Note: Chevrolet and GMC Suburbans are virtually identical twins, save for occasional minor differences in grille inserts, body trim, and, in older models, engines. Therefore, all the following comments also apply to the GMC Suburban unless otherwise indicated.
Introduced way back in 1936, the Chevrolet (and GMC) Suburban was based on a commercial panel truck, but instead of having a huge, windowless cargo area there was a large passenger compartment. Basically truck-based station wagons, the early Suburbans had two doors (not counting the two-piece tailgate) and three rows of seats that seated up to eight passengers. The most common powerplant of the day, an inline six cylinder engine, powered the Suburban. With but 90 horsepower, the 217 cubic-inch six had its work cut out. Minor changes to the facade carried the first-generation Suburban through 1940.
1941 brought bullet-shaped headlights sweeping off the fenders. GMC's received a new, 228 c.i. engine (an inline six with 93 horsepower). However, as with all other American vehicle manufacturers, Chevrolet produced no civilian vehicles from 1943 to 1945 because of World War II.
For 1946 Chevrolet simply picked up where it left off, and as a result the 1946 models were virtually the same as the 1942s.
The 1947 Suburban received a restyled body with flush-mounted headlights and a more broad-shouldered stance with a wider grille and passenger compartment. This basic theme continued through 1953, when the big news for that year was GMC's introduction of the Hydra-Matic automatic transmission and more power for its Suburban's engine, now up to an even 100 horsepower.
1954 saw a facelift consisting of a one-piece curved windshield (versus the previous two-piece unit) and a grille with a single horizontal bar split vertically in the center. More muscle was found under the skin in the form of a bigger (236 c.i.) inline six rated at 112 horsepower. GMC's were stronger still, with 125 horsepower produced by the company's 249 c.i. inline six. An automatic transmission became optional for the Chevrolet version this year.
Due to Korean War conflicts and the extent of the changes Chevrolet wanted to make for the next Suburban, early 1955 models (called first series) were basically the same as the '54s save for very minor changes, such as the striping color on the hood ornament.
All-new styling and the option of V8 power debuted later in 1955 (called second series). A wrap-around windshield, hooded headlights and a grille that resembled a big mouth (with a grid insert) were the styling highlights. The Chevy's optional 265 c.i. V8 was available in a few versions, the most potent putting out 180 horsepower. And the company's six-banger was up to 136 horsepower. The GMC's optional 287 c.i. V8 engine, though bigger than its brother's, produced less power than the Chevrolet, at 155 horsepower.
Power was on the rise again for 1956. As much as 205 horsepower was produced by Chevrolet's small-block V8. GMC followed suit with its six-cylinder engine (now at 270 c.i.) putting out 130 horsepower as well as its V8 (now at 317 c.i.) pumping out 180 ponies. The big news this year was the introduction of four-wheel drive for the GMC, and it could be had with either the six- or the eight-cylinder engine.
Chevrolet joined the four-wheel-drive party in 1957, but offered it only with the inline six. Grille design was revised, trading the grid insert for a wide, horizontal slot design, which only made it look even more like a mouth agape.
1958 brought a revamped body featuring dual headlights and some more body-side sculpting to the front fenders, all of which carried over through 1959.
A sleeker body, a low-profile grille and "jet pods" over this grille marked the 1960 Suburban. Contained in the pods were the front turn signals. Better outward visibility came by way of increased glass area and slimmer roof pillars. A new 305 c.i. V6 with 150 horsepower became standard on the GMC.
Front-end design was cleaned up in 1962, dropping the odd-looking jet pods and replacing the dual headlamps with single units, except on the GMCs, which retained the dual headlights. As with its pickup trucks, Chevrolet now used a "C" prefix to indicate a two-wheel-drive Suburban and a "K" prefix to indicate a four-wheel-drive version. GMC wouldn't adopt this naming system until five years later.
Offering more ride comfort and better control was a coil spring front suspension that debuted for 1963. Chevrolet introduced two new inline six-cylinder engines: a 230 c.i. base engine rated at 140 horsepower and an optional 292 c.i. version with 165 ponies. And once again the grille insert was changed on the Chevy version.
The former reverse-slanted A-pillars and wrap-around windshield gave way to a sleeker design for 1964, and the cab gained a revamped dashboard and a new instrument cluster.
Although the Suburban's looks didn't change for 1965, a few new options appeared. Air conditioning and (for the Chevrolet) a 327 c.i. V8 (with 220 horsepower) could now be ordered, making the big people-hauler more comfortable and more powerful. A bigger (250 c.i.) inline six with 155 horsepower became the Chevy's new base engine for 1966 as the GMC continued with its stout V6 underhood.
