General Motors needs some good news. Its corporate bonds have been relegated to junk status, and its staggering debt and pension obligations have been the ongoing grist of the financial talk shows. If there's one area where the General still shines, however, it's in fullsize trucks and SUVs. But, it doesn't dominate the category like it once did. Not only does GM have to keep an eye on Ford in its rearview mirror, but Nissan now has the Armada, and Toyota has had the Sequoia for several years now. Even the king-size Suburban has a 1/2-ton competitor now with the new Ford Expedition EL. So, needless to say, it was imperative that GM stay on the ball with this one.

To see how well GM succeeded (or how badly it failed), we signed up to get some seat time in GM's latest SUV offering. From a stylistic standpoint, Chevy played it safe. While clearly more modern and sleeker than its predecessor, it thankfully abstained from any Avalanche-like styling gimmicks. The nose is a hybrid of the older-style rounded nose on the early Silverados and Tahoes, and the more chiseled look of the current Silverado--rather generic-looking in our opinion, but utterly inoffensive, as well. In pictures, the new Tahoe looks a little smaller than the last model, but in person, by itself, and especially when parked side-by-side with the old model, there's no getting around the fact this is one big bruiser, noticeably bigger than the previous generation.

In terms of interior design, the lines and layout are generally a lot cleaner and more contemporary than the last model, looking far more like a car dashboard than a truck's. The visual texture of the materials is appealing, but upon touch, it's still just nicely grained hard plastic. We haven't had a chance for an up-close look at the Yukon and Escalade yet, and it's likely those up-market versions will employ better materials, we hope. Thankfully, the control knobs and buttons have a refined, quality feel to them. Function is generally intuitive, though the multi-function computer takes a couple of walk-throughs until it's second nature.

Whereas many of the other biggies, such as the Armada and Expedition, have gone to an independent rear suspension, the Tahoe sticks with a tried-and-true live rear axle. GM decided the marginal amount of room and third-row fold-flat capability the truck would gain with an independent rear suspension wasn't worth the additional cost and complexity. Consequently, in models so equipped, the third-row seats have to be manually removed from the vehicle. This didn't seem to be a major issue with current owners, so GM decided to carry the basic interior packaging over to the new model. From behind the wheel, the functional improvements to the vehicle are readily apparent. Whereas the previous models weren't exactly known for their precise road manners and car-like ride and handling, the new models come much closer to that ideal, though they can only be considered car-like in comparison to the previous-generation SUVs, and say, the Ford Excursion. The new rack-and-pinion steering setup has a solid heft and precision to it, bordering on heavy effort, but the upside is that you no longer have to resort to Roscoe P. Coletrane-like steering wheel theatrics to keep the truck on a straight path.

The other much-improved area that has traditionally been a weak point for GM is the brakes. With a firm pedal feel and reassuring response, the brakes in the new Tahoe finally feel up to the task of slowing down the nearly 3-ton SUV. The first-gen models were positively horrific in this area, and the second-gen were slightly better but still lackluster. Excuses are no longer necessary in the braking department. Even with the optional 20-inch wheels and tires, there is hardly any road noise. Just a distant, muted hum that only gets louder when making a turn, then fades again as you straighten out. Interestingly, the loudest noise is the all-American rumble of the Vortec V-8 under throttle. The soundtrack of the engine effectively drowns out any other noises--not that it's overwhelming or obnoxious, just more vociferous than we expected.

At idle, it's Lexus-silent, but any pressure on the vertical pedal results in a comfortably familiar small-block bark, letting you know there's still a real engine under the hood, and not some hybridized quasi-engine under there. Having said that, GM's dual-mode hybrid SUVs are on the horizon for the '08 model-year. As strange as it may sound for a domestic V-8, the Vortec 5300 is somewhat of a revver. Although low and midrange torque are adequate, it really doesn't assert itself until 4,000 rpm to redline, and the throaty exhaust and intake honk at full throttle make it believable that this engine is a close relative of the LS2 in the Corvette. Although 15 horsepower up on the Nissan Armada's 5.6L twin-cam V-8, it has about 45 fewer lb-ft of torque at a higher rpm, making the Nissan feel stronger around town, though the Chevy has a marginally stronger seat-of-the-pants pull at higher revs. Although GM promised an all-new six-speed automatic for the new SUVs, early Tahoes are still stuck with a four-speed automatic. The 4L70 is the latest evolution of a proven and reliable transmission, but when a five-speed automatic has become the class standard, and a six-speed is about to be, this is somewhat embarrassing for an all-new vehicle. The extra cogs would probably also help improve fuel economy, which at an observed 13.9 mpg, is still plenty thirsty, and well short of Bob Lutz's initial boast of a combined 20 mpg on the new models.

Although our model was equipped with Active Fuel Management (GM's name for cylinder deactivation), it only seemed to work when the vehicle was coasting. Even the smallest depression of the throttle kicked the engine back into V-8 mode. So, ironically enough, trying to operate the Tahoe in "efficiency" mode is a lot like optimizing the mileage in a hybrid: Try to maintain momentum, and coast as much as possible. So, does the latest version of GM's big SUV have the goods to stay on top of its game? At this point, we'd say a qualified yes. The vehicles are a vast improvement over the previous generation, with significantly higher levels of refinement, style, and technology.

Despite GM's marketing hoopla about fuel efficiency, they're still not economy cars and likely will not have legitimate claim to that title until the dual-mode hybrid models debut. With the six-speed automatic, the Tahoe's performance would likely improve in both acceleration as well as fuel economy, and we feel this change can't come soon enough. We haven't had a chance to sample the tempting new 403hp Escalade, and we're eager to taste the premium version. Whether wisely or unwisely, GM refrained from trying to match its rivals feature for feature, forsaking the fold-flat third row and independent rear suspension found on most of the competition. But, in every other area, the new fullsize SUVs are certainly competitive, if not class-leading. So far the General's jumbo utes are selling well. It seems GM's credo of "don't mess with success" is hard to argue with in this case.

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