Tahoe carries more cargo than a compact or mid-size SUV such as the Chevy TrailBlazer or Ford Explorer. It can carry five passengers and their gear at the same time. Third-row seats are available to increase the capacity to seven passengers, or up to nine when equipped with bench seats throughout. The Tahoe makes for a stable towing platform and pulling a trailer is no problem with the optional 5.3-liter V8. Yet the Tahoe is far more maneuverable than a Suburban, important in crowded parking lots, underground garages, or when parallel parking, and it will fit into more garages.
On the road, the Tahoe is smooth and stable, a rock. It has plenty of power and its brakes work well. The cabin is comfortable and familiar, friendly and functional, particularly after improvements that were made for 2003. Turn off the highway and the Tahoe handles gravel, rugged two-tracks, mud, and snow. In any kind of driving, it's a great choice for someone who needs real carrying capacity.
Improvements to the Tahoe for 2004 further enhance its safety. New Hydroboost brakes provide power assist even if the engine stalls or is turned off. A tire-pressure monitor is now standard. New options include electronic traction control and 17-inch all-weather tires. A major upgrade was made to the Tahoe for 2003 for increased safety and reliability: GM's StabiliTrak electronic stability program became available for improved control on slippery surfaces. New airbag systems were designed to better protect children and adults of various sizes. Adjustable pedals became available, enhancing comfort and safety for drivers of smaller stature. The brakes were improved.
Tahoe dazzles its passengers with entertainment possibilities. XM Satellite Radio delivers CD-quality music, radio, sports, and other programming coast to coast. A rear DVD entertainment system with wireless headphones keeps the kids busy.
The Vortec 5300 is rated 295 horsepower, which is 10 more than the Vortec 4800. More important is the difference in torque: The 4800 develops 295 pounds-feet of torque, vs. 330 pounds-feet for the 5300, both at 4000 rpm. Torque is that force that propels you away from intersections and it is especially important for towing or hauling weighty stuff, like people.
Tahoe LS ($34,200) comes standard with the 4.8-liter V8, a 40/20/40 split bench front seat with six-way power for the driver, a 60/40 split folding middle bench seat, fog lamps, assist steps, heated power outside mirrors, tri-zone manual climate control, and a rear window defogger. Tahoe LS is available with 4WD ($37,000). The 5.3-liter V8 is optional ($700). The Preferred Equipment Group ($1735) adds bucket seats with upgraded cloth upholstery, a floor console, a Bose nine-speaker audio system with rear controls and headphone jacks and, on 4WD models, a 3.73:1 axle ratio.
Tahoe LT ($6,450) is a package that adds the 5.3-liter engine, leather seating surfaces, six-way power front bucket seats with heat and memory, floor console, adjustable pedals, a third-row, 50/50 split bench seat, tri-zone automatic climate control, the Bose sound system, plus XM satellite radio, steering-wheel-mounted audio and driver-information controls, power heated outside mirrors with turn signals and ground illumination, OnStar, a Homelink universal transmitter for opening your garage door, a trailer hitch platform, seven-lead wiring connector, and external transmission oil cooler, various cargo-compartment accessories, and more.
Z71 ($5,215) is a premium package specially equipped for off-highway driving and is only available for 4WD models with the Vortec 5300 engine. Z71 includes an off-road suspension with gas shocks and off-road jounce bumpers; heavy-duty locking rear differential; 3.73 rear axle ratio; skid plates for the oil pan, differentials, and transfer case; high-capacity air cleaner; removable front air dam; tubular assist steps; painted front bumper; panted rear step bumper with pad; color-keyed grille and door handles; round fog lamps; roof rack with cross rails; dark gray lower rocker moldings; wheel flares; Trailer Package with heavy-duty hitch platform, seven-lead wiring connector and external transmission oil cooler; and P265/70R17 on/off-road tires on 17-inch cast and machined aluminum wheels. Z71 also includes many of the same comfort and convenience items as the LT: the Driver Information Center; Bose nine-speaker stereo with rear audio controls, dual headphone jacks, and steering-wheel controls, power heated mirrors with turn signals and ground illumination; OnStar; leather seating surfaces; power front bucket seats with heat and memory; adjustable head restraints; and an inboard armrest.
The Tahoe is the same width as the Suburban. The Tahoe is more than 22 inches shorter than the Suburban and nearly 9 inches shorter than the Ford Expedition. The Tahoe is nearly 11 inches shorter than the stretched, midsize Chevy TrailBlazer EXT (and about 5 inches longer than the standard TrailBlazer), but the Tahoe is 4 inches wider than the TrailBlazer EXT.
