There's no doubt that a lot is going on at GM nowadays, what with that whole IPO business and everything, but the General's marketing team still found time recently to remind folks that the Chevrolet Suburban is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. It's a pretty amazing feat, although not that much of a surprise when you think about it. After all, it just makes sense that the longest-running nameplate in the U.S. auto industry belongs to a full-size SUV.
Of course, much has changed with the vehicle in the past 75 years. The original Suburban came to life when Chevrolet put a steel body on one of its truck chassis, a significant breakthrough at a time when most other commercial vehicles of this type still relied on wooden bodies and canvas tops. The result was a vehicle that looked a bit like a station wagon on steroids'”and the birth of the modern SUV.
The Suburban's setup back in the mid-1930s included a 3.4-liter I6 that was capable of 79 hp and 140 lb.-ft. of torque, with that "power" mated to a three-speed manual transmission. Chevy says those first Suburbans sat on a 112-inch wheelbase and could seat eight, and they weighed in at roughly 3,300 lbs. The price of admission? A cool $685.
The current Suburban sits on a 130-inch wheelbase and comes in at a full 222.4 inches in length. For motivation, the big Chevy packs a standard 5.3-liter V8 that develops 320 horses and 335 lb.-ft. of torque, and gets hooked up to a six-speed automatic. The lightest current Suburban bends the scales to the tune of 5,687 lbs., and the least expensive one has an MSRP of $40,925. And needless to say, it can be packed with just about every available toy from the Chevy goodies bin.
It's a stark contrast to the first Suburbans. These were distinctly commercial vehicles, used for things like shuttling work crews to job sites, and that's reflected in the original vehicle's list of standard features'”or lack thereof. Minor things like a radio, clock, heater, dual windshield wipers and a rear bumper were all options, while Chevy's idea of a safety advancement was the addition of hydraulic brakes in 1936. Yet despite this, the Suburban's appeal continued to see incremental growth, and I'm thinking a fair number of drivers were attracted to the vehicle in the same way people started buying HUMMERs from AM General back when they were only available as military vehicles.
But in the same way GM began civilizing the H1 to attract more customers, the company began doing the same to the Suburban, with 1992 being a watershed moment. That's when Chevy began using an independent front suspension on the Suburban, a move specifically aimed at providing a smoother, more comfortable ride.
Changes like this left the big truck in a good position to take advantage of the surging demand for SUVs in the 1990s. By 1999, Chevrolet was selling 138,977 Suburbans a year, and sales peaked at 154,783 units in 2001. To give this some context, that number of sales would have put the Suburban at No. 15 on the list of top-20 sellers in 2009, right between the Ford Focus and Toyota RAV4. If you add in the 2001 sales of the GMC Yukon XL, the Suburban's Professional Grade sibling, the combined mark for GM's fullest full-size SUVs climbs to 225,488 units, which would have been enough to jump to seventh place in the industry's last full-year sales chart, just behind the Honda Civic and ahead of the Nissan Altima.
And that just goes to show how much not only the Suburban, but also the industry, has changed in recent years. I mean, Chevrolet dealers moved just 41,055 Suburbans in 2009, while July sales only reached 3,708 units.
But here's the thing: That July number was a 13 percent increase over the same month last year, and it comes on top of a 99.7 percent jump in June and a 100.6 percent increase in May. Through the first seven months of 2010, Suburban sales were ahead of last year's pace by 43. percent. Also impressive is the vehicle's 2010 volume. Sales of the Suburban hit the 25,865 mark through July; the breakout Cadillac SRX, with calendar-year-to-date sales up a whopping 530.2 percent, only bests that figure by about 2,500 units.
And that'”strong demand for full-size SUVs'”is something that's NOT going to change, at least not anytime soon.