By on July 21, 2014

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My Czech employer sent me to cover the 70th D-Day Anniversary celebrations in Normandy. And since I had to take three more guys with me, as well as massive pile of camera equipment, we decided I need a big vehicle. And the biggest thing we could find was my boss’ 2010 Suburban Z71. Which is obviously an excellent choice for rural roads in France. Here’s how it went.

As you probably noticed from my previous articles, I’m a sucker for large, rear-wheel-drive, body-on-frame boats with massive V8s under the hood. Unlike average European, I consider such a vehicle to be the norm and the ideal for the daily transportation. And it made me extremely sad to see the BOF sedan being wiped out from the American automotive landscape with the end of Panther production in 2011.

So, naturally, when I got the chance to spend a few thousand miles behind the wheel of the spiritual successor of the body-on-frame sedan/wagon. I was extremely interested in finding out how’s the Suburban in real life. I hoped that it would be close enough to a “modern day Caprice STW” for me to serve as a family car in the near future, when I’ll start caring about child seats, safety and space to put a stroller in.

Before we set off to Normandy, I had already driven the Suburban for a couple hundred miles to serve as a camera car for some motorcycle video shoots, so I had a general idea about how the thing drives, and how it works on (relatively) tight Czech roads.

My feelings about it were a bit mixed. The positive part was that the Suburban still retains the incredible maneuverability of the wagons of yore – with a narrow, longitudinally mounted engine, the front wheels can turn in an improbable angle, giving the truck a really excellent turning radius. Couple this with a squared-off body with easy to see extremities, and you can turn around or park in spaces that would present a severe problem for many European MPVs, SUVs or even larger wagons (imagine something like a Passat Variant).

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But there was also the negative. With all the “SUVs are the new wagons” talk, I kind of imagined that the Suburban, with all the improvements of the last two decades, will drive much like somewhat higher, more modern Caprice. But it doesn’t. Not in the slightest.

Those of you living in America will probably find it amusing, but I was quite surprised that Suburban drives like what it essentially is. A truck. Yes, you can think that I’m just stupid European, who’s used to driving our tiny little wagons, and thus I’m naturally flabbergasted by the sheer size of this Chevy. But remember that I consider a Town Car to be a perfect, ahem, town car, so I was a bit surprised that something not even a foot longer, using similar suspension and drivetrain, drives so much different.

I’m not even sure what exactly causes the difference. Maybe it’s the height of your seating position, looking eye-to-eye with bus drivers and truckers. Maybe it’s the heavy controls, which make you feel that you really have to manhandle a great deal of weight. And maybe the Z-71 off-road package did its part, making the car quite stiff. While the old Caprice or Cadillac did have its unique way of getting around, with ultra-assisted steering and huge wheel lock working together to make it extremely easy to fling the car around, the Suburban feels much more unwieldy than it really is.

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Packing up for the Normandy trip, we also saw the better side of the Suburban. If you need to carry four people and still keep enough cargo space for all the stuff you need for a six days of video shooting, the Suburban is one of the very few cars that will fit the bill. With third row seats removed, the trunk is absolutely bloody cavernous. With our remote controlled drone, cameras, tripods, more cameras, personal luggage of four people and many other things, we would be totally screwed if we used any European SUV. Touareg, Disco or X5 may look big in European traffic, but compared to this monster, they are like tiny little toy cars. The biggest problem of the Suburban was that if you put anything anywhere deep in the trunk, you have to climb inside to retrieve it – which, frankly, gets old very fast, but it’s a small price to pay for being able to haul so much stuff.

The huge cargo capacity also made up, at least partially, for the biggest practical drawback of the Suburban in Europe. After years of reading about wonderful fuel economy of the 5.3 Vortec, I was maybe a bit too optimistic about the amount of fuel needed for the 950 mile trip from my hometown of Pardubice to Merville in Normandy. I kind of expected that with all the developments in aerodynamics and engine technology made in the last two decades, the huge SUV can return numbers comparable to the old Caprices I have been used to driving.

