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Published: 02/19/2002 - by John DiPietro, Automotive Editor
Have you ever wished for a Chevrolet Suburban with a rugged pickup bed instead of a confined, carpeted cargo area? Something that could carry up to six passengers in comfort while still being able to haul supplies for your stable of thoroughbreds? All without the excessive size of a crew cab pickup? What if Chevy made such a rig and made it even more, uhhh...distinguished with special body styling? Well, you're in luck, because there's the new Avalanche, which shares its wheelbase, under-pinnings and much of its interior with the Suburban while combining it with versatile cargo-hauling ability.
Offering the spacious passenger room of the big 'burban (minus a third-row seat, of course), the Avalanche features a covered bed that can be opened up and expanded in length. A hard three-piece tonneau cover provides a huge sealed trunk that morphs into a pickup bed when you take off the panels. The panels are lightweight, only 18 pounds each, yet can support 250 pounds apiece should you need to stand on them to access the (optional) roof rack.
If you need more of a king-sized bed, the midgate is ready to make it happen. To change this rig from a six-passenger crew cab pickup with a 5-foot-3-inch cargo box to a three-passenger pickup with an 8-foot-1-inch cargo box, the rear window and the wall separating the cabin from the bed can be opened up, either in part (flipping down the midgate wall so a pass-through is created) or in whole (by also removing the rear window). And don't worry; configuring the midgate doesn't require a degree in mechanical engineering. It takes maybe a minute or two, and most of us figured how to work it without even consulting the owner's manual. Though we encourage vehicle owners to read through their owner's manuals thoroughly, automotive editors (perhaps in an attempt to one-up their cohorts?) sometimes prefer the challenge of attempting such things on their own. It wasn't exactly a Rubik's cube.
The flexibility of this architecture is impressive as any number of hauling tasks can be accommodated, ranging from lockable transport for 4x8 sheets of building material to carrying a pair of small off-road motorcycles. Additionally, there are pockets in the inside cargo walls that allow two-tier loading (via the placement of 2x4s and a sheet of plywood), as well as lockable, lighted stowage boxes on either side of the bed that can hold camping equipment or serve as coolers.
And what of the body surrounding these clever features? We don't know where the designers drew their inspiration from (maybe sister division Pontiac?), but we think the preponderant cladding would be better left off, as the basic form is attractive with its menacing "eyes," flowing upper character line and muscular bulges over the wheels. The plastic does serve a purpose, however, shielding the lower body from parking lot dings and off-road hazards such as branches and wayward stones. We also feel that the bed cover and stowage boxes would've looked better flush with the top of the bed instead of sitting atop it, though we acknowledge that this would decrease cargo capacity some with the cover in place. It's evident that the details were sweated, as bright ideas abound, such as steps built into the rear bumper (to give smaller folk access to the cargo box) and a removable heavy rubber mat on the floor of the cargo area.
To give the interior some personality, a combination cloth and leather interior in a two-tone scheme is available and was fitted to our truck. Though some staffers didn't care for the heavily textured fabric ("It reminds me of my grandmother's slacks!" opined one editor), most favored it, feeling that it was a welcome departure from the status quo. The cabin is equipped with mostly intuitive controls (such as simple knobs for the climate control), large gauges and very comfortable seating. There are plenty of cubbies, too, including a deep slot that's handy for things like a cell phone or a garage door opener.
A few cabin demerits were issued for the lack of a driver's grab handle (there were plenty otherwise, making for easy ingress and egress for all other seating positions), some low-grade plastic trim and the circa-1985 multi-control turn signal stalk, which has too much goin' on (it works the cruise control and wipers in addition to the turn signal and high-beam functions).
Rather than have a strippo version that would require many checks on the option list, Chevy offers the Avalanche in a single, well-equipped trim level, with a refreshingly simple nomenclature: Avalanche (note the lack of extraneous letters after its name). Standard features include air conditioning; power windows, mirrors and door locks; cruise control; stereo with CD player; 16-inch alloy wheels; and fog lamps.
As far as safety features, the Avalanche has front side-impact airbags and ABS as standard. Traction control is optional on the two-wheeler as part of a package (Z66 Premium On-Road Package).
The Avalanche comes in two versions: regular (1500) and extra-strength (2500), each available with either two- or four-wheel drive. Powering the 1500 is a 5.3-liter V8 boasting 285 horsepower and 325 pound-feet of torque, enough grunt to allow the 2WD truck to tow 8,300 pounds (the 4WD is rated to lug 8,100). A four-speed automatic sports a "tow/haul" mode (activated via a button on the end of the shifter) that holds each gear longer for better performance when hauling or trailering a heavy load. Furthermore, a trailering package is standard on the Avalanche, as are four-wheel disc brakes.
