A Carmaking 101 lesson for you: Full-size SUVs with hefty price tags selling in large numbers equals big profits. How big? I don’t have the specifics, but in general terms, Chevrolet sells around 100,000 Tahoes every year, and Ford moved nearly 90,000 Expeditions in 2019. These full-size family haulers, which are mostly endemic to North America, are based on existing pickup trucks, so the development costs are less than they would be for a standalone product.
Both jumbo SUVs start at more than $50,000. So we’re talking billions of dollars in revenue. Add in the additional 50,000 Suburbans that Chevy sells in a year, plus the GMC Yukons, and Cadillac Escalades—let’s not forget Lincoln Navigators—and pretty soon we’re talking real money. My point is, getting these sport utes right is paramount. To customers, sure, but especially to stockholders. With all of that in mind, how does the all-new 2021 Chevy Tahoe stack up against the 2020 Ford Expedition?
A little background, if I may. I drove the then brand-new 2018 Ford Expedition in November 2017 and had this to say: “For way too long, Ford allowed what should have been a perennial cash cow to rot out in the pasture. The old Expedition wasn’t horrible or anything. It was simply not competitive with what Ford’s big rival was selling. Ford has flipped the script. The Expedition is now the class leader, no ifs, no ands, and no buts about it.” In other words, I was seriously impressed. Nearly three years later, the bowtie brand’s answer to Ford’s salvo is here.
Our technical director, Frank Markus, wrote an illuminating first test review of the 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe. However, we requested another day with the Tahoe so we could let our photo team go to town on it. As fate would have it, we just so happened to have an Expedition XLT sitting around the office. This comparison was essentially preordained. Now, in fairness to Ford, the XLT trim level is not as pricey nor as off-road as the trail focused Z71 example Chevy lent us. Yes, we should have had an Expedition FX4 (the test results presented in our chart were obtained from a 2018 XLT FX4). Thus is the nature of having a single day to execute a comparison test that just falls in your lap. MotorTrend en Español editor Miguel Cortina and I took that fact—as well as the $11,655 price difference—into account as we evaluated the two big utes.
Design: Inside and Out
If you’ll allow me to quote myself (again), when I reviewed the 2018 Expedition I said: “From the side the new, all-aluminum Ford looks like the current Tahoes, and Suburbans… I actually think the Ford looks better…For whatever the reason, Ford design kicks out products that look like they come from other carmakers.” The problem with aping design language used by others is that when said others move on to something new, your product looks like their old one. That’s happening here.
Miguel adds, “Its design, though only three years old, hasn’t aged well. Even with the black accent package, the Expedition doesn’t stand out as the Tahoe does.”
Yes, the Chevy’s sheet metal is polarizing. Social media opinions seem to be evenly split between “rad!” and “heinous!” I fall on the “rad” side of things; I think the new Tahoe looks beefy, modern, and tough. The Ford is still a handsome large vehicle, but it looks a generation behind the Chevy. I also think the Z71 package looks extra sweet, but I know I said that’s not part of this comparison. Back to the Ford—it’s still a handsome SUV, but it’s never going to be a design icon. The Chevy has that chance, but we’ll have to see how it ages. How important is exterior design to a full-size SUV shopper? Not nearly as important as what’s inside.
Inside, the Chevy is a mixed bag. For example, the large, legible, touchscreen is bigger, better-looking, and easier to use than what Ford offers. Miguel says that Ford’s infotainment screen doesn’t compare to the Chevy’s.
A bit hyperbolic—as we’re comparing them—but I think it illustrates how good that part of the Tahoe is. However, we both thought that the rest of the Chevy’s controls were worse than the Ford’s. Miguel says, “The switchgear is not outstanding, but Ford spent more money to create thoughtful designs, used a better plastic quality, and therefore the interior feels and looks better.”
There is a more premium feel inside the Ford, and this is an issue that’s been plaguing GM’s trucks for a few years now. Ram and Ford have fancy innards; the General (generally) does not. This is being addressed with the new Escalade, but why not make Chevy owners feel special?
We were split on the transmission controls. Miguel likes the fact that the column selector is gone, whereas to me there’s little that screams “Detroit” and “freedom” as loud as pulling a stick slightly forward and click, click, clicking into gear. That said, Miguel found the push/pull-buttons hard to use, whereas I didn’t mind them. That said, for an item an owner will touch daily, Chevy could have made the buttons out of something nice.
One could—and many will—argue that the real point of these boulevard behemoths is interior space. As such, Miguel and I spent a great deal of time climbing around the middle and third rows. The Ford remains spacious, with plenty of room in the second row and good enough space back in the third. Air vents and USB ports abound. That said, we both found it a little easier to get into the Chevy’s third row than the Ford’s. The second-row entertainment screens in the Chevy are quite terrific and much larger than what Ford offers, though as Miguel points out, “Would you rather have those screens over two iPads (maybe given the price? One for every seat!). I think having Netflix on an iPad and being able to download movies and cartoons for the kids is more convenient over the rear seat entertainment screens.” As a parent of a 3-year-old addicted to Give a Mouse a Cookie, I can say Miguel is totally right!
