If you grew up riding around in big, truck-based people movers you’ll feel right at home in the 2018 Chevy Tahoe Z71. The vehicle has all the size, simplicity and off-road pretense we associate with a “classic” SUV. But that doesn’t necessarily make it great.
(Full disclosure: I’ve been keen to drive the Tahoe Z71 since it came out, and General Motors was kind enough to let me test one. It was delivered to my apartment in LA with a full tank of fuel. I spent about four days with it.)
(Update: I had originally thought that the Tahoe Z71’s rear differential was limited slip, but it (and all Tahoe) vehicles) in fact use the Eaton G80 automatic locking rear diff. It’s just not activated or overridden from the console.)
The current Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade, which share the same GMT K2 architecture, have been with us since 2015. I’m not sure if it’s a fault of the design or sheer prevalence of these vehicles, but the look already feels a lot more than three years old.
That becomes even more apparent when you spend some time driving a Tahoe after being exposed to the 2018 Ford Expedition. The fat Ford might be built on similarly basic bones, but the gadgets and gimmicks inside its cockpit make the Expedition feel far more evolved than the Chevy. What you get in return with this Tahoe, if you want to think of it this way, does feel truer to the “go-anywhere adventure” spirt of an old SUV. The optional armoring and meaty tires certainly helps, though.
We took the Z71 on an afternoon adventure into the mountains to find out how that feeling translates to real-world performance.
What Is It?
The Tahoe has been around since the early ’90s as a shorter version of the monolithic Suburban–arguably the longest-selling nameplate in America and one of the biggest family cars you can buy. Frankly I think it’s dumb to commit to riding around in a 204-inch SUV that gets 22 mpg on a good day, and then not want the 224-inch version. More cargo space, same fuel economy, only marginally more difficult to park... seems like a no-brainer.
But neither GM nor the car buying public agree with me; people want the stubby version of this SUV. There was a whole press release about it and everything. And as I write this, GM has reported selling 14,725 Suburbans and 23,643 Tahoes so far in 2018.
Anyway, the Tahoe and Suburban really rose to stardom as America fell deeper into love with more-is-more. As much as I’m tempted to call these SUV siblings carryovers from a bygone era, it’s that ethos that’s still strong and it seems that people are incurable of wanting to be seen driving “trucks.”
Can’t say I blame them, either. The Tahoe’s high seating position provides a commanding view of the road, there’s space for your kids and all the friends and toys they could possibly acquire, plus you can pull a boat or plow through the worst weather without breaking a sweat.
Specs That Matter
The ’18 Tahoe stands 204 inches long, 74.4 inches tall and 80.5 (wow) inches wide not counting its mirrors. That’s a lot of air displacement, but it does make room for 51.7 cubic feet of cargo behind the second row of seats. Unfortunately you’re pretty screwed if you need the third row and cargo space simultaneously. Pull the way-back seats up and your cargo capacity shrinks to 15.3 feet. Maximum towing capacity is 6,600 pounds out of the box in two-wheel drive or 8,600 with a Max Trailering Package. With all four drive wheels running, each rating drops by 200 pounds.
Under the hood is Chevy’s 5.3-liter EcoTec3 V8 that GM claims to make 355 horsepower and 383 lb-ft of torque. It can also shut down half its cylinders to eke out some extra fuel economy. A 6.2 V8 is optional, but that’s a different beast and a story for another time.
Here the smaller V8 is hooked up to a six-speed column-shifted automatic transmission and a two-speed transfer case that can act as an all-wheel drive system by being set to “Auto” or drop down to a low range for extra torque over rough stuff.
Contrary to popular belief, Z71 isn’t a trim level, it’s a package. The $1,850 kit (or $2,630 if you want the Z71 Midnight Edition which adds some decoration) gives the $55,000 Tahoe LT off-roady suspension, all-terrain tires, skid plates, a unique grille, fog lamps, recovery hooks, front and rear parking sensors, the two-speed transfer case for low range, cool rubber floor mats, hill descent control, a “high-capacity air cleaner” and a 3.42 rear axle ratio which should unlock some stronger acceleration from the V8 than the standard 3.08.
The Z71 setup gives the Tahoe a pretty imposing stance but is not what one would call a “lift kit.” I asked Chevrolet how the Z71 shocks differ from the regular Tahoe’s, and here’s exactly what the company’s reps passed along:
“The Z71 suspension uses the same size shocks and spring rates as non-Z71 trim levels. To optimize off-road performance, they’re tuned to be softer at low speed inputs, which provides more cushion while driving over obstacles. Rebound dampening has also been tuned to increase control in high velocity motion; this prevents the vehicle from bottoming out in off-road settings.”
The extra ground clearance you’re seeing is just a byproduct of the taller Goodyear Duratrac A/T tires.
What can I tell you, I’m still a sucker for SUVs that feel like trucks. The tires and softer shocks here provide a nice ego and confidence boost as constant reminders that you’re in a capable vehicle, even if your most extreme adventure is accidentally flattening your neighbor’s mulch garden.