A much sleeker Suburban graced showrooms for 1967, when an uncluttered and broad-shouldered look appeared. The body was slightly longer than before and now had two doors on the passenger side (as opposed to the single door) in addition to the one on the driver side. The choice of either a tailgate or panel-style doors was offered for rear compartment access.
1968 saw the addition of government-mandated side marker lights.
A new grille with a wider horizontal centerpiece debuted for 1969 along with a foot-operated parking brake (which replaced the former hand brake). A quartet of new V8s debuted this year: a trio of 350s with outputs ranging from 255 to 350 horsepower and a 396 with 310 horses but more torque than the smaller V8s.
Changes for 1970 included a few new options such as a tilt steering wheel and a stereo radio with eight-track player. For the first time, the shiftless masses could drive the four-wheel-drive models thanks to the newly available automatic transmission for those trucks.
A new egg crate grille graced the front of the 1971 Suburbans. New trim level names debuted, ranging from the base Custom, to the mid-level Custom Deluxe, up to the Cheyenne.
Interior refinements such as molded door panels and an optional "Highlander" seat trim took place for 1972.
General Motors completely revamped its Suburbans for 1973. Simple, bold lines accented with a distinctive bodyside molding marked the exterior of the new trucks, which now had four doors. The redesigned interior featured a dash angled slightly toward the driver. A full-time four-wheel-drive system was available and ideal for those who lived in areas of the country prone to slippery driving conditions. Trim levels remained the same as before and engine choices ranged from a 100-horsepower 250 c.i. inline six to a 240-horse, 454 V8. Keep in mind that after 1971, horsepower figures were given as net (installed engine with accessories) versus gross (just the bare engine) figures.
1975 models were distinguished by a grille with larger internal rectangles along with a restyled tailgate. Trim levels were changed and now comprised base Custom Deluxe (why a base version was called "Deluxe" is a mystery), Scottsdale (with cloth seats and chrome exterior trim) and Silverado (with woodgrain interior accents, carpeting and additional exterior accents including wheel lip moldings). Corresponding GMC trim levels were, in ascending order, Sierra, Sierra Grande and Sierra Classic. Catalytic converters debuted (on non-heavy-duty trucks) to meet more stringent emissions standards, as did a high-energy ignition system and an optional (for four-wheel-drive models) 400 c.i. V8 with 175 horsepower.
1977 brought a revised grille insert, where the former 32 small rectangles gave way to 15 larger ones. A new 305 c.i. V8 rated at 145 horsepower was available behind that grille.
1978 marked the introduction of the 350 c.i. V8 diesel that became optional on the half-ton (C10) two-wheel-drive model. Minor changes to the interior, such as new seat fabrics and dashboard trim, also took place this year.
Not much happened in 1979 except that the parking lights were now incorporated into the front grille/headlight facade.
A more noticeable grille restyle took place for 1980 that featured square openings (instead of the previous rectangular slots) and, on Silverado models, square headlamps. A thermostatic cooling fan increased efficiency by running only when needed.
A nose job and a weight loss program improved the 1981 Suburbans. New, more aerodynamic sheetmetal from the windshield forward was grafted onto the truck, and the new fenders flanked a restyled grille with square headlamps (now on all models). Lighter materials helped reduce weight by as much as 300 pounds, depending on the model. A revised interior featured a new instrument panel, seats and door trim. A new 305 c.i. V8 with Electronic Spark Control debuted. The spark control allowed higher compression and power output (160 horsepower) that was equal to or better than the available 350 V8's numbers, with the advantage of better fuel economy. The 400 c.i. V8 was dropped, but still offered were the inline sixes (250 and 292 c.i.), a couple of 350 c.i. V8s and the stout 454 c.i. V8.
A new 6.2-liter (GM started using metric engine sizes at this point) diesel engine debuted in 1982. A much stronger and reliable engine than the old 5.7-liter (350 c.i.) version, the 6.2 was offered with both two- and four-wheel-drive as opposed to the 5.7, which was only available on two-wheel-drive Suburbans. A four-speed automatic gearbox was a new option that promoted less engine wear and better highway fuel economy.
Only sharp-eyed enthusiasts would be able to tell what changed for 1983: parking lights were relocated from the bumper to the bottom edge of the grille, which was now blacked out. Additional rust protection was provided by the use of anti-corrosion steel under the hood and at the front of the pickup box.
1984 saw more steps taken (such as galvanized inner door panels) to fend off rust.
A revised grille design with a thicker horizontal divider marked the 1985 trucks.
The only changes for 1986 were redesigned engine seals on all "V" type engines, except the 7.4-liter (454 c.i. in old-fashioned terms) V8.
1987, the last year of this long-lived (15 year) generation, saw the debut of throttle-body fuel injection (TBI) for all gas engines. As a result, the 5.0-liter (305 c.i.) and 5.7-liter (350 c.i.) V8s were more powerful, kicking out 170 and 210 horsepower, respectively. After decades of using the C and K nomenclature to indicate two- or four-wheel drive (for example, C10 Suburban), Chevy and GMC changed the two-wheel-drive truck's "C" to an "R" and the four-wheel-drive truck's "K" to a "V."
