With the Suburban celebrating 75 years of continuous production, the longest of any model in the United States, S. C. Gwynne set out to see just what made this vehicle such an American mainstay. Hitting the road in a loaner GMC Tahoe, Gwynne discusses how the vehicle’s drivers cross generations, how mega-SUVs were the target of hatred in the mid-2000’s, and how they are now saving one production plant here in Texas. Here’s the story behind the story.
When you started writing this story, did you want to focus more on the manufacturing of Chevrolet Suburbans and Tahoes today or their past cultural significance? Or do these two things go hand in hand?
I started with the idea that TEXAS MONTHLY had put the Suburban on its cover in 1986 and had called it the national car of Texas. Then in the past few years, both GM and the old Suburban (and its siblings) had fallen on hard times. So I wanted to tell that story. Last year I thought that big SUVs themselves were going out of business, but that story changed. And, yes, their survival has to some extent mirrored GM’s miraculous recovery.
Do you find it interesting that mega-SUVs may have been partially to blame for GM’s downfall but are now an integral part of what keeps plants like the one in Arlington going?
GM was guilty of putting all of its eggs in the SUV and pickup basket. And that really hurt them. What has happened is that all of the remaining production of their full-sized SUVs reverted to Arlington, meaning that the plant is successful but sales are still off. But, no one thought in the depths of 2008 and early 2009 that Arlington would be roaring along and that demand would be rising again, and I find that very interesting.
When driving your loaner Tahoe on I-35, did you ever feel the uncontrollable urge to bully a smaller car? Or the need to accelerate around a slow vehicle with the ease a large Tahoe engine can provide?
No urge to bully. The idea is that you just feel invincible, invulnerable. You are high above the road and encased in several tons of metal. It’s a good feeling.
Did you feel safer, like many buyers of the vehicle claim?
No, because I know better. Those vehicles do not maneuver very well. In a head-on or a t-bone with another car, however, you would be crazy not to pick the Suburban or Yukon or Tahoe.
On the other hand, you said Tahoes and Suburbans are more likely to kill the driver of another vehicle in a crash. Is this proof that mega-SUV drivers are less safe, or that their vehicles are just massive machines that a puny sedan can’t take in a fight?
Per the above answer, the laws of physics do apply to collisions. The fact that SUVs have a higher kill rate is not what makes them less safe. Their lack of maneuverability is what makes them less safe. The same is true—to a far greater extent—with pickups.
You said that what’s saved these vehicles is a loyal group of buyers, but would that group exist if it weren’t for the state of Texas?
There are loyal buyers all over the country, but Texas is by far the largest market. I suppose you could theorize that without Texas the brands might have been discontinued. But that’s pretty theoretical.
These models were a good example of the “luxurification” of America, but, after the recession, do you think people are still as caught-up in getting a fully-loaded Suburban?
No, not in sheer numbers anyway. Sales are well off from what they were. At their peak, the big SUVs had 4.6 percent of the national market. Now they have around 2 percent. So a lot has changed. But in Texas people will feel that change far less than they will elsewhere. Texans will still be loading up their Yukon Denalis.
As a Texan, would you ever buy a Tahoe, Suburban, Escalade, or Yukon?
Probably not. I have only one child and don’t have a boat and simply do not need that kind of size. If I wanted to spend $50,000 and impress someone, I would buy a Corvette.
If crossovers are the future, will the Suburban live to see another 25, 50, or even 75 years?
No question. But in order to survive that long, the carmakers will have to employ technologies to help with gas mileage. The new hybrids are the start of that.