The Chevrolet Tahoe offers good towing capabilities and can haul up to nine passengers or two passengers and a mountain of cargo or anything in between.
Inside, the first two rows offer legroom and head room comparable to most sedans but more shoulder and hip room because of Tahoe's six-and-a-half foot width. Fold the second row of seats and remove the third row and the Tahoe offers nearly 109 cubic feet of cargo space.
Towing capacity is up to 8,500 pounds. Based on a platform similar to the Suburban and Silverado models, the Tahoe makes a stable rig for pulling trailers.
With its rigid chassis, the Tahoe feels taut for its size, steering is precise and responsive, and the brakes are capable and smooth. The ride quality is generally smooth, even with the available 20-inch wheels. At highway speeds, we found the Tahoe quiet and comfortable.
Engine choices are a pair of 5.3-liter V8s that feature GM's Active Fuel Management to save gas; you can't even feel the switch between four and eight cylinders, which generally occurs with your foot off the gas or steady-state cruising. The major difference between the two engines is that one has a cast-iron block and the other an aluminum block; each delivers 320 horsepower, is matched with a 6-speed automatic transmission, and provides all the power and performance most customers will need. The engines are also E85-compatible, which means they will run on 85-percent ethanol fuel. EPA fuel economy ratings are 15/21 mpg City/Highway.
The Tahoe Hybrid has a 6.0-liter V8 of 332 horsepower and a two-mode hybrid system, and works seamlessly. It offers drastically improved urban fuel economy and slightly more power compared to other models, but tows less, weighs more and costs more. The Hybrid model provides an answer for those who spend the week in city traffic but want to tow up to 6,200 pounds and bring the family on the weekend. EPA ratings for the Hybrid are 21/22 mpg City/Highway.
The available Autotrac four-wheel drive can be left engaged on dry pavement and includes low-range gearing. It comes in handy for rugged terrain and serious snow and ice, but it's also handy for yanking a boat up a slippery boat ramp or pulling a trailer out of a silty, sandy parking area, those momentary needs that can be so crucial.
Changes for 2011 are limited to new colors and available 20-inch chrome-clad wheels on the top-of-the-line LTZ model. And the trailering package now includes an integrated trailer brake controller. The mid-level 2011 Tahoe LT includes an available Bose premium nine-speaker audio, plus standard power-adjustable pedals, remote start, rear park assist, and heavy-duty locking rear differential. The Z71 Off-Road Package is also available on the LT. A single-speed transfer case is standard on four-wheel drive models, with a two-speed case optional.
Chevrolet Tahoe LS 2WD ($37,570), LS 4WD ($41,630); LT 2WD ($42,420), LT 4WD ($45,270); LTZ 2WD ($51,055), LTZ 4WD ($54,160); Hybrid 2WD ($50,735), Hybrid 4WD ($53,540)
The Chevrolet Tahoe features a crisp design with curved edges, fully wrapped front fascia that eliminates air-grabbing gaps, doors that wrap over the rocker panels, and a steeply raked windshield.
One result of the streamlined body is optimal fuel economy, according to GM. Automotive engineers judge wind-cheating aerodynamics by a factor known as the coefficient of drag: The lower the number, the easier air flows over it. The Tahoe has a Cd of 0.36. The Hybrid is even more slippery, with a Cd of 0.34. However, total drag also includes frontal area, and the Tahoe's substantial frontal profile means it isn't as low-drag as a much smaller vehicle with a slightly higher Cd.
Up front, the Tahoe features a clean interpretation of Chevrolet's two-tier front grille with a central bowtie logo. Tow hook openings flank the license plate frame and they are, on cars so equipped, flanked by fog lights. The sides of the Tahoe have little ornamentation, yielding a smooth design. Windows aren't shrunk in the name of style and offer a decent view; unlike the Suburban the rear side windows do not roll all the way down. And at the rear, the liftgate has separate opening glass to offer easier loading of small items and the bumper top is ribbed for safer roof loading.