But I was wrong. Very wrong. On the way to France, I tried to drive as gently as possible, keeping the cruise set at 70mph and hoping for something like the 20 mpg my old Caprice would get at similar speeds. The reality was 17 mph, which is not that terrible, knowing that an European SUV with gasoline V6 or large diesel engine would be just marginally better. But still, seeing the fuel needle falling with astonishing speed through the gauge was a bit shocking, as were several fuel stops on the way there, each costing about $200-250. As with the dimensions and maneuverability, I’m used to large American cars – but even compared to my Town Car, this was brutal.

On the other hand, if you don’t pay for fuel (which I didn’t), the cruising experience with the Suburban is pretty nice. Even on the stiff Z-71 suspension, it’s comfortable enough, and I imagine that some more comfort-oriented version would really soothe its driver with plushness.

Being used to the nearly silent 4.6 Modular under the hood of the Lincoln, I was a bit surprised by the levels of noise made by the Vortec. Not that I had anything against it – it’s still one of the best sounding engines available, and with its suprising (for OHV plant) hunger for revs, it was really fun to drive, especially in towns or on smaller roads. Power was more than adequate, even for a vehicle that, fully laden, must have weighed 6000 lbs.

When we got to Normandy, we were faced with a lot of driving on tiny, medieval roads, and I soon understood why so many people say that American cars do not fit European roads. In Czech Republic or Germany, most roads are plenty wide enough for fullsize American cars, and 5er BMWs, Ford Mondeos about the size of a Ford Fusion), VW Passats etc. are considered fairly normal cars. In France? Bark was right. Mini Coopers, DS3s, Peugeot 208s and other tiny cars everywhere. Most BMWs were 1 series, Audis were usually A3s etc.

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Even so, it was reasonably easy to drive. The same factors that help with parking in the Czech Republic helped in driving on narrow French lanes. I just had to drive really slow, if I wanted to avoid rolling over, or melting the brakes (which are, to be honest, awful). A less welcome surprise was the four-wheel drive, which I had to use when driving on Omaha and Utah beaches for the purpose of filming. In the sand, it worked well.

But when I forgot to switch of the “4Hi” mode and was greeted by terrible screeching noise in the first corner, I was a bit surprised. I doubt that typical Suburban owners anywhere will venture in any kind of off-roading terrain, but I’m pretty sure that lots of them will encounter icy roads, wet roads and other adverse conditions, which would make full-time 4×4 pretty useful. I know that Escalade has full-time four-wheel drive, and I guess that Suburban has it available as an option, butthis configuration makes it basically a huge rear-wheel-drive wagon with terrible fuel economy and center of gravity somewhere in the ionosphere.

All of this would be pretty much excusable, as the Suburban offers unbeatable space inside, making it perfect for long trips with lots of people and things. But the return trip, for which I finally relegated the driving duties to someone else and went to sleep in the second row of seats, revealed one last, and for me hardly believable downside of the huge SUV.

That there is no damned space on the second row seats. Maybe there’s some way to move the second row further rearward, but I haven’t found it and my boss, the owner of the truck, insists such thing is not possible with this configuration. Which means that the rear (second row) legroom is severely lacking for me (about 5′ 11”) to sit “behind myself”. Which would be excusable in a compact SUV, based on a B-segment car. Or in a large coupe. Or in many other things, but definitely not in a nearly 6-meter long behemoth of an SUV.

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So, what’s the verdict? I really wanted to like the Suburban. I wanted it to be a worthy Caprice STW replacement. I even wanted it to be my next family vehicle in a few years. But I don’t, anymore. The Suburban is, above all, the perfect illustration of why CAFE sucks. Had it not been for stupid regulations, America could’ve still produced large, practical wagons with reasonable fuel economy, reasonable handling and brakes good enough to stop the car more than once without overheating.

Instead, you got this. It’s not a bad truck per se. In fact, it’s pretty good at what it’s designed to do – haul or tow loads of stuff, look and sound imposing, and keep doing it for long time without breaking down. But as a family vehicle? It sucks ungodly amounts of gas, it doesn’t handle, it doesn’t brake and it makes you feel like a trucker.

