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Car Corner
Expedition vs. Suburban

August 1, 1999
By Scott Lewis

It looks like last month’s column on buying a new car was more pertinent that I thought. We have decided to trade in our Ford Explorer for a vehicle with more seating capacity. That leaves about four possibilities 1) Move up to the big boy Sport-utes, the Expedition or the Suburban. 2) Side step over to the Dodge Durango. 3) Get a Mini-Van. 4) Find some foreign SUV that seats 8 - 9 passengers.

The foreign SUV is out of the question. I am not aware of any of the traditional sport utility vehicles that seat 8 or more passengers. Any lesser known ones would be too expensive. The mini-van equation didn’t add up either. My wife refuses to consider an "old folks" car. I eliminated the Dodge Durango based on the size. Even though it is available with an optional 3rd rear seat, it is not as wide as the big boys, and would be a bit cramped when loaded with a lot of adults. Its 3rd seat is only for two people leaving it one passenger short.

That leaves the Ford Expedition or the Chevrolet/GMC Suburban twins. Each offers seating for 8 or 9 passengers, depending if you get a front bench seat or captain’s chairs. So we went on the hunt, and took each out for a test drive. Let’s see how they compare.

Gas Mileage

Let’s get this out of the way quick. Both of these monster behemoths are very large gas sucking pigs. I can remember working in a gas station over 15 years ago pumping the stuff out at over $1.50 a gallon, I never thought I would be in my thirties paying less than 3 bucks for a gallon of the stuff. I have Camaro Z28. Camaro is an Indian term that loosely translates: "eats gas - a lot." Our Explorer has the fuel in-efficient 302 V-8. So gas mileage was not a concern for us. Winner: Tie. (Note: The Expedition has a 26 gal. fuel tank while the Suburban gets a 42 gal. tank. Both are EPA rated at 18 mpg highway. So the Suburban can go up to 756 miles while the Expedition will only go up to 468 miles. This would lean toward the Suburban getting the win in this category. Also, this is the EPA rating for the 4.6 liter engine in the Expedition. I drove, and would buy, the larger 5.4 liter engine.)

Ride & Handling

My two biggest problems with my Explorer are ride and noise. The ride is very bouncy. This is understandable considering its heritage in small trucks, but it doesn’t stop me from hating the way it goes over speed bumps. And the noise inside the car from driving over the road, and hearing cars passing by is poor. Ride was my number one priority when testing these vehicles. Particularly speed bumps. I will deal with noise later.

The Suburban took speed bumps great. It soaked them up with very little movement within the vehicle. Not to say that is was as good as a luxury car, but I would rate it as good as a semi-luxury car. This is light-years ahead of the Explorer. The Expedition did not do so well. It was a bit better than my Explorer, but still too bouncy for my tastes. Especially when going over speed bumps at an angle.

As for the rest of the ride, the Suburban has a more disconnected feel than the Expedition. This is accomplished through a noticeably softer suspension. The Expedition feels like it could carve through corners better than the Suburban, due mostly to its firmer suspension. Since I already have a car for carving corners, I prefer the soft, comfortable ride in the Suburban.

Lastly, the Expedition leans a lot. Just working the wheel back and forth off center resulted in the car swaying the cabin in a top-heavy fashion. And its steering felt very soft and numb. No steering feel what so ever. The Suburban feels more solidly attached the ground, especially in small steering adjustments. This is probably do to the increase in mass the Suburban has, but never the less it feels more secure. Winner: Suburban, by a wide margin.

Power

We test drove only two wheel drive models with comparable V-8 engines. The 5.4 liter SOHC engine in the Expedition seemed lazy. Or it’s transmission was too lazy to downshift. Either way, the heavier Suburban with 5 less horsepower felt faster, and climbed hills better than the Ford. I did not drag race these monsters, so it is possible the Ford would winner a pedal to the metal race. I doubt you will see anyone doing that in the real world. Winner: Suburban.

Comfort & Convenience

Both vehicles were well equipped. Power everything, leather seats (the third seat in the Expedition is vinyl), CD players, dual air conditioning, front seat captain’s chairs, etc.

Needless to say they are very luxuriously appointed. So it comes down to nit picking. The Suburban’s CD player is an add-on looking single disk player. The Expedition gets a console mounted CD changer. I would prefer the changer.