Big outside mirrors afford an excellent view rearward. The mirrors on LT and Z71 models feature puddle lamps that light up the perimeter. These are nice at night in the woods, or when stepping out on nasty nights in your city best, and they provide some security in underground garages and other spooky places. The mirrors also tilt down when you shift into reverse. Press a button and they fold in for parking in narrow places. Heating elements keep off frost and ice. Turn signals are integrated into the mirrors to warn drivers alongside of your intentions. The left mirror automatically dims to reduce headlamp glare. If that isn't enough, these wonder-mirrors remember his and hers adjustments, just like the seats.
Tahoe buyers can select either a traditional rear hatch with a flip-up window, or split-panel doors, sometimes called barn doors or cargo doors. Choosing between them is a matter of lifestyle and personal preference. On the LS, cargo doors are standard, and the hatch a $250 option. On the LT, the hatch is standard. Cargo doors are more convenient when towing and for other truck chores, and they make it easier to control a dog. The traditional hatch is made of aluminum for light weight; being able to open just the glass is often more convenient when loading groceries or outdoor gear, especially since it can be operated with the keyless remote. The rear hatch offers a better view out back than the split doors, which block the view in the center.
The Tahoe's door handles are well-designed and easy to use; you do not need to flip your hand over to pull on them.
There's plenty of headroom and legroom in the Tahoe. The front seats are big, wide and, in the LT, fully adjustable. Optional seat heaters are easy to turn on and adjust. Switchgear is nicely designed and easy to operate. The map lights can be aimed. Rubber lined cubbies on the center console offer places to organize odds and ends. The ashtray can be removed to reveal another nice cubby for sunglasses and stuff. Cup holders are well designed. Double visors with extenders keep the sun out of your eyes. Three power outlets in front and one in back deliver electricity for accessories. Visibility is very good through big windows, but we'd like the option of an electronic park-assist feature to help maneuver this big rig in tight quarters.
We appreciated the available power-adjustable pedals. Pressing a button moves the brake and accelerator pedals for an optimum driving position. This allows a shorter driver to move farther from the steering wheel where the airbag is located. The tilt steering could use finer adjustments, but by adjusting the height and tilt of the seat it's possible for drivers of all sizes to find a comfortable position. Steering wheel-mounted controls add convenience and enable the driver to personalize functions.
We love the LT's electronically controlled, automatic three-zone HVAC system for its sophistication and ease of use. Change the driver's temperature, for example, and a panel displays the new temperature for a few moments, then display's the passenger's temperature, then displays the driver's temperature again. It's easy to operate the controls with the big knobs and a clear LED display that's easy to understand. Rear electronic temperature controls improve comfort for second- and third-row passengers and pets.
The standard setup is a manual-control HVAC system with three zones that allows temperature differentials of 30 degrees between driver and passenger. It also works quite well. The third zone allows manual control of the rear air conditioning. The optional driver information center warns you when ice may be on the road.
Second-row seating in the Tahoe is quite comfortable. Second-row bucket seats ($490), an option on the LT, are less versatile than a bench seat, but more comfortable, more luxurious. Cup holders are close by no matter where you're sitting. A pair of map lights flanks each dome light on the second and third row, a great feature when traveling or accessing gear. The Tahoe provides slightly more cargo space behind the second row than the Ford Expedition does (63.6 cubic feet vs. 60.9 cubic feet).
Folding the second-row seats down provides enormous cargo capacity, 104.6 cubic feet of cargo space, a bit less than the Expedition's 110.5 cubic feet. Folding the second row down is easy. Headrests stay in place, convenient and safer because you can't forget to put them back on.
The Tahoe is comfortable with four or five passengers, but it can seat seven (and up to nine) with its optional third-row seat. However, getting in and out of the third row isn't easy, and once back there, it's uncomfortable for an adult. The seat height is low relative to your feet, sort of like sitting on the floor. So if you think you'll be using that third row on a daily basis, then step over to the other side of the showroom and take a look at the Suburban. The Suburban is more practical than the Tahoe for carrying six to nine people regularly. The Tahoe offers just 16.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row, less than even the Expedition's paltry 20.6 cubic feet and far less than the Suburban's 45.7 cubic feet.
In terms of flexibility, however, the Tahoe''s third-row seats comprise one of the best designs in the business. They can be quickly folded and flipped out of the way. And they are easy to remove: Just fold down, flip up, grab the release handle, and roll them out on their wheels. They're not light, but one strong person with a good back can remove each of the two seats. Storing them in the garage is a good idea as it opens up more cargo space. This leaves room for five people and lots of cargo.
