2015 Chevrolet Suburban vs. Yellowstone National Park
The best way to learn about anything is to use it as intended. So when we decided on Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons National Parks for our summer vacation, one vehicle leapt to mind for the 2,000 or so miles we'd be driving: a 2015 Chevrolet Suburban.
The Suburban mirrors Yellowstone in a number of ways. It's the oldest running American nameplate, and arguably the first sport-utility vehicle. Yellowstone is the oldest national park, and the first anywhere in the world. The Suburban is quintessentially American, and there may be no more American vacation destination than Yellowstone. The Chevy Suburban is huge; ditto Yellowstone. Yellowstone is famous for venting burning-hot gases, and the Suburban's appetite for burning gas is equally well documented.
You get the point. On a more practical front, the Suburban's cargo- and seating-room advantages over the shorter Chevy Tahoe made it perfect for five people plus luggage for a week on the road.
The perfect park pass
And what a week. If you haven't been to Yellowstone or the Grand Tetons, put it on your bucket list now. Everywhere you turn, there are sweeping vistas to delight your eyes, be they alpine forests, grass-covered valleys dotted with bison, majestic mountain peaks, and always, it seems the famous geysers and hot springs steaming somewhere in the background. Bison wandered across the road in front of the Suburban like they owned the place -- because they do, really -- allowing us an up-close view of these magnificent creatures from the safety of the truck. Old Faithful, the Grand Prismatic Spring, the Hayden and Lamar Valleys, the Yellowstone and Firehole rivers...all of it was easily accessible, the park wasn't too crowded, and having the Suburban to retreat to at the end of the day was a welcome luxury.
The 2015 Chevrolet Suburban we drove was a black LT model, fitted with the Z71 4-wheel drive off-road package. That off-road ability wasn't needed -- not really anyhow -- but the added peace of mind was welcome on the occasional dirt road we encountered, especially the broken pavement of Moose Wilson Road between Jenny Lake near the Grand Tetons and the Inn at Jackson Hole, where we stayed the first few nights. An unexpected benefit was the Z71's rubber all-weather floor mats, which meant we didn't have to worry so much about muddy boots as we climbed in and out.
Conventional wisdom says that Yellowstone is too crowded in the summer, and that the roads are packed with cars and the attractions packed with people. For the most part that wasn't true. Aside from one longish stint at the park's south entrance, traffic was perfectly reasonable, and we always found a decent parking spot close to where we wanted to be.
Easy-to-drive, but still a truck
Similarly, conventional wisdom says something as big as the Suburban is unwieldy, but again, it proved to be untrue. While the Suburban could benefit from bird's-eye view camera system like you find in some Nissan and Ford vehicles, for the most part the 'Burb was easy to drive. It's certainly comfortable, with the solid rear axle nicely tamed by the coil-spring suspension. There was plenty of room for us to spread out, and cargo was no problem at all thanks to the generous flat space behind the third row. The audio system effortlessly overcame what little road noise there was on the highway, and overall the placement of buttons and controls in Chevrolet's latest full-size SUV interior are spot-on.
The Suburban's drawbacks weren't quite so easy to ignore. The steering is still trucky, with a vague on-center feel that required frequent corrections to keep the big beast driving in a straight line. The steering wheel was also at a weird angle, pointing somewhere toward the driver's right chest. We were disappointed that the second row offers no fore-aft adjustment, and it'd be nice if the third row's seatback angle adjusted from something less upright than a church pew. Speaking of the third row, the Suburban's size means those third-row occupants have a hard time hearing conversations in the front row, and they can't hear the audio system very well, either. The gas pedal is also curiously lazy, with the Suburban needing a significant push on the gas if you're in even a moderate hurry.
However, I adapted to all these quirks within a day or so, and by and large the Suburban's surprises were pleasant. The 355-horsepower 5.3-liter V8 had little problem keeping the big Chevy rolling comfortably along at Wyoming's awesome 80-mph interstate speed limit, and making short work of passing those who couldn't. I had the opportunity to test the emergency braking a few times to avoid wildlife, such as the family of bears that darted across the road right in front of the Suburban late one night; no wildlife was harmed thanks to the strong anti-lock brakes and positive pedal feel. Despite the odd steering wheel angle, the power-adjustable seat, steering wheel and pedals made it easy to find a comfortable driving position, vital for those hours-long stints behind the wheel. The interior is downright luxurious, and wouldn't look out of place in a Cadillac from a few years ago. And even the five of us with multiple snacks, bags, cameras and other paraphernalia couldn't fill every storage cubby inside.
But maybe the biggest surprise was fuel economy: I was expecting something in the mid-teens, considering the multiple uphill grades we'd be encountering. But the Suburban managed nearly 21 mpg during the 2,000 or so miles we drove. Part of the credit goes to Yellowstone's 45-mph speed limit, but it's also due to the variable-displacement V8, which shuts down half its cylinders under light throttle.
The drive back to Denver was nearly 8 hours, and gave me plenty of time to think. The vacation, in terms of relaxation and family bonding, was awesome. But as a test for the Chevy Suburban, it was just as good. We saw dozens of Suburbans in and around Yellowstone, backing up my hunch that the big Chevy was the right call. Ironically, a Chevy Suburban doesn't fit into my suburban lifestyle, but my opinion would be different if we lived where its size and capability would be put to better use.
Speaking of which, anybody know how much a park ranger makes?
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