Maybe it will be cool in 10 or 20 years, in the same way finned monsters from 50s or absurdly huge personal luxury coupes from 1960s and 1970s are cool now. But now? Nope.

@VojtaDobes is motoring journalist from Czech Republic, who previously worked for local editions of Autocar and TopGear magazines. Today, he runs his own website, www.Autickar.cz and serves as editor-in-chief at www.USmotors.cz. After a failed adventure with importing classic American cars to Europe, he is utterly broke, so he drives a borrowed Lincoln Town Car. His previous cars included a 1988 Caprice in NYC Taxi livery, a hot-rodded Opel Diplomat, two Dodge Coronets, a Simca, a Fiat 600 and Austin Maestro. He has never owned a diesel, manual wagon.

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48 Comments on “From Czech Republic to Normandy in a Chevy Suburban...”


  • avatar
    Vega

    “knowing that an European SUV with gasoline V6 or large diesel engine would be just marginally better.”

    We crossed germany last year in my friend’s GL420CDI, which returned 21mpg (US) at constant 80 mph on the Autobahn. That’s 19% less fuel, which I would hardly call marginal.

    • 0 avatar
      Johannes Dutch

      Agreed. Any SUV with a six cylinder diesel (the 420 is a V8) should do 30 mpg very easily when cruising along at a constant speed of just 70 mph. If not then there’s something terribly wrong with the engine.

      • 0 avatar
        Vojta Dobeš

        Trust me, they don’t. I’ve seen four-cylinder diesel SUVs (Opel Antara, for example), which barely got over 20.

        • 0 avatar
          Johannes Dutch

          Trust me, they do. You see, I’ve got a 2002 Land Cruiser (permanent 4×4) with a 3.0 liter D4D diesel and it does 26 mpg on average. That includes 80 to 85 mph freeway driving.

          You’re sure they filled it up with diesel fuel ?

  • avatar
    Zackman

    The Suburban’s fuel bill would bankrupt me in a very short time! Glad that gas bill didn’t come out of your pocket.

    Our daughter drives a 2007 Trailblazer with the Atlas 6 cyl. She loves it, I can take it only so long, and her gas mileage is almost as bad. No deal for me, either.

    Only Chrysler makes a mainstream RWD sedan, but you can get a Chevy “SS” if you really want RWD. Otherwise, my 2012 W-Body Impala serves me in a most excellent manner.

    Your trip sounded like loads of fun, though.

    • 0 avatar
      mikey

      @Zackman…I agree We both come out of a time when the BOF RWD sedan ruled. I stlll prefer the feel, and the ride BOF RWD.

      That being said the modern , large FWD is a pleasure to drive, and far more practical for the times that we live in.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I hope you didn’t drive that Jeep in the salt water ! .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    C. Alan

    “It’s not a bad truck per se.”

    Well this is exactly what it is: A truck frame with a some more seating over the top. The primary reason it is built like this is for towing capacity. That rig you drove across europe could tow at least 6,000 lbs, on top of hauling all your gear. IMO, that is the nitch they now fill here in the USA. You can haul all of your crew in the suburban, and tow the boat too.

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      It seems like the author understood what the Suburban is, but could not reconcile it with what he hoped it would be. The Sub is a TRUCK that will haul a lot of gear and/or people, as well as pull a large trailer at the same time, on or off road. A Caprice won’t/can’t do that.

      There are tradeoffs involved in building a vehicle with the capabilities of the Suburban, but it is unique in being able to do what it does better than any other vehicle.

      Being disappointed that a large truck does not handle like a sedan makes as much sense as being disappointed that your dog can’t do algebra.

  • avatar
    celebrity208

    I don’t think you should have been as surprised as it sounds you were at the differences in ride quality between a 15+/- yr old pedestrian sprung Caprice’s ride with that of a fully loaded, stiffly sprung Z-71 Suburban.

    That fully loaded (people + gear) part likely also played a big role in your less than expected fuel economy. What can help is inflating the tires to the vehicle’s rated max cold pressure.