With the third row flipped up, there's room for a dog, though the seat bottoms aren't too friendly with their mounting hardware bared. Remove the third row and there's lots of room for a big dog. Throw a rubber mat over the cargo area and you can haul big items without scuffing the carpet. Reinstalling the third-row seats is a snap. If you have a lot of smaller items, you can load them into the Tahoe even with the third row in place: Just flip up the second- and third-row seats and you can put stuff between the seats as well as behind them.
The new XM Satellite Radio system works great, delivering CD-quality sound nearly everywhere. Not having to change stations on a cross-country trip has distinct advantages, but even in a radio market as crowded as Los Angeles, we enjoyed being able to keep up with Fox News and CNN. We didn't have the supplied guide handy, but switching among stations was easy because the radio's LED display clearly labels the programming. Turning a big knob on the Tahoe's new audio system moves you through 71 music channels: '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s music; country; classical; jazz; all displayed as such in big LED letters. There's sports coverage of all kinds and children's programming. You get 100 digital channels with no dead spaces in between, just clear sound coast to coast. There is advertising on some, but not all channels.
Also standard on our Tahoe LT was OnStar, which provides operator-assisted directions with the press of a button and brings the rescue squad if the airbag goes off. OnStar operators can unlock the doors if you lock the keys inside and they can identify the exact location of your Tahoe if it's stolen.
Our Tahoe also had the Panasonic DVD Passenger Entertainment System with wireless headphones. Controls for audio and HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) were improved for 2003 and the driver information center was enhanced, making life in the Tahoe a little easier.
The Tahoe is built on GM full-size truck platform (GMT 800, if you must know), which forms the basis for the Silverado and Sierra pickups as well as the Suburban, Yukon, and Yukon XL SUVs. It's a superb platform, notable for the rigidity of its hydroformed frame. Chassis rigidity is the key to achieving good handling and a smooth ride, and the Tahoe delivers on both of those scores. It handles bumpy roads well, a good test of chassis rigidity.
Tahoe's front suspension is conventional in design, except for the springs. To save space, the Tahoe uses torsion bars instead of coil springs. And the Tahoe now comes standard with the Premium Ride suspension, formerly an option, which uses self-leveling rear shocks to maintain trim height for better handling when hauling heavy cargo or pulling a trailer.
Our Tahoe LT had the optional Autoride suspension ($1,120), which electronically controls rear air shocks to provide real-time adjustments in suspension damping. It provided a comfortable ride on I-405, a bumpy, busy freeway in Los Angeles. Autoride also kept the Tahoe from bounding around after running over railroad tracks when pulling a trailer.
The available Z71 package, with its off-road suspension, provides a good ride quality on gravel and washboard surfaces.
The brakes were greatly improved for 2003, so they're smoother and easier to modulate than before. The brakes comprise four-wheel discs with dual-piston calipers for good stopping performance. We were impressed with the Tahoe's braking ability while towing a horse trailer. A dynamic proportioning system continuously balances the front and rear brakes for maximum effectiveness without activating the ABS. Once activated, the ABS allows the driver to maintain control of the steering in an emergency maneuver. For 2004, Tahoe introduces Hydroboost braking. Most power-brake systems rely on engine vacuum to reduce braking effort, but Hydroboost uses power-steering fluid pressure, which provides added safety, with more reserve power assist for braking under specific conditions. The system will continue to provide sufficient power assist to stop the vehicle even if the engine stalls or is turned off.
The Tahoe is relatively easy to park, much easier than a Suburban. It's 22 inches shorter than a Suburban and its 38.3-foot turning diameter is 4 feet tighter than the Suburban's turning circle. With its shorter wheelbase, shorter rear overhang and taller ground clearance, the Tahoe traverses gullies and other rugged terrain where the Suburban scrapes bottom. Likewise, the Tahoe is shorter and more maneuverable than the Ford Expedition. Even though the Tahoe is a fraction of an inch wider than the Expedition, I find it easier to judge the distance between the Tahoe's right front corner and a tree. The Expedition's fenders seem taller visually, and the Tahoe seems easier to manage off-road. The Tahoe's recirculating-ball steering provides good control and feedback, even if it falls short of the rack-and-pinion steering found on the Ford Explorer. Tahoe's power steering system is designed for durability by operating at a lower temperature range.
Chevy's small-block overhead-valve V8s are excellent. They rival Ford's overhead-cam engines for smoothness and efficiency, and deliver strong torque for towing. The standard 4.8-liter V8 cranks out 285 horsepower, while delivering decent fuel economy; a Tahoe 2WD with the Vortec 4800 earns 18 mpg on the EPA's highway mileage test.
