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Longer than a Suburban, the Chevy Avalanche combines the passenger-pampering comfort of a Tahoe with the load-hauling capability of a long-bed Silverado pickup. That's an impressive combination for someone who wants the utility of an eight-foot bed yet needs seating for four, five or six people.
It may not be cheap, but the Avalanche is one slick, innovative truck, an impressive concept vehicle that made it all the way to production. The key to its versatility is its clever Midgate, which is like having a second tailgate between the cabin and the pickup box. Normally, the Avalanche can carry five adults in comfort and a large amount of cargo in a covered, 5-foot 3-inch indestructible bed. But when you need more space, the rear seats fold down, the Midgate folds forward, and voila! You have an eight-foot bed capable of hauling 4x8-foot sheets of plywood. And your plywood, or drywall, stays dry inside the covered bed, out of the rain. Or take the cover off the bed, remove the rear window and you can park an ATV back there.
Avalanche debuted for 2002, and was significantly tweaked and refined for 2003. The 2004 Avalanche gets an enhanced brake system.
One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the attention to detail seen throughout the Avalanche. The people who designed this truck were into fishing, hunting and boating; they knew the needs of outdoor enthusiasts, and they have provided for those needs with flush-mounted cargo lights that illuminate the bed, foldaway tie-down hooks, and footholds and handholds for climbing onto the bed. The hard cargo cover over the bed is made of a highly rigid material that can easily support your weight.
The most interesting feature on the Avalanche is the Midgate, which converts this five-passenger SUT with 5-foot bed into a two-passenger pickup truck with an 8-foot box. The Midgate works similarly to a folding rear seat in a wagon or SUV. Flipping the seat bottoms forward and folding the seat backs down, and then folding down the Midgate, provides flat cargo space and access to the cargo bay behind. Instead of carpet, however, the Midgate is backed with a tough composite material impervious to gravel or anything else you can throw at it.
But there's more: The rear window of the cab can be quickly removed and stored out of harm's way. The bed cover comes off in three pieces and slides into a nice fabric bag; these pieces attach to the side of the bed to minimize the space they take up. Now you have a fully functional pickup with an open eight-foot bed. You can park an ATV in back, with the front tires and fenders where the rear seat was moments before.
Of course, this results in an open-air driving experience; there's nothing separating you from the open pickup bed. But wind noise is minimal, with no buffeting. Only a slight breeze reminds you that your ATV is sitting on the back seat. GM engineers achieved this through extensive tuning in a wind tunnel, and with a pair of flying buttresses that also add structural rigidity and can be used as tie-downs.
Alternatively, you can fold down the rear seats but leave the Midgate in place, which creates cargo space inside the cab; there's nearly 54 cubic feet of interior cargo volume with the rear seat folded and Midgate in place.
The Avalanche is an impressive-looking concept vehicle that made it all the way to production. One thing that surprises many people is the size of the Avalanche. It doesn't look that big in photos, but it's big, almost three inches longer than a Suburban. Yet the Avalanche feels tight and surprisingly nimble on mountain roads.
The Avalanche is essentially a modified Suburban; they share about 85 percent of their parts. Like the Suburban, the Avalanche is built on the same superb platform as the Silverado pickup. GM's engineers created the Avalanche by lopping off the rear roof structure and quarter windows of a Suburban, and redesigning the back end. When the Avalanche's rear seats are in place, there's a 5-foot 3-inch bed, which is long enough for most tasks. When that's not enough it converts into an 8-foot bed by taking over the rear seats.
The bed is protected by a well-designed lockable cover rated to support 250 pounds. You can walk all over it, and the cover keeps your cargo dry, clean, and safe from thieves. Fold the Midgate down and you can fill the bed with drywall, close the tailgate and drive home in a downpour without any fear of seeing your drywall turn into wet wall. The Midgate, tailgate and portions of the cargo box are made from a composite material called PRO-TEC. This material is exceptionally durable, and resists dings, scratches and dents. Two Top-Box Storage compartments on either side of the cargo box provide a combined 3.5 cubic feet of lockable storage space. These compartments have drains, so they can be filled with ice and used as coolers.
The Avalanche led the way for Chevy's edgy new truck styling, which was picked up by the Silverado for 2003. Still unique to the Avalanche is its extensive lower body cladding, made of a dark charcoal-colored, practically bullet-proof composite that should protect the rocker panels from years of flying gravel. Still, some folks didn't like the hyper-testosteroid look of the cladding, so it can be deleted (on 1500 models) for a $600 credit. The Avalanche looks cleaner, if a bit plainer, without it. We recently glanced at a clean, black Avalanche without the cladding and for a moment mistook it for a Cadillac Escalade EXT, the upscale sibling.
Most of the interior features of a well-trimmed Suburban are found in the Avalanche. That means a comfortable cabin for passengers and good ergonomic design for the driver. The seats in the Avalanche are identical to the first two rows in the Suburban. The Avalanche comes with a coffee warmer, and the ultimate in sun visors. Map lights are provided and there is generous illumination throughout the cabin. Flush-mounted cargo lights in the bed rate can make a big difference when loading cargo at night.
Multi-zone manual climate control is standard on all models. So are dual-level air bags with an automatic passenger-sensing system. An automatic battery-protection system shuts off the lights 10 minutes after you turn off the ignition.