Miguel is also fairly tall, around 6-foot-1, and he fit even better into the way back of the Chevy than he did the Ford. Both third rows work for adults, but if you’re looking for a reason to go with one over the other, here you go. Also remember that both come in bigger, longer wheelbase sizes, the Suburban and the Expedition Max. With the third rows up, neither SUV offers an abundance of cargo room. With the third-row power-folded flat—both of ’em do it—there’s plenty of space for stuff.
Engines and Transmissions
The Ford comes packing the brand’s ubiquitous EcoBoost engine, in this case a 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 that produces 375 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque. Said EcoBoost spins a 10-speed automatic that was mechanically developed by both Ford and GM, though each company does its own software tuning and production. The Chevrolet features a carryover 5.3-liter naturally aspirated V-8 that’s good for 355 hp and 388 lb-ft of twist running through the same transmission. Both vehicles can be had as rear-drive, AWD, or 4WD (meaning with a low-range transfer case).
There’s no other engine for the Ford, though you can opt for a stronger state of tune—400 hp and 480 lb-ft of torque—which comes standard on the top Platinum trim level. Remember, when in the Lincoln Navigator, this same mill spits out 450 hp. If you go for the top-spec Chevy High Country, you get the 6.2-liter V-8 that’s good for 420 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque. For now, you can’t get the big V-8 on lower trims. You will soon be able to get GM’s most choice Duramax 3.0-liter turbodiesel (277 hp/460 lb-ft of torque) in most Tahoes, but that longer engine and its intercooler don’t package in the higher chin that improves the Z71’s approach angle.
Let’s Talk Power
One would think that with the decisive power advantage, the Ford would feel much quicker than the Chevrolet, or at least a little quicker. Crazy thing? It doesn’t. I’m going to chalk this up 100 percent to savvy transmission tuning. The Tahoe is perpetually in the correct gear, and as a result the transmission does what a transmission is supposed to do—multiply the engine’s torque to produce forward thrust. In my review of the new Suburban, I (wrongly) assumed that it had the big 6.2-liter V-8. That’s how phenomenal the Tahoe’s transmission’s been programmed. As Miguel said, “My favorite part is how well the engine and the transmission work together—the gearbox is swift and precise, downshifting exactly when it needs to without any delays.”
But that’s not to say the Ford isn’t as studly. From Miguel: “The 3.5-liter twin-turbo V-6 continues to be a sweetheart. How such a small engine can propel such a big truck is unbelievable to me. And it does it well. The EcoBoost rarely feels stressed and delivers power in a very linear way.” In fact, to 60 mph, the Ford crushes the Chevy by 1.2 seconds, 7.4 seconds for the Tahoe versus 6.2 for the Expedition.
If I may add: Yes, but who brake stands a giant SUV? I found that if you stomped on both, the Chevy had an acceleration advantage until the Ford’s turbos spooled. Then, the much torquier Expedition then went much quicker. However, driving these two the way 95 percent of their owners will drive them 95 percent of the time, they felt like equals.
I’d tip this one to Chevy though, because doing more with less power and torque show great software engineering. Because the Expedition has been out for well over two years, that means Chevy’s boffins had that much time to work their transmission magic, and they did. I wish we were able to tow with these two. We’re aware that a sizable portion of owners will be towing with either truck. Also, when I drove the Expedition back in 2017, I was able to tow back to back with a then-current Suburban. To quote me after towing with both, “Wow, man, it blew the Chevy away.” I have a hunch that Chevrolet was keenly, if not painfully, aware of reactions like that. Moreover, I’ve towed with both the current F-150 (not the soon to be released one because no one has) and Silverado—the trucks that the Expedition and Tahoe are based on, respectively—and both are excellent.
Ride and Handling
The big news is that after two generations of Ford’s big three-row having an independent rear-end, Chevy not only bit the bullet (meaning spent the engineering money) and followed suit but added optional magnetic dampers and air springs. The result, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this, is the most sophisticated suspension system of any body-on-frame vehicle in the world, full stop.
As it pertains to ride quality, while the Ford is good, the Chevrolet is incredible. From Miguel, “The MagneRide shocks with air springs are worth every penny, keeping the cabin serene and peacefully free of big vibrations. I can’t speak more highly about the combination, especially the magnetic dampers—we’ve seen them before, and it seems like they keep getting better and better on every new iteration. Every Tahoe owner should check this box.” Totes agreed. Like I said, Chevy is now offering one of the world’s great suspension setups on its three-row people mover. What a world.