    On the subject of the 2nd row leg room… agreed. Way less than you’d expect for such a large vehicle but from my memory it is not as uncomfortable as printed leg room numbers would imply because the seating position is much more upright than a car or CUV.

  • avatar

    I have a 2013 Suburban 2500 4×4, and I can say with 100% certainty that it’s a truck and not a wagon. Bad fuel mileage? Sure, but I live in Texas where fuel is still cheap (it isn’t my daily driver). Rough riding on bad roads? Sure, but Texas highways are long, smooth, and straight. On the plus side, it carries everyone and everything to most everywhere, it’s safe, it’s reliable, and still fairly cheap to buy (okay, not so much the 2015s). Texas is a good place for a Suburban; Europe is not.

    And while many cars have become disposable, the Suburbans are built to last. I’ll be keeping mine for a long time.

  • avatar
    mikey

    A good article, and review. The Suburban,and to some extent the Tahoe/Yukon, serve some folks needs very well.

    Similar to the writer my two issues would be maneuverability, and fuel consumption. Gas was a 1.28 a litre on the weekend. I filled the Mustang and the Impala for less than $150. So a big SUV isn’t for me.

    However. if I had two kids, a dog, and a boat/travel trailer. It would certainly be worth a second look.

  • avatar
    doctorv8

    If you get a chance to try out the similarly sized Lincoln Navigator, with its IRS and air suspension, I think you’ll find the ride much more civilized. Plus, the third row folds flat into the floor with the flip of a switch. It’s not quite a Town car, but it doesn’t crash over bumps like the Tahoe either.

    • 0 avatar
      Vojta Dobeš

      I’ve already heard that the Navigator or Expedition may be a lot better. Even the current Ram 1500 Ecodiesel I tested some time ago is like from another world…

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        @MCS

        This is something many on here seem to forget. While an awful lot of the US is wide open spaces and straight wide roads, a good chunk of it is NOT at all like that. And that chunk has a LOT of people living and driving in it.

        And completely agree on how ridiculously small these things are on the inside. But so are BOF cars too. If you want to haul people and stuff in comfort with decent fuel economy, get a van. These tanks are only good if you need to tow something. They really aren’t any good off-road either, they are too big and heavy!

  • avatar
    mcs

    “I soon understood why so many people say that American cars do not fit European roads.”

    This reminded me of our latest incident of an out-of-region driver discovering that narrow European Medieval roads do exist in the U.S. Get into the wrong neighborhood, and the police have to come to guide you out:

    http://bostonherald.com/news_opinion/local_coverage/2014/07/truck_crashes_onto_boston_common_after_brakes_fail

    In fact, that shot of the Suburban on the French Lane could have been shot on a back country road I know of in Vermont – same pavement/gravel color and width. Once you get off of the interstates, New England has the same narrow twisty roads (sometimes laid out in the 1600’s or earlier) that you can find in Europe. Those nice, wide, straight Midwestern boulevards just don’t exist everywhere in North America.

  • avatar
    turboprius

    Totally agreed that nterior room in these is pathetic for their size. My friend’s dad has a Yukon XL. He’s 6’4″, his head is close to touching the roof, and my knees are pressed up against the driver’s seat, more so than our Rogue. In the third row I rode in a couple times, my knees were really high and my head was touching the roof (I’m 6’4″ also).

    If you need to carry a posse, just get an Odyssey. Cheaper, better fuel economy, more features, and a lot more room.

    • 0 avatar
      SC5door

      Unless your “posse” is going to the lake for a weekend with a boat in tow. Either suck up the lack of leg room, or no boat.

      Growing up with all 2 doors in our family, the legroom in these aren’t all that bad.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    I totally agree with your write up up the Suburban. I have an 08′, and love it though.

    Back seat room, yup it sucks. On the upside, I am the one driving 99% of the time, so it is not my concern. Front brakes are rotten, terrible brake fade in the mountains. You need to use the tranny in the hills to be safe, ie, pull it out of drive. The newer six speed makes this easier. I have the older four speed though.