The smooth appearance doesn't mean the Tahoe looks soft. Built on a wide frame, this is a commanding vehicle with a strong stance. A bulging hood enhances its visual strength. Further boosting the muscular look are standard 17-inch wheels, with 18s and 20s available.
The LTZ model can be distinguished by its standard chrome accents on the door handles and grille inserts.
The Hybrid model has several distinct characteristics. To offset the added weight of the hybrid system (the Hybrid Tahoe weighs about 250 pounds more than a standard Tahoe) and reduce drag, the front end features an aluminum hood and front bumper beam, a lowered air dam, and a slightly larger grille opening to offset the blocked off fog light and tow hook openings and smaller lower air inlets. Along the sides, the running boards are tapered front and rear for improved aerodynamics and the wheel flares are slightly reshaped. At the back, the rear side pillars, roof spoiler and center high-mounted stoplight have a unique shape, the tailgate is made of aluminum and has fixed glass, and LED tail lights. The wheels are more aero efficient and the tires have lower rolling resistance. The spare tire and jack have been replaced by a tire inflation kit. Hybrids also carry H logos with a printed-circuit board-like center and substantial Hybrid wallpaper along the door sides.
The Chevrolet Tahoe instrument panel and center stack are cleanly designed and easy to use. The gauge cluster is attractive and informative, dominated by the large, easy-to-read tachometer and speedometer in black with blue-green numbers; the tachometer scale ends where redline would otherwise be marked. Oil pressure, voltage and water temperature gauges are standard, providing data many other vehicles leave to warning lights.
While largely plastic, the cabin materials are finished well and fit together with tight tolerances. With the available leather upholstery, the look is upscale; we find the lighter colors look more luxurious, the black very businesslike. Small items storage space is abundant, with a large center console, map pockets in the doors, a big glovebox and a handy tray below the center stack.
The Hybrid gets a modified instrument panel. The tachometer has an AutoStop position between 0 and 1000 rpm to show when the gasoline engine is off but the car is still on, the oil pressure gauge moves to the voltmeter position, and an Economy gauge goes top left. In theory this gauge is to give a quick-glance indication of how efficiently you're driving, but unlike the others that swing right to show more the Economy gauge swings right when you're using the most fuel, not getting the best economy. It also doesn't always agree with the screen.
Hybrids have navigation as standard, in part so you can use the screen (if desired) to watch power flow amongst the gas engine, battery pack and electric motors. When you lift off the gas to coast or slow the center screen shows the battery being charged but the Economy gauge stays planted in its default center position. Only when the brake pedal is pressed does the Economy gauge needle move left and the screen shows battery charge. The screen display could be distracting, so just keep the Economy gauge from swinging right and you'll be efficient.
The touch-screen navigation/audio systems work well and easily; we never had to consult the owner's manual to get what we wanted. If you're subscribed you get XM radio and real-time traffic data as well, and non-navi cars have options with OnStar. The switchgear is clearly labeled and arranged, the rotary light and drive switches both default to automatic, and the rear wiper switch is cleanly integrated onto the turn signal stalk.
The spacious interior of the Tahoe can be enjoyed from any of the three rows of seats. The driver sits up high with a good view of the road; steering wheel/seat/pedal/instrument placement is such that the eye is drawn to right of center. With tilt wheel, power seat (with manual backrest adjustment on some) and available adjustable pedals most drivers should find a proper, safe driving position. Roof pillars are narrower than on a Hummer but they are still substantial; taller drivers mentioned the top of the left windshield pillar and shorter drivers the pillar behind the right side door and the third-row seat which should be left folded when not occupied.
Front and second row seats have leg and headroom just slightly larger than Chevrolet's shorter outside Malibu and Impala sedans, but many inches more in hip and shoulder room that makes three-across in the second row a realistic proposition. It's worth noting that the Hybrid's lighter-weight front seats are also thinner; they don't feel any less comfortable than the standard seats but they add more than an inch to rear seat knee room and we'd like to see them standard everywhere.
