General Motors Co.'s lumbering full-size SUVs are dinosaurs from a bygone era, but don't expect them to go extinct just yet.
Despite flagging sales, each delivery brings in piles of cash for GM.
"These vehicles are minting money for them," said Dave Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific Inc. "It's one of the biggest profit margins in the industry."
GM makes at least $10,000 per full-sized sport utility vehicle sold, he estimates. (Not to mention the windfall for the nearest gas station.)
Models such as the all-new 2015 Chevy Tahoe and Suburban and the GMC Yukon are holdouts from a time when gas was cheap, big was cool and the current king of family haulers — the crossover — had not yet been born.
But that was then. In 2002, Chevrolet sold 21/2 times the number of Tahoes as it did in 2013. All large SUVs accounted for just 1.7% of U.S. auto sales last year, down from 5.4% in 2001.
The latest crossovers, built on car platforms, offer nearly all the advantages of traditional SUVs with few of the downsides. Beyond better fuel economy, they outstrip most large SUVs in refinement and interior functionality.
"Automakers are a lot smarter in terms of squeezing more out of vehicles they're making today," Sullivan said. "It's not as cool as it used to be to drive things that big. And there are just so many other alternatives to full-size SUVs."
Yet the new Chevy and GMC models — rolling into dealerships now — show that GM isn't ready to give up on the segment. The automaker has dominated large SUVs for years, grabbing an average of 68% of all sales over the last decade. GM hopes the overhaul it gave the new Chevy Tahoe and Suburban and the GMC Yukon will maintain this stranglehold as it continues to milk big profits from a waning market.
These 2015 GM models certainly hit their marks: style, refinement and efficiency are all improved. The updates should help the SUVs widen their lead over competitors that haven't been updated much in years. This includes GM's closest competitor in this segment, the Ford Expedition, as well as the Nissan Armada and Toyota Sequoia.
GM may toss in more updates later in these models' life span, including a diesel engine or a nine- or 10-speed automatic transmission. Such updates will be crucial, especially considering that Ford will debut a new Expedition this year, swapping its V-8 for Ford's popular EcoBoost turbo V-6.
It's not hard to see why GM wants to maximize sales, even in a segment that's expected to dwindle to less than 1% of the market by 2019.
Chevy's Tahoe and larger Suburban are largely based on the brand's Silverado full-size truck. A base Silverado with a V-8 goes for about $28,000 before any rebates or incentives.
The base price of a 2015 Tahoe is $45,890.
Yes, the Tahoe offers more amenities. But unless Chevy is weaving $100 bills into the Tahoe's seat cushions or lining the glove box with rare earth metals, there's no way the difference costs the brand $18,000 per vehicle.
The pot only gets sweeter for GM once buyers stray into the fancier GMC Yukon and Yukon Denali models, or pile options onto their Chevy like those on our loaded tester — which stickers at an eye-popping $70,000. And buyers in this segment have the money to spend; Chevy said its target buyer for the Tahoe and Suburban have an average household income of about $128,000.
Buyers do get more for their money these days. Truck-based SUVs once suffered from the same lack of refinement and ride quality as the pickups on which they were based.
But today's trucks, including the recently redesign Silverado, are more refined than ever. And so is the new Tahoe.
The ride quality on our tester benefited from GM's magnetic ride control suspension, which continuously varies the impacts from the road and adjusts accordingly. This system has proved itself on the likes of Chevy's Corvette Stingray and performance-oriented Camaro models, and it doesn't disappoint in the Tahoe — more than one passenger commented on its surprisingly comfy ride. The system is standard on the high-end LTZ version we tested, as well as various GMC models.
The cabin was whisper quiet, sealed off from the harsh road and wind noise. Chevy uses higher-grade materials in this generation of Tahoe, and everything is bolted together with laudable attention to detail and craftsmanship.
The front and middle seats (captain's chairs on our tester) offered gobs of space. But the third row was short on legroom in the Tahoe and still snug on the larger Suburban, surprising given both vehicles' overall girth. At least the rear seats now fold flat rather than needing to be hauled into your garage to gather dust and cat hair.
Blame this lack of space on these vehicles' old-school solid rear axle and suspension design. GM chose not to invest in independent suspension, a stark contrast to the Expedition. In addition to the Ford's smoother ride quality, third-row space in the Expedition and Expedition EL models resembles your living room.
Under the hood of both Chevy SUVs is an all-new 5.3-liter V-8 engine. Though the size is the same, a higher compression ratio, direct injection and cylinder deactivation combine to boost power and efficiency.
Horsepower jumps to 355 from 320, and torque rises to 383 pound-feet from 335. A six-speed automatic transmission remains. While this powertrain was enough to move the nearly 5,700-pound Tahoe around, the transmission at times felt a bit sleepy in its downshifts.
But the engine is plenty refined and a bit less thirsty. The all-wheel-drive Tahoe tested is rated at 16 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway, gains of one mile per gallon for each category. During five days of driving, more on the highway than in the city, we averaged 17.8 mpg.
As mentioned, our test vehicle was a loaded Tahoe LTZ with an eye-watering price tag. This version included a long list of high-dollar amenities that pushed the price to $70,085. That's well into the territory of a healthy BMW X5 or Range Rover Sport, both of which just spank the Tahoe in terms of pure luxury.
But for buyers willing to stomach such a high bill, the goodies included leather seats that were heated and cooled up front, an 8-inch touch-screen navigation and infotainment system, a rear-seat DVD player, power-retractable running boards, adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, forward collision warning and 20-inch wheels.
Throw in the cylinder deactivation, the fancy suspension and newfound refinement, and maybe these GM full-size SUVs aren't dinosaurs after all. Maybe they're more like cows — cash cows. No wonder GM isn't quite ready to put them out to pasture.
2015 Chevrolet Tahoe
Times' take: The segment leader gets better, but weaknesses linger
Highs: Quiet, refined cabin; smooth ride; increased efficiency
Lows: Third-row and cargo space still down, V-8 still sleepy and thirsty
Vehicle type: Four-door full-size SUV
Base price: $45,890
Price, model as tested: $70,085, LTZ all-wheel drive
Powertrain: 5.3-liter, direct-injected V-8 engine, part-time all-wheel drive
Transmission: six-speed automatic
Torque: 383 pound-feet
EPA fuel economy rating: 16 mpg city, 22 mpg highway