Suburban Rear Liftgate Won’t Unlock – How To Fix

Categories: news — Tags: , , , , , , , — Posted by: Grant @ June 13, 2008 : 5:45 pm

Update: This post is incredibly popular and has over 240 comments from various owners all with the same issue. Most of the issues seem to be caused by a faulty actuator (link to supplier at bottom of post), but please go through the comments and see what everyone has done to fix their rear liftgate. Thanks to everyone that has contributed!

I apologize that car repairs for a Chevy Suburban are totally off-topic for the Chef Seattle blog, but I ran across this issue the day before going kayaking and saw that it’s apparently a major issue with Chevrolet owners (Tahoe, Yukon, etc) with no documented fixes. In fact, I’m pretty sure this needs to be a recall issue (are you listening GM?). But, I believe that I found a fix for my particular problem, so hopefully this can help any other Suburban owners out there who are / have experienced the same problems with their liftgates / rear doors not unlocking.

Replaced lift gate handle the culprit?

My Suburban was working just fine up until about 3 weeks ago when I noticed that my lift gate handle had broken. One of the hinge pins had snapped (cheap plastic does that) so I had to find a whole replacement handle on eBay for $70 (dealer wanted a ridiculous $150). It didn’t help that some dealers called it a rear door handle, trunk handle or lift gate handle depending on the model year.

After I got the part, installation was easy enough: pop the panel, unbolt existing handle, pry off and install new handle, reattach handle wire and that was it.

Or so I thought.

Fast forward six hours later. I’m now at REI in downtown Seattle, where I’ve just purchased a brand spanking new 12′ kayak. The store has closed and I’m now in the garage, walking up to the ‘burb, kayak in tow, when I point my key FOB at the car as I usually do and hit unlock. Lights flash, I hear the usual “thump” sound, yank the handle and nearly fall over on my ass. I try again and realize with dread that my lift gate is stuck. Down but not defeated, I try the button to open the rear window. No luck.

I spend the next 10 minutes alternating between randomly hitting the FOB’s lock and unlock buttons, until I give up in a garage-filling string of expletives as I realize my kayak and I are SOL. Luckily, I did have a friend and an incredibly helpful REI employee there, whom all pitched in and managed to jam the kayak into the Suburban through the side door. I love my Suburban for reasons like this, though I’m slowly starting to hate GMC. More on this to come.

Chevy Suburban 2005

Here’s the Suburban with kayak inside and the lift gate panel on the floor. If you have a Suburban / Tahoe / Yukon in the same situation where your lift gate won’t open, the only way to get it open is to pry the lift gate panel just enough to access the locking mechanism. Take a long flat head screwdriver, slip it into the top section of the panel and start pulling away. The panel is made of a flexible plastic that will bend a fair amount, so don’t be afraid to put a bit of elbow into it. Seriously, I thought I was going to break my panel, but it just flexed back fine.

Once you see the locking mechanism, you’ll want to grip the back side that moves and twist counter-clockwise until the door pops open. Once you’ve done this, call GM customer service and tell them that their engineers should be fired for not having a manual release. If there is an accident, wouldn’t you like it if you or the kids could escape out the back? Yeah, me too.

Tailgate panel for Suburban

If you’re lucky enough that you can open your door (or maybe it doesn’t lock to begin with), then it’s a little easier to pull off the panel. First, take a socket wrench (9mm, I think) and remove the bolt under the leather handle on the inside of the door (the one you pull down on when your lift gate is up). After that, insert a flat head into the space between the panel and the door and pry open. There will be around 4 or 5 contact points to disconnect.

Removing the tailgate panel

The two last things that stand in your way are plastic hinges that hold the panel to the door frame. With the lift gate open, push the panel toward the car, then spin it an entire half-circle around the hinge in the picture. After that, the panel should pull right out. Now the locking mechanism should be nicely exposed.

Unlocking the tailgate

Here we see the lift gate handle at the bottom, which is connected by a tension wire to the locking mechanism. Pulling on the handle causes the wire at the top to retract toward the right, turning the locking mechanism counter-clockwise.

