COAL: 1998 Chevrolet Tahoe LT 4WD – God Bless America!

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The siren song of the SUV was calling my name again.  Oh so short was my memory of record gas prices, or what the heck, I only commuted two miles each way, on a price per pound basis, this made perfect sense!

Actually, it made sense on several levels I suppose I told myself.  The Civic was a great car, but I do like some extra space in a car. I also find older (as in used with some miles under them, not necessarily outdated) vehicles to have more character and if I can find a creampuff for relative pennies per pound I am even more smitten (as was the case with my Mercedes 400E and the Buick Regal GS of a few weeks ago).

So it was with this Tahoe.  It was a one-owner truck, garaged in a nice neighborhood.  Every receipt was present, the only flaw I found was a small 2” indentation on the left rear fender.  The wife (main driver) had decided she wanted a Volvo XC90, so after about ten years the Tahoe was put out to pasture.

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Advertised for $5,300 with about 90,000 miles on it, I called and went to see it the first day it was available.  It drove well, looked great, and the 2” thick stack of service and maintenance records were extremely reassuring.  I tried to haggle but the seller was not very willing, citing several other calls he had already received.  In the end we settled on $5000, I wrote a deposit check and arranged to do the exchange at a bank the next day during business hours.

The next day I got a call from the owner. He said when he took it home after I drove it he parked it outside.  Later that evening he wanted to move it into the garage and noticed fluid underneath it.  So instead he drove it to his mechanic, who called him first thing in the morning with a diagnosis: Lower Intake Manifold Gasket failure, cost quoted around $1000.  Doh! 

I gingerly asked if that meant our deal was off, and he replied no, it was still his problem, he would fix it and hoped that a two-day delay would not be an issue.  Nope, not for me, happy to wait!  Every seller should be so accommodating, the guy really was stand-up, very nice to see and it made me confident about my new purchase.

So I got it a few days later and drove it to work, where several people admired it immediately and were amazed how clean it was.  And they were right, even underneath was spotless, the farthest off-road this ever got was probably the Nordstom parking lot.  Inside it had pretty much everything you could ask for at the time – large cupholders, a decent radio with CD player, driver and passenger airbags, power everything of course, and big heated pillowy seats that would come in very handy later on.

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Finished in Summit White over Neutral Beige leather interior, every single one of you has at least seen if not ridden in one of these and very possible the same color combination.  At one time they were really all over the place.  Back in the day GM had the 2-door version and then the big Suburban and realized that there was probably a market for something in between.  And so the 4-door Tahoe was spawned. 

However, it was not just a chopped Suburban.  The suspension was redesigned and is apparently a lot softer than a Suburban as the anticipated clientele was mainly suburbanites driving on paved surfaces.  The LT package was the top of the line with a base price of $31,895, with the options mine had it was about $37,000 sticker when new. 

However as far as the drivetrain goes, it was the same as the standard Suburban, so it had the 350c.i. V8 that generated 255 horsepower and a stout 330ft-lbs of torque, all delivered through a 4-speed automatic.  The weight was around 4900 pounds.  By 1998, the 4WD was all pushbutton including low-range and it all worked fine. 

That 350 which is a descendent of the 350 that I had in my old Chevrolet Concourse Wagon many moons before performed just as smoothly and silently in this application.  Smooth, effortless torque, subtle shifts, and a compliant ride made it obvious why this was so popular especially in locales where there are not many curves, even though it handled acceptably well anyway.

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Like our Land Cruiser, the rear hatch was a split affair with tailgate and glass.  Unlike our Land Cruiser however, there was no third-row option.  No matter as the back seat was wide enough (we thought) and we had the van if need be anyway.

The front of the cabin was large, and well, plasticky.  But everything worked and worked well.  While not nearly as luxurious as our Land Cruiser it was much less expensive, a trade-off I could live with.  All three of our kids fit in the back seat without major issues (one booster, one Britax, and one car-carrier seat/base assembly) and the dog could ride in the cargo area. 