A better choice, and the one most people choose, is the 5.3-liter engine rated at 295 horsepower. It delivers strong acceleration performance and burns regular unleaded fuel. Our 2004 Tahoe 4WD with the Vortec 5300 earned an EPA-estimated 13/17 mpg city/highway.
If serious off-road driving is your aim, you should know that the Tahoe does not offer the capability of a Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota Land Cruiser, or Land Rover Discovery. The Tahoe will, however, get to most of the places most of us want to go, even fording deep snow or mud.
Its four-wheel-drive system provides four driving modes controlled by buttons on the dash to the left of the instrument cluster. Two-wheel drive offers the best fuel economy on streets and highways. Press the Auto 4WD button for inconsistent road conditions: It will send all the power to the rear wheels when there's good grip, but any loss of traction will cause power to be directed to the front wheels. This works well when patches of snow and ice are on the ground, as it adds stability in inconsistent conditions. I like using Auto 4WD on gravel roads where it seems to offer the best handling balance. Press the 4HI button when standard four-wheel drive is needed for driving off road or on roads fully covered by snow and ice. The 4LO setting is used for creeping through deep sand, deep mud, deep snow, or up or down steep grades.
A heavy-duty locking rear differential ($295) gives drivers better traction in slippery conditions. Two-wheel-drive models can be ordered with electronic Traction Assist ($520) as well, which cuts engine power as needed to help maintain traction to the rear tires. StabiliTrak electronic stability control ($750) also includes a traction-assist function. A second-gear winter start feature in the automatic transmission also helps get the Tahoe rolling under slippery conditions without wheel spin. These systems should make the 4x2 Tahoe sufficient for all but those who live at the end of long driveways in snowy climates.
Tahoe's pulling power can be as much as 7,700 pounds when properly equipped. Press a button at the end of the transmission shift lever and GM's Tow/Haul mode holds the transmission in gear longer and shifts more abruptly to keep the transmission cooler. All models are equipped to accept a lighting plug for trailer towing, and have provisions for easily connecting a trailer brake controller. They also have a deeper oil pan on the transmission to provide a better supply of cool transmission fluid while towing. Our Tahoe LT came with the trailering package, which included a receiver hitch and an external oil-to-air transmission cooler. Chevy says the cooler is unnecessary, but we think it's good insurance, especially for those towing in hot weather.
Model as tested
Chevrolet Tahoe 4WD ($37,000)
3 years/36,000 miles
Janesville, Wisconsin; Arlington, Texas
Gas guzzler tax:
Price as tested
Options as tested
LT Preferred Equipment Group 1SM ($6,450) includes leather seating surfaces, electronic climate control, nine-speaker Bose audio with rear controls and headphone jacks, XM Satellite Radio, steering-wheel mounted audio and driver-information controls, OnStar, Homelink transmitter, power folding outside mirrors with turn signals and ground illumination, six-way power heated bucket seats with driver memory, power adjustable pedals, third-row seating, liftgate with wiper/washer, cargo shade, cargo net, cargo mat, crossbars for luggage rack, 3.73:1 axle ratio and locking rear differential, trailering package with transmission cooler; Vortec 5300 V8 engine ($700); in-dash 6 CD player ($300); Rear Seat Entertainment ($1,295); Autoride suspension ($1,120); Safe and Secure Package ($100) includes front side-impact airbags, StabiliTrak electronic stability control; second-row bucket seats ($490)
Model Line Overview
Tahoe 2WD ($34,200); 4WD ($37,000)
Safety equipment (standard)
dual front air bags, four-wheel ABS with Dynamic Brake Proportioning, LATCH child-seat anchors
Safety equipment (optional)
5.3-liter ohv V8
Specifications as Tested
tri-zone manual conditioning with auxiliary rear heat; programmable power door locks; AM/FM/CD/cassette; keyless entry system; cruise control; leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel; power windows; electric rear window defroster; roof-mounted carrier rails; heated power mirrors; fog lamps; automatic headlamps; running boards; underbody-mounted full-size spare tire; Autotrac 4WD transfer case; automatic transmission with tow/haul mode; load-leveling shock absorbers; 265/70R16-inch all-season tires and aluminum wheels
Engine & Transmission
5.3-liter ohv V8
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)
295 @ 5200
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm)
independent, upper and lower control arms, torsion bars, anti-roll bar live axle, upper and lower trailing links, transverse Panhard link, coil springs
Head/hip/leg room, middle
Head/hip/leg room, front
Head/hip/leg room, rear