A versatile four-wheel-drive system includes an "AUTO 4WD" mode that will automatically send power to the front wheels when slippage at the rear is detected, making this a good choice for those who live in ever-changing climates or when handling light-duty off-road work. Of course, this is in addition to the typical 2Hi, 4Hi and 4Lo settings.
Holding up the Avalanche's approximate 5,700 pounds (more than two Honda Civic sedans!) is an independent front suspension with torsion bars and a five-link coil-spring rear suspension with a live rear axle. Our test rig was equipped with the optional Z71 off-road suspension that features bigger wheels (17-inch versus 16-inch) shod with 265/70R17 Goodyear Wrangler AT/S rubber, heavy-duty springs and shocks, a locking rear differential, skid plates and the obligatory Z71 decals adorning the truck's flanks.
Wheeling the Avalanche around wasn't the handful that some of us anticipated. Actually, it didn't take much time at all to get comfortable with its size. Compared to a full-size crew cab (or even extended-cab) pickup, the Avalanche feels almost nimble. Looking at the specs reveals why: The Avalanche's 130-inch wheelbase and 221.6-inch overall length are 23 inches and 15 inches less than a Silverado 1500HD Crew Cab's. And the Avalanche's turning circle, at 43.7 feet, is nearly 6 feet less than that of the big pickup. Parallel parking is another matter, however; the flying buttresses and high bed cover make it hard to judge distances. The option of one of those parking-assist gizmos would've come in handy, but unfortunately, it's not available on the Avalanche. A side benefit of piloting this mean machine is that other motorists give it respect and a wide berth on the highway.
Powertrains have always been the greatest strength of GM's full-size trucks, and here the Avalanche didn't disappoint us. Although we could sense the heft of the Avalanche, the V8 provided ample power, delivered in a smooth, unflustered fashion. The automatic gearbox was never caught sleeping on the job, always ready with a quick downshift and a smooth operator no matter how we hammered the gas. The pair got the 5,700-pound truck up to speed in respectable fashion, posting a 0-to-60-mph time of 8.9 seconds and dispatching the quarter-mile in 16.7 ticks at 83.8 mph. As expected, fuel mileage was abysmal. Our (lead-footed) drivers averaged just 12 mpg. The EPA gives the truck a 13/17 mpg rating for the city and highway, respectively.
Bringing the Avalanche's considerable mass to a halt from 60 mph took 140 feet, about average for this size vehicle. In practice, the brake pedal feel was good, with even modulation. The ABS did its job with minimal drama and chatter, producing a smooth and stable arrest of momentum.
Though we wouldn't recommend fielding one of these at the local autocross, the Avalanche is a decent handler on the open road, provided you keep in mind that you're driving a truck, not a low-slung sport coupe. Though light, the steering is accurate and tracking on the freeway is dead-straight with no wander. Stabilizer bars fore and aft keep body roll in check, though you can't help but notice the high center of gravity when you press a bit on serpentine roads.
With the Z71 package, we expected a stiff ride, but such was not the case. Although firm, the ride quality was agreeable for the most part. The Z71 suspension proved adept during a brief off-road stint, where it never came close to bottoming out, even when boogying over severely rutted terrain.
Buyers who can't decide between a full-size SUV or an ungainly full-size pickup should seriously consider the ingenious Avalanche. Overall, Chevrolet has a solid hit on its hands.
Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
When I first saw the Chevrolet Avalanche concept vehicle at the 2000 Detroit Auto Show, I thought that the convert-a-cab system was a pretty cool idea (my eight-year-old nephew still loves the shifting-image refrigerator magnet I picked up there that shows the Avalanche in various configurations), but thought the extravagantly exaggerated design cues would be toned down a bit for the production model. I was wrong Chevrolet pretty much kept it as it was. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing; when you see this truck bearing down on your rearview mirror, you'll have to move away. Its aggressiveness is its charm.
And the midgate is pretty easy to use. I figured it out in a relatively short amount of time, even without referring to the owner's manual. The rear window is a bit heavy for a weakling like me, but most people with some pretense of upper body strength should have no problems. Like a piece of origami, it folds, twists and tucks away to alter its appearance. I could see it being very handy for Home Depot loiterers, who also have friends and family to tote around. They won't have many complaints, either; the rear seats have plenty of room.
Driving the large vehicle was easier that I thought it would be. Steering is light to the point of being flighty, which made it easy to maneuver around parking areas; the engine is responsive, and the tranny shifts without lurching.
Sure, the Avalanche still has GM quirks such as a manually removable dash area (FYI, this isn't really supposed to be removable), but its utilitarian nature makes the transgression forgivable. But the name oy. Couldn't they think of a moniker that doesn't bring to mind a natural disaster that claims hundreds of lives each year?
