Mr. Green Car: Full-size driving: The Chevy Suburban

October 31, 2012

The Chevrolet Suburban is based on a design that dates back to 1934, which makes it the longest continuously-produced nameplate in auto history. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

I often write about driving small, efficient cars. There is no getting around the fact that smaller is more efficient — and cleaner. But small does not fit everyone. Many Americans are on the large side of height and weight and don’t find driving small vehicles very comfortable. That said, I’ve seen some rather large people driving quite small cars. It appears to be more an attitude than a physical issue. Some large people don’t want to drive an expensive SUV around — and can find themselves in smaller cars. On the other hand, perfectly tiny people like driving trucks because it makes them feel safe.

This week, I’ll take a look at one of my personal favorite large vehicles — the Chevrolet Suburban. It is based on a design that dates back to 1934, which makes it the longest continuously-produced nameplate in auto history.

The name “Suburban” was attached to the name of many makers’ vehicles if it was a panel truck with windows used for hauling people as well as products. Essentially, these were station

Photo by Allen Penticoff

wagons — intended to go to the railroad station to pick up passengers and their luggage.

Chevrolet called theirs “Suburban Carryall” for many years, until dropping the Carryall from the name — getting trademark status on the name only in 1988 after Chrysler ceased using the name with their station wagons. There have been 11 “generations” of the Suburban — quite a lineage.

Is it a car or is it a truck? Well, actually it is both. Many consider the Suburban a full-sized station wagon. Interior trim has been available to go from taxicab utilitarian to opulent luxury.

Suburbans were among the first SUVs — long before the term came to be. The body and chassis is based on the General Motors light truck line, usually of the half-ton variety, although it has been available in heavier duty varieties as well.

Generally, the Suburban has been powered by one of several-sized Chevrolet V-8s. They often have had three rows of bench seats that allow for carrying many people at once — although those in back have limited legroom.

“One of the Suburban’s most attractive features has been that with the rear row of seats removed and the middle seats folded down, standard-sized 4-by-8 sheet materials can be carried inside with the tailgate closed. This has made the Suburban the most flexible in ‘utility’ of any SUV on the market for many years. And such has been its appeal to me.” — Allen Penticoff (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

One of the Suburban’s most attractive features has been that with the rear row of seats removed and the middle seats folded down, standard-sized 4-by-8 sheet materials can be carried inside with the tailgate closed. This has made the Suburban the most flexible in “utility” of any SUV on the market for many years. And such has been its appeal to me.

I’ve personally owned three Suburbans — and still have two. My first Suburban (which I still have but has been stored for a decade) is a 1979 four-wheel drive version. It was bought in Texas (rust-free) and brought home, where I rebuilt the engine. This one is a TRUCK with seats. No luxury at all. But very useful for towing boats — it replaced a 1973 Ford LTD station wagon (Brady Bunch green with fake wood trim). It has awful gas mileage — 10 mpg, but when I needed a truck, I loved its crank-down rear window and drop-down tailgate.

I had a diesel Suburban for a short time — again, from Texas. That was my first education in the ways of diesel … especially in the winter. In 2002, I bought a 1990 Suburban, two-wheel-drive that had a nice car-like interior and car-like ride. We’ve enjoyed some very long trips towing our sailboat in this vehicle. It gets 10 mpg while towing and about 15 when not towing. The tailgate no longer opens because the hinges no longer have anything to attach to — they rusted away. Rust has been all my Suburbans’ enemy. I still use this Suburban, but mostly only for towing the sailboat. We drive 20-year-old Honda Civics for everyday use.

The new Suburban can still be ordered in trim from TRUCK to full-on luxury — the latter in the form of a Cadillac Escalade ESV. There are a bunch of other names for the Suburban, both as GMC and Chevrolet. Some are a bit shorter — like the Tahoe. I’ve figured if you’re going to spend that kind of money on gas, might as well have the better ride and utility of the full-sized Suburban than the shorter siblings. Still true.

“Suburbans, until recently, were built nearby in Janesville, Wis., and shipped all over the world. Now, they are built in Arlington, Texas (I believe the Suburban is the official state vehicle of Texas) and in Silao, Mexico.” — Allen Penticoff (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

Generally, I see the new Suburban all decked out with all the bells and whistles that come with a modern vehicle … gadgets and more gadgets. Plush leather heated seats, GPS navigation and three video screens. All this adds up to a sticker price of more than $61,000. But they sell.

The Suburban line has long been a good seller for GM. The engines have received continuous upgrades in technology. My 1979 “Burb” has a four-barreled carburetor; the 1990 a Throttle Body Injector (a cross between fuel injection and a carburetor). Direct fuel injection came along, and now the engines include the capability to shut down four cylinders for times when low power is needed. This has increased fuel economy to 15 city/21 highway for the 1500 2WD. I’ve heard anecdotal reports of 24 mpg on the highway. It is also a “Flex Fuel” vehicle that can use E85 ethanol — but the fuel economy drops to 11 city/16 highway on E-85.

The Suburban 2500 4WD (heavier duty suspension) rolls along consuming 10 mpg city/15 highway. They are no longer available with a diesel engine, and no hybrid version has hit the showroom floor yet — although GM does offer the similar 2013 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid that rates at 20 city/23 highway mpg … starting at $73,850 MSRP.

Suburbans, until recently, were built nearby in Janesville, Wis., and shipped all over the world. Now, they are built in Arlington, Texas (I believe the Suburban is the official state vehicle of Texas) and in Silao, Mexico.

If you have the need for all that people space and hauling on a regular basis and you like the comfort and security of a big truck, then by all means consider a Suburban. But as an environmentalist, and one who is concerned about our planet’s limited resources and where they come from, I’d urge you to do like I do and use your Suburban sparingly, rather than as an everyday driver.

Yeah, there are a lot of other vehicles out there with similar fuel consumption habits — and to me, that is a shame. We’re still living like it doesn’t matter in terms of any cost beyond what we can afford.

From the Oct. 31-Nov. 6, 2012, issue

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