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Chevrolet Suburban

The 2000 Chevrolet Suburban, a massive SUV built on Chevrolet's popular and tough full-size pickup platform, is a vehicle of contrasts. It can tow a small house, but the standard engine feels weak in everyday driving, thanks to a transmission that refuses to downshift. It has lots of owner-friendly features, combined with some absurdly un-ergonomic designs. It is badged as a Chevrolet, and while there is no Pontiac or Buick version, there will soon be a Cadillac version! Finally, though it is a massive truck - one of the largest you can drive without a special license - its handling and braking are very good.

The first paradox is the powerful engine and poky performance. The engine is willing, but the transmission upshifts far too early, and does not like to kick down to lower gears. The result is lackluster passing or hill climbing power, which would seem to actually hurt gas mileage. On the other hand, forcing the transmission into an appropriate gear results in responsive, quiet V-8 power. There is no overdrive-off button, and the towing/hauling mode button does not seem to affect kickdown. Based on other owners' opinions, we came to the conclusion that our test vehicle may need adjustment.

Both Suburban engines are sort of new - they are redesigned versions of the venerable GM small-block, which have been 305 and 350 cid since the 1970s. The redesign modified the heads and other components, and also changed their size, probably so reviewers like us could not say they were the same 305 and 350 engines used since the 1970s. Certainly, we cannot argue with the results - both engines compete favorably with offerings from Ford and Dodge in terms of power and economy.

The second paradox is the handling and braking. The Suburban sticks to sharp turns as though it is not a monstrous truck capable of towing a small house. The brakes have been heavily upgraded, at long last, making the Silverado pickups the kings of sudden stops, and the Suburban and Yukon champs of stopping as well. This is the kind of safety feature we can love, because it saves the lives of the people who would have been crashed into.

Finally, we have the ergonomics issue. General Motors apparently purchased several million combination wiper-turn signal-cruise control stalks, which do not fulfill any of these functions well, and has to use them somehow. The door handle is too far down on the door, and the brake release is almost directly under the steering wheel. These are not reasons to avoid buying a vehicle, but they are annoying.

On the other hand, the seats are comfortable, and both driver and passenger get their own center armrests. There's lots of headroom. Seat belts are attached to the seats, so they are always handy if a little low for taller drivers. The middle seats in our vehicle had a fold-out console with two cup-holders. They fold down, but do not come out. (For Suburbans without the optional third row of seats, the middle row is the back row).

There is a locking center console, which uses a different key than the rest of the car so that valuables can be hidden from valets.

Interior lighting is good, with focused lights for each of the front four people, and three sets of overhead dome lights. Our truck also had "puddle lights," which shone down from the outside mirrors.

The instrument panel is clear and well illuminated at night. Standard equipment incldues a tachometer, temperature and oil pressure gauge, and voltmeter. We had the optional in-mirror compass/thermometer, a clever gadget whose two buttons, one marked TEMP and the other marked COMP, both did the same thing. A driver information center tells you when your oil level is low, and when oil needs to be changed.

The stereo comes with GM's automatic volume compensation, which increases volume as you go faster to overcome road noise. The sound was very good, and it was easy to change the bass, treble, balance, and fade, thanks to rotary knobs.

The four wheel drive system provides four options, one of which is automatic, shifting into four wheel drive only when needed.

We appreciated the fact that power stays on for all accessories after the key is removed but until a door is opened. That means you can raise the power windows and keep on listening to the stereo until you open the door, a convenience that should be standard on all cars - like the two-part sun visors.

The deep center console can hold a full box of tissues and a bunch of cassettes, along with electronic paraphernalia. It pops up so the driver doesn't have to jiggle with it while driving, and has places on the underside of the lid for two pens and tissues. A very well designed coin holder is molded to the side. The center console has room on the outside for sunglasses and tollbooth tickets by the cup holders, and there is a space on the instrument panel for tokens, coins, or whatever.

One design flaw is the cover for the three power outlets (one is taken by a cigarette lighter). To see in, you have to raise the lid up. When it's up, you can't see any of the sockets. It is possible to stick your finger into a socket by accident if you are not careful.

We had no problem climbing in and out, but some wanted a running board. There is lots of room inside, and the middle-seat fold-down feature lets people get into the rear row of seats. If you want to use them all three rows of seats at once, you'll have to fold down one of the middle seats to get people in and out of the rear. There are places to mount child seat tether straps, and the rear seats have child comfort attachments for the seat belts.

With two rows of seats, there is lots of space for everyone, but with three rows, the passengers have limited leg room, and cargo space, while good, is not much larger than a long-wheelbase minivan.

Ventilation is good, with a quiet fan and lots of outlets throughout the vehicle. Rear passengers have their own controls.

The rear comes with a choice of doors - one type opens up like house doors, the other like a hatchback. That's an unusual feature even in an SUV.

The Suburban is the best of the full size SUVs. Its engines provide both power and economy, and its brakes are unmatched. However, since most people who buy them use them as cars - for commuting only - we must point out that full size SUVs really only makes sense for a small number of people.

What do you really get in a Suburban that, say, the Chevy Venture cannot provide? The space isn't much better, and the Venture's sliding doors and takeaway seats make the available space more usable. Four wheel drive in the Suburban is matched by all wheel drive in many minivans. Minivans are comfortable, handle and stop well, and accelerate as well. The greatest differences between minivans and full size SUVs like the Suburban are their price, efficiency, and towing ability. A Suburban can tow, well, just about anything. But if you don't tow, why are you getting 14-16 mpg when a minivan can get 22 mpg with similar space, acceleration, and comfort? Minivans also tend to be cheaper - you can get a good one for under $20,000, a top of the line one for $35,000. By comparison, our test Suburban listed for roughly $39,000. Sorry, we'll take the Cadillac.

If you're looking to buy a Suburban for the image, seriously consider a Pontiac Montana instead. GM and Chrysler will both be producing minivan-based SUVs soon. Paul Hogan himself pitches the Subaru Outback, a fully practical, all wheel drive hauler.

If you need to tow, we also recommend that you look at pickups. They are much cheaper than SUVs, and can get substantially better gas mileage, but still have strong towing capacities. Incidentally, we find that (not surprisingly) Chevrolet also sells the leading pickup. 2001 will bring stronger engines, but their 2000 lineup is enough for most people. Chevy trucks have several advantages, but for statistical shoppers, we'd like to point to their gas mileage and braking distance.

So why buy the Suburban? Well, if you need to tow something that can't be handled by a Blazer, it's hard to beat. The Suburban is more economical and seems more durable than the Ford Expedition, Ford Excursion, or Lincoln Navigator.

For those with heavy loads to tow, it's hard to beat a Suburban. But if you don't need to tow, we suggest you look at a minivan - or a PT Cruiser.

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