Backs to the wall
Marc Stengel, Fri, 23 Jun 2006 08:00:00 PDT
Timing is everything. So imagine yourself in an engineering meeting at Chevrolet, Cadillac or Jeep headquarters in the halcyon days of 2002 and 2003. Gasoline costs under two bucks a gallon, and full-size SUVs are selling like crazy. But you're beginning design consultations for the new versions of Tahoe, Escalade and Commander, respectively. Boldly, you pledge to improve the inherently high fuel consumption of models that won't appear for another three years. Management green-lights your recommendations. You're hailed as a visionary.
By the time 2006 rolls around, gasoline costs have edged over three dollars per gallon. Big SUVs have become tar-babies symbolizing unconscionable over-consumption, and customers are staying away in droves. Ideas that seemed visionary three years ago-like engines that toggle between four- and eight-cylinder combustion and systems that can accommodate blends of gasoline and ethanol fuels-now seem pitifully inadequate. Customers are flocking to 30-plus mpg microcars, while giant SUVs barely crack 20 mpg even on the highway. You're castigated as an incompetent.
Making a U-turn in an aircraft carrier is child's play by comparison. But these facts remain: Developing new vehicle models takes as much as three years, during which a lot of untoward things can happen. And, certain buyers simply demand big SUVs for hauling people and towing things. The recent crop of new full-sizers from Chevy, Caddy and Jeep do a lot of desirable things well; but to discover their charms, you have to look beyond the bulls'-eyes painted on their backsides.
In many ways, Chevrolet Tahoe sets the benchmark for the family-sized SUV. There are millions of them about, and they're famed for their combination of versatility, capacity and affordability within the large SUV segment.
For 2007, many significant changes appear. Whether these improvements are enough to win over an impressionable public fanned to frenzy by faddish media condemnation is yet to be known. Suffice it to say, however, that one trip in a Tahoe full of people and stuff will probably always beat multiple sorties in a Mini, when it comes to time, fuel and aggravation.
For 2007, Tahoe's new streamlined sheetmetal is only the most conspicuous change in a vehicle that rides better than ever and transports up to 8 occupants with optional third-row seating. Cargo flexes from 17 cubic-feet to 109 cubes, and new middle-row seats fold-and-tumble more easily than ever to improve rear-seat access.
Underhood, a 5.3-liter "Vortec" V8 alternates transparently between four- and eight-cylinder operation as conditions demand, and Flex-Fuel programming maintains consistent power of 320 hp and 340 foot-pounds of torque even with ethanol content of up to 15 percent. Mileage just edges over the psychologically crucial 20 mpg barrier with ratings of 16 mpg/city, 21 mpg/highway.
In upscale LT trim, Tahoe starts at $33,115, but adding options like side and head airbags as well as numerous convenience and appearance extras raises the as-tested price swiftly. Big SUVs like the Tahoe may be at a historical crossroads, but there are still few better ways to haul eight folks with luggage while towing 7,200 pounds in safe, dependable comfort.
Commander finally gives Jeep a modern seven-passenger SUV with serious off-road capability. In 4x4 livery, a V8 "Hemi"-powered Commander delivers power comparable to Tahoe (330 hp, 375 foot-pounds), but as-tested price is a bit higher ($43,270 vs. $40,020 for the 2WD Tahoe) and fuel-economy a bit lower (15 mpg/city, 19 mpg/highway).
Nevertheless, Commander has its distinctive charms. First of all, it comes standard with seating for seven, although the third row is punishingly tight. Cargo is compromised: it ranges from 8 cubic feet to 69; but a standard roof rack provides important alternative packing options.Like Chevy's Vortec, the Jeep Hemi V8 provides "cylinders-on-demand" capability to help ameliorate fuel economy. But Commander's most impressive accomplishment is the sophistication of its ride and handling. For such a bulky, heavy vehicle, it drives, corners, even parks at the grocery like a vehicle half its size.
This maneuverability, moreover, belies its "hunk-a-chunk" chiseled features. Personally, I find the squared-off, box-on-box exterior of the Commander ungainly; but what do I know? I haven't been flagged-down in traffic behind the wheel of a vehicle by fellow commuters so often since I tooled around in a Plymouth Prowler a decade ago.
Jeep's Commander is an intriguing study in contrasts: brusque styling with refined handling; rugged off-roading and smooth cruising; heavy towing with cramped cargo space. Commander accomplishes lots; whether that is enough to generate popularity for a new "big-Jeep SUV" remains to be seen.
There's something a little unsettling about the new 2007 Cadillac Escalade. Although based upon the Tahoe platform, Escalade is unapologetically unique. Its 6.2-liter Vortec V8 is huge and powerful: 403 hp and 417 foot-pounds. Its six-speed automatic transmission is silky smooth, and features stalk-mounted manual-shift control. Suspension is so cleverly tuned that even optional 22-inch wheels feel sporty over expansion joints.
In short, the new Escalade holds nothing back. It's as if, in these revolutionary automotive times, GM Antoinette is saying, "Let them have bling!" There are seven-yes, seven-layers of chrome on the new Escalade. There's every conceivable gadget as standard equipment: remote-folding rear seats at the touch of a button; leather and wood everywhere; XM satellite radio; heated steering wheel; front/front-side/head-curtain airbags; a power opening-and-closing rear hatch.
It's the full-steam-ahead, damn-the-torpedoes SUV for customers oblivious to both 12 mpg/city, 19 mpg/highway ratings and a $53,850-to-$56,405 window sticker (depending on an RWD or AWD powertrain, respectively). There's no denying, however, that Escalade makes a statement. And to all appearances, there are plenty of potential buyers eager to be thus quoted, "on the record."
5-pass., 4-door; RWD, 5.3-liter OHV "Vortec" Flex-Fuel V8 w/ AFM, 4-sp. auto; 320 hp/340 ft.-lbs.; 16 mpg/city, 21 mpg/hwy., w/ regular; payload: 1,327 lbs.; tow: 7200 lbs; base price: $34,865; as-tested, incl. ABS disc brakes, 20-in. wheels, tri-zone auto HVAC, AM/FM/6CD: $40,020
7-pass., 4-door; "QuadraDrive II" 4X4, 5.7-liter "Hemi" V8 w/ Multi-Displacement, 5-sp. auto; 330 hp/375 ft.-lbs.; 15 mpg/city, 19 mpg/hwy., w/ regular; payload: 1,353 lbs.; tow: 7,200 lbs.; base price: $38,205; as-tested w/ 4-wheel ABS disc brakes, 17-in. wheels, front/side/head airbags, dual-zone auto HVAC, AM/FM/6CD, 40/20/40 middle seats: $43,270
8-pass., 4-door; AWD, 6.2-liter "Vortec" V8, 6-sp. auto; 403 hp/417 ft.-lbs.; 12 mpg/city, 19 mpg/hwy., w/ regular; payload: 1,349 lbs.; tow: 7,400 lbs.; base price w/ 4-wheel ABS disc brakes, 18-in.wheels, front/side/head airbags, tri-zone auto HVAC, AM/FM/6CD/XM Satellite, remote-fold middle seats, OnStar: $56,405