The Avalanche comes with a six-speaker CD stereo and you can get premium Bose speakers and a six-CD changer. XM Satellite Radio is great to have when traveling because the stations don't change as you drive across the country. It's nice to have around town for listening to the 24-hour news and sports broadcasts, comedy clubs, or for staying tuned into your preferred type of music (country & western, classical, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, whatever).
The optional rear-seat video system includes a DVD player with a flip-down screen to keep munchkins entertained on long journeys. It comes with two sets of wireless headphones, auxiliary audio/video jacks, a remote game plug-in, separate audio controls for the rear compartment, and a mute button.
OnStar works well as a navigation system because there's nothing to program. Press the button and a human operator responds, to provide directions and other assistance. OnStar always knows the location of your vehicle. The staff will notify authorities of your location if your airbag goes off and you do not respond to their calls. Or you can press the emergency button and they'll send out the troops. They can unlock your doors if you lock the keys inside. They can direct you to the nearest gas station or help find a good restaurant or motel. If your vehicle is stolen, OnStar can pinpoint its location and direct the authorities to apprehend and recover.
Power-adjustable pedals move up to 3 inches closer to the driver. That's a real boon for the vertically challenged, who won't have to sit as close to the steering wheel (and air bag) in order to reach the pedals. The adjustable pedals also have a memory function, making it more convenient for mixed-height couples to share the same truck.
Dual air bags incorporate a smart system that measures the weight in the front passenger seat, as well as seat-belt tension, and automatically de-activates the air bag if a small child is sitting there. The bag re-arms when an adult sits in the seat. A dual-level inflation system expands the bags less forcefully in a less-severe impact. Dual side-impact airbags ($350) are optional. LATCH child-seat anchors are provided in the front passenger seat, and in the center and passenger-side positions of the rear seat.
The 2004 Chevy Avalanche is as big as a Suburban, but handling and performance are surprisingly good. The handling is quite good for such a big, heavy truck, maybe even better than the Suburban. Both 2WD and 4WD versions of the 1500-series Avalanche use the same suspension and ride height, with torsion bars in front and a live axle suspended on five links and coil springs in the rear.
Avalanche 1500 models ride as well as a fully loaded Suburban. The Avalanche feels smooth, quiet, and tight, with no squeaks or rattles. The suspension soaks up large potholes and rides comfortably on rough terrain.
The brakes were significantly improved for 2003, providing shorter stops, better pedal feel, and quieter operation. GM has come a long way with brakes in the past few years. The new Hydroboost brakes use hydraulic pressure (from power steering fluid) rather than engine vacuum to decrease brake pedal effort. As a result, the Hydroboost system will continue to provide sufficient power assist to stop the vehicle even if the engine stalls or is turned off.
The 5.3-liter V8 delivers plenty of punch. It's a responsive engine, rated 295 horsepower and, more important, 330 pounds-feet of torque, which launches the Avalanche quickly off the line. The broad, flat torque curve, with 90 percent of peak torque available from 1600 to 5000 rpm, is designed to provide outstanding trailer-towing and load-hauling capability. A properly equipped Avalanche 1500 is rated to tow up to 8200 pounds.
The four-speed automatic transmission (4L60-E) shifts responsively. Pressing the Tow/Haul button results in quicker, harder shifts and reduces heat by limiting the amount of hunting between gears.
The 4WD model's Autotrac four-wheel drive lets the driver select different drive modes for different conditions: 2HI drives the rear wheels only and offers the best fuel efficiency. Auto 4WD transfers power from the rear wheels to the front wheels as needed, to optimize traction in inconsistent conditions. 4HI provides the best traction in rugged terrain. 4LO is available for when the going gets really ugly. A neutral position allows the Avalanche to be flat-towed.
2WD 1500 models now offer StabiliTrak electronic traction and stability control. The traction-control function allows acceleration without wheel spin on slippery surfaces. The stability-enhancing function maximizes handling and braking on a variety of surfaces, and is particularly useful in slippery corners. An array of sensors monitor steering wheel angle, wheel speed, brake pressure, longitudinal and lateral acceleration, and yaw rate; a computer uses the data to compare the driver's intentions with the actual direction the truck is headed. The system is programmed to allow for "intervention thresholds," but above that point it steps in whenever one or more wheels is slipping, if the vehicle is slipping sideways, or if it is understeering or oversteering. Then StabiliTrak adjusts engine torque or the brake pressure to individual wheels to help steer the truck back to the path the driver intended. Our advice: If you opt for 2WD, order StabiliTrak.
Chevrolet Avalanche combines clever engineering with advanced materials science to provide a solution for people who need a full-size pickup with an eight-foot bed, but want comfortable five- or six-passenger seating. Its cargo bed is indestructible and can take a load of gravel. The interior is as luxurious as a Suburban's.
There's plenty of power from the 1500 model's V8 engine. Ride and handling are excellent. The heavy-duty Avalanche 2500 offers big towing capability. Attention to detail is impressive, both in design and engineering and in customer comfort and convenience. Overall, this is one of the most interesting trucks available today. Its price gives us pause, but does not seem unreasonable given the amount of engineering that went into it and the capability and versatility that it offers.
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