Although GM completely redesigned its full-size pickups for 1988, the Suburbans, which up to now were basically station wagon versions of the pickups, were unchanged and would have to wait four more years for their overdue overhaul.
A host of under-the-skin improvements took place in 1990. The 7.4-liter V8 was fitted with electronic spark control, and the 5.7-liter V8 received upgraded piston rings and intake valves. Antilock rear brakes debuted this year. In an effort to simplify ordering and production processes, many formerly individual options were now either added as standard equipment or grouped together in packages. The Cheyenne model had tinted glass, halogen headlights, a larger (34 gallon) gas tank, AM radio, intermittent wipers and instrument panel gauges added to its standard equipment list. Scottsdale got rally wheels, a custom steering wheel and bright grille trim. And Silverado had its standards raised with the inclusion of floor mats, a sport steering wheel and an AM/FM stereo radio. Corresponding GMC models received the same upgrades.
The 7.4-liter V8 was refined for 1991 with tighter combustion chamber tolerances and improved oil pan gaskets. A new automatic transmission was introduced for heavy-duty trucks. This four-speed automatic gearbox, dubbed "4L80-E," featured electronic control and the ability to handle 440 foot-pounds of torque.
Finally, in 1992, the Suburbans adopted the sleek body style and updated interior of their pickup truck brethren. In addition to their handsome looks, the new Suburbans boasted more glass area and a lower step-in height than their forebears. Functional improvement included standard four-wheel antilock brakes and two improvements for four-wheel-drive models: a new independent front suspension and a shift-on-the-fly "Insta-Trac" transfer-case control. Models consisted of the base Cheyenne and the uplevel Silverado. The C and K designations returned to indicate two- or four-wheel drive, respectively. The number after that letter indicated either half-ton (1500) or three-quarter-ton (2500) rating.
1993 brought more upgrades, such as a new four-speed automatic gearbox for light-duty Suburbans (called "4L60-E") that was electronically controlled for smooth gear changes. Interior refinements included new stereo controls, dual cupholders and Scotchgard fabric protection.
Safety and environmental strides were made for 1994 with the debut of side door guard beams, a center high-mounted third brake light and CFC-free A/C refrigerant. Engine news was big this year, as the 5.0-, 5.7- and 7.4-liter V8s were quieted down via intake tweaks. A new diesel engine debuted: a 6.5-liter turbo diesel that churned out 190 horsepower and 360 foot-pounds of torque.
The number of safety features once again increased in 1995 with the addition of a driver side airbag and a brake/transmission interlock (which required the brake pedal to be depressed before the automatic gearbox could be shifted out of "park"). A new instrument panel and upgraded door trim graced the interior, and the seats were redesigned to be more supportive. New sound systems made the more comfortable cabin even more welcoming. Trim levels were now comprised of base, LS and leather-lined LT. GMC's comparable models were base, SLE and SLT.
Pump it up! Among the many improvements for 1996 was more power for the gasoline engines. Now called "Vortec," these potent powerplants put up the following big numbers: Vortec 5700 V8 — 250 horsepower, an increase of 50 horses, Vortec 7400 — 290 horsepower, up 60. The numbers after the word Vortec indicated the engine size in cubic centimeters, which is easy to convert to liters; for example, the Vortec 5700 V8 displaced 5,700 cubic centimeters or 5.7 liters. Other enhancements of the mechanical variety included a beefed-up automatic gearbox to handle the stronger engines and a new, electronically shifted transfer case that eliminated the floor-mounted mechanism.
1997 brought a passenger side airbag. Electronic, variable-assist power steering was fitted that provided more assist at lower speeds (such as when parking) and less assist at higher speeds (to allow for better road feel). Other steering enhancements included a smaller turning radius for K1500 models, making these four-wheel-drive trucks easier to park and better able to handle tight spots when off-road. The 4L60-E and 4L80-E four-speed automatic gearboxes were tweaked for even smoother operation and better efficiency via improved fluid flow and greater lubrication.
To the chagrin of would-be thieves, a "Passlock" theft-deterrent system debuted in 1998, and disabled the Suburban if an attempt to hot-wire it was made. GM's OnStar system became optional and consisted of a cell phone integrated with GPS (Global Positioning Satellites) that linked the driver and vehicle to the OnStar center for directions, roadside assistance or help in an emergency. Once again, the automatic transmissions were modified for smoother and quieter performance. AutoTrac full-time four-wheel-drive became optional and operated in rear-wheel drive until four-wheel-drive traction was needed, at which point it would automatically send torque to front and rear axles. When in the four-wheel-drive mode, the torque split was continuously varied front to rear in order to optimize traction.
