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The Chevy Avalanche successfully combines the hauling capacity of a short-bed pickup with the comfort and capability of a five-passenger SUV.
It switches between these roles using its ingenious Midgate, a removable rear bulkhead between the passenger compartment and the pickup bed. Along with a hard, tonneau-like bed cover, the Midgate allows the Avalanche to be configured as a Tahoe-sized sport utility with a five-foot pickup bed and comfortable, five-passenger seating. But fold down the rear seats and open the Midgate, and it's a pickup with an enclosed eight-foot bed, capable of securing valuable gear from thieves or shielding drywall from weather. Remove the rear glass and the tonneau panels and it's capable of hauling an ATV. Unlike a pickup, however, there is no full-height barrier between long loads like that and the front seatbacks.
Versatility is what makes the Avalanche so desirable. It offers an 8,000-pound towing capacity, making it an excellent choice for pulling an enclosed car trailer or a fairly big boat. It's as long as a Chevy Suburban and can haul a lot of stuff, with payloads over 1,300 pounds and a bed designed for abuse.
The 2009 Avalanche comes with a six-speed automatic transmission, replacing the four-speed automatic on the 2008 model. New for 2009 is an available integrated trailer brake controller (a great feature), more features for the LTZ model and more options for LT versions. First launched for the 2002 model year, the Avalanche was redesigned and re-engineered for 2007. Changes since have centered on refinement, tuning and packaging.
We've been impressed with the Avalanche. As good as the first generation was, the revised version (2007 and later) is better, with vastly superior driving dynamics, including an improved ride and taut handling. The previous-generation Avalanche handled well for a Suburban-sized truck, but this latest generation model handles much better.
The Avalanche is well-designed throughout, with impressive attention to detail. The cabin is nice, with a car-like look and feel, a well-designed dash and comfortable seats. Creature comforts and integrated driver-assist and entertainment features make traveling in the Avalanche enjoyable.
The Midgate, removable rear window, tonneau covers and other features snap together nicely, and everything appears to be of high quality.
The 2009 Chevy Avalanche comes in one configuration: a half-ton, full-size pickup with four doors, room for up to six passengers, and a unique fold-down rear bulkhead, called a Midgate, allowing access to an enclosed bed.
Engines include the standard 5.3-liter V8, 310 horsepower, 335 pound-feet of torque, E85-capable, with six-speed automatic. Optional is a 6.0-liter V8 ($1,095) with 366 hp and 376 lb-ft of torque (not E85 compatible). All engines use Active Fuel Management and can be teamed with rear-drive or 4WD.
Avalanche LS 2WD ($35,460) and LS 4WD ($38,510) come with cloth-covered bench seats, front and rear. The front splits 40/20/40 with six-way power for the driver and manual recline on both driver and passenger side. The rear seat splits 60/40. Other standard features include dual-zone air conditioning, the usual array of powered utilities, plus multi-media stereo with XM satellite radio, OnStar, leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel, front and rear carpeted floor mats, two auxiliary power outlets, ready-to-tow trailer setup and P265/70R17 all-season tires on 17-inch aluminum wheels.
Options include a stereo upgrade adding an in-dash, six-CD changer ($300); luggage rack ($195) and cross rails ($90); auto-lock rear differential ($295); an engine-block heater ($75); towing cooler package ($230); and trailer brake controller ($200). and white-letter-highlighted tires ($125). Power-adjustable pedals, rear park assist, remote start and rearview camera displayed in the mirror make up the Convenience Package ($1,060).
Avalanche LT1 2WD ($36,330) and 4WD ($39,380) feature an upgraded interior with cloth bucket seats, OnStar with Directions & Connections navigation service, a center console, and rear-seat audio controls with dual headphone jacks. Halogen fog lamps are standard. A front bench seat is a no-cost option. Other options, in addition to those offered on the LS, include automatic, dual-zone climate control ($195); a DVD-based rear-seat entertainment system with remote and wireless headphones ($1,295); touch-screen, DVD-based navigation system with voice recognition and rear camera ($2,500); Bose premium speakers ($500); stereo upgrade ($295); power tilt-and-slide sunroof ($995); universal remote transmitter ($120); and P275/55R20 blackwall tires on polished 20-inch aluminum wheels ($1,795).
