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Tahoe's long on power, traction

The Chevrolet Tahoe isn't the biggest sport utility vehicle on the road. But it will do.

With serious competition from the Ford Expedition, Chevrolet is tweaking the 3-year-old Tahoe to keep it in fighting trim."We look at our Tahoe and Suburban team as the one-two punch in this market," says Steve Ramsey, brand manager for the two vehicles. "Each vehicle meets a specific need - either room for six and a load of cargo or room for nine and plenty of luggage space. Our competition can't meet both of those needs with their `compromise solution.' "

That may be true for now. But the word in Dearborn is that Ford is working on a Suburban fighter to go with the Expedition.

Don't look for a knockout punch anytime soon in this heavyweight prize fight. The Expedition is 5 inches longer than the Tahoe, with three rows of seats for passengers instead of two. The Ford product also has a choice of gasoline V8 engines and offers better ride and handling.

But for pure power, traction and strength, the Tahoe is hard to beat.

Yes, the Expedition offers two V-8 engines. But neither is as strong as the 5.7 liter, 255 horsepower V8 that comes standard on the Tahoe. And Chevy does offer a 180-horsepower diesel with 360 foot-pounds of torque, 30 foot-pounds more than the gasoline engine can crank.

Against the smaller, 4.6 liter 215-horsepower engine in the Expedition, Tahoe's Vortec V8 made it from 0-60 mph 1.5 second sooner in Consumer Reports tests. The Expedition's larger 230-horsepower V8 might make it more of a race, but I would still bet on the Tahoe.

Tahoe, the successor to the full-size Blazer, is based on the C/K pickup platform and comes in 2-door or 4-door versions with rear-drive or 4-wheel-drive. Two-door models are built in Silao, Mexico, while four-doors come from GM plants in Arlington, Texas, and Janesville, Wis. The two-door version is available in three trim levels, base, LS and LT. The four-door has just LS or LT trim levels. Prices range from $23,532 to $36,834.

The review vehicle was a four-door, 4-wheel-drive version that carried a base price of $31,985 and a final sticker of $37,317 with options and destination charge.

I tested the Tahoe in ideal winter conditions, ice and snow in the Rocky Mountains' Front Range. That's when you realize why these "super utes" are so popular. Riding high on a set of all-season, steel-belted radials, you get a commanding view. And you don't have to worry about every passing econobox throwing slush onto your windshield. Tahoe keeps a firm grip on icy mountain roads.

New for 1998 models is the AutoTrac system that gives drivers a choice of rear-drive, 4-wheel-drive high or low or "auto 4-wheel-drive." The auto mode senses when a wheel is losing traction and shifts power to the others. This is the right system on roads with patches of ice or mud.

On the 1998 models, Chevy offers new upgrades, such as the comfort and security package for LT models. Heated leather seats up front come with 6-way power adjustments. The package also includes heated outside mirrors (self-dimming on the driver's side), floor mats, compass and temperature display. A Home-Link transmitter operates three remote-control devices, such as garage door opener, estate gates or security lighting.

Other new features include Passlock anti-theft system and the new OnStar satellite link-up with a round-the-clock customer service center.

OnStar seems well suited for an off-roader. If you get lost or lock yourself out of the vehicle, someone far, far away (Michigan) can take care of the problem for you. If your Tahoe is stolen, they can find it. If you want the nearest barbecue restaurant or ATM, the service center can find those for you, too.

Though shorter than the Expedition, Tahoe has nearly identical cargo capacity. Towing capacity of 6,500 pounds means you can go ahead and buy those Clydesdales. An eight-lead trailer harness comes on the back end and two front tow hooks are standard on 4x4 models.

The Tahoe's 30-gallon fuel tank should hold you in good stead, but fuel economy is the Tahoe's achilles heel. Burning unleaded at the profligate rate of 13 city and 17 highway miles per gallon, you can expect to cruise an average of 450 miles and spend $1,390 a year on gas.

Handling is another sacrifice you have to make when you move up to a super ute. Getting into parking lots can sometimes be easier than getting out of them. This is, after all, a real truck that sits on a ladder-type frame and big leaf springs on the back end.

Buyers have a choice of a drop-gate or rear panel doors that swing out. The doors make loading easier, though I would prefer a liftgate over either option. For routine loading, the glass windshield pops up. The second row of seats folds flat to take on more cargo.

The dash and instruments are straightforward and functional. General Motors products seem to have the most user friendly stereo controls and ventilation switches that are on a par with the best in class. Storage compartments and cupholders are well positioned and practical.

The driving public seems to like Tahoe's blend of "rugged elegance." Sales of 4-door models soared 53 percent, and the vehicle was a big contributor to Chevy's record truck sales last year.

PLUSES: Power, cargo capacity, traction.

MINUSES: Fuel economy, handling.

BOTTOM LINE: Light heavyweight champ faces a serious contender in Ford Expedition but avoids a knockout.

INFOBOX: 1998 Chevrolet Tahoe LT:

TYPE: 4-wheel-drive, five-passenger, full-size sport utility vehicle.

WHERE BUILT: Arlington, Texas.

PRICE: $31,895 base, $36,677 as tested, $640 destination charge.

POWER: 5.7-liter, 255-horsepower V8; four-speed automatic transmission.

SUSPENSION: Independent short/long arm front with torsion bar; rear leaf springs.

BRAKES: Power discs, drums, ABS.

LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT: 199.6 x 76.8 x 75 inches.

WHEELBASE: 117.5 inches.

GROUND CLEARANCE: 8.6 inches.

CURB WEIGHT: 4,865 pounds.

TOWING CAPACITY: 6,500 pounds.

FUEL ECONOMY: 13/17 mpg, 30-gallon tank, range 450 miles, estimated annual fuel cost $1,390.

STANDARD: Air bags, air conditioning, power windows/doors/

locks, rear window defogger, AM/FM/CD/cassette stereo, remote keyless entry, cruise control, leather wrapped steering wheel, towing harness, tow hooks, 6-way power driver's seat, electric tailgate release.

OPTIONAL: Reclining bucket seats with consoles ($237); 3.73 ratio rear axle ($135); locking differential ($252); air cleaner ($25); autotrac transfer case ($400); skid plate ($95); P245/75R 16 tires ($140); cold climate package ($33); Calif. Emissions ($170); comfort/security package includes heated front seats, heated side mirrors, Homelink transmitter, 46mm Bilstein shocks, power passenger seat, rear air conditioning ($1,545); heavy duty trailering equipment ($310).