How Good Is the New Chevy Tahoe Z71 Off-Road?

The unveiling of the new Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe has a lot to unpack. The SUVs have received quite a few changes—new frames, new suspension, even a new diesel. Among the changes was the news that the Z71 off-road package would become its own separate trim. But would that still make the Z71 good off-road? Jalopnik’s resident Jeep and off-road enthusiast, David Tracy, crawled underneath the Chevy Tahoe Z71 to find out.

The Chevy Tahoe Z71’s helpful off-road features

2021 Chevrolet Tahoe Z71 and Suburban High Country
2021 Chevrolet Tahoe Z71 and Suburban High Country | Chevrolet

The new Z71 retains the previous model’s automatic locking rear differential. In addition, compared to the standard Chevy Tahoe and Suburban, the Tahoe Z71 has had its ‘chin’ chopped. The lower bumper has been modified, and the underside fitted with an aluminum skid plate. As before, the two-speed transfer case also gets its own skidplate.

2021 Chevrolet Suburban chassis with Air Ride adaptive suspension
2021 Chevrolet Suburban chassis with Air Ride adaptive suspension | Chevrolet

A big change, though, is the Tahoe Z71’s optional air suspension. Combined with magnetic shocks, it not only raises the SUV by 2”, it also gives 4” of adjustable ride height. Meaning, a possible 6” total additional ground clearance. This, plus the changes to the front bumper, also improves the Tahoe Z71’s approach angle. The new air suspension and magnetic shocks also, according to Motor Trend, result in a pleasant ride.

2021 Chevrolet Suburban independent rear suspension
2021 Chevrolet Suburban independent rear suspension | Chevrolet

Although, that might also have a lot to do with the Tahoe’s new independent rear suspension. Compared to the old SUV’s rear axle design, the IRS allows the suspension to better soak up imperfections and gives the driver better handling. As Tracy pointed out, these changes will definitely help the Z71 in high-speed sand and dirt driving.

However, David Tracy also noticed a few slightly worrying issues underneath the Chevy Tahoe Z71.

What might limit the Chevy Tahoe Z71 in off-roading

For one, although the front bumper was modified for a better approach angle, the Z71’s rear bumper is the same as the standard Tahoe’s. Meaning, departure angle hasn’t improved. In addition, the rear differential gets no additional protection. Tracy did note though, that the rear differential is placed fairly high in the SUV.

A bigger worry, though, is the unprotected fuel tank. Tracy does claim that, in discussing the GMC Sierra AT4, engineers weren’t worried about the fuel tank getting damaged, because it sat above the truck’s frame rails. That appears to be the case here, although Tracy would have appreciated some additional rock protection.

The exhaust and transmission oil pan are also unprotected, although they sit close to the front wheels and high above the rails. Tracy reckoned they would be fine off-road, and mentions that even the Jeep Wrangler’s transmission oil pan is similarly unprotected.

The problem with the suspension

It appears, then, that Chevy engineers are counting on the Z71’s air suspension and increased ride height to be the main defense against off-roading obstacles. And, to be fair, ground clearance is one of the most important things to keep in mind when off-roading. That’s why so many off-road truck and SUV owners install big wheels.

However, the air suspension in the Chevy Tahoe Z71 may face some issues off-pavement. It’s supplied by an air tank mounted underneath the SUV—and it’s fairly unprotected. It also hangs pretty low, lower potentially than even the transfer case skidplate. Let’s just hope Chevy’s air suspension is less glitchy than the Range Rover’s.

Jeep Gladiator King of the Hammers Racer
Jeep Gladiator King of the Hammers Racer | Jeep

The IRS itself also limits the Tahoe Z71 somewhat. Yes, it makes for a comfier ride and better control at speed on sand and dirt. However, as FourWheeler has explained, IRS vehicles struggle with low-speed rock-crawling. That’s why the Jeep Gladiator has solid axles: it compromises on-road behavior, but it’s better for tackling the crags of Moab.

What about the diesel?

3.0L Duramax turboesel engine
3.0L Duramax turbodiesel engine | Chevrolet

All this makes the lack of a Tahoe Z71 diesel option sting somewhat less. Due to the front skid plate and front bumper changes, Jalopnik reported, the 3.0-liter turbodiesel engine’s hardware won’t fit. Compatibility issues like this aren’t uncommon: it’s why the Ram Power Wagon can’t be ordered with a diesel, for example.

But if the Tahoe Z71 isn’t meant to be a hard-core off-roader, not having a diesel’s low-end torque doesn’t matter all that much. Although the improved fuel efficiency couldn’t have hurt.

What’s the Z71’s real purpose?

It appears, then, although the Tahoe Z71 is a separate trim now, its overall intended mission hasn’t changed. Jalopnik noted in a review of the previous Tahoe Z71 that the SUV wasn’t really a hardcore off-roader. Not exactly a counterpart for the Colorado ZR2 Bison. And that appears to be the same case for the new Chevy Tahoe Z71.

In fact, a Chevrolet spokesperson told David Tracy that the SUV “is not…intended to be [a] hardcore rock crawler like [the] ZR2”, but that it would be “awesome for getting through deep snow.” So, the Tahoe Z71 can go off-pavement, just not too far. Less Baja route scouting, more slightly steep gravel road.

In short, if you’re after serious off-roading capability, the Chevy Tahoe Z71. But, let’s be honest, few every-day commuters really want a rugged rock-crawler. They want something that’s quiet on the road but can tackle snow, gravel paths, and the occasional dune excursion. If that’s what you’re really after, you could do worse than the Tahoe Z71.