2003 Chevrolet Suburban 2500 4WS
Chevrolet invented the full-size SUV market with its Suburban, and the 2003 model continues a fine tradition.
For more than 30 years, the selection of full-size tow vehicles on the market formed a virtual pyramid. At the top lies the Chevrolet Suburban—or the Carry All as it was called in the 60s and early 70s. With seating for up to eight passengers, room for loads of gear and enough grunt to pull 12,000 pounds, the 2003 Suburban 2500 4WS we tested did nothing to alter that hierarchy.
In fact, if you are in the market for an SUV to haul your trailer around, this could be it. The Suburban was by no means flawless, but it was one of the better tow vehicles we’ve tested.
During our week of testing, it hiccuped when shifting between first and second gear. It only happened once, and we don’t know why, but it’s the first time any General Motors truck has exhibited any powertrain glitches. Then for some reason, on the morning it was to be picked up, the battery was dead and wouldn’t start the engine.
It jump-started fine—with a Ford Escape at the other end of the cables—but it was a little out of the ordinary and something that might make a new owner check a different box on the J.D. Power and Associates initial quality survey.
Glitches notwithstanding, the week we spent with the 2003 Suburban 2500 4WS was convincing enough make us want one.
Part of that, no doubt, was due to the four-wheel steering system. It makes driving a vehicle this large so much easier, soccer moms everywhere will sigh with relief. Though we’ve issued caveats about the longevity and reliability of the system, not to mention parts availability, we’re tempted to rescind that warning. The system works so well, it should catch on and become a popular option. If enough people buy it, parts availability shouldn’t be a problem.
The whole time we drove it, we never turned the four-wheel steering system off. Without a trailer in tow, it makes maneuvering into tight parking spots far simpler. With a trailer in tow, Quadrasteer makes negotiating 90-degree corners less traumatic.
For example, there is one cramped intersection here in Ventura where people always seem to park close to the corner, which makes it difficult getting around it with a trailer in tow. With conventional steering systems, you have to swing wide toward the other lane—that always widens a few eyeballs—to make the corner. With four-wheel steering, the task is easier because the rear wheels turn the opposite direction of the front, causing the rear of the truck to kick out wider as it rounds the corner. It also makes backing a big trailer into a tight space a lot easier.
The system has three settings, one for two-wheel steering and two four-wheel settings—for towing and for normal driving. The tow setting seems to be more restrained than regular four-wheel-steer mode. When we towed with the four-wheel steering set in regular mode, it seemed to make the whole rig a bit more twitchy at highway speeds and made the trailer react more quickly when backing down a ramp. Towing in trailer mode quelled that twitchiness and softened the system’s actions.
Pulling the boat back up the ramp was easy, thanks to the 315-horse 6.0-liter Vortec V-8.
The truck also was fitted with GM’s new “drive-by-wire” system, which means there’s no cable between the pedal and the throttle body. This allows engineers to tune the initial acceleration, or “tip in.”
The result is that the Suburban accelerated gradually up slick ramps without the worry of breaking the tires loose. This was especially noticeable at the launch ramp in Ventura Harbor, where low tide exposes slick algae. The torque converter would stall till about 2,500 and pull convincingly from that point on. The slow acceleration took getting used to, after having driven cable throttles for so long, but the system really enhances drivability.
On the highway, the Suburban had ample passing power—though we’d welcome more—and acceleration up a 7 percent grade. In “Tow/Haul” mode with the cruise control engaged, the truck maintained 65 mph at 2,000 rpm on flat terrain. The Suburban wasn’t immune to being tugged around by the trailer, but that likely was due to the long overhang behind the rear wheels.
When it came time to stop, the brakes did an admirable job, but they always felt a little spongy to us. Normally, that sponginess is accompanied by a less than precise brake feel, but in this case, we could tell exactly what the truck was doing and we did, in fact, grow accustomed to it.
The 4L80E transmission also was perfect for towing. Shifts were firm at all throttle settings without a boat in tow. While towing, the Tow/Haul mode softened shifts and delayed shift points to maximize engine power. Chevrolet also fitted the instrument cluster with a transmission temperature gauge—a nice feature for towing.
Some other nice features that really made this truck a fantastic tow vehicle were the traction-control, automatic leveling system and the power-extending mirrors. The traction control system wasn’t needed at the slippery launch ramp, but it would be great for snow and ice. We also liked the Autoride leveling system, which used a sensor and a compressor to level the vehicle when the boat was hooked up. This kept the rear end from squatting and the front end from feeling light. And we can’t say enough about the power extending mirrors. No matter what the width of your trailer, these mirrors can accommodate it.
In fact, the Suburban 2500 4WS can accommodate anything you’d care to put behind it. And with 12,000 pounds of towing capacity, that could be one big trailer—maybe even yours.
Towing... 9.9 mpg
Non-towing... 11.9 mpg
0-60 towing... 25.15 seconds
40-60 towing... 14.16 seconds
0-60 non-towing... 9.34 seconds
40-60 non-towing... 5.94 seconds
Engine... 6.0-liter Vortec
Horsepower... 315 @ 5,200 rpm
Torque... 360 ft./lbs. @ 4,000 rpm
Compression ratio... 9.4:1
Transmission... 4L80E four-speed electronic automatic
Axle ratio... 4.10:1
Fuel capacity... 37.5 gallons
Tire size... LT245-75R-16
Brakes... four-wheel disc, with dual-piston calipers and antilock
Suspension... Frt: Independent with torsion bars; Rr: two-stage, semi-elliptic, multileaf springs
Tow rating... 12,000 lb.
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating... 8,600 lb.
Gross Combined Weight Rating... 20,600 lb.
Overall length... 219.3"
Maximum width... 79.8"
Curb weight... 5,520 lb.
Base price... $37,853
Price as tested... $47,468
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