If you do get further afield, the Tahoe Z71 really does have solid traction over loose sand and plenty of power to get through and over obstacles. The A/T tires, which are responsible for most of the traction, are pretty loud but you’ll never know it when you roll up the windows. This vehicle is an acoustic fortress. Seriously—slamming the door is like putting your head underwater.
I also happen to think GM did a great job making the Z71 Midnight kit look exciting without appearing to be, I don’t know, overcompensating. The all-black-everything makes the Tahoe look a little like something the CIA would use to kidnap somebody, but once you get over that the details are actually artfully executed. Also, the new Z71 badge is a thing of beauty.
Backing off the details and looking at the big picture—I am not on board with this vehicle’s design, especially from the rear quarter. The back window looks like it’s been truncated too aggressively in an effort to make the whole SUV looks smaller, but to me it just seems out of proportion.
The enormous, aimless slabs of flatness that make up the doors aren’t doing the look any favors either. With the exception of the ’15 Silverado, which was the pinnacle of truck design, this generation of GM trucks has never resonated with me and I can’t wait until we get a refresh.
Inside, I already mentioned that the Tahoe feels less refined than its rival the Expedition, but it’s worth revisiting here. The general ergonomics and architecture are fine, but the screens and controls just don’t look modern anymore. I’m not a fan of the oddly thin steering wheel here either.
It also would have been nice to get a manually locking rear differential, considering the fact that this is supposed to be the off-road variant. But, while I originally was looking for a switch with a little “X,” I later realized that all Tahoes do in fact run the Eaton G80 automatic locking rear differential. So while you can’t preemptively turn it on, it does provide a big boost of traction when the vehicle needs it.
Driving the 2018 Tahoe around town is largely effortless, thanks to the towering seating position and what must be an extremely robust power steering system. The wheel is extremely light, and believe it or not makes the Tahoe feel like it could execute a U-turn just about anywhere. And of course, the V8’s horsepower is on tap whenever you need it.
Since this Midnight spec is basically just a strobe light away from looking like something driven by government henchmen, you’ll probably find that other motorists give you a decent berth when you come through quickly. I will say I didn’t have any issues with slow moving left-lane hoggers in my time with the Tahoe.
Despite tipping the scale at more than 5,600 pounds, the Tahoe does not feel slow. At all. Mash the throttle from a stop and the thing leaps into action, tachometer running deep into the RPMs and nose pointed high into the air as the SUV’s weight shifts backward on its soft shocks.
The actual 0-to-60 claim is 7.0 seconds according to Car & Driver, which is decidedly not bad. There’s plenty of juice for passing, too. And if you kill the truck’s traction control and boot it with the wheel cocked, it’s no trouble to start a big dirty donut.
Once the Tahoe is underway, it doesn’t feel particularly adept at taking corners quickly but that should surprise no one. Off-road, traction’s good and the suspension can keep up with some pretty nasty bumps as long as you’re not testing that stopped-to-60 time. The Tahoe can absorb one good hit at speed easily enough, but a second unsettles it and, well, it’s no trophy truck.
What the Tahoe Z71 is is a very solid, practical off-road package. You could absolutely rip down corrugated dirt roads in Baja or en route to your favorite campsite in relative comfort without sacrificing much on-road ride. And since a lot of off-road adventuring is actually 85 percent highway driving and short blasts of badly-maintained byways, the Z71 actually makes a lot of sense for most weekend overlanding purposes.
A 2018 Tahoe LT starts at about $55,000. Our test mule rang up at closer to $65,000 once you tallied up the Z71 kit, decorative pieces and Blu-Ray player for the kids.
That seems like an immense amount of money for what feels like a fairly simple vehicle, but most Expeditions I’ve spec’d come out at even more. The Tahoe is more luxurious than a Toyota 4Runner (which is a little cheaper) but not as robust as a Land Cruiser (far more expensive) so the nicest thing I can say about its price tag is that it’s consistent with its competitors.
The Tahoe Z71 is a beefy, old-school SUV with decent chops in the dirt that’s comfortable and quite enough to ride in for days without getting fatigued. It sits on solid bones, and besides your gasoline bill probably won’t be too expensive to run as long as you take care of it.
What it’s not is a super hardcore off-road vehicle, or a particularly modern-feeling machine. Smartphone integration and a couple color displays aren’t enough to look cutting edge anymore, and that makes it a little tough to imagine spending $60,000 on this beast when you could just buy something a little older and get those same “good bones” without having to eat depreciation.
Part of me wants to like today’s Tahoe more than I actually do, because its predecessors from the ’90s (GMT400) and ’00s (GMT800) are still some of my all-time favorite 4x4s. The 2018 Tahoe has a lot of the same qualities that I like in those trucks. It’s a good, classic SUV. It just doesn’t stand out as much as it used to.