    As for mpg. That I don’t get. I can muster just about 20 on all highway driving once I am out of the mountains. Perhaps someone may know if the z71 option comes with different gears in the back to promote better off roading.

    I don’t find the ride to be all that horrible, again, I think the z71 suspension set up is much stiffer than the traditional LT or LTZ set up for the 1500 series. As for the 4 wheel drive, no we don’t spend too much time offe roading the rig 20 inch wheels and tires pretty much make this an expensive affair… But in the snow and slush with the family it feels solid on the road for sure.

  • avatar
    mcarr

    You can’t get around the aerodynamics of the thing. I owned a 2009 Chevy Silverado with the 5.3, and if you slowed down to 60-65 you would see 20-21 mpg. At 70-75 you’re looking at 17-18 which is around what you got. Funny about different perceptions, most people I’ve know think the Suburban rides fantastic, and maybe even a little too soft.

  • avatar
    mikey

    @turboprius….Your comparing an apple to a pear. The Odyssey is a mini van. A very expensive “mini van”. Using your same argument. Why not save 20K and buy the Chrysler mini van?

    As the writer pointed out the Suburban is a truck,for people that want a real truck. Not a CUV, not a mini van,.. a truck.

  • avatar
    Hummer

    I think you came into this with the wrong mindset, people want the suburban as a truck. If you make the suspension any more car like you lose stability, and to some extent feel. Although I’ve never heard anyone complain about the ride of a suburban either, doubt the Z71 makes too much difference, you found the ride non-floaty smooth on a flat stretch of road?

    17mpg sounds very good, my DD gets 11-12mpg, lower if I wanna have fun. This forum is full of people that are used to getting 30mpg and anything less is blasphemy or otherwise inconceivable. Its all about what you see as good fuel economy. But in reality the suburban is a truck, sure a diesel would be in the 25mpg range, but it wouldn’t sell, the cost to option it and the cost for maintence would be too high.

    You DON’T want All-wheel drive if your concerned about fuel economy, that takes more fuel and Power. All 2 speed part time 4 wheel drive systems are going to bind on concrete its a 50/50 power split. Try it in your Ram ecodiesel you tested, it will do the very same. Most people would much rather have part time 4WD as this truck had, the AWD system isn’t recommended offroad as it (and all) will overheat very quickly.

    It’s a great vehicle for what it does, but you can’t expect a car, its a truck through and through, and THAT is the reason people buy so many. I just got back from the beach and saw an ungodly large number of 2015 Tahoe/Yukon/XL/suburbans, many pulling very large boats with the back packed to the roof.

  • avatar
    sgtyukon

    “The biggest problem of the Suburban was that if you put anything anywhere deep in the trunk, you have to climb inside to retrieve it.”

    I drive a pickup with a cap. The way I solve this problem is I always carry a hoe in the bed. I never have to climb in because if something I want is near the cab, I use the hoe to pull it within reach.

  • avatar
    NeilM

    Good news: The Suburban fits on French roads.
    Bad news: Good luck parking it anywhere but a farmer’s field.

    A few years ago we rented a vacation apartment in France that came with nice underground parking. The midsize rental car fit in the garage, but I couldn’t open either of its doors to exit. I had to return to the airport car rental to get something smaller, but even with the Citroën C2 replacement I had to drop my wife outside the garage stall and park with her passenger door hard up to the wall to allow room to crack open my door and squeeze out. I was always one good lunch away from being stuck in the car.

    European parking spaces are sized for narrow European cars. I can’t imagine using a Suburban there on anything but open roads.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    “Had it not been for stupid regulations, America could’ve still produced large, practical wagons with reasonable fuel economy, reasonable handling and brakes good enough to stop the car more than once without overheating.”

    Station wagon market share peaked in 1959. (No, that is not a typo.)

    Market share for station wagons slid steadily through the 60s, as Americans switched to other segments, such as the then-new compact vans (Ford Econoline, etc.) that had hit the market.