A yank on the second-row seat lever (or push on the optional button) flips the seat up for access to the third row. We sat in the third-row seats and found that short-to-average adults fit, though they will likely feel insulted if kept back there more than 10 or 15 minutes. The Tahoe's rear suspension design means there is no foot well behind the second row; the seats sit on the cargo deck like very well upholstered beach chairs.
Like the second-row bench, the third-row seats have three seatbelts but no center headrests. They are split 50/50; the backrests fold down, the whole seat can be folded up against the second row, or they can be pulled back and lifted out. Unlike most of the competition big loads in the Tahoe require leaving the third row out of the truck somewhere.
With the third row out and second row folded Tahoe has full-size cargo space of 108.9 cubic feet, 60.3 cubic feet behind the second row and 16.9 cubic feet behind the third row. The load height is about the same height as a typical pickup bed.
The Tahoe rides quite well for a big, heavy utility and drives much less like a truck than its predecessor. We won't say it drives like a car, at least any car less than 10 years old because those have also advanced.
The Tahoe uses independent front suspension and five-link rear suspension with coil springs at both ends. There is noticeable body roll, some pitching on frost heaved interstates and nose-dive under heavy braking, but these characteristics are expected in a truck and do a good job of communicating how hard you're pushing it while maintaining stability. Multiple suspension tuning choices are offered, with a smooth ride setup standard on most, Autoride providing real-time damping and self-leveling rear on the LTZ, and the Z71 package for off-road use. The Z71 is firm and set-up more towards speed over rough terrain than softness for ultimate articulation, and the Autoride proves useful on variable road surfaces or towing; do remember automatic leveling on the truck is not a substitute for a proper weight-distributing hitch.
We prefer the smaller-diameter wheels over the 20-inch wheels. The ride was comfortable but not at all soft or spongy with the taller tires on the 17-inch wheels, and a truck with 20s got us along a winding road only slightly faster than 18s and that difference is easily attributed to the 20-inch tire being more performance oriented. The 20-inch wheels might look nice, but they come with tires with nearly three inches less sidewall area and thus provide much less cushion for absorbing bumps along the way. We recommend you try the 20s before you buy.
The Tahoe's steering is among the best in big, truck-based utilities, nicely weighted and void of free play and any wander. Three-ton trucks more than six feet tall don't change direction like cars and if you approach a corner too fast the Tahoe understeers and scrubs off speed; the predictability and consistency are ideal for the average Tahoe driver.
The 5.3-liter V8 and its 6-speed automatic are plenty for the Tahoe, and the 6-speed lets the engine use its four-cylinder mode to best advantage; it takes fuel to make power and move the Tahoe down the road, regardless of the number of cylinders being used.
The transmission will make the right gear decisions, and it has a tow-/haul mode for use pulling a substantial trailer. It also offers a manual mode via a shift button on the stalk but you must first move the lever to the M position. Engaging tow/haul mode changes the one-touch lane-change signal from three blinks to six, a useful feature.
Maximum tow capacity is listed at 8,500 pounds, but that's assuming you go alone in an empty truck. If you plan on bringing friends, gear and any trailer more than 6,500 pounds, we recommend checking into a Suburban.
It sounds oxymoronic but driving the Tahoe Hybrid is both different and the same. You don't do anything different to drive it, and the gas-electric drive system controls everything automatically. Turning the key always switches it on but doesn't always start the gas engine like you're used to; that happens more often at temperature extremes and ours more when we chose Reverse than when we went to Drive.
At very low speeds in the Hybrid propulsion is by electric power only, and you have to watch for people walking out in front of you in parking lots since there is only tire noise. The system will do 30 mph on electric power alone in ideal circumstances but in most cases the gas engine is on by 10 mph. The system usually shuts off the gas engine when the vehicle is stationary and the majority of the time your foot is on the accelerator pedal it is a combination of the gas engine and electric motors powering you.
