2021 Chevy Tahoe Diesel first drive review: Range queen

GM’s body-on-frame SUVs have always been big, but the 2021 Chevy Tahoe is huge. As this three-row hauler grows by liberal portions in its latest generation, there’s always the concern that bigger equates to thirstier. Since electrification is currently nonexistent in this segment, that really leaves one option to help mitigate the Tahoe’s newfound heft: a diesel engine. And it works.

Resting under the hood is a 3.0-liter Duramax inline-six turbocharged diesel engine. With 277 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque, it’s not going to win any exhaust-pipe-waving contests against competitors’ engines, like the twin-turbo gas V6 in the Ford Expedition (375 hp, 470 lb.-ft.), but that’s not the point. Chevy plopped the Duramax into the Tahoe to maintain the SUV’s capability while giving the rig a big ol’ fuel economy boost.

If your preconceived notions of diesel engines involve more chugs than a frat party, Chevy’s Duramax will drag you into the 21st century. Whether I’m starting it from inside the cabin or remotely from my dining room, this diesel straight-six is a smooth and nearly silent operator, really only emanating the traditional diesel vibe once I’m pretty close to the hood. Seat vibrations are few and far between, if they even exist at all. Buyers worried about making the shift away from gasoline won’t have to fret much about NVH.

That carefree feeling continues on the road. Around town, the diesel’s bass-forward engine note doesn’t vary all that much from some of the competition’s songs, and it’s not like it packs the volume to overwhelm the radio. On the highway, it blends into the background with what little wind and tire noise makes its way inside, leaving me and my imaginary occupants with quite the chill place to burn away some interstate miles.

And there will be plenty of burning to do. While 2WD variants are rated at 21 miles per gallon city and 28 mpg highway, 4WD variants like my tester aren’t far behind at 20 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. My real-world experience shows even more promising figures; during a couple hundred miles on Michigan’s 70-mph interstates, I’m regularly seeing stretches of 30- to 32-mpg cruising when the flow of traffic sticks to the speed limit, shrinking to a still-impressive 27 or 28 when everyone picks up the pace. 400 miles per tank is easily achievable, and in the right circumstances I bet I could squeeze out 500.

People don’t just use these leviathans to ferry humans and cargo — folks also use ’em to tow. Thankfully, Chevrolet didn’t have to scrimp in that department with the diesel, which in 2WD form can tow up to 8,200 pounds, with my 4WD tester slightly behind that at 8,000 pounds.

I’m glad to have this RST-trim tester in front of me, because it’s basically the polar opposite trim of the gas-powered High Country variant I drove briefly earlier this year. Whereas the HC erred toward luxury, the RST (which stands for, I kid you not, Rally Sport Truck) is a little racier, with black interior and exterior elements as far as the eye can see, eliminating just about every instance of chrome to excellent effect. That monochromatic getup continues inside, with just a few dashes of red stitching to zhuzh things up. No matter where my hands land, I find soft leather or sufficiently soft and mottled plastic, mostly befitting of an SUV that starts around $50,000 (the RST pushes that closer to $60 large).

The first row isn’t the only row that coddles its occupants. While my tester’s $2,820 Luxury Package includes a second-row bench seat, an additional $370 upgrades that to two distinct captain’s chairs with more legroom than I can shake a stick at. Hell, even the third row’s power-folding seats are sufficiently comfortable for my 6-foot frame on a road trip. Then again, there’d better be that much space on offer, considering the body and wheelbase are about 7 inches larger than before with nearly a whole-ass foot of newfound legroom for those in the way-back.

The Tahoe’s interior is spacious as heck, and mighty comfortable to boot.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

I’m also excited to drive this Tahoe RST because it packs Chevrolet’s base suspension, not the expensive air-or-magnets setups on more expensive models. Despite not packing as much cushion for the pushin’, the static dampers perform admirably, soaking up a hefty majority of road nastiness and only translating the most severe shocks and shudders to those inside. Combined with a new independent rear suspension, options or not, this is the most comfortable the Tahoe has ever been. Operation stays smooth, thanks to brake and gas pedals that are super-easy to modulate, as well as a 10-speed automatic transmission that’s always in the right gear, or a short hop away from it.

The Tahoe’s embiggening pays off in other ways, too. Storage space behind the third row is up 66% to 25.5 cubic feet, and the load floor is lower for easier shoving. Each door pocket has a couple layers of trays and cup holders, in addition to two cup holders in the center console and a trick $350 electric sliding center console with a secret compartment beneath the usual under-armrest cubby. If I need to drop the third-row seats so somebody else can throw more junk in the back, I can do so without leaving my seat, thanks to clever overhead switches.

Like every other trim of Tahoe, diesel variants pick up some excellent tech. Chevrolet’s latest infotainment system — one I’ve always enjoyed for its straightforward graphics, quick response and solid feature set — comes standard, with my tester sporting the largest screen on offer, 10.2 inches. It includes the usual fare, like wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot and a wireless charger (on all trims, save for the base LS). Keeping the kids occupied is a $2,490 rear-seat entertainment upgrade that slaps a pair of 12.6-inch touchscreens in the middle row. No matter the location, passengers have plenty of chances to charge, thanks to two USB ports in each row.

The latest version of Chevrolet’s infotainment system is snappy, pretty and loaded with features.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Standard safety systems are few and far between on the 2021 Chevy Tahoe, limited to forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection. My tester’s $2,490 Luxury Package throws blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assist, parking sensors and a high-def surround-view camera system into the mix, all of which should honestly come standard on something the size of a small cottage. Strangely enough, I cannot get the Tahoe RST with adaptive cruise control — that’s only available on Premier and High Country trims, because GM has some weird hang-ups (probably cost-based) about radar-based assistance systems. Again, I’m surprised licensed drivers just get a free pass to pilot this thing, so you’d think that every driver aid under the sun would come standard.

Given all the major leaps forward in the 2021 Chevy Tahoe, it’s no surprise that it’s a costly brute. While the RST’s base price of $61,395 (including $1,295 for destination) represents a $10,000-ish premium over the entire lineup’s base price, a few modest equipment packages swells the price to $70,435, and well-equipped High Country models can push into the low $80s. Oof. Thankfully, the diesel engine itself is just $995 more than the gas engine, so that specific upgrade won’t break the bank.

The Chevy Tahoe is one of just a few body-on-frame SUVs remaining, and two of its similarly structured competitors, the Nissan Armada and Toyota Sequoia, feel older and less well-equipped than GM’s offering. The Ford Expedition comes close, but it doesn’t have a diesel and it’s a little less polished than the Tahoe. It’s impressive just how much better the 2021 Chevy Tahoe is than before, and the addition of an inexpensive diesel engine offers buyers the chance to mitigate the thirst of a large SUV while retaining capability without sacrificing any of its newfound refinement.

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