    Blaming CAFE is fun, but wrong, unless one believes that CAFE began as a secret policy of the Eisenhower administration.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    “Those of you living in America will probably find it amusing, but I was quite surprised that Suburban drives like what it essentially is. A truck.”

    I’ve driven Suburbans, I’ve driven Tahoes, (never driven an Expedition but I own an F150, I’d imagine the steering is the same), and I’ve driven Excursions. A V10 4×4 Excursion is by far the most “truck-like” vehicle I’ve ever driven in that it feels like a heavy duty Kodiak, Iveco, dump truck chassis. It should have had “Bluebird” on the side of it and I should have had a bunch of kids on that school bus.

  • avatar
    Onus

    @mcs, for some reason i can’t reply to you.

    Anyway you are right. It’s funny that New England is off most peoples radar. I ready oh Canada has smaller roads, and is densely populated. I’m thinking well clearly no one thinks of New England. The Southern half is part of the most densely populated part of the US. Along with crazy road layouts, hills, blind corners, and cars that like to park on either side of a already small street.

    But the gravel road does look out of Vermont minus the missing trees and mountains. In this case you just drive in the middle right until you encounter traffic.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      I also forget to mention that these crazy roads are a blast to drive on – at least for me. They’re even fun at bicycle speeds! I grew up in the Southwest and Midwest, so I appreciate the twists and turns more than some of the natives.

      • 0 avatar
        Onus

        I’m a native ( from CT, long family roots in Vermont, and Massachusetts back to colonial times ) and love it! I love the organic evolution you see / feel in many of the places in New England.

        It’s fun to blast through the country windows down on a nice summer day. Just did that yesterday in my f250 oddly enough.

        Done it on bikes throughout my childhood and now as well. Though don’t get out on the bike much these days.

        Glad you enjoy it here!

  • avatar
    Mandalorian

    I had a 2002 Tahoe for a while. I found the second row accommodating. Fast forward to 2012 when I test drove a 2012 Yukon Denali. There was less space in the 2nd row vs the previous generation.

    That being said, I truly love these big GM suvs. They have a sense of presence. People move out of your way in traffic.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    -Does the Z71 still have Autoride, or no? I was in an 04 LTZ Autoride, and really thought it rode fine – and I generally prefer quite a bit of isolation.

    -Was the metal bumper an option here in the US? I can’t recall seeing one.

    • 0 avatar
      Redshift

      The LTZ has autoride, the Z71 doea not. It’s a different “offroad” suspension.

      Also, the bumpers are plastic. The silver center section is plastic and part of the Z71 trim on the Avalanche/Suburban etc.

  • avatar
    GS 455

    Nice review Vojta. The closest vehicle to a modern day Caprice STW in terms of car-like ride ,handling and size would be the Acadia/Enclave/Traverse and the Ford Flex. They’re not BOF RWD V8 but they provide the room, comfort and better fuel economy that you’re looking for.

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    It sounds like what you really needed was a Ford Transit crew van, haul 5 people and a bunch of stuff for the lowest possible running costs. Granted a Transit drives like a truck and you would be mistaken for builders but the 4 cylinder diesel would have turned in way better fuel mileage and probably done just as well on narrow roads. If you really wanted 4 wheel drive, you could go with an Iveco (the US market Ram Promaster).
    The Suburban and Tahoe really make the most sense when towing a large trailer beyond the capacity of a European van.

    • 0 avatar
      Vojta Dobeš

      Transit not only drives like a truck, you also sit in it like in a truck, and it makes noises like a truck. Spending a 1,000 miles in one? No way! The Suburban wasn’t as good as I hoped, but was certainly way better than a Transit.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    About getting at stuff at the “far end” of vehicles like this with deep cargo areas, the best way is to fold down a section of the back seat and get at the stuff that way. This also works with cars that have folding back seats.

  • avatar
    Daniel Latini

    Very entertaining read, Vojta. It’s a bit alarming when the expectations of the faithful aren’t met. What are your thoughts on the Chrysler 300/Dodge Charger/Lancia Thema? I’m curious if that would fit your interests better


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