There’s something intrinsically intimidating about an all-black truck. Make that truck an off-road model with chunky tires, a higher ride height and special styling, and it becomes even more eye-catching. It just so happened that on a crisp late-summer day recently, I found myself with the two top off-road offerings from Chevrolet sitting side by side in my driveway — both big, both all-black, both loaded with adventure potential, but both offering a very different experience and appealing to two decidedly different buyers.
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The one that’s been around for more than a year now is the 2020 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Custom Trail Boss Z71, an off-road, full-size pickup truck that arrived kitted out in a very unusual way: This one is meant to be the cheapest example of an off-road Chevy pickup that still features the biggest engine. Its side-by-side sibling was the brand-new, totally redesigned 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe Z71, the latest version of Chevy’s popular full-size truck-based SUV — now featuring a lot more interior room, more powertrain choices, significant refinement enhancements and a hefty sticker price to boot.
Would You Like the Cheapest Bad-Ass Chevy Pickup You Can Get?
They’re birds of a feather, but these two trucks are flying different missions. The Silverado 1500, as equipped here, is meant to be a close-to-basic blank canvas that keeps costs down on the initial truck, but brings all the Trail Boss and Z71 off-road package equipment to the party.
It starts with the smallest full-size pickup that you can specify in off-road trim, which means a double cab in North America (only the Middle East gets a single-cab off-road spec). The Work Truck trim doesn’t let you specify the Z71 package, so you step up one level to the Custom Trail Boss Trim and lose the option of a turbocharged 2.7-liter four-cylinder base engine — but gain the opportunity to spec the big-daddy 6.2-liter V-8 instead, which is what Chevy did here.
The Trail Boss trim is mostly visual enhancements, including some blacked-out grille trim, black wheels, red tow hooks and some special badging on the bed. But it also includes the Z71 Off-Road Package, which brings a 2-inch suspension lift with Rancho-brand monotube shock absorbers, a two-speed transfer case, a locking rear differential, skid plates, electronic hill descent control and 18-inch wheels sporting legit Goodyear DuraTrac chunky off-road tires.
Or Would You Prefer a Cushy Off-Road Luxury SUV?
At the other end of the spectrum is this new 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe Z71. Unlike the Silverado, the Z71 is a trim level on the Tahoe/Suburban full-size SUVs, and it is most definitely not an inexpensive base-model idea. In fact, the starting price for the off-road Tahoe is a jaw-dropping $60,495. It includes luxury items like a leather interior, a nine-speaker Bose premium audio system, LED lighting, power liftgate, black tubular side steps, keyless entry with remote start, tri-zone automatic climate control and more.
But it also includes some off-road equipment: a two-speed transfer case for the four-wheel-drive system, electro-mechanical limited-slip differential, skid plates, 20-inch wheels with all-terrain tires, electronic hill descent control and tow hooks. If you want to get more serious about off-road equipment, you can specify one or more of several packages — but the only piece of equipment that will help you will be a four-corner air suspension with Magnetic Ride Control, which can adjust the ride height of the truck.
The so-called “Off-Road Package” combines the Luxury and Off-Road Capability packages, and also includes things like heated mirrors, a surround camera system, a power tilt and telescoping steering column, heated second row seats, an integrated trailer brake controller, a heated steering wheel, a bunch of trailering-assistance systems and a full complement of automatic electronic safety systems as well. Price-as-tested climbs to a jaw-dropping $76,175, so we’re not really fooling anyone here: This is a luxury truck with some off-road equipment, not the other way around.
Two Different Experiences
As you might expect, they feel completely different. The Silverado is very much an off-road truck — no fancy air suspensions, no frills to this basic black plastic wipe-out interior, no whiz-bang multimedia systems, no head-up displays, no automatic climate control, no surround-view cameras, not even any side steps. If you want into the spartan cabin, you have to hoist yourself up using the big grab handles and plant yourself in the comfortable fabric-covered bench seats. It’s a glorious exercise in playing around with the vehicle configurator and making a “what if” truck — as in, “What if we made the least-expensive, most-capable off-road Chevy Silverado available?” And here it is — and it’s fantastic.
The truck has a Tonka-toy feel and look to it that’s absolutely dynamite. Approach it in a parking lot, and its intimidating stance and wild styling send a little thrill down your spine. On the street, people get out of the way, moving over in the left lane on the highway, letting you go first at stop signs, hustling along a little more quickly in crosswalks.
The driving experience is also top-notch, something we’ve always appreciated in the latest GM trucks. It’s obvious where Chevy spent its development money: the chassis control, ride quality, steering feel and overall driving experience are outstanding, even in this high-riding off-road model with fairly noisy tires. The huge 420-horsepower, 6.2-liter V-8 feels like it never runs out of power, and the slick-shifting 10-speed automatic transmission is perfectly matched to it.
The new Tahoe Z71 is a very different experience. This, frankly, is the model to have when it comes to luxury Chevy SUVs. My prior experience with the new Tahoe was in the High Country top luxury model, and while it shares many of the same benefits as this Z71 (a spacious and reconfigurable interior, top-notch technology, comfort aplenty), the Z71 has a few advantages, in my opinion.
First is the ride quality: I found the High Country to be surprisingly choppy, due in no small part to its 22-inch wheels and tires. The Z71 has 20-inch wheels and tires; while they’re listed as “all-terrain” tires, their tread patterns aren’t nearly as aggressive as those on the Silverado Trail Boss, and the additional sidewall height works to absorb a lot of bumps. The result is an astonishingly smooth and stable ride. Both my Z71 test truck and prior High Country featured the Magnetic Ride Control suspension, but the Z71 felt more controlled and less wallowy than the High Country, with less pitching of the body under hard acceleration and deceleration, or in quick lane changes. And it goes without saying that the ride quality is worlds better than the Silverado — but then it should be, given the completely different suspension underneath.
The downside to the Z71: You can only specify the 5.3-liter V-8 that comes standard in the Tahoe. It makes a robust 355 hp and 383 pounds-feet of torque, but it doesn’t have the alacrity that the 6.2-liter engine has in these big, heavy trucks.
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Different Strokes for Different Folks
It’s clear that this is not a case of two Z71 trucks with simply different body shells, one with a permanent bed cap and the other with an open bed. The new Tahoe is far, far more than a gussied up Silverado pickup, despite the pair sharing a lot of components.
On-road, they feel very different but both compose themselves quite well. I’ve driven the Silverado Trail Boss off-road and have been very impressed with its capabilities; I was not able to do so in my brief time with the Tahoe Z71, but I suspect its less aggressive tires will be offset by its adjustable ride height and air suspension when out in the rough. We’ll have to take one out into the dirt later this year when they become more widely available to see if it can match the abilities of Chevy’s off-road pickup.
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