From Czech Republic to Normandy in a Chevy Suburban
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).
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.
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.
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.
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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