Senior Road Test Editor Brent Romans says:
I received a PDA as a holiday gift a couple of years ago. At first, I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. Why did I need another electronic gizmo? After all, I had gotten through life just fine using Post-Its and an only slightly porous memory. I gave it a shot, though, and since then, my opinion has changed. Like a salad spinner or Navin R. Johnson's eyeglass handle in the movie The Jerk, my PDA has become an item that I didn't know I had a need for until I started using it.
In this way, the Avalanche is similar. At first, it seemed a little goofy. (And honestly, does the world really need more body-side cladding?). But after just a day's use, I found myself thinking that the Avalanche is a great idea, and that I wouldn't mind owning one.
I dig the star of the show, the midgate. Unlike the navigation system in a Mercedes-Benz S500, you won't need to read the owner's manual every time you want to use it. It's really simple. I consulted the owner's manual once, and that was it. Families will benefit most from this truck. The back seat is comfortable enough for kids and adults, and the truck can be used like an SUV for daily errands. Thanks to the midgate, the Av can also be used like a pickup to haul dirt, building materials, large furniture items and motorized vehicles like ATVs. In terms of versatility, I'd take an Avalanche over an F-150 Super Crew, no question.
There are a few minor items that I don't like, such as the overly light steering and the cubist styling. I suggest picking an exterior color that minimizes the cladding, such as Light Pewter Metallic. Additionally, the price is a little high, but I think it's worth it given the amount of innovation. Right now, the Avalanche has the midgate market all to itself.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
The Chevrolet Avalanche makes incredibly good sense if you want a personal-use pickup and you can stomach the extroverted styling. In fact, I can't think of another vehicle I'd recommend for the weekend warrior DIY-type, especially one who must tote kids and stuff on a regular basis.
Blame it on the innovative and utterly user-friendly midgate that General Motors has installed in the Avalanche. (Want to spend more? Try the Cadillac Escalade EXT.) Any idiot can turn this Chevy truck into a full-length pickup in a matter of minutes, without looking at the owner's manual. Brilliant and simple, the midgate's utility, flexibility and functionality put the Dodge Ram 1500 Quad Cab and Ford F-150 SuperCrew on the bench.
A stout Vortec 5300 V8 under the hood helps make the decision easier. This powerful motor is more than adequate in getting the Avalanche off the line, and the automatic transmission does an admirable job of intuitively shifting gears. Brake pedal feel is decent, and the binders work well. I noticed none of the touchy ABS activation regularly exhibited by our long-term 1999 GMC Sierra.
The cabin is standard-issue GM in terms of cheap plastic parts that pop off in your hands, but it's ergonomically sound and dressed up a bit with leather-faced seats and rugged cloth inserts. I don't find the front seats terribly comfortable, but plenty of people do, so to each his own. The rear bench has plenty of room for three adults.
It's really too bad General Motors decided to give the Avalanche a Pontiac Aztek exterior treatment. The gray body cladding is excessive and should be a delete option, because otherwise the Av's lines are attractive. I especially like the creased and folded hood and unique front styling, which set this truck apart from its Silverado and Suburban brethren.
Overall, the Avalanche impresses as a roomy, powerful, quiet, comfortable and capable all-purpose automotive tool. Nice job, Chevrolet.
"I'm an 'over 50' female with my own business that requires hauling valuable artwork, antiques, building supplies, etc. Have had Jeeps for five years and was increasingly dissatisfied with their flexibility. Two days before I signed the papers for yet another Jeep, I saw my first Avalanche and decided to test drive one. I was astounded ordered one on the spot. Have put almost 1,000 miles on it and loaded it to the hilt several times. Getting 17+ mpg, driving mountainous roads, gravel, interstate, etc. I'm average height, but the hand holds and bumper steps make getting in and out a breeze. No topper to work around (the main reason I never wanted a 'regular' pickup) and the panels are simple to negotiate. I could go on and on, but you get the picture. I am more pleased with this vehicle than any other I have ever driven. The only thing that bugs me is that people think I must be driving my husband's truck! Hope GM doesn't neglect the female market. I know there are others out there who would love it like I do." latebloomer, "Chevrolet Avalanche," #929 of 1184, Sept. 29, 2001
"Well, I have had my Avalanche for 3 1/2 months now and over 8,300 miles. No problems so far and only small problem I have had was that the driver headrest had to be replaced because its fabric cover wouldn't stay clipped on. We have had quite a bit of rain here in Dallas/Ft. Worth area and not more than a few drops of water in the bed. Getting about 17 mpg on average consistently. Wish I got paid a buck for every time I have had to demonstrate the midgate." dsw7311, "Chevrolet Avalanche," #888 of 1184, Sept. 7, 2001
