Oil shock version three-point-something is roiling the global economy. SUVs are doing a fair imitation of the dinosaurs in Fantasia. As the U.S. auto industry undergoes a rapid, convulsive, paradigm product shift, I feel a slight pang for T-Rex: the Chevrolet Suburban. I hope this example of the species pulls through. The SUV segment may be history, but the Suburban IS history.
In the last thirty years or so, GM's cycled through product names at a fearsome clip. The Suburban is the exception; it’s been in The General’s lineup for sixty-plus years. Even more astoundingly, it's hardly changed. It’s always been a very large enclosed truck (originally called a “station wagon”), skirting the line between personal and commercial vehicle.
During those years, panel vans were America's urban workhorse. And there have always been jobs requiring more power or rough-road ability. Built for the great American outback, the Suburban was blue collar to its bones. The Car Talk brothers have joked that the Suburban should have been named the Chevy “Rural;” “suburb” wasn’t far enough out (even in the sixties).
The basic “covered truck” design carried through the years. The Suburban didn’t get much bigger, but the cars got a lot smaller. By the nineties, the Suburban was a true dinosaur: body-on-frame, large overhangs, freakishly huge engine, you name it.
The big-ass ‘Burban held one trump card: it drove like a pickup truck, not a panel van. While the 'Burban occupied huge chunks of the road, the SUV was reasonably easy to keep on it (parking the behemoth was another matter). Even Consumer Reports praised the road manners of later models (if not the brakes).
No one is exactly sure what kicked off the boom at the huge end of the SUV market. Jeeps, Broncos and Blazers had been steadily carving out a nice little niche for themselves in the snow belt, the mountains, the midwest and the plains of Texas. And then, suddenly, sales for the Chevy Suburban went crazy.
I’ve heard tell it was a survey that named the SUV the safest vehicle on the road (four tons of not-too-tippy metal will do that) that pushed the Suburban over the tipping point. The built-like-a-brick-shithouse Suburban also held its value incredibly well. The much-bemoaned Corporate Average Fuel Economy "light truck" fuel economy exemption sure didn't hurt sales. Or the fact that the price of gas remained incredibly cheap (relative to incomes).
Sometime in the 70’s, half the soccer team arrived at the field in a Suburban, albeit one kid at a time. Having conquered its namesake, the Suburban belated tried to become worthy of the crown.
Over the next decade plus, GM slowly honed the old work horse’s roughest edges. They couldn’t do much about the size (that was the Tahoe) or the mileage (just barely double-digits), but amenities arrived. GM made the so-called “Texas Cadillac” into a real one (and a GMC to boot). Environmentalists moaned. Safety experts wailed. And still they sold.
With profits approaching five figures per vehicle, challengers for the champ arrived in force. Ford finally won the “mine’s bigger than yours” contest with the Excursion, which was slightly bigger, just as thirsty, far more ungainly and a lot tippier than the 'Burban. The Excursion went into the books as proof that even Americans have limits. The Suburban partied like it would always be 1999.
When gas prices started creeping up, the GM sheltered behind the need for “utility.” They also started a trend to keep the metal moving that has yet to play out: discounts, incentives and low-rate financing. Five plus years later, it’s clear that most of those 'Burban buyers never needed that so-called utility. Turth to tell, the Suburban will always be a compromised car/minivan. But as a “just shy of totally commercial” work vehicle, it was– and is– divine.
A common tale of the Suburban’s power: you can put your whole race team in it, stash the tools in the cargo bay and tow your race car to the track. With that kind of load, eight to ten mpg looks pretty efficient.
I wasn’t sure if this was an apocryphal advantage until one of my ESL students drove a Suburban to Buffalo/Niagara Falls. The truck carried the entire Japanese staff of a tier one Honda supplier and their luggage, and towed the boat for their “retreat." He had instructions from his boss “don’t try to go around any trouble.” The trip made quite an impression on the driver; he looked into buying a Suburban when he transferred to the States (only to be saved from financial ignominy by an attack of sanity).
OK, here it is: I love that old brick. The piggish, plenty-powerful Chevrolet Suburban forces you to stretch your horizons to find a task worthy of its capabilities (and justify the fuel bills). These days, ten grand will buy you a nice, clean, relatively low mileage example. I can’t quite justify one, and my life is the poorer for it.