Why tailgate won't unlock

However, pulling the handle does nothing when the mechanism is in the locked position, because it doesn’t engage the other tension wire / tailgate release – it just simply moves by itself. When the mechanism is unlocked, pulling on the handle will engage the release mechanism and pop open the door… when the locking mechanism is working, that is.

Properly engaged door lock

Here is a properly unlocked door: notice that the black plastic piece (on top of the copper) is slid all the way to the right. You can see that if you rotate the lower copper piece, that it will force the black plastic piece to turn, thus engaging the door release.

Tailgate won't unlock

Here is why your Suburban tailgate won’t unlock. I’ve just pressed the unlock button on my key FOB and you can see that the black plastic piece has NOT slid over to the right. This means that the door is still LOCKED as far as the mechanism is concerned. No amount of yanking on the handle will open the lift gate at this point.

Stuck locking mechanism

Zooming in for a close-up, you can really see where the problem is. Gear heads will realize this is a major problem for all sorts of reasons. First, if your door lock actuator is banging against this metal part every time you unlock your door, it will wear out the part extremely fast and you’ve got yourself a busted door. Second, even if you replace your actuator, you’ll just bust it again if it keeps ramming this part. Most importantly, the question is how this is happening to begin with? My Suburban was working fine until I put in a factory replacement handle.

My opinion is that the factory GM replacement was defective and not built to spec, because the tensioner was now pulling a few millimeters more than it should have, which resulted in my lift gate not closing or unlocking. While millimeters might not mean anything to GM, it means a whole lot of difference to the Joe Schmoe who wants to have a car that works. It may also be due to a small and very important spring that resets the lock back into place.

Door lock actuator replacement

I’ve read a whole ton of reports about Suburban lift gates, along with Tahoes, Yukons and other GM cars failing and drivers stuck with unlockable doors. I believe this type of careless “few millimeters off isn’t important” BS is likely to blame. That’s why some people may have locks that work only half the time, or some work after their actuators are replaced, but fail soon afterward. My two-cent opinion – back to fixing cars.

Relieve handle tension on lock

So what we need to do, is make some space for that locking (technically, “unlock”) mechanism to engage fully. On my Suburban, this meant giving the metal tensioner just a little more slack – 2mm would be all I need.

Removing handle wire

First, I pushed the handle wire mechanism over to the right and then pulled out the metal ball and wire. After that, I pinched the blue wire cap and pushed it out of the metal holder.

Unlocked tailgate

You can now see that there is a lot of visible space between the locking mechanism and the metal. Pressing lock and unlock on my key FOB easily moved the unit back and forth successfully, so I knew it wasn’t a problem with the actuator. Now comes the disclaimer part.

Bending the wire holder

DISCLAIMER: Attempt this section at your own risk, you are responsible for your own actions!!! Not seeing a lot of options, I decided I would take a somewhat drastic approach and bend the wire holder closer to the locking mechanism with a pair of pliers. I only needed about 2mm, so I felt this was acceptable without busting the car too much. Needless to say, this is not a graceful fix nor one I really wanted to do, but there appeared to be little other options other than cutting your own tensioner line (adjusting the line would be the most logical method, but I pinching and pulling got me no results) or finding some concrete way of bracing the line closer to the locking mechanism. If you come up with an elegant solution, please let me know.

Fixed tailgate lock

Phew, finally – the fixed tailgate lock! You can see there is just enough room for the mechanism to engage and that the handle tension wire is snugly seated into its new home. I tested the lock about 100 times to be sure that everything was working as it should and I advise you do the same once you get to this point.

Now, simply put the panel back on the same way you took it off (don’t forget to screw the bolt back into the handle) and you’re done. Have a beer and go pat yourself on the back.

If this blog post has helped at all, I’d appreciate if you left a comment to share you experiences so others in the same situation can hear what you did. Thanks.