"I am in the middle of a 2,000-mile road trip with my Z71, and my expectations from this truck have been exceeded. Started trip with 1,400 miles on the odo. First tank averaged 17.5 mpg @ 75 mph. Next tankful, I averaged 17.9 mpg @ 70 mph. Both tanks were driving into a pretty heavy wind. Ride has been superb. I have been barraged with positive comments. Negatives I have quite a bit of water under the rubber mat after rains. Top of mat is dry, but I can see some water lines running down the inside middle of the bed walls. I have a loud rattle coming from the passenger outside mirror where it attaches to the door, and some wind noise from the sunroof. I also wish the power door locks would unlock the tailgate too. That's a pain. Lastly, I have the graphite leather interior, and everything is the same color seats, doors, console, dash, carpet everything except for the tan headliner. It needs some color contrast, like all the other new interiors these days. All in all, I couldn't be happier." soozy, "Chevrolet Avalanche," #910 of 1184, Sept. 19, 2001
"I just purchased a metallic blue Avalanche fully loaded.... I am happy overall with the style and performance, but the price is a little high, around 38, but with 4.9 financing, the payments are not that bad, 'course I am single and live with my grandparents. I traded my 2000 Silverado 1500 4x4 extended cab to purchase the Avalanche and have noticed some differences. The Avalanche does not have a tape deck, nor a key cut-off switch for the front passenger airbag. With a price tag that high, I felt these features should have been available. Also, pertaining to the bed and the so-called 'water tightness,' I have a leak on the driver side at the midgate, with small amounts coming into the main cabin. The rest of the bed has maintained a good seal, just the really bad leak below the window. The pluses I like about it are the sunroof, the OnStar which I upgraded to Premium and use everyday, if not lost just to have someone to talk to, the auto-dimming rearview mirror and side mirror on the driver side, the sunroof (a big plus), and the way it drives, almost like a Caddie. Guess if I was grading this vehicle, I would give it a B+ on its report card." jimboyng, "Chevrolet Avalanche," #959 of 1184, Oct. 5, 2001
"I picked the Avalanche over others because [it was] the right fit for our needs. The 1500HD Crew Cab was too much truck, and lower fuel economy than I wanted. The SuperCrew did not have the ride or the versatility. The covered, deep bed on the Avalanche is nice. The tonneau cover on my F-150 did not come close to sealing, nor did it lock securely. With the Avalanche, I keep my bowcase in the bed at all times and I can throw in a shotgun or rifle without worrying about it. The Sub or Yukon XL was not a choice, since I did not want two dogs in the cab area. I stow my towing and other gear in the storage boxes which keeps the backseat clear and the bed from being cluttered. Fuel economy and power is better than what the '99 F-150 had, also." timfarn, "Chevrolet Avalanche," #999 of 1184, Oct. 10, 2001
Edited by Erin Riches
System Score: 5.0
Components: Even though the Chevy Avalanche is a brand-new vehicle for 2002, it has a few throw-back features we've seen in older Chevy trucks. For one, the Delco head unit in the Avalanche is virtually identical to the one found in Chevy pickups of several years past. For whatever reason, GM has opted to equip this brand-new truck with an older-style radio instead of the glitzy, feature-laden head unit we've seen in several of its late-model vans and trucks. This is actually a good thing, since we liked the old one better anyway. The Avalanche head unit has a raised and rounded topography that guides the user effortlessly across the controls. Boasting a single-play CD, 12 FM/6 AM presets and separate round knobs for volume and tuning, it's a snap to use. This is further enhanced by pop-out buttons with center detent for fade, balance, treble and bass.
Unfortunately, the speaker offerings in this vehicle don't measure up to the electronics. Opting to go with a simple pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, plus a pair of 6.5-inch mid-woofs and 1-inch dome tweeters in the front doors, the GM (or is it Delco?) engineers have shortchanged this system and handcuffed its sonic capabilities. Worse yet, our research reveals no factory step-up options to improve this system no optional subwoofer or other additional speakers, no CD changer, no additional power, nada.
Performance: As mentioned above, because of the limited speaker offerings, this one never gets up and dances. While it does play loud, we found the sound quite thin and lacking that full-bodied frequency response one would expect if the system included a subwoofer or even 6-by-9s in the back doors. Volume is one thing, quality another. Because of the smallish woofer cones, attack on kick drums is tight and punchy, but again, lacking in true depth. Additionally, the tweeters in the front doors are poorly aimed and positioned, and begin to honk and hiss at higher volume levels. Overall accuracy and authenticity thus strikes a hollow chord in this system.
Best Feature: User-friendly head unit.
Worst Feature: Poorly positioned tweeters; no CD changer available, even as an option.
Conclusion: This truck should offer a better system, or at least give the buyer a chance to step up to better gear. Not only does it lack in speaker sizes and locations, but it offers only a single-play CD player with no option for a changer, while the industry has pretty much standardized on six-disc in-dash changers, even in economy cars. The Avalanche would appear to be a little behind the times in the stereo department. Scott Memmer
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