2007 Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon, Cadillac Escalade

WARREN, MICH.- General Motors launched its next generation of full-sized SUVs this week – right into the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the resulting sky-high gasoline prices.

These 2007 models, which include the redesigned Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade, were shown to the international press at GM's design centre here, just outside Detroit, with the usual new-model fanfare.

But there was a grim acknowledgment of the fuel crisis.

"We are very aware of current fuel prices and how they impact our customers," said Mark LaNeve, GM's marketing guru for North America.

He showed charts tracing the decline of large SUV sales over the past few months in direct relation to rising gasoline prices.

As well, customer feedback has spelled out the obvious to GM brass: fuel efficiency is now the Number 1 consideration in a new-vehicle purchase.

Luckily, this new generation of SUV looks slimmer and more toned, although the trucks are not actually smaller.

Wider front and rear tracks on the all-new, fully boxed frame are said to enhance handling and lower the centre of gravity, and they also create a slight pyramid shape that seems to reduce the vehicle's bulk.

The effect is enhanced by new wraparound front fascias, a greater rake to the windshield, flat sides (all the clunky cladding of previous generations is gone) and 20-inch tires that fill the wheel wells.

This more athletic appearance may prove the most valuable change of all. As well, this body offers a very slippery aerodynamic drag coefficient of just 0.363 (the lowest – and hence best – among current SUVs), and that will save gas, too.

Also weighing in on the fuel issue was Bob Lutz, GM vice-chairman. He said the company's new sport-utilities will average more than 20 miles per U.S. gallon (11.75 L/100 km) in combined city and highway driving.

Technology like GM's cylinder-deactivating Displacement on Demand (DOD) system, the new body shape and a new six-speed automatic transmission is behind the improvement.

DOD can temporarily shut down half the V8's cylinders under certain driving conditions. The operation is automatic and virtually unnoticeable.

Featured on the 2007s' new 5.3-litre V8, DOD technology will reduce fuel usage by up to 7 per cent, compared to a non-DOD engine of the same size.

GM hopes that this technology will halt the current sales slide in a segment that sees North Americans buying up to 750,000 full-size units a year.

There are 6.5 million SUVs in North America, and 62 per cent of them are GM vehicles, the auto maker says.

Chevy Tahoe is Number 1 in its segment, GM notes.

There are no plans to make diesel engines available in these trucks, I was told, but the chassis could accommodate them.

Still, despite the promises of better mileage and the general popularity of these trucks, could there be a worse time for this launch? If timing in business is everything, then this collision of events can only be bad for these vehicles, despite their promising advances in fuel economy, safety systems and general production values.

Sadly, this current (and hopefully temporary) state of affairs even overshadowed one of the brightest developments of this launch: the renaissance of the firm's sport-utility interiors.

"We want you to focus on our interiors – unlike in the old days when we were glad if you didn't," Lutz quipped as he showed off Tahoe.

He has taken heat for GM's lacklustre interiors and promised to radically improve them.

This presentation appeared to be the fulfillment of that promise – for the trucks at least.

The designs differed by brand, and they mix colours and materials in sumptuous ways.

A roomier cabin in the '07 Tahoe sees the new instrument panel lowered, offering a deeper windshield.

The dash is finished in a pebbled surface and also has a single-tone, brushed-metal look, as does the centre stack and door switch plates.

Gaps have been tightened and surfaces are nicely flush throughout.

The trucks' overall look is upscale, and presenters emphasized that improved sound deadening materials are meant to deliver the quietest large-SUV cabin ever.

Seat travel and recline angles have been increased, and the bolstered pedestal seats are new.

The new 2007 Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade will be available in first-quarter 2006.

The Chevy Suburban and Avalanche; GMC Yukon, XL and Denali; and Cadillac Escalade ESV and EXT will be available around the middle of next year.

Pricing will be announced closer to the end of 2006.

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