The Chevy Tahoe has pretty much set the standard for families seeking a rugged, body-on-frame 3-row SUV. Such sport utility vehicles differ from more sedate sedan-based crossovers in that they are built on a truck chassis and made with towing and off-road capability in mind just as much as they are for hauling families. But what if you wanted the capability but didn't need the third row?

Chevy has an answer for that in the new, 2018 Tahoe Custom. This is the first Tahoe in years made specifically with two rows of seats, vs. the standard setup with its small (and rather cramped) third row. A third-row delete has actually been offered to fleet customers in the past, but the Tahoe Custom is meant for everyday buyers who want all the capability and ruggedness of Chevy's full-size SUV but have no need for a third row.

The benefits of less

The 2-row, 5-passenger Tahoe Custom provides a couple of benefits. The first is slightly more cargo space behind the second row. While the third-row seat in other Tahoes folds flat, deleting it and the folding mechanism grants a couple more feet, increasing space behind the second row from 51.7 cubic feet to 54. This also creates a lower load floor, which makes it easier to utilize the extra space.

The other major benefit of this new Chevy Tahoe is the bottom line. The Tahoe Custom is now the least-expensive model in the lineup. With its $44,995 starting price, it's $3,750 less than the LS model on which it's based.

As a base model, you won't find the kind of accoutrements you would in a top-line Tahoe Premier. So no leather interior, heated and ventilated seats, hands-free power liftgate or power-retractable assist steps. But you still get amenities like a robust infotainment system with 8-inch touch display, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone compatibility, 4G LTE connectivity with Wi-Fi hotspot, and of course a stout 5.3-liter V8 engine. With 355 horsepower on tap, the 2018 Tahoe Custom has a standard towing capacity of 6,600 pounds, and that figure can be increased to 8,600 pounds with the max trailering package.

Adding to the Tahoe Custom's value proposition is the available Enhanced Driver Alert Package, which includes key safety features like forward collision alert with automatic emergency braking, automatic high-beam control and lane-keep assistance. At $695, it's a value-packed option we highly recommend.

The Tahoe Custom comes with rear-wheel drive (RWD) standard, 4-wheel drive (4WD) is available for $3,000 more.

Also: Get your first look at the new and redesigned cars of 2018

We take it on an adventure

We had an opportunity to drive the new Tahoe Custom and use it as Chevy's intended younger and active drivers would: towing off-road vehicles for some fun in the desert. In this case, we pulled Polaris RZRs from downtown Las Vegas to Jean, where we connected with the off-road experts at Zero1.

From there, their guides led us on miles and miles of trails where we got to do a different kind of comparison, driving a RZR XP1000 and Polaris' newest model, the RZR XP Turbo Dynamix Edition, which Polaris describes as a first-of-its-kind off-road vehicle magnetic ride control. As advertised, the system made for a smoother ride over the bumpy, rock-strewn tracks. Even more pronounced was the power differential in these all-wheel-drive dirt toys. Where the $17,999 XP 1000 was a hoot with it 110-horsepower, 999cc engine, the XP Turbo Dynamix ($25,999) was an absolute blast thanks to its turbocharged 925cc engine that made 168 horsepower. Yes, these things cost as much as an economy car, but they provide some of the most fun you can have on four wheels.

Also: See the 12 Kelley Blue Book Best Buys of 2017

Towing and cruising

Towing the Polaris vehicles to Jean and back from the Las Vegas Strip felt like nothing in the Tahoe Custom. At roughly 4,000 pounds for the trailer and vehicle combined, the Tahoe easily could have pulled plenty more.

Once on the highway, the Tahoe was surprisingly compliant. This may be the least-expensive model, but it still felt quiet and comfortable despite its truck underpinnings. Shifts were smooth via the standard 6-speed automatic, and power flowed seamlessly from the pulsating V8.

Good idea at the right time

The Tahoe Custom is a welcome addition to the lineup. While there seems to be no shortage of buyers willing to spend $60,000 or even $70,000 on a Tahoe that could give a Cadillac Escalade a run for its money, it's great to see more choices at the bottom end. Just as those higher-end versions are capturing buyers seeking a premium SUV experience, the Tahoe Custom will be attractive to those on the other end seeking a more back-to-basics yet highly capable full-size SUV. 

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