First Test—2021 Chevrolet Tahoe Z71

First Test—2021 Chevrolet Tahoe Z71

08/10/2020

Our first crack at the new, larger, more commodious and user-friendly T1-generation 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe was in a fully loaded, off-road-optimized Z71 variant that rang the register at an eye-widening $76,175 and crushed the scales at 5,893 pounds.

That’s $10,665 and 187 pounds up on the Tahoe Z71 that finished third in our 2018 Beasts of Burden Big Test. So does this bigger, better Chevy have what it takes to wrestle the crown away from the Ford Expedition that won that test? We might not be able to answer that here because this Tahoe might not be putting the new generation truck’s best foot forward, in part because those feet feel exceptionally heavy.

Ride Quality

As the first few miles passed beneath this midnight blue beast, I had my senses on high alert, scrutinizing how this new triple-threat suspension—air springs, magnetic shocks, and a new long-arm four-link rear setup—coped with each ripple and crease in Michigan’s (ninth-worst in the nation!) roads. But instead of gliding above them as if on Aladdin’s rug, I was clearly aware of each bigger bump. Many front-tire impacts caused the steering wheel to shimmy, and all bumps and divots reverberated through the new, stiffened unibody-on-frame architecture. I was expecting an improvement on the Ford Expedition’s four-wheel independent suspension, but instead I was being reminded of the high, unsprung weight the live axles afford in my new long-term Ram 2500.

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I immediately went hunting for buttons or knobs that might direct those air springs and iron filings in the shocks to spare me some of this road feel, but there’s only a rotary knob located by the 4WD controls that offers normal, sport, tow/haul, and off-road settings (plus a button to manually raise or lower the suspension). Turns out it was already in normal, the most comfortable setting.

Suspecting maybe the knobby all-terrain optimized 275/60 Goodyear Wrangler TrailRunner AT tires on 9.0 x 20-inch rims were exceptionally heavy, I pulled one off and weighed it at 86.6 pounds. TireRack specs list the tire itself at 40 pounds—just four more than the base 18-inch tire, and Chevy says the Z71 rims aren’t appreciably heavier. Maybe this early production model is simply presenting “pre-launch jitters.”

Handling

As 3-ton boxes go, this one hurled itself around our local Hell-ring with admirable control. Its sport mode suspension tuning directs those shock magnets to clamp down sufficiently to eliminate the low-frequency heaving and rolling the humps and sharp curves might otherwise induce, while instantly and momentarily releasing them to absorb the harshness that slower-reacting adjustable shocks often allow through in mid-corner bumps when set to a sport mode.

Steering feel is light and linear, requiring no mid-corner correction but delivering little or no road feel either (apart from those unwelcome bump-induced shudders). Likewise, the brakes are notably unnoteworthy, apart from offering good initial bite high in the travel followed by linear response. They manage to arrest 60-mph momentum in 127 feet; that’s 10 feet shorter than on that lighter 2018 Tahoe, and it’s 2 feet fewer than what the test-winning Expedition required).

We’re still locked out of our normal test facilities, so we didn’t have the opportunity to run our figure-eight test, but on a different 200-foot skidpad, we recorded 0.72 g lateral grip—slightly behind the lighter predecessor’s 0.74 g and the (also lighter) Expedition XLT FX4’s 0.76 g.

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Performance

Despite extensive improvements, including the addition of dynamic fuel management (which can now shut off any of the eight cylinders instead of always the same four) the base 5.3-liter Tahoe engine shares the 355 hp/383-lb-ft rating of its predecessor. That means its weight-to-power ratio grows from 16.1 to 16.6 pounds/hp, but it gains four extra transmission ratios. The new Tahoe shifts twice before hitting 60 mph and three times before the quarter-mile, as opposed to once and twice with the old six-speed. That extra leverage helps the 2021 scoot to 30 mph 0.4 second quicker, to 60 mph 0.5 second ahead (7.4 seconds) and to the quarter 0.6 second quicker, going 2.7 mph faster (15.6 seconds at 90.6 mph). The 375 hp/470-lb-ft Expedition remains way out in front, though, hitting 60 mph in 6.2 seconds and the quarter in 14.8 at 91.7 mph; you’ll need the top-shelf Tahoe High Country model’s 420 hp/460-lb-ft 6.2-liter V-8 to race Expeditions.

The Tahoe’s engine note represents another opportunity for improvement. In their laudable quest to hush the cabin (and it is quiet in here), engineers have stifled all the joyful fourth-order V-8 music, so what’s left of the sound that now reaches occupants’ ears seems strained.

Another potential to-do list item for the powertrain team: improve the sport-mode transmission calibration. Simply engaging sport mode while driving causes the transmission to change down a gear, but we became spoiled by the superb Performance Algorithm Shift logic GM first introduced years ago on Cadillacs and has spread to Corvettes and other cars, holding lower gears while cornering, downshifting during hard braking, and generally anticipating what gear ratio would provide peak performance at any moment. I noticed none of this behavior during our spirited Hell-ring looping. We get it; this isn’t a sports car, but if you’re going to offer a sport mode and if a buyer is going to engage it, why not make it sporty?

