Honest SUVs—Where Have They Gone?
I have a good friend who’s car shopping. She currently drives a rather understated, grey 2014 Chevrolet Suburban. Marriage and three rug rats plus regular runs back and forth to their summer cottage means she’ll likely buy another Suburban. The second-row bucket seats and specious area behind the third row in the big Chevy work well for her.
As is the case for many people, a minivan is actually the perfect fit for her needs but she wouldn’t be caught dead behind the wheel of a “mommy mobile.” But now she tells me it’s time to drive something cool and it seems she thinks adding the RST Edition package to a Suburban magically turns the cumbersome, body-on-frame SUV into some rad vehicle with wicked street cred
This seems to be a growing trend: throw on some big wheels (preferably black), pick the glitzy paint (that god-awful pearl white is far too popular), and black-out the exterior details including the windows and suddenly you feel your family truckster is transformed into a dope ride, despite the putrid sports equipment and last week’s fast food remnants it’s still filled with. What happened to the world of honest SUVs?
I may not be the biggest fan of SUVs but I fully understand they do serve a purpose for some buyers. Many Americans hunt, fish, and own a boat. Add in a load of screaming kids along with a stop at Sam’s Club for a multipack of Cheetos in a five-gallon bucket and there’s a Swiss Army knife-element to a big, body-on-frame sport utility that’s tough to beat. My main issue isn’t with the giant vehicles themselves but more in how they’re equipped.
I recently spent a week with what’s basically a poshed-up Suburban on 22-inch wheels—a Cadillac Escalade ESV. I couldn’t believe how poorly it drove and rode. It bounced and shook over road imperfections and guzzled fuel. Why in the world would anybody pay nearly $ 100,000 for the antiquated, lipstick-on-a-pig mobile is beyond me. But take the same basic platform and fit a Chevy bowtie on the grill and it begins to make sense for certain buyers. Well, as long as you choose your options carefully and are honest about your vehicle needs.
Rewind back to the mid-1980s. I was a Boy Scout and our troop leader drove a blue Suburban with blue cloth bench seats. It was very basic but the interior was loaded with space, it towed a trailer with ease and it plowed its way down muddy trails on camping trips with zero protest. The big Chevy wasn’t fast but it didn’t need to be—it was a tool for hauling a load of kids and our gear.
If you’re looking to replicate that setup today, the key is picking a 2018 Suburban in the basic ‘LT’ or mid-level ‘LS’ trim. Either trim carries standard 18-inch wheels instead of forcing you into the 20-inch (or 22-inch) setup. If you stick with the ‘LT’ trim you can also get seating for 9 people—three rows of three perches. That’s a minivan-trumping seating configuration.
As you start adding all the luxury extras and big wheels, you only dilute the package and waste money. There’s only so much you can expect from a body-on-frame chassis. These big SUVs lack the structural rigidity of unibody vehicles. If you’ve ever tried to lift a 22-inch wheel and tire combo off one of these large trucks then you can appreciate how much unsprung weight the old-school chassis is trying to cope with. The smaller, lighter wheels along with taller-profile tires make a huge difference. Plus, you’ll prefer the tire replacement cost with the more petite wheels.
So, if you don’t hunt or fish or tow a trailer and you need three rows of seats don’t think twice and simply pass on a giant body-on-frame SUV. The best plan is to put your ego in your pocket and just pick up a damn minivan. If you can’t bear that thought, then get a modern unibody crossover. Just make sure you fully understand that you’re paying more and getting less compared to a vehicle with dual power-sliding doors and an integrated vacuum cleaner. For those who have actual use for an old-school SUV just remember to stick with the small wheels and keep your truck honest. You’re not a pop star and you aren’t impressing anyone with your pimped-out ride. Your truck will never be sporty and that’s OK. Honestly.