Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2018 Chevrolet Tahoe Custom.
The Mojave. Spanning 48,000 square miles of the parched American Southwest, it's the driest desert on the continent, an utterly inhospitable expanse of sand and rock that's strewn with the broken dreams of pioneers and adventurers who, to this day, still come seeking glory.
A perfect place, then, to test the all-new 2018 Chevrolet Tahoe Custom. The Custom is the Golden Bowtie's first earnest attempt in a long while at a budget-spec, body-on-frame SUV that's not marketed at people with more kids than car seats. The no-frills sport utility category has become a virtual wasteland as customers flock to crossovers en masse, and Chevy is betting there's room at the bottom of the model's existing trim levels for a version that offers cloth seats, no third row, and the ability to tow a few metric tons of stuff.
It's no sure thing—in an analogous example, the Jeep Grand Cherokee's sales struggles have been partly attributed to the lack of a third row, and research shows that many customers want the option of having those extra seats even if they will never, ever use them. Owners of regular Tahoes can also remove the seats themselves, though it's not easy and then you're left having to store them somewhere. Is four extra cubic feet of space, a little more convenience, and a $3750 price drop from the previous cheapest trim enough to get hesitant cross-shoppers in the door?
To show off just how much fun a DINK family can have in one of these things, Chevrolet invited The Drive out to Las Vegas last month for a truly wild desert adventure. It began with a Tahoe Custom in a parking lot just off the Strip, and it ended with a dust-caked Polaris RZR XP Turbo Dynamix Edition (review coming soon) on a power line trail out in the middle of the Mojave. Along the way we had a few hours to put the Tahoe through its paces and get a good sense of what Chevy was thinking with their back-to-basics approach.
- Not much differentiates the Chevrolet Tahoe Custom from its more expensive siblings on the outside, save for 18-inch wheels and a chrome-accented grille. It's once you step inside that the truck's throwback nature becomes apparent. GM's trucks are helping to keep column shifters alive, and as automakers try to reinvent the gearshift in a senseless quest to alienate customers everywhere, its mechanical feel is like opening the door to a home you thought you'd lost. Same goes for the black cloth seats, as well as the large, chunky knobs and buttons that fill the center stack. There are no screens for kids, or massagers for your butt. It's about as uncomplicated a full-size SUV as you can find these days—and that's a good thing.
- That's not to say you'll be bored on your adventures, as Chevrolet is throwing in both Apple Car Play and Android Auto as standard features. The connectivity party doesn't end there, with 4G LTE and Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities. There are five USB charging ports and five power outlets sprinkled throughout the cabin, and an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system, connected to a backup camera, rounds out the tech offerings. I thought it was wise for the company to include so many technology-focused features in a base model Tahoe. Even if some of these things are becoming ubiquitous on smaller and lower-priced cars, it's still a recognition that there are people out there who don't want to have to choose between cloth seats and cellular data.
- The one area where there's absolutely no trade-off is all-around capability. Like every other Tahoe that's come before it, the Tahoe Custom is an ace at towing. Its 5.3-liter V-8 engine puts out 355 horsepower and 383 lb-ft of torque, which was more than adequate to haul four adult men in the cabin and 5,000 pounds of Polaris RZRs on a trailer from Las Vegas to Jean, Nevada. An optional max trailering package bumps the peak towing figure up to 8,600 pounds. Forget about crossovers—you're simply not going to get that ability in any other SUV except its GM platform-mates, and the Ford Expedition. Add in the real-deal 4WD transfer case, and the Tahoe Custom has bona fides that most mall-dwelling utility vehicles can only dream about.
- The Tahoe Custom carries itself with a comfortable weightiness, blanketing itself over bumps and wrapping its occupants in a well-insulated cabin that also feels well-constructed. Fit and finish have long been a GM weak spot, especially in their trucks, so it's impressive that they've managed such a solid-feeling interior in a lower-priced SUV. The doors close with a satisfying thunk, the trim materials look straightforward without verging on cheap, and the power-adjustable cloth seats still feel comfortable and supportive. The whole package is more about function over form, and it's well executed here—a refreshing rarity from an automaker in 2017.
- Speaking of which: You cannot find another new SUV out there that offers a body-on-frame toughness, V-8 power, and the ability to tow four and a half tons at a starting price of $44,995. If that seems like a niche market to you, consider how many more trucks could be described by those attributes twenty or thirty years ago. The SUV has unceasingly gone upmarket since Americans first fell in love with them in the Nineties, but it's been at the expense of the kinds of simplistic, capable vehicles that got everyone excited in the first place. The Tahoe Custom is something of a revival of that bootstrapping, can-do spirit.
- It's almost sacrilege to complain about a traditional V-8 engine in a big truck, considering the hand-wringing that's accompanied the industry's ongoing shift to turbocharged V-6s in the name of fuel economy. And to be sure, no one will buy the Tahoe Custom because it claims to get 23 mpg on the highway. (Which is good, because it definitely doesn't.) Granted, we were towing a large trailer for much of that time, but even resetting the computer and detaching the load for a late afternoon loop around the desert didn't push the truck's average mileage above 20. Perhaps some extra mpgs can be found in reprogramming its cylinder deactivation technology, which turns it into a four-cylinder engine when cruising on the highway but was eager to awaken the other quartet at the meagerest tap of the go-pedal. If you're cross-shopping the Tahoe Custom with almost everything else, the fuel economy is going to be a sticking point.
