Whether or not the eco-conscious crowd wants to admit it, there are times when you need — yes, need — a full-size, fully capable SUV that seats up to nine and has a powerful V-8 engine. Well, there's just one time, really: When you're towing your boat. Or your RV. Or your horses. Or all your possessions in a U-Haul trailer. So unless we want to eliminate every American's right to own a boat or a horse or move their teenager out of their house, we're going to need a Chevy Tahoe and SUVs like it.
Despite the 2012 Chevrolet Tahoe's advancing age, it remains fully capable of completing towing tasks while transporting up to nine people in comfort.
If the Tahoe offends the eco-conscious, they should know Chevy makes a hybrid version that can't tow quite as much but will make you feel less guilty about burning gas on your way to the lake … with a smaller boat.
There's a 5.3-liter V-8 living underneath the standard Tahoe's hood. It puts out 320 horsepower and 335 pounds-feet of torque. Mileage is rated at 15/21 mpg city/highway, but during my driving around suburban roads and over congested highways, I never bested 13 mpg. That was while towing nothing.
In normal driving duties, the Tahoe's refinement is less than stellar. The engine groans when you press down on the accelerator, even if power is being delivered adequately to the wheels. Hammer the gas pedal, and the Tahoe can move with gusto. Cruising and passing on the highway are effortless but not exciting.
Can you get excitement in a big SUV with a V-8? Sure; Toyota's 5.7-liter V-8, which is standard in the Land Cruiser and optional in the Sequoia, makes piloting those SUVs fun.
That's not to say the Tahoe doesn't have other strengths. Its ride and handling, compared with the rest of the segment, is above average. It takes tight turns, like highway off-ramps, with little body roll, and it covers rough pavement with excellent damping. This is an SUV you want to drive on a long road trip.
Towing capacity is rated at 8,200 pounds for four-wheel-drive Tahoes and 8,500 pounds for two-wheel-drive versions. I had some fun finding objects you can hook up to and pull with the Tahoe: The slick-looking Airstream Eddie Bauer fits the bill at under 8,000 pounds and looks like posh digs to inhabit on a camping trip. Or there's the Sea Ray 280 Sundancer at just over 8,200 pounds; seems like a boat that would require a rather large lake to fully enjoy.
The Tahoe Hybrid teams a larger 6.0-liter V-8 with electric motors to produce 332 hp and 367 pounds-feet of torque. It can tow 6,200 pounds with two-wheel drive and 5,900 pounds with four-wheel drive. Fuel economy (when not towing) improves to 20/23 mpg city/highway with either configuration.
I've tested the hybrid in previous model years and was impressed with its ability to offer a typically non-hybrid driving experience. It's more expensive, but it comes well-equipped. If you don't need the added towing — Airstream has smaller options, after all — it's a worthy alternative.
There's a potential problem when a vehicle goes without a redesign for more than five years, as the Tahoe has: It might not look as contemporary as its contemporaries. However, the Tahoe's relatively low-key design hides its gray somewhat. Only the plain white gauges look completely dated, while unassuming elements like the dashboard and doors just seem a year or two behind the times, not of an earlier decade.
The comfortable — and rather wide — seats also help quell any complaints about being old-fashioned. If being old-fashioned means sitting in the leather driver's seat or rear captain's chairs in my loaded Tahoe LTZ, then you can call me Andy Griffith.
You can opt for bench seats in the front and second rows to accommodate up to nine occupants.
The optional navigation system is a generation removed from GM's latest, but it was surprisingly easy and familiar-feeling to use. It ain't broken, and it seems Chevy isn't fixing it here.
The area where the Tahoe falls short is in overall cargo room. Shoppers who don't need the towing capability but want seven seats can opt for Chevy's Traverse three-row crossover instead of the Tahoe.
Besides the better mileage (17/24 mpg with front-wheel drive and 16/23 with all-wheel drive), the Traverse has 24.4 cubic feet of volume behind its third row. There's 16.9 cubic feet behind the Tahoe's third row, and when those seats are folded forward, they don't drop into the floor like the ones in the Traverse do. Removing them entirely nets only 60.3 cubic feet behind the second row. The Traverse offers 68.8 cubic feet with its third row folded.
The Tahoe's second-row seats tumble forward, unlike the Traverse's, which again fold flat. Maximum cargo volume in this configuration is 108.9 cubic feet in the Tahoe, versus the Traverse's 116.4 cubic feet.
Another alternative is the Chevrolet Suburban, which is essentially a stretched Tahoe. Its measurements behind the third, second and first rows are 45.8, 90.0 and 137.4 cubic feet, respectively, and it also has more third-row legroom. (See a comparison.)
Features & Pricing
The Tahoe starts at $38,755 for the base, LS trim and moves all the way up to a $52,970 starting price for the LTZ.
Standard features on the LS include three-zone climate control, a USB input and Bluetooth, while the LTZ packs luxury features like leather seats, heated and cooled front seats, Bose stereo, 20-inch wheels and a heated steering wheel.
The mid-level LT trim splits the difference at $43,905 and has a mix of features that most buyers will likely be happy with. Its Bose stereo has nine speakers, one less than the LTZ.
The Hybrid starts at $51,970 with two-wheel drive and $54,775 with four-wheel drive, but there's only one trim level and it's pretty well-equipped at that lofty price, including leather seats, navigation, remote start, OnStar and adjustable pedals.
The Chevy Tahoe has a four-star overall safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; the five-star ratings for frontal and side crash tests are offset by the Tahoe's three-star rollover rating.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not crash-tested the Tahoe.
A full list of standard safety features can be found here.
Tahoe in the Market
There aren't many vehicles that can tow as much as the Tahoe, and fewer still that do it for a comparable price and with such comfort. The only question that remains is when Chevy will decide to fix what isn't broken.