Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
Don't worry, Chevrolet hasn't stooped to sponsoring Austrian ski resort tragedies just yet. No, this Avalanche is merely the newest addition to its expansive full-size truck and SUV lineup. To be more precise, the Avalanche is Chevrolet's first attempt at a crossover truck, a vehicle designed to incorporate the best aspects of both sport-utilities and pickups into one all-inclusive package.
Based on the same chassis as the full-size Suburban, the Avalanche wears a new front fascia that integrates styled headlights and exaggerated wheel arches for a substantially more aggressive look than your average 'Burban or Tahoe. Full-length gray body cladding adds to the truck's rough-and-tumble style along with matching gray sail panels that give it a Baja racer look.
From the driver seat, you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the Avalanche and its Suburban/Tahoe brothers. The seats are big and comfortable with plenty of room for tall drivers, and there's a commanding view of the road. Look behind the front row, however, and the Avalanche quickly changes personality, boasting a whole slew of new gadgets guaranteed to attract plenty of attention from buyers looking for a little more than just your average family hauler.
At the heart of the Avalanche's unique design is the all-new Convert-A-Cab system. It features an innovative midgate between the passenger cab and the utility bed that can be folded away for unobstructed access. It functions in the same manner as a rear seat pass-through in a passenger sedan, but the Avalanche takes this idea one step further.
In its standard configuration, the Avalanche functions like a typical full-size sport-utility, with seating for up to six passengers in addition to the 5-foot 3-inch utility bed. Should you need some extra cargo capacity, however, the Avalanche can be instantly transformed into a full-size pickup. Just flip the second-row seats forward, remove the rear window (it pops right out and can be placed in a handy storage compartment on the midgate), fold down the midgate and presto! Your former carpool ride now sports an 8-foot 1-inch pickup bed, complete with a composite-lined surface that Chevrolet says is fully rust- and dent-proof. All this can be done by one person in a matter of minutes without tools, claims Chevrolet.
We put it to the test during a short introductory drive and found the Convert-A-Cab system to work as advertised, with simple operation of the midgate and easily foldable second-row seats. The removable window stowed tightly in the provided rack, dispelling our doubts that it might not travel well after removal. The composite coating on the back of the midgate makes for a durable and usable surface throughout the entire length of the bed.
The cargo bed itself contains numerous trick innovations that support the Avalanche's billing as the "Ultimate Utility Vehicle." It comes standard with a rigid cargo cover that can support 250 pounds on each of three individual panels. An optional soft cover is supported by spring-loaded ribs and can be rolled up and fastened with straps to the back of the midgate or stowed in a storage bag that mounts to the side of the bed via heavy-duty ratchet straps. Both covers are weather-resistant and both are designed to channel water into special drainage holes beneath the sail panels to avoid pooling.
The tailgate is composed entirely of composite material that makes it lightweight and rust- and dent-resistant, in addition to being fully lockable to provide secure storage with the hard cargo cover in place. Steps integrated into each end of the rear bumper and grab handles at each corner (that also serve as tie downs) make climbing in and out easy. Lockable and lighted storage compartments are integrated into each side of the bed that provide 3.5 cubic feet of impact-resistant storage space, perfect for stashing tools or jumper cables.
The bed itself is 22.5 inches high on the inside, making it deeper than any other full-size truck. With the midgate folded down and the tailgate lowered, the Avalanche provides a nearly 10-foot-long loading area (a flip-out bed extender is optional). Molded pockets on each side allow you to form a second-tier shelf by simply inserting a few 2x4s and a sheet of plywood. With both the rear window and cargo cover in place and the midgate folded down, this homemade setup will allow you to haul two 11-inch-high stacks of 4x8 building material in a completely weatherproof and lockable storage compartment. Not bad for a truck that can also seat six (in its standard configuration) and still fits in the garage.
The Avalanche will be available as either a standard 1500 half-ton or heavier-duty 2500, in both two- and four-wheel drive. Half-ton models will feature the 5.3-liter Vortec V8 (285 horsepower, 325 foot-pounds of torque), the 4L60-E four-speed automatic, and an independent torsion bar suspension up front and a multilink coil-spring straight axle suspension in the rear. Three-quarter-ton versions get upgraded to the new 8.1-liter Vortec V8 (340 horsepower), the beefier 4L80-E four-speed automatic, and a rear suspension that utilizes leaf springs for increased towing capacity (up to 12,000 lbs. with optional equipment).
Our test drive involved the 1500 only, so it came as no surprise that we found the Avalanche's ride quality to be every bit as comfortable and isolating as a standard 1500 Suburban. Large breaks in the pavement translate into only minor disturbances within the cabin and interior noise levels were noticeably low. The 5.3-liter V8 moved the 5,678-pound (4WD) vehicle with ease, but gone is the neck-snapping acceleration that the same engine produces in the substantially lighter (4,720 lbs.) Silverado. Steering effort is low, making the large vehicle easy to maneuver, but it suffers from a large turning radius (43 ft.) despite the fact that its overall length is 6 inches shorter than an extended-cab Silverado (221 versus 227).
The interior is standard-issue Chevy truck: lots of plastic, plenty of storage space and straightforward controls. A bench seat is standard, with power adjustable bucket seats available as an option in cloth, leather or sport leather (a combination of the two). Electronic climate control is also available, as is the OnStar satellite communications system and a power sunroof. A special North Face edition Avalanche will be available later this year that features unique green and black trim on the seats and door panels, white face gauges and specially designed daypacks that mount on the backs of the front-row seats.
We'll admit that at first we were a bit skeptical of the usefulness of some of the Avalanche's features, but after our short introductory test drive, we quickly became fans of Chevy's bold new crossover. The convertible cab system is a snap to use and makes it a truly versatile vehicle, providing more than just a compromise between a truck and sport-ute. Combine that with a stout drivetrain, a comfortable and roomy interior, and bold styling, and the Avalanche makes quite a statement for a truck right off the showroom floor. We'll have to wait until we get our hands on one for a full road test to see if the Avalanche can maintain its initial appeal, but our first impressions indicate that it will be a real hit for Chevrolet.
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