Note: Over 80% of the commenters have reported the fault with their actuator. If you go to the GM parts department, they can be ordered for $350 (plus $150 labor to install). However, this seller on eBay is currently providing replacement actuators for around $70-$80 plus shipping. They’ve sold many actuators to people that came across this post, so if you tell them you saw them on Chef Seattle, they’ll throw in a discount. Good luck with your fixes!

Proformance Racing School (Kent, WA)

Categories: seattle — Tags: , , , , , — Posted by: Grant @ May 30, 2008 : 11:37 pm

Proformance Racing School
A Ferrari 355 on the track

Last week I had the ultimate car fanatic’s privilege of attending a local Seattle racing and driving school called ProFormance Racing, located in Kent, WA. It was an introductory class that taught various driving skills during the first half of the day, such as high-eyes driving, ABS (anti-lock braking) fundamentals and braking while cornering. The last half of the day is the real treat, as you get to lap around the Pacific Raceways track with a driving coach by your side.

For those looking to improve their driving skills, it’s a safe and controlled environment, while the coaches at ProFormance racing all have years of racing experience. Case in point, trying to test your car’s ABS systems by braking from 60 to 0mph in front of your house is not feasible for most people. The walls inside the ProFormance offices are actually lined with letters from parents and teens who have used the techniques learned to avoid some hairy situations.

For the driving enthusiast, there’s no substitute for taking yourself and your car to the threshold other than taking it to the track. It showed in the makeup of the class, as we had a good mix of all sorts of sports cars: Ferrari 355, Porsche Carerra, Corvette Z06, Mini Cooper, Subaru WRX STi, Lancer Evo 6, Mazda Miata, Mercedes CLK, Porsche Cayman and my favorite – even a VW Scirroco! The two fastest drivers on the track were the Mini Cooper and a student who used one of the ProFormance racing rental cars (a Chevy Cobalt SS), which goes to show that driver skill can make up for a whole lot of horses under the hood.

More pictures from the event below – republished with permission from Pete at Red Mist Photo.

Porsche Cayman in the woods
Porsche Cayman through the wooded area

A Lotus Elise racing by
Lotus Elise racing into the straight away

Subaru WRX going into turn 9
Subaru WRX STi going into turn 9

Mini Cooper lapper
One of the “lappers” in a yellow Mini Cooper (lappers are racing school grads who just lap around the track)

Hard cornering VW Scirroco
Hard cornering VW Scirroco

Emerald City Comic Con

Categories: seattle — Tags: , , , , , , , — Posted by: steveg @ May 12, 2008 : 5:03 pm

Emerald City Comic Con

Last Saturday was the Northwest’s biggest pop culture event, the Emerald City Comic Con. Comic and sci-fi fans alike, all gathered for a great opportunity to find some great deals on rare comics as well as meet and get autographs from their favorite artists and television stars. As I took the climb up the escalator, the large adorning banner welcomed us and flashes of my childhood came racing back.

Imperial Stormtroopers keeping the order of the crowd

Then I saw the line forming in front of the door, that made it looked more like an exclusive movie premiere. To make sure the line didn’t get out of control, the Washington State convention center hired the only people to keep these people in line: Imperial Stormtroopers of the501st Legion. For a few moments, it was a bit humorous as it seemed like we were cattle being herded on to the truck. The menacing presence of the troopers were broken up by the distinct piece of paper on their back saying, “Take your picture with the 501st at booth 126.” That was a cool story in itself, but I’ll get to that later.

Emerald City Comic Con advertised a few variant covers exclusive to this specific con, such as the X-Men #497 and Tim Sale’s limited print of the Hulk at Pike Place Market munching on a Dick’s burger. At the onset of the doors opening, everyone rushed to the table with all of the exclusives being sold. Tim Sale’s print was snatched up and sold out within a few minutes. That booth was one of the most contested moments in the con, with people almost elbowing each other just to get to the table before all the rare stuff was gone.

One of the exclusive variants available at the con.

