What's that on the horizon? Is it an approaching boxcar? A taxiing Boeing Dreamliner? Or did Kirstie Alley go off her diet again?
No. it's SuperSUV.
More precisely, it is the thoughtfully redesigned 2015 Chevrolet Suburban, the 12th iteration of an automotive Percheron that I would call an American icon if icon were not the most overused word in the English language.
Indeed, this super-sized SUV is a familiar sight on the American road and off. It is the nation's oldest vehicle nameplate. The Suburban has been in continuous production since 1935, meaning there will be 80 candles on its 2015 birthday cake.
It is also one of the last traditional SUVs in that it is built on a rugged truck frame and fitted for off-road use, unlike virtually all car-based crossovers.
Over the years, the Suburban has been beloved by people who have to haul a lot of passengers and/or tow a lot of horses. The thirst that kind of work engenders has made it less loved by Sierra Club operatives, who would like to drive a wooden stake through its fuel-injection rails.
Happily, the extensively reworked 2015 Suburban provides more for owners to love, and a little less for environmentalists to hate. It boasts more interesting styling, a richer, much more aesthetic interior, nicer handling, more comfort and convenience, more power, and more economical highway fuel consumption.
Thanks largely to the addition of direct fuel injection, and the higher compression ratio that permits, the horsepower rating of the Suburban's 5.3-liter V-8 increases from 320 to 355, and its torque, or pulling ability, rises from 335 foot-pounds to 383. I suspect the latter has a lot to do with the fact that the redesigned 2015's towing capacity grows from the previous model's 5,000 pounds to a whopping 8,000.
While the new direct injection and variable valve timing systems are helping performance, the direct injection and cylinder de-activation - four cylinders are pinched off during undemanding engine use - help fuel economy. The top-of-the-line four-wheel-drive LTZ model I tested had EPAs of 15 city and 22 highway, up from the 2014's 15 and 21. (The rear-drive model's rating is 16 and 23.) In a mixture of stop-and-go city and high-speed interstate driving, I got 17.6 mile per gallon. That's not bad for a nearly three-ton vehicle that will seat seven, tote close to a ton, and tow four tons.
Driving the new Suburban proved a pleasant surprise. It is more stylish outside than the previous model, and much more so inside. The old dashboard-as-billboard is now a sculpted, saddle-stitched dwelling whose occupants include a big-screen infotainment system featuring an intuitive, easy-to-use navigation system.
Premium materials were evident in the LTZ I drove, as were increased roominess, quietude, comfort and convenience. The latter on the LTZ ranged from a power tilting, telescopic steering wheel to second- and third-row seats that fold flat with the touch of a button in the rear cargo area. The third row also unfolds automatically, while the second must be flipped back manually.
Like most things in life, there's a trade-off here. The fold-flat feature diminishes cargo space. The previous model, with the third row of seats removed, boasted 137 cubic feet of storage volume. The fold-flat 2015 has 121.
Thanks to the improvements to its engine, automatic transmission and suspension, the 18.7-foot Suburban is surprisingly sprightly and drivable for its size. I found it more pleasant to drive than some big pickups I've been in.
The pleasure doesn't come cheap. While the Suburban starts at $47,595, the LTZ I had opened at $64,700.
2015 Chevrolet Suburban LTZ (four-wheel-drive)
Base price: $64,700.
As tested: $72,835.
Standard equipment: 5.3-liter engine, six-speed automatic gearbox, four wheel-drive, automatic locking rear differential, engine oil cooler and a bevy of safety gear (lane departure, blind zone and forward collision alerts) and comfort amenities (heated and cooled leather seating, memory settings for the driver's seat, pedals, steering column and mirrors, along with power fold-flat rear seats and Bose sound).
Options: Included running boards that extend when the doors are opened and retract when they close ($1,745), a maximum trailering package and adaptive cruise control.
Fuel economy: 15 city and 22 highway.
Engine performance: Quite peppy.
Styling: Much improved.
Ride quality: Fairly firm.
Handling: Feels stable, controlled.
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper.
The Ben key: four bens, excellent; three Bens, good; two Bens, fair; one Ben, poor.