How do you evolve a dinosaur?
As it descended into bankruptcy in 2008 and 2009, General Motors was set upon by experts and the public alike for pouring its energies into full-size SUVs — the Chevy Tahoe and Suburban, and the GMC Yukon — at a time when rising gas prices and a tumbling economy made such vehicles seem irresponsible. Even President Barack Obama weighed in, cajoling Detroit that "you can't just make money on SUVs and trucks."
GM's new leaders vowed to atone for the sins of the past, and since 2009 the automaker has revamped most of its lineup with smaller, more efficient models, most of them well received. Yet while those new models took the spotlight, GM's full-size SUV business not only survived but thrived — and today, GM revealed the 2015 versions of the Tahoe/Suburban/Yukon trio that will likely power the company's profits next year.
It turns out the obituaries for the full-size, truck-based SUV in a world of $3.50-a-gallon gasoline were a bit premature. Sales of the three have risen 17.6 percent this year to 124,507 copies through August, albeit fueled by incentives. GM says revenues from the three models alone equal a Fortune 400 company — a cutoff of about $6.1 billion a year. And by sharing parts with the Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra pickups, the costs of building them remain among the lowest in GM's fleet.
Much as it did with the new pickups, GM went conservative with the new Tahoe/Suburban/Yukon trio. Power comes from a 5.3-liter V-8 churing 355 hp and 383 lb-ft of torque tied to a six-speed automatic lifted straight from the pickup line — no fancy twin-turbo eco-forcing or nine-speed transmission here, and no word from GM yet of a hybrid variant. The chassis are steel bodies bolted to a frame as God and the Fisher brothers intended, although the hood and rear hatches are made of aluminum to save weight. Even the styling forsakes anything risky for more flat, square planes than a lumberyard, save an odd divot on the cheek of the Tahoe and the addition of LEDs in upscale versions.
The major improvements come from the interior, long the reason such SUVs see as much duty as executive limousines as they do off-road. There's now 12 ways to charge electronics inside a Tahoe, including a three-prong plug. The center console comfortably fits a laptop or iPad. And in reaction to the popularity of its vehicles among thieves, the new SUVs can be orderd with interior motion sensors and window break-in alerts tied to immobilizers.
GM didn't reveal the efficiency ratings on the new SUVs, but it will take more than pricey gas to kill them. The Suburban ranks as the world's oldest vehicle model still in production, first rolling off a line in 1933. The 2015 models will have to adapt over the next several years to tougher fuel economy rules; GM didn't release fuel economy figures today, vowing only some improvement from the prior versions. Those critics were correct in 2009 that it's not sufficient for GM to rely so heavily on SUVs — but for GM to thrive, no vehicle may be more necessary.
And it took a meteorite to kill the dinosaurs.