If you step on the pedal hard as you might to get across a busy street there is a moment, some fraction of a second, before the gas engine starts and the system delivers its full 367 pound-feet of torque, so you should try that in the open a couple of times to know exactly how the truck will respond. There's enough power to get the Hybrid (and a 4,000-6,000 pound trailer) going easily, though it may sound odd at first as the gas engine goes to a certain rpm and stays there while the truck catches up with it.
The Hybrid system uses an Atkinson-cycle 6.0-liter V8 engine and dual electric motor/generators inside a transmission with four conventional gears because in certain high-load conditions those are the most efficient; the 300-volt battery pack is beneath the second-row seat so it uses no cargo space.
That battery pack is charged by the motor/generators when the gas engine runs and when you are moving with your foot off the pedal, such as descents and approaching stop signs. Energy that would normally be turned into heat by the brakes is used to recharge the battery pack which is why the Hybrid's fuel economy advantage is primarily in the city.
Although the nav-screen display shows the battery being charged when your foot is off the accelerator pedal, the Economy gauge does swing to the charge side until the brake pedal is pressed, and it doesn't go far right until the pedal is pressed hard. This makes the brake pedal a bit touchy in maneuvering and makes most drivers stop with more lurch because energy being recaptured for charging decreases with speed so the brakes have to take over. This is typical behavior of hybrids and practice will eventually smooth things but it's difficult to match a non-hybrid Tahoe for braking smoothness.
We found that manually downshifting to control speed on long descents did not appreciably increase the charge rate like we expected it to; gas engine compression helped but needing the brakes at all surprised us. The battery could have been at full charge (unlikely after the climb up the hill) but we never noticed battery charge level on the screen. We also found that if you got on the brakes hard there was a momentary delay before the needle-swing to heavy charge rate so the brakes would smell at the bottom of a tight, winding hill. In comparison, a standard gas-engine Tahoe where we could use the tap shifter and extra gears for ideal control didn't have smelly brakes at the bottom of the hill.
We don't think the standard Tahoe's 250-pound weight advantage over the Hybrid made the difference there, but it probably played some part in the Hybrid feeling a bit more ponderous than the standard Tahoe. The Hybrid's low rolling resistance tires didn't handle any less competently than other same-size all-purpose tires, although they feel like 20-inchers on some sharp, small impacts (like lane-divider dots) and we suspect they run higher pressure than the standard Tahoe. The Hybrid uses a 42-volt motor to drive the steering pump and while steering feel is as good as a regular Tahoe we like that this keeps up better in repeated maneuvering, like trail rides or backing a trailer, and that the Hybrid's engine compartment is very clean and uncluttered.
On level urban highways our 4WD Hybrid's trip computer showed 20.3 mpg; around town without any gridlock or jams, it showed 16.5; and in a mixed, relaxed drive it recorded 19.8 mpg (the gas pump and GPS backed up these numbers). When we drove a similarly-equipped non-hybrid 5.3-liter with the 6-speed automatic in the same places, conditions, speeds and times, it bettered the Hybrid on the highway at 21.2 mpg, did 13.3 around town and the mixed route at 17.7.
The Hybrid is ideal for people who spend all week plodding around in a city but take the family and a 4,500-pound trailer out on a weekend. Without the city use the standard Tahoe will serve as well, and if you don't tow a trailer a minivan or larger crossover will have more room, drive more comfortably, offer the higher seating position, be just as safe, and get better mileage. Given our test results and the fact that the Hybrid has a slightly smaller fuel tank, long-distance cruising range might be better on a non-Hybrid.
Since our nearest E85 station needs most of a fuel tank to make a round trip to we did not have an opportunity to test on E85. We've found no reason to doubt the 25-percent decrease in mileage reflected in EPA figures and expect performance to be at least as good as the gasoline engines.
The Chevrolet Tahoe offers cargo space, passenger accommodations, and towing capacity. It's a full-size truck and handles like one, offers the versatility of real low-range four-wheel drive, while delivering a good ride and a pleasant interior. The Hybrid model gets decent mileage in the city and the standard version is a better highway-cruiser value.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale reported from Los Angeles, with Kirk Bell in Chicago and Larry Edsall in Phoenix.