Say what you want about the new 2021 Chevy Tahoe Z71, but I think it looks good. Chevy was going for “ruggedness” (that’s literally the word in the press release), and I think they nailed it—well, at least from styling standpoint. As for actual hardware? Well, I crawled underneath the vehicle to find out; here’s what I saw.
The outgoing “K2 platform” Chevrolet Tahoe Z71 wasn’t exactly built to be an off-road beast (“What it’s not is a super hardcore off-road vehicle,” our Andrew Collins said in his review). It was basically just a standard Tahoe LT with a Z71 package, which added skid plates, off-road-ish suspension, all-terrain tires, tow hooks, skid plates, revised exterior styling, a two-speed transfer case, a shorter axle ratio, hill descent control, and a few other bits.
Now that “Z71" has changed from a package to its own trim level, and brought with it styling that looks significantly more off-road oriented than the standard Tahoe, you might be tempted to think the new “T1"-platform Tahoe has stepped up its off-road game. After all, on its website, Chevy says the vehicle has “legendary off-road capability.” But that’s not really the case. Even with the meaner face, the Tahoe Z71 still appears to be built for only mild off-roading.
This shouldn’t be surprising to most, and indeed, a Chevy spokesperson even told me in a text that the Tahoe Z71 “...is not...intended to be [a] hardcore rock crawler like [the] ZR2...[it] will be awesome for getting through deep snow to the cab.” Still, let’s look at some hardware, anyway.
“Z71 now includes more unique visual and performance attributes than ever before,” Chevy says in its press release. “The Z71 front fascia not only signals ruggedness, it also has a higher approach angle to aid off-road capability.” The document continues by saying a two-speed transfer case with Hill Descent Control is standard, as are 20-inch wheels with all-terrain tires, a front skid plate, and red tow hooks.
In other words, not a whole lot has changed from the last gen when it comes to what the Z71 brings over a standard Tahoe. Well, other than the much more “rugged” face and air suspension (which I’ll get to in a bit). I crawled underneath to get an idea of what this SUV could do when driven onto some uneven, rocky surfaces, but before I show the hardware, it’s worth noting that the Tahoe is now 6.7 inches longer than its predecessor with a 4.9-inch distance between the axles. Size is the enemy of off-road capability (well, after a certain point), so this isn’t a great start.
What also isn’t great is how many vulnerable bits there are under the vehicle:
The new independent rear suspension will likely reduce overall wheel articulation over the outgoing Tahoe, and while that’s not great for rock-crawling, it could be a godsend for sandy and gravely overlanding. Still, those lower control arms sit low to the ground, as does the sway bar, which attaches to the frame far in front of the rear axle.
I also notice that the cast aluminum rear diff doesn’t have any skid protection below, though it does seem tucked fairly high in the vehicle.
The images above also highlight another potential vulnerability which seems to be common in GM products: An unprotected fuel tank. If I recall correctly, an engineer told me that on the GMC Sierra AT4, the tank did fine in validation testing because it sits above the frame rails. And while the tank seems high-mounted on the new Tahoe—especially when compared to the location of the tank on a Jeep Wrangler—I’d still like something to keep rocks from scratching that plastic.
I also noticed that just below the transfer case sits the seven-liter air tank for the air suspension. It’s basically just a metal tank that houses compressed air to help pump the air springs up quickly, and it appears to be packaged with very little protection. It actually hangs down as low as, and possibly even lower than, the transfer case skid plate.
And by the way, that transfer case skid plate is actually cantilevered off of the transmission crossmember, which seems odd:
Here’s another look at that general area:
The transmission oil pan and exhaust look unprotected, but these parts are close enough to the front wheels and high enough above the frame rails that I bet they’re fine. (Even the Jeep Wrangler’s trans oil pan is largely unprotected).
Still, even though the Tahoe has gotten significantly longer and heavier, and it’s got a number of underbody components that aren’t that well protected, there is some good news. Namely, the new Z71 gets optional air suspension, which allows for four inches of ride height adjustment, and two inches of added ride height over nominal. That, plus the new chinless face, seem to be the main off-road improvements of the new Z71 over the outgoing one.
With the same Eaton G80 automatic locking rear differential as the outgoing model, I bet the new Z71 will do okay in the dirt. But don’t let the face have you thinking it will be Colorado ZR2-esque. It won’t be. It was never meant to be.
This post has been updated with some additional hardware photos, some with captions.