- The 5.3-liter V-8 is adequate, but between hauling the trailer of side-by-sides and an unburdened yet glacial eight-second crawl from 0-60 mph, I found myself wondering what the Tahoe Custom would be like with GM's 6.2-liter V-8 on tap instead. With 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque, towing would be that much easier, and probably bump the miles-per-gallon figure up a few ticks. At the very least, it wouldn't be any worse on fuel, and it would be a lot more fun. That powertrain will be available in the performance-oriented Chevy Tahoe RST this fall, but like with many things, Custom buyers will have to make do without.
- I know I praised the workaday interior above, and while I stand by that, I'll admit that some people will likely get an instant rental car vibe from it. It's not fair to paint all of GM with a broad brush just because they're a domestic manufacturer with a bustling business selling fleets to the country's rental companies, but it remains true that a lot of folks have only encountered a base-model GM vehicle at the tail end of a TSA strip search and a bumpy flight. The smell of the hot cloth seats, the lack of options, even the font on the knobs and buttons brought me right back to my childhood vacations in Florida, where my parents would make it their mission to select the cheapest rental on the lot. This connection might have been avoided if Chevrolet allowed you to get a Tahoe Custom with one or two select perks—leather seats or a sunroof, for example—that could mute the budget experience for customers who might be turned off by it.
- As much as I'm a fan of the Tahoe's overall capabilities, its softer styling leaves something to be desired. As I attempted to photograph a Tahoe Custom for this review, I was surprised at how difficult it was to find an angle that didn't make at least one part of the exterior design look awkward. From the front, that plastic valance under the bumper hangs uselessly low. Its low clearance is also noticeable in the side view, and it's compounded by a beltline that rises toward towards the back and gives the rear end a pinched appearance. And from the back, the only things that keep it from looking like any other crossover (or minivan, really) are the higher ride height and integrated tow hitch. One thing I don't understand—why not borrow or adapt the front clip from the Silverado, like they did when the Tahoe first debuted? I doubt there are a lot of people who want or need something like a Tahoe, but won't put up with a slightly tougher look.
The 2018 Chevrolet Tahoe Custom, Ranked
Hauling people: 4/5
Hauling stuff: 5/5
Curb appeal: 3/5
“Wow” factor: 3/5
The Bottom Line
There are few feelings more paradoxical—and distinctly American—than setting the cruise control at 80 mph and slicing through endless miles of desert in a big old truck. Outside, I watched carrion pick at desiccated roadkill in the dusty heat. Inside, perched high above the road in air-conditioned comfort, I looked at the expanse of empty scrubland surrounding me and smiled to myself as the Tahoe Custom ably doubled as a rolling survival pod. There's something very gratifying about a major manufacturer purposefully removing and limiting options, as if to say, Here, consumer, this is really all you need. The lux-ification of trucks and SUVs will continue unabated, but the Tahoe Custom wants no part of it. I respect that immensely.
So yes, I emerged from my sojourn to the desert with sand in my shoes and a strong appreciation for the package Chevrolet has created here. At the same time, the stripper-model approach does create a few contradictions that potential buyers will have to reckon with on their own terms. If you want a part-time adventure mobile that can occasionally tow 5,000 pounds, you have to consider the fact that vehicles like the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, the Nissan Pathfinder Platinum, and the Ford Explorer Limited all offer those capabilities, plus a whole lot more features, at a lower price point.
At the same time, none of those are quite as durable (or large) as the Tahoe, and the max trailering package does give it more pulling power than everyone else. Is that peace of mind, along with on-demand four-wheel-drive and body-on-frame construction, worth the price bump? I can see some buyers getting pulled into a Chevrolet dealership by the Tahoe Custom, but I can just as easily see them getting upsold to a nicer trim once they realize they're about to drop at least $45,000 on a truck with cloth seats. Still, maybe between that kind of foot traffic and just enough people for whom the Custom really does fill an unmet need, we'll see enough of them sold that other manufacturers try and move in and stake their own claim on the space.
Or maybe Chevrolet has sent its newest offering out into a Mojave of a market, where the promise of a successful full-size budget SUV seems to be forever on the horizon. The Tahoe Custom is certainly a worthy, well-built contender. Of course, the same could be said for a lot of prospectors who've struck out into the desert, never to return.
2018 Chevrolet Tahoe Custom, By the Numbers
Starting Price: $44,495
Powertrain: 5.3-liter, naturally-aspirated V-8 engine with Active Fuel Management, 355 horsepower and 383 pound-feet of torque; six speed automatic transmission; rear-wheel-drive with optional part-time 4WD
Fuel Economy: 16 city, 23 highway (only if you have the lightest of feet)
Top Speed: 111 mph
Amount of times I wished the Tahoe Custom had the off-road front bumper from the Z71: 14