On the other hand, Miguel likes the way the Ford steers better. “I really like the way this truck handles. The steering is much better tuned than the Tahoe’s—here you feel tons of feedback of what’s happening at the wheels.”
Huge caveat time. As I had driven the Suburban the day before, I accidentally stumbled upon the knob that allows you to switch from Normal mode to Sport to Off-Road to Towing. Said knob is unlabeled, and actually—because it contains the button to raise the suspension height—is mislabeled. Knowing our drive loop through Palos Verdes and San Pedro takes an hour, I challenged Miguel to figure out how to put the Chevy in Sport mode. He couldn’t find it! To contrast this with the Ford, if your right arm is resting on the center console, the first thing your hand touches is a big, clearly labeled “Drive Modes” button. Did Miguel and I jump on a conference call with Chevy engineers where they told us that this is being addressed? Yes. Anyhow, I probably should have called Miguel halfway through and told him how to engage Sport mode, because it really does change things—like steering. I preferred how the Chevy Tahoe drove, regardless of mode.
Which Big SUV Should You Buy?
I suppose I’d forgotten how damn good the current generation Ford Expedition is. After spending a day in the larger Suburban, I suspected that the Tahoe would mop the mean streets of PV with it. That wasn’t the case. The Expedition remains a fantastic big SUV. However, we’re giving the win to Chevrolet. Miguel says, “The Tahoe also has this sort of X-factor—I find it appealing from every angle, getting attention even while it’s parked.” The Ford does blend into the background a bit.
After spending the day driving the two back-to-back, that’s really what it came down to. Both are seriously thought out, expertly engineered, and rather excellent full-size, three-row SUVs. But the Chevy showed up with an edge. An attitude. A swagger. A certain something extra that we both liked better. Charm of the new? Perhaps. Miguel concludes, “The fact that the Expedition is losing its appeal so quickly is a bit concerning. Sure, it’s modern and still drives great for an SUV this size, but its aging quickly. Ford should be prepared to roll out meaningful changes to the Expedition if it wants to lead the segment again.” Well friends, that mid-cycle refresh is about a year away. Until then, we’re voting Chevrolet Tahoe.
|2021 Chevrolet Tahoe Z71||2020 Ford Expedition XLT*|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, 4WD||Front-engine, 4WD|
|ENGINE TYPE||90-deg V-8, alum block/ heads||Twin-turbo 60-deg V-6, alum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||OHV, 2 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||325.1 cu in/5,327 cc||213.4 cu in/3,497 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||355 hp @ 5,600 rpm||375 hp @ 5,000 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||383 lb-ft @ 4,100 rpm||470 lb-ft @ 2,250 rpm|
|REDLINE||5,700 rpm||6,200 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||16.6 lb/hp||15.4 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||10-speed automatic||10-speed automatic|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Control arms, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar; multilink, air springs, adj shocks, anti-roll bar||Control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||13.5-in vented disc; 13.6-in vented disc, ABS||13.8-in vented disc; 13.2-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||9.0 x 20-in, cast aluminum||8.5 x 18-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||275/60R20 115S (M+S) Goodyear Wrangler TrailRunner AT||275/65R18 116T (M+S) Michelin Primacy XC*|
|WHEELBASE||120.9 in||122.5 in|
|TRACK, F/R||68.5/68.3 in||67.6/67.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||210.7 x 81.0 x 75.9-77.9 in||210.0 x 79.9 x 76.4 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||8.0-10.0 in||9.8 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||31.5-34.5/20.5-22.5 deg||23.3/21.9 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE||42.3 ft||41.0 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||5,893 lb||5,763 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||51/49%||50/50%|
|TOWING CAPACITY||8,200 lb||9,200 lb|
|HEADROOM, F/M/R||42.3/38.9/38.2 in||42.0/40.0/37.3 in|
|LEGROOM, F/M/R||44.5/42.0/34.9 in||43.9/41.5/36.1 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/M/R||66.0/64.7/62.7 in||64.9/64.8/64.2 in|
|CARGO VOLUME BEH F/M/R||122.9/72.6/25.5 cu ft||104.6/57.5/19.3 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.5 sec||2.2 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.8||3.3|
|QUARTER MILE||15.6 sec @ 90.6 mph||14.8 sec @ 91.7 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||127 ft||129 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.72 g (avg)||0.76 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,300 rpm||1,600 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$76,175||$64,520|
|AIRBAGS||6: Dual front, front side, f/m/r curtain||6: Dual front, front side, f/m/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||24.0 gal||23.3 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||16/20/18 mpg||17/22/19 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||211/169 kW-hrs/100 miles||198/153 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||1.10 lb/mile||1.02 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|