LT2 2WD ($38,455) and 4WD ($41,505) models add dual-zone automatic climate control, in-dash 6-disc changer, power front seats, and universal gate opener. Options for LT2 include the Autoride suspension ($1120), Z71 off-road package ($1830) with heavy-duty springs and shocks, tow hooks, wheel flares, P265/65R18 on/off-road tires, skid plates, tubular assist steps, a high-capacity air cleaner, and unique exterior trim), 6.0-liter V8 ($1,095), and a Luxury package ($1,965) that includes leather, heated front seats, Bose audio, power folding exterior and auto-dimming inside mirrors.
Avalanche LTZ 2WD ($43,650) and 4WD ($46,700) come standard with leather upholstery, heated and cooled front seats, driver memory, Bose Centerpoint sound system, 20-inch wheels, and much of the luxury and convenience equipment that's optional on the other models. Also standard on LTZ (and on LT2 with the 6.0-liter V8) is the Autoride premium suspension package with variable shock damping and air-assisted rear load leveling. Power retractable running boards ($1,095) and chrome covers for the 20-inch wheels ($500) are exclusive LTZ options. The luggage rack crossrails remain optional, along with the navigation (or rear-view camera only), the moonroof, the rear-seat entertainment system, brake controller, and block heater.
Safety features that come standard on all models include the required front-seat airbags and, for 2009, full-coverage, side-curtain airbags that protect against head injuries in side impacts and rollovers. LATCH rear-seat child safety seat anchors are standard, along with the OnStar crash-notification system. Side airbags are not available. Active safety features that come standard include antilock brakes, electronic stability control with rollover mitigation, all-speed traction control, and tire-pressure monitors.
The Chevy Avalanche is a truck, and it's a big truck. In fact, the Avalanche is just an inch shorter than a Chevy Suburban. The Avalanche rides on the GMT900 platform, sharing its basic structure with the Chevy Tahoe, Suburban and Silverado, the GMC Sierra, Yukon and Yukon XL, and the Cadillac Escalade.
From the front doors forward the Avalanche shares sheetmetal with the Tahoe, with only slight differences such as grille material and colors to distinguish it. A high-relief lower fascia houses tow hooks and tries to look like the leading edge of a skid plate. Order the Z71 package and you get a real skid plate.
The side aspect is gracefully sculpted without the body cladding of early Avalanche models. Gaps between body panels are tight. Full-round door handles accommodate gloved hands. Squarish wheel wells look under-filled, even with the optional 20-inch wheels. Essential as the signature feature of the Avalanche are the angular flying buttresses connecting the roofline to the prominent plastic bed cover; and the only design cue that clashes with the sleek look of the current model.
Rear doors are lifted straight from the Suburban and, unlike the Tahoe, have no wheel cutouts. This means easier loading of the rear seat, whether it's folded or not. It also means rear-seat passengers and dogs can have the window all the way down, assuming they can behave themselves.
The tailgate looks like something from a traditional pickup. The tailgate is spring loaded to lighten its perceived weight, but it still seems heavier than its counterparts on the Ford F-150 and Toyota Tundra.
The interior of the Chevy Avalanche breaks with Chevy tradition much more than the exterior does. The cabin marks a watershed in ease of use, not to mention ease on the eye.
This is a roomy truck. It's like sitting in the first two rows of a Chevy Tahoe. We thought the bucket seats could use more thigh support, however, and they felt more bench-like than sporty.
The rear seats offer adequate and decently contoured space for adults, even those a few inches taller than six feet. The rear seatbacks don't recline, nor do they fold all the way flat with the head restraints in place, unless, that is, the front seats are moved almost all the way forward on their tracks.
The fit and finish impressed us. Tolerances between panels were tight. The wood grain trim didn't quite pass the authenticity test, but it added at least a hint of upscale. The optional leather upholstery and other materials favored durability over luxury without looking or feeling cheap.
Everything about the dash and instrument cluster is lean and clean. A large, round tachometer and matching speedometer dominate the gauge cluster, complemented by four smaller dials reporting information vital to the operation of a truck capable of hauling heavy loads or pulling large trailers or transporting as many as six occupants. The center stack houses controls for stereo and climate management, two power points, and buttons for optional features such as the power adjustable pedals.
