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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, you can also find replacement actuators for around $70-$80 on eBay. Good luck with your fixes!