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The big difference between last year's full-size utility and the 2000 Suburban is the window sticker showing fuel economy figures. When I drove the '99 model, the fuel economy section of the sticker was blank. But for 2000, it's claimed to get 14 mpg in the city and 16 on the highway. The good news for this year is that I realized 17.5 mpg in just about an even split between city and highway driving. Not bad for the Vortex V8 that boasts 285 hp in 5300 cc.

The front and rear rails of the Suburban's modular frame use hydroformed steel to make them stronger and more rigid than conventional boxed rails. This technique is said to eliminate hundreds of welds, and provides more precise mounting points for better front-end alignment. Also, crush caps in the front frame help it absorb about 25% more energy which, besides protecting passengers better, costs less to repair because they don't have to straighten the entire frame after an accident.

For a better ride, GM switched to coil springs in the rear suspension instead of leaf springs. Because the Suburban seems to have become a family vehicle, this design should be more comfortable and ride more smoothly than the leaf spring it replaces, although I don't recall the '99 being much different. In addition, the front suspension now uses precision-machined cast-iron lower control arms, which makes them more accurate than the stamped and welded components they replace. The improvement reportedly reduces tire wear, improves front-end alignment, and gives the driver a more "on-center" feel.

If that were not enough, an off-road package, called the Z71, is now available that improves trailering and hauling capability. It has an "exclusive tow-and-haul transmission mode," an algorithm in the electronic controller that the driver can activate to reduce shift "busyness." When heavily loading the vehicle or hitching it to a trailer, the driver can press a button on the shift lever to activate this mode. Time between gear shifts increases, but shifting itself is much quicker and more "aggressive." At part throttle, for example, the first gear shifts at 22 mph in the tow-and-haul mode versus 10 mph in normal operation. This is supposed to reduce transmission wear because it requires fewer throttle inputs under stop-and-go driving. Even more complex is the optional Autoride suspension, where the tow-and-haul button adjusts both the transmission and suspension to better manage heavy trailering.

The Suburban also has an active 4WD transfer case, called Autotrac. The computer operated transfer case helps driving under any condition. That is, five selections are available: 2HI for normal roads, auto 4WD for slippery or changing road conditions, 4HI for serious off-road operation or in snow and mud, 4LO for climbing steep grades or towing a boat up a launch, and neutral for being towed (but why would it ever need towing?). The model I drove came in at a "standard vehicle price" of $28,627, and the options brought it to $38,708.

Except for air conditioning, I don't really need all those expensive options. I like the scaled-down version. I would buy one because it is wide and high, with enough space to fasten three preschoolers' car seats side-by-side plus lots of gear, yet comfortably hold my wife and our son's family -- which includes three-year-old triplets -- on weekend excursions.

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