A couple of powertrain improvements took place for 1999, the last year of this generation. New materials were used in the cooling system to increase component life, and the Vortec 5700 V8 got the same starter motor used for the Vortec 7400 V8. The already superb automatic transmissions received a couple of tweaks (such as new seals and reduced friction components) to enhance durability.
The year 2000 saw the big 'burban's rebirth, just in time to battle Ford's massive new Excursion. Slightly shorter than its predecessor, the new Suburban was packaged more efficiently, preserving its vast interior room, and came in base, midlevel LS and leather-lined LT trim levels.
As before, the Suburban shared much of its styling and powertrains with GM's full-size pickups (revamped in 1999) on which they were based and were again available in 1500 and heavier-duty 2500 series.
GM's new family of V8 truck engines were drafted for Suburban duty. The 1500 was powered by the Vortec 5300 V8 that poured out 285 hp and 325 lb-ft of torque from its 5.3 liters, an impressive 30 horses more than the Vortec 5700 engine it replaced. Even more thrust was provided for the Suburban 2500, which featured the Vortec 6000 sporting 300 horses and 355 lb-ft of twist.
Ready to work, a properly equipped Suburban 2500 could tow up to 10,500 pounds. And keeping with tradition, buyers had a choice of two- or four-wheel drive.
GMC's version of the Suburban was renamed the Yukon XL and, apart from having an all-wheel-drive full-on luxury trim level dubbed Denali, was identical to its Chevrolet cousin.
The Vortec 6000 grew stronger for 2001, as horsepower went up to 320 and torque to 360 lb-ft. A new big-block Vortec 8100 (8.1-liter) V8 with 340 hp and 455 lb-ft also joined the powertrain roster. Lastly, oil change intervals were stretched from 7,500 to 10,000 miles.
The Suburban inched further upscale for 2002, as the base model was dropped and the LS gained dual power front seats, heated mirrors and a HomeLink system. Lastly, the 5300 V8 could now take gasoline-ethanol mixed fuel.
The option of Quadrasteer four-wheel steering (on 3/4-ton models) debuted for 2003. Quadrasteer made this hulk a lot easier to park by greatly reducing the turning circle (by a whopping 8 feet) and also improved stability when towing by smoothing out maneuvers such as lane changes. The half-ton models were not left out, as they received the option of the StabiliTrak stability control system. The side mirrors were updated with built-in turn signals, puddle lamps and the option of power extension. Making the cabin more accommodating were the addition of tri-zone climate controls, a new center console and newly available second-row captain's chairs and power-adjustable pedals. Helping to pass the time on long trips was a pair of new options — XM Satellite Radio and a DVD entertainment system.
Increased safety was the big news for 2004, as the half-ton models received Hydroboost brakes that provided even more power assist for improved pedal feel and modulation. A reminder for the right front passenger to "buckle up" also came online this year. The powerhouse Vortec 8100 lost some power, though at 320 hp and 440 lb-ft, it was far from significantly weakened.
An optional touchscreen navigation system was added in 2005. Rear barn doors were discontinued, and all models came standard with an overhead rear liftgate with separate lift glass. Two-wheel-drive trim levels got an optional Z71 off-road package, which was previously only available on four-wheel-drive models.
The Quadrasteer feature was eliminated in 2006, and the optional camping/towing mirrors were redesigned. Added standard safety features included OnStar and a tire-pressure monitoring system on all trim levels, as well as the addition of stability control on 1500-series models. Standard steering-wheel-mounted audio controls also debuted.
A complete redesign in 2007 drastically improved the Suburban's handling and comfort rating. While it still remained a traditional body-on-frame SUV with a solid rear axle, the reshaped, slab-sided exterior offered improved aerodynamics. Chevrolet claimed body stiffness was increased significantly, and the old front torsion-bar suspension was ditched in favor of a coil-spring layout. Recirculating-ball steering was dropped in favor of a more precise rack-and-pinion system.
Interior build quality was dramatically improved with soft-touch materials, tighter gap tolerances and a more contemporary design. Three trim levels were offered: the base LS, midlevel LT (which was divided into three sublevels) and the luxury-laden LTZ.
The powertrain on the half-ton models included a 5.3-liter V8 with 320 hp and 340 lb-ft of torque. A new cylinder deactivation technology helped to improve fuel-efficiency over the previous year's engine. The Suburban 2500 got a 6.0-liter V8 packing 350 hp and 360 lb-ft of torque. Both engines were paired with a four-speed automatic transmission.
Side curtain airbags became standard on all models in 2008. That model year also saw the introduction of a six-speed automatic transmission and stability control on the Suburban 2500. OnStar turn-by-turn navigation became standard on the LT and LTZ trim levels.