The rear air conditioning in both vehicles works about the same, but there are vents for the third seat in the Suburban.

While on the third seat... the Suburban provides a full size third seat. The Expedition’s third seat is slightly narrower than the second row seat. You have the wheel wells along side of the seat and it is higher than the seats in front of it. The smaller seating is reasonable for an adult, but not for a long trip. Also, entry to the third seat is much better on the Suburban.

The captain’s chairs on the Suburban get there own armrest while the Expedition has you use the console for an armrest. This is mainly due to the width of the Suburban. It is wider than the Expedition and you feel it a lot in the expansive captain’s chairs.

The seats in the Suburban are also softer and more comfortable. The Expedition’s seats feel like something was on them. I felt like I was sitting on them, rather than in them. BTW... the cloths seats in the Suburbans are a little more comfortable than the leather seats.

The noise level in our Explorer is quite high in my opinion. It has been since new. The Suburban is much quieter. The Expedition is about half way between the two. I really like the quite interior of the Suburban. It will go a long way on long trips. Winner: Suburban.

Cargo

The Suburban has the highest towing rating of anything you can buy. Also, the Suburban has a lot of room behind its third seat. The Expedition can hold a week’s worth of groceries easily enough, but expect to remove the third seat for anything more. The Suburban’s third seat also removes, and with it removed, and the second seat flat you have enough room for the classic 4’x8’ sheet of plywood, or your entire kitchen including the kitchen sink. Think of it as an alternate picnic location when it’s raining. Winner: Suburban.

Miscellaneous

Some things just don’t fit in a neat category. For example: the console. Right from the start we plan to add a TV set to the vehicle we buy. Not immediately, but in one or two years. The Expedition has stereo controls, and headphone jacks for rear seat (2nd row seating) passengers. This is the same as our Explorer, and we like it. However, the Suburban has a console with absolutely no electronics in it. It would be easy to get a replacement aftermarket console with a TV, VCP, gaming console jacks, CD changer, etc. Winner: Suburban.

The one touch power window on the Expedition works exactly as on our Explorer... touch it lightly and the window goes down. The Suburban’s one touch window works exactly like my Camaro’s, hold the button down for a moment or so and then let the window finish by itself. It sucks. The Expedition’s is infinitely easier to use. However, both vehicles do this only for the driver’s window, and only down. Since driving a Mercedes-Benz C280 Sport that works like the Expedition but for all windows both down and up, both these vehicles leave a lot to be desired. Winner: Expedition.

Reliability

This one is tough. Since we can’t test drive the beasts for 20,000 miles, we will have to go by past experience. My Camaro (GM) has about 48,000 miles. It has never been in the shop since the warrantee ran out at 36,000 miles. However, it did have these problems while under warrantee: Fuel pump replaced, both driving light bulbs replaced, third brake light bulbs replaced, and drivers side power door lock switch replaced. I also replaced the transmission mount myself after the warrantee ran out.

Our Explorer (Ford) has around 34,000 miles. It has NEVER been in the shop for anything, EVER. Well, actually we rotated the tires once, and had an alignment done. But that’s it except for gas and oil. This has been absolutely the most reliable vehicle I have ever owned (or heard of, for that matter). Winner: Ford.

Conclusion

If you have been keeping score you know the Suburban is the clear winner. But it had a couple of things going for it from the start. Since we really wanted a vehicle for carrying a lot of people, its full size third row seat gave it a clear advantage. The wheelbase of this vehicle is so long (it requires two registrations to drive on public roads) it contributes greatly to a better ride. Given two identical vehicles except wheelbase, the longer will give a better ride because of the time between feeling a bump. Since ride was a major concern for us, the Suburban has an advantage here, too.

Both vehicles are nice. I like the CD changer, and its location, in the Expedition. The Expedition rides too much like a truck, i.e. bouncy. The Suburban rides more like older, bigger GM cars, i.e. boat-like. Boat-like beats bouncy every time. And the seats in the Suburban are great, especially compared to the Ford’s.

So the decision is made. We are going to get a Suburban. But there is going to be an all new Suburban for 2000, based on the all new 1999 Silverado pickup truck. Should we wait, or get a bargain on a 99.

Stay tuned, this isn’t over yet.

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