After about six months without any problems I started to notice a weird steering effect.  It was similar to if you were going around a corner and hit a small patch of ice, the steering wheel would get superlight and jerk to the side and then the issue would be gone a split second later.  It got to the point where I could repeat it at will and was disconcerting, especially at higher speeds.  At first I thought there was a problem with the steering box or the suspension until I researched it (thank you Google) and found that it was part of the power-steering electronics. 

There is a small ring that fits around the steering column that has a sensor on it which can go bad.  I found a replacement on ebay and got to work.  A modern steering column is collapsible, which in this case meant it is really like a telescope with several sections that can fit within each other.  To replace this “ring”, you have to remove a bolt that holds two sections of column together, then slowly push the column up into itself, unplug and remove the “ring”, replace it, then pull the column back together and bolt it back together.  This did work and the problem was solved!  $26 for the part and half an hour of very contorted time in the driver side footwell.

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 After about a year I had to buy new tires and found a set of Dunlops on TireRack for under $70 each.  I was surprised at the value, but it makes sense since they must make millions of tires in this size.  They worked well and were quiet and cushy.  The Tahoe does not pretend to be a great handler so cornering didn’t get any worse, if you pushed it too hard it would start to squeal.  Really it just liked to cruise and did so extremely well.

Around the same time I started to notice some oil droplets on the driveway.  I took it to a local mechanic and it apparently was due to the oil pipes that run to the cooler were leaking.  Apparently this is a common occurrence on these vehicles and was soon put right.

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This was around the time that we decided to move to Colorado.  We did the move ourselves, on our own dime, and it involved several trips in rented very large yellow Penske trucks (how is it that they let a normal person with a normal driver’s license acquired during a high school class with the football coach drive these things on the public highway?) for all of our stuff that we could not live without (but a lot of which ended up on the driveway at the community garage sale a year later, go figure). 

My wife flew out with two of the kids to start their new schools in Colorado while I stayed back to sell the house and work for a while longer but since she would need a car one of the trips would be with the Tahoe (since the Sienna had burned as you may recall).  So the week that my wife and boys flew out my daughter and I loaded all kinds of breakables into the Tahoe and we set off. 

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You can load a Tahoe to the rafters and it will not even care.  Empty or full, it drives pretty much the same.  Since we were in money-saving mode due to starting our lives over without any employment lined up and two mortgages to pay, I had decided a hotel was out of the question.  At the end of the first day’s driving we had made it to Reno, so we decided that the parking lot of the Holiday Inn looked nice with a Denny’s next door for breakfast.  We rearranged all of the stuff within the car and squeezed ourselves in the back. 

I won’t lie and say it was super comfortable but it worked and at least we woke up early, ate at Denny’s and got an early start.  At the end of that next very long day we made it to our new home where I basically handed over the Tahoe keys to my wife, took her rental car down to Denver, flew home and took a cab back to the house.  The Tahoe averaged 17mpg on the 1250-mile trip, not bad considering some of the mountains in the way and our relatively high average speed.  At least it took regular and gas got cheaper the further east we got. 

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Several months later when we were all situated and completely moved I got to experience the Tahoe in the snow.  It worked fine, but you could feel the weight especially when braking.  On a bitterly cold day while I was driving down to Denver and stopped for gas, it would not restart.  The fellow on the other side of the pump gave me a jump start and I just drove straight to an O’Reilly’s, they load tested the battery (it was fine, but the alternator was not) and I ended up replacing the alternator right then and there with snow falling.

The end of the road for the Tahoe came when our youngest son was transitioning to a Britax Infant Car Seat.  Modern kid seats require 3-point belts to work correctly.  It turns out that this generation of Tahoe only had a lap belt in the middle rear.  So with three kids it does not work safely unless you rig something up which I was not willing to do in this case. 

I advertised it for $5800 (yes, more than I paid for it two years earlier) as a California car with every receipt from new and the first person that came to see it bought it without even haggling.  Turns out he used to live in one of the East Bay towns that we used to live in when we had the Jaguar and the Saab, weird how the world is so small.  While the Tahoe was not quite as reliable as many of the other cars I’ve had, in every instance the fix was easy, quick, and quite inexpensive.  There is definitely an advantage to designs that were built in the millions.