camera and reverse camera had clearer displays. Being a humongous brick doesn’t really pay dividends in fuel economy either: the big ‘Burb sucks back 12.4 L/100 km highway and 16.8 in the city. This is barely better than the official ratings on my ancient Suburban. It would be nice to see some improvement in fuel usage across nearly 25 years! Admittedly, the new 6.2L makes 420 hp vs the 255 found in a 1999, but still.
As someone who fills the back of their Suburban every month with an engine, sheets of plywood, or pails of motorcycle parts, this kind of thing irks me. But in the 22 years since mine rolled off the assembly line in Mexico, the Suburban has left its old ancestors behind. No longer is it swimming with all the other trucks. It has ditched the gills, grown legs, and moved onward; yet some vestiges of the past do remain. It still has body on frame construction, a rugged and powerful V8 engine, and could still tow a Bayliner up a cliff if you wanted to. Precious few owners will. The new Suburban is built to be a huge luxury station wagon, and owners will use it as such. The soft leather seats, rear-seat entertainment screens, and whisper-quiet highway ride makes it the ideal road trip vehicle to carry a lot of stuff and a lot of people. As a luxury wagon, the Suburban is flawless.
Evolution improves the breed. The new Suburban is the smoothest and most luxurious yet. But I actually really like dinosaurs. And I am going to keep mine around for a little while longer.