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Large SUV hauls lots of cargo

Rugged vehicle comes with gasoline-electric hybrid option

The Chevrolet Tahoe continues to be the most popular full-size SUV on the market. It's also among the top large SUVs, based on reviews, test drives and safety and reliability data.

For those who need a rugged vehicle capable of hauling lots of cargo (up to 108.9 cubic feet), up to nine people, and/or towing up to 3,850 kilograms, the Tahoe is a great choice.

Three trims are available - base LS, midlevel LT and top-of-the-line LTZ. All are offered with either rear-or all-wheel drive, and there is even a gasoline-electric hybrid model.

My tester, the LTZ two-wheel drive, came with a Sun and Entertainment Package, which included a power tilt/slide sunroof with a manual shade and a rear entertainment system: DVD player with remote, two wireless headphones, overhead display, remote game plug-in, auxiliary audio/video jacks and a mute button in the overhead console, plus additional nine months XM radio and NavTraffic. Satellite radio is standard on all models.

We didn't need the rear entertainment system on a weekend trip we took (no kids along this time), but the NavTraffic alerted us to several congested areas on our route, giving us plenty of time to detour if we wanted.

We had the Heavy Duty Trailering Package, and a trailer brake controller. That's for big trailers; the Tahoe already comes with trailering equipment and trailer sway control as standard equipment.

The Tahoe is powered by a 5.3-litre V-8 with 320 horsepower and 335 foot-pounds of torque. It has variable valve timing and Active Fuel Management, a system that deactivates four of the cylinders under light load conditions, seamlessly reactivating as needed, to optimize performance and efficiency.

A fuel-saving six-speed automatic transmission is standard on all models and, thanks to reduced engine speed, contributes to the 11.2 litres per 100 kilometres highway fuel-economy rating for the Tahoe.

The interior is also quieter at highway speeds, thanks to the lower engine speed. The Tahoe Hybrid, using GM's patented two-mode hybrid system, delivers a 33 per cent improvement in fuel economy in city driving.

Driving mostly on open highway, we took a trip of several hundred miles and averaged approximately 19 miles per gallon (eight kilometres per litre). Tahoe is a flex-fuel vehicle, which means it can run on E85 (85 per cent ethanol/15 per cent gasoline), and the tank holds 98 litres.

New for 2013, GM added powertrain grade braking in the Tahoe's normal transmission mode. Previously incorporated only when the Tow/Haul mode was activated, it uses engine torque to help slow the vehicle on descents, reducing brake wear.

We experienced a few long grades on our trip, but we hardly noticed as the system did its job. The LTZ also has hill-start assist, which I seldom need.

Wide front and rear tracks enhance handling and lower the centre of gravity for a more confident road feel, more like a sedan than a truck.

My tester also had a backup camera system and side blind zone alert, both very handy in a large vehicle.

There are roof-mounted side air bags with rollover protection for the first two rows of seats. The driver and front passenger also have seat-mounted side air bags as well as standard front bags. The Tahoe has a strong body structure designed to absorb crash energy and provide a "safety cage" around passengers.

Other safety features include electronic stability control with traction control, and four-wheel antilock disc brakes. Tire-pressure monitoring is standard, as well.

My Tahoe LTZ was configured for seven passengers, comfortably seating four passengers in the bucket seats in the first and second rows. Bench seats holding up to three passengers each are available in all three rows (60/40 split-folding configuration in the middle).

The third row split, folded and flipped in a 50/50 configuration and had room for three small adults or three children. The centre position had an anchor for a child seat and was pretty comfortable, with lots of legroom, thanks to the open space between the second row seats and the slight recline of the seatback. It was a little difficult to exit the third row, as there were no assist handles.

Cargo space behind the third row is limited, but with the third row seats folded and flipped, there was room for plenty of luggage or groceries. (You could upgrade to the Chevy Suburban if you needed more cargo space behind the third row; it's essentially just an extended-length Tahoe.)

The Tahoe's third-row seats were also easily removable, although a little heavy for a short, older woman. The second row seats also folded flat (with a power-assisted release) and could be flipped up against the back of the front seats, creating space in the cargo area for lots of DIY supplies or other "stuff."

My LTZ had a power liftgate, with a separate power lift window, which opened wide and high for easy loading without opening the entire tailgate.

The four seats in the first two rows were heated (standard on all models), and the front two seats were cooled. Both came in handy for our long trip - cooling for the driver and heat/lumbar support for the tired front passenger.

The second row had audio and climate controls and both rear rows had dual adjustable (360/90) vents in the ceiling. Visibility from the second and third rows was good - not claustrophobic at all.

All Tahoes come with OnStar Directions and Connections with automatic crash response and turn-by-turn navigation. My tester also had an audio system with integrated navigation.