2009 Chevy Tahoe LTZ 6.2L 4x4 – Click above for high-res image gallery

For a long time, gas prices in the United States were literally cheaper than dirt. Seriousl – check out the price of a bag of top soil at your local home improvement store. With such low fuel prices, the cost of operating a motor vehicle was really not much of an issue for most Americans. As a result, the only cost that concerned Americans when buying a vehicle was the monthly payment. People bought what ever they could afford on a monthly basis, not at the pump.

The result was the rise of the personal use truck, and in particular, the sport utility vehicle. It started slowly in the 1980s with the Jeep Cherokee and really picked up steam with the launch of the Ford Explorer. As the Nineties wore on, people moved into even bigger full-size SUVs and the Chevy Tahoe was among the most successful up until the last few years. That's when sales hit a brick wall as gas prices finally started to climb.

We recently got to spend some quality time with a 2009 Chevy Tahoe LTZ and its big 6.2-lliter V8. Follow the jump to see if this behemoth still has what it takes to charm consumers now that gas prices have ebbed.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

2008 was a horrible time to be in the business of making big trucks, with every brand getting hammered hard first as gas prices went to $4 per gallon and then during the financial collapse in the Fall. Sales of the Tahoe dropped by more than 37 percent last year to just 91,578 units. Even at that level, the Tahoe was still the best-selling full-size SUV in America by a wide margin. Among those were several thousand hybrid models as they became widely available for the first time.

For this visit to the Autoblog Garage however, General Motors sent over a loaded LTZ model with a 6.2-liter V8 cranking out 395 horsepower at a surprisingly lofty 5,600 rpm and 417 lb-ft of torque at 4,300 rpm. General Motors likes to advertise that it offers more models that achieve over 30 miles-per-gallon on the highway than any other automaker, but with all of that power on tap, this Tahoe is understandably not one of them.

At a distance, the Tahoe's styling belies its dimensions. Its overall proportions with its short overhangs and tidy detailing give a handsome impression. Compared to the now euthanized Trailblazer EXT, the Tahoe doesn't look as top-heavy and clumsy. At the front, there's no doubt that this is a contemporary Chevrolet thanks to the dual port grille. Unlike the hybrid, this one doesn't have the deep front air dam and at least looks like it could handle crawling over some boulders without getting into too much trouble.

As you walk up close, it becomes immediately apparent just how big the Tahoe is. At 16.8 feet long and 6.4 feet tall, the Tahoe towers over its little brother, the Aveo. For those who like the whole command seating approach where you can see over traffic, at least the traffic that isn't driving a Tahoe or something similar, this thing fits the bill. The test unit we drove also had optional 20-inch chromed wheels that fill out the wheel wells. Given the step up into the Tahoe, the standard running boards also come in handy for entry/exit.

The first two rows of seats in the high-zoot LTZ version are clad in tan-colored leather, and the seats themselves have heating and cooling circuits. During our time with the Tahoe, overnight temperatures here in southeast Michigan dipped low into the single digits. Fortunately, the Tahoe was equipped with a remote starter on the key fob allowing the SUV to be started from the comfort of the author's home. One particularly handy feature given the frigid morning weather was that the remote start also triggered the seat heaters, preventing a frozen bottom upon hitting the cold leather.

The second row captains chairs are also heated and flip forward to allow access to the third row. They can't be completely removed but the seatbacks do fold flat. Because the Tahoe has a live rear axle, the rear floor has to be fairly high to allow clearance for the motion of the differential. Since the third row seats sit on the floor, occupants end up in a knees-up seating position that isn't particularly comfortable for adults. Those who really want to utilize the third row would be better off opting for the longer wheelbase Suburban.

The third row seats also don't fold flat into the floor, so maximizing rear cargo space requires completely removing the seats. That's accomplished by pulling up a lever and then grabbing the handle and pulling the whole seat back and out. With the third row seat removed and the middle row folded forward, we were able to load an old sectional sofa in the back to haul it to the local reuse center. Of course, we had to do it one section at a time, but nonetheless, it's a task we couldn't have accomplished with in a passenger car.

How you feel about driving the Tahoe will depend on how you feel about driving in general and how you plan to use it. Anyone who prefers a sporting drive will be disappointed with the Tahoe, or any other similar SUV for that matter. The nearly 400-hp V8 provides plenty of grunt and moves the 5,500-lb Tahoe without breathing hard. The brakes are vastly improved compared to GM trucks of a decade ago. The pedal still feels a bit over-boosted, but the brakes are fairly easy to modulate and there doesn't seem to be the six inches of free play that older models exhibit.

The steering also lacks any noticeable free play right off center and motions of the wheel translate directly into directional changes. The effort required to turn the wheel, however, is too light and there is no real feedback... but GM doesn't market the Tahoe as an alternative to the Porsche Cayenne, right? When the snow falls, however, the Tahoe shines. Its four-wheel drive system allows it to plow right through several inches of fresh powder with a reassuring sure-footedness. The ABS, traction and stability control systems work together smoothly without feeling overly intrusive.

We didn't have an opportunity to test the towing capability during its weeklong stay, but the spec sheet lists an 8,200-pound towing capacity for the 4X4 Tahoe with the 6.2L V8 engine. The rear-wheel-drive model increases that to 8,500 pounds. Based on our past towing experience with GM trucks, we have no reason to doubt those numbers. The Tahoe also has a tow/haul switch that changes the standard programming of the 6-speed automatic transmission. Activating tow/haul holds gears longer, prevents hunting and triggers downshifts to incur more engine braking.

All the capability of the Tahoe brings with it a thirst for refined petroleum. The EPA rates the 6.2-liter LTZ at 12 miles-per-gallon city and 19 mpg on the highway. During our week with the Tahoe, it managed a mere 12.4 mpg, a figure certainly not helped by the chilly temperatures. Warmer temps and a light throttle foot could probably bring that number up to 15-16 in combined driving. For 2009, the 6.2L engine also has flex-fuel capability, so highly subsidized corn-based fuel becomes an option if you have an E85 pump in the neighborhood.

While the mileage figure was low, the price tag wasn't. The 4WD LTZ starts at $50,900 and ours had an out-the-door bottom line of $57,335 delivered. That includes the $4,790 Sun, Entertainment and Destination package, which will guide you to where you want to go with the in-dash nav system and keep the munchkins entertained with the rear seat DVD system, among other items.

Fifty-seven grand is a lot of money in these harsh economic times, so it's no surprise that sales of the Tahoe and its ilk are suffering. For many people who don't often have a use for such vehicles, a truck or SUV is a great thing to borrow from a friend. Others, however, have a real need for vehicles like the Tahoe that can tow and haul more people and cargo than a passenger car or a comparably-sized crossover. If you don't need the towing power offered by the 6.2-liter V8, there are also 4.8-liter and 5.3-liter models with less of the luxury goods that start around $37,000. Those who need the space and utility but want better fuel economy can also go for the two-mode hybrid model. Of course, all of the aforementioned prices border on the hypothetical since the Tahoe and its siblings are loaded down with incentives these days. So if you're the person who really needs what the Tahoe has to offer, now may be the best time to buy. Just make sure you can afford the payments at the pump.

Photos Copyright ©2009 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own — we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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