Other artists and writers were also on hand for the con. In the large area known as the artist’s gallery, fans asked for autographs and sketches. Keynote people included artist David Finch (Ultimate X-Men, New Avengers) whose line was exceedingly long. Other media guests such as Julie Benz (Dexter) and Wil Wheaton(Star Trek) had special Q and A sessions where you can ask them anything that your heart desires. Such as “Excuse me, Wil, How does it feel to be the worst character ever in the history of Star Trek:The Next Generation?”

Hey Boba! Smile!

Needless to say, being a big fan of Star Wars (the original, not the prequels) I had to get a pic. I was expecting something really simple, like two guys standing with you and a quick snap of the camera and off you went. Oh no, it was much cooler than that. They had people dressed up as every type of stormtrooper, as well as Boba Fett and Darth Vader. You could create any type of scenario you desired. The guy working the booth, came up to me when it was my time to go and simply asked, “What’s your concept?” Being the big fan boy that I am, I wanted to take on the Dark Lord himself and one of his minions. The end result was this great pic right here.

Steve going toe to toe with Lord Vader

The highlight of the con was the appearance of Jamie Bamber (Apollo of Battlestar Galactica) signing autographs and doing photo ops with fans as well. We were one of the last people to get a photo with him and got him to do a peace sign pose with us. Peace!

Overall, I have to admit, it was pretty fun. If you’re into comics and pop culture, the Emerald City Comic Con is one of the few times a year you can geek-out and in my personal case, reconnect with some of your old childhood memories.

K1 Speed in Redmond (Seattle)

Categories: seattle — Tags: , , , , , , , — Posted by: Grant @ April 14, 2008 : 4:49 pm

K1 Speed in Redmond
(From front to back: Steve, Bryan and Grant)

Last Friday was, team building day (aka go-cart racing for the win). Previously known as Champs Karting, K1 Speed bought this indoor go-cart location in Redmond and revamped it with a new track design and a few extra doo-dads. Luckily, most everything else was left in-tact, meaning that it’s still the same fun electric cars that I am used to.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a regular (I go to K1 Speed just a few times a year), but I am a big fan of racing and have taken a few Skip Barber race classes back in the day. While a go-cart might not translate perfectly to the mechanics of a car in the real world, many of the fundamental concepts of how to drive fast are the same. It’s a great way to give the lead foot driver in you an outlet for escape , as opposed to being ‘That Guy’ on 520. (I’m talking to you, Blue 325i BMW driver weaving in and out of traffic on cell phone, not using signals, traveling at 90mph in the rain.)

Our first race was a nice introduction to the new track that K1 Speed laid out over Champs previous track, as it now boasted two hairpins for a more technically challenging course. Free tip though- tell your race staffer to be liberal with the passing flag if you plan on a competitive race. Bryan, Steve and I all quickly got stuck behind our friend Lenny, who was apparently taking the scenic route around the track. The K1 Staffer seemed reluctant to let us pass, as we forgot to give him the team building memo that explains rapport is best built with some friendly, obscenity laced competition.

The second race was much better, as it was just Steve, Bryan and myself, who were all ready to lay the pedal to the metal. And we did, as Bryan managed to spin out, Steve nearly lost it on turn 1 and I managed to sneak in a 17.33 second last lap, putting my time into the top 5% of times. The top score for the week was 16.22 seconds, so I think I could have shaved another half second with more studying and time on the track.

I don’t imagine going back for another few months, but if you decide to go, here’s a few pointers on how to drive fast and beat out your friends:

- Warm tires equals more traction, so build heat your first few laps
- Warm up your tires with some heavy accelerating and braking on the straight away.
- Brake into corners so you can accelerate out for top speed
- Try to drive in smooth arcs when possible
- Don’t hug the walls, it will actually slow you down
- Sliding around the hairpins is perfectly acceptable
- Too much sliding = No traction = No acceleration = Bad
- Learn to keep your car in the fine balance between control and no control

Lastly, always drive safe and keep the speed driving to the track.

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