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Off-Road

Z71 is Chevyspeak for rocky-trail gear, and for $60,495, the base Z71 includes standard four-wheel-drive with a 2.69:1 low range, a unique front fascia that incorporates two red tow hooks and improves approach angle by a claimed 7-degrees, skid-plate protection for the engine and transfer case (the fuel tank, air-suspension pressure reservoir, and differential still look vulnerable), 20-inch wheels with all-terrain tires, and tubular assist steps.

Invaluable off-roading options include the Off-Road Capability Package ($2,450), which buys the magnetic shocks and the four-corner air suspension that can boost ground clearance from 8 to 10 inches (and kneels to ease loading passengers and gear). Selecting this option forces purchase of the $2,820 Luxury Package (HD surround vision—also handy for off-roading, heated seats and steering wheel, and more) and the $465 max trailering package. You’ll also want this off-road because the hitch’s safety chain attachments provide your only rear snatch points.

To get some feel for its off-road chops, I ventured up to The Mounds ORV park near Flint, Michigan. I engaged off-road mode via a rotary knob, shifted to neutral and pressed the button for 4Lo, then monitored blinking indicator lights as the suspension rose and the transfer-case shifted. My first obstacle was some rocky steps, and without a spotter along in the age of quarantine, Tahoe’s nine HD camera views gave great situational awareness of what was immediately ahead of or behind me and next to each front wheel. From up on its tippy toes in off-road mode, the nose and tail never dragged, but those step rails were constantly scraping along rocks and proved to be the ultimate limitation of how far I could progress up the steps.

Without any disconnecting anti-roll bars, the suspension’s articulation was not particularly impressive—one sand ridge left a front wheel dangling without the rest of the suspension looking particularly twisted. And of course, while perched like that, the lack of locking differentials (or fast-acting brake action on the spinning wheels) resulted in a lot of sand spraying from the lightly loaded rear tire. But the Wrangler TrailRunner AT tires afforded reasonable grip in the sand and mud, and this air-sprung Z71 probably progressed well beyond where its coil-sprung predecessor (or competitors) could have.

What it’s Like to Drive

The upgrade to fully modern electronic architecture brings most of the latest modern conveniences, like wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, USB-C jacks throughout the cabin (soon our devices will demand this, and there are a couple old-fashioned USB-A jacks up front), the full suite of active safety and driver assist systems, and bright, hi-res screens throughout (including a pair of 10.3-inchers in back, each with an HDMI jack and USB-C input plus phone-mirroring capability for $2,490). That said, the speedometer and tach are analog     , and the info screen they flank is looking small in 2020 (gotta let Caddy own that 38-inch setup for a while).

The seats are comfortable (even in the third row), the driving position is great, and the cabin is quiet. But I take issue with $76,175 vehicles that don’t even offer adaptive cruise control or ventilated seats. To get either of these options on a Tahoe, you must first upgrade to the Premier or High-Country trim grades.

Towing is made easier with a collection of trailering apps and aids that can share trailer tire-pressure monitoring, store multiple trailer profiles and brake gain settings, include trailer-mounted camera views, check trailer lighting, etc. (But there is no trailer backup assist function to match Ford’s).

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What About Loading People and Stuff?

This has never been easier in a Tahoe because its load floor has never been lower or flatter. The third-row seats motor down and up at the touch of a button (either from the front overhead console or the rear compartment, and partially lowering and raising these seats drops their headrests out of your rear view). The middle-row captain’s chairs fold and then dump forward for access to the back, which happens in two stages: either manually by pulling a lever on the side of the seat or a strap accessible from the third row, or electrically via optional buttons on the C-pillar or rear compartment ($370). No matter how they’re lowered, they must be muscled back into place manually, fighting the springs that help collapse the seats flush with the new lower cargo floor. They always go back up in their fully forward seat-track position. The electric releases didn’t always get the seats fully lowered, and when they’re down, you’re climbing over serious seat tracks to get in back. For these reasons, many may simply find it easier to walk between the chairs. There’s no console between the seats, but for $350, the rear of the front console can motor back to bring the cup holders, climate controls, and rear screen jacks within easier reach.

Should You Buy a 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe?

There is a lot to recommend in the new Tahoe. Traditionally strong resale value and low insurance rates promise to maintain the top cost-of-ownership ranking the Tahoe achieved in our Big Test. Its ride and third-row seating are vastly improved versus that third-place-finishing 2018 Z71. This Tahoe roughly matches the Expedition for passenger space and trumps it for cargo capacity, carrying 18.3 cubic feet more with all seats down, 9.1 more behind the middle row, and 4.6 more in the way back. The base Tahoe tows more (7,700- 7,900 pounds versus 6,500- 6,600), though the maximum tow ratings tip in Ford’s favor (9,200- 9,300 versus 8,200- 8,400 pounds). And this air-ride/magnetic-shock/independent-rear suspension combo pays indisputable dividends in off-road capability and ease of ingress/egress and trailer attachment. On the other hand, the Tahoe 5.3 V-8’s performance still trails the competition, and its EPA fuel economy ratings lag behind the Expedition’s, though the forthcoming diesel will certainly change that     .

I’d be tempted to wait a year to see if Chevy rethinks its options offerings so that one need not spend $63,895 to get a Tahoe with ventilated seats ($4,280 more than at Ford), or $66,415 to get one with adaptive cruise control (though here Ford charges $590 more). Besides, by then perhaps a rerun of the Beasts of Burden test will give us a more definitive conclusion.

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