Cubby storage: Models with bucket seats have a center console with a large, open storage bin outfitted with a removable dual cup holder. Aft of this is an equally large, but not especially deep storage compartment beneath a padded, hinged cover that doubles as a center armrest. The standard 40/20/40 front bench seat incorporates some storage in its center section. The glove box isn't as expansive as it looks when closed. Front door panels have hard-plastic fixed map pockets with molded-in can holders.
Outward visibility is about what's expected from a full-size pickup. On the Avalanche, the hood drops away fairly steeply from the base of the windshield. The flying buttresses hamper quick lane checks, although the large outside mirrors compensate somewhat. When deployed, the roof-mounted, rear seat video screen for the optional entertainment system effectively fills the middle portion of the inside rearview mirror.
The Midgate is what separates the Avalanche from other pickups. With the Midgate and bed cover in place, you have a four-door truck with a huge, lockable trunk. Fold the seats down and the trunk gets even bigger. Lift off the bed covers, fold the seats back up, and it's a pickup with a short bed. Finally, fold those rear seats and the Midgate and remove and stow the back window and bed cover, and it's transformed into an open-air hauler with room for all sizes and shapes of cargo, from regular-size sheets of plywood to a brace of off-road motorcycles or an ATV.
Folding the Midgate but leaving the back window and bed cover in place provides 101 cubic feet of enclosed, mostly secure, contiguous storage space, about the equal of seven-plus car trunks. The bed measures 63.3 inches with the Midgate in place, 98.2 inches with the Midgate folded down. By comparison, an F-150 SuperCrew's short bed is 67.0 inches long. The structure of the bed cover will support a 250-pound man, or a lot of snow. This can be a useful feature. We've walked on the cover and found it quite stable. The cover incorporates two lockable storage bins on each side just forward of the tailgate, but the height of the bed's walls makes them hard to reach by anybody shorter than five-foot-eight. On the other hand, they are water-tight and fitted with drains, making them usable as coolers. This last feature can make the Avalanche the center of activity at a tailgate party, unless the other guys bring a Dodge Ram Box. If they do that, you'll have to focus on showing off the Midgate.
We found converting the Avalanche from SUV to pickup to be a fairly easy process, once learned, for the type of people who buy full-size pickups. But it does take some time, patience and even a little strength because the panels covering the bed weigh 20 pounds a piece and can be awkward to handle. It's best to leave them at home when not being used. Also, the rear glass panel must be carefully snapped into a holder when removed. Don't let your buddies do this for you. All of this takes a few moments of unhurried activity to perform. It's serious car stuff, sort of like putting up the top on an old convertible, but not as serious as trying to put the soft top back on an old Jeep.
The ride and handling of the Chevy Avalanche is quite remarkable, and a big advance over the first generation, which wasn't bad. The Avalanche feels tight, stable, and lighter than it really is. It benefits from a revised front suspension, rack-and-pinion steering, and a fully boxed frame that gives the suspension a more solid base from which to manage ride dynamics. It all works.
Steering is more crisp than casual, precise by truck standards and nicely weighted. Body lean in corners is there but well controlled. The Autoride suspension (LTZ and LT with 6-liter) uses variable shock damping to smooth out rough roads without any loss in tire contact, and adds air-assisted load leveling so the headlights don't blind oncoming traffic with 1,000 pounds of cement in the back. Some say it helps with trailer leveling, but anything that drops the hitch more than an inch or two probably deserves a weight distributing hitch.
The brake pedal feels firm and delivers controlled stops. The ABS can still be felt through the pedal, as it should, but the feeling the brake pedal wants to push you through the back window or earlier models is gone.
There's less wind buffeting in the open-air configuration with the Midgate down than you'd expect because of careful shaping of the roof and buttresses.
Most of the Avalanche's visible bed structure is not steel and the hard surfaces resist dents and dings; rust isn't likely to be an issue as it is in most pickups. Maximum payloads are in the 1320- to 1350-pound range; don't forget this includes passengers.
Tow ratings for the 2009 Avalanche are 8,100 pounds for 2WD, 7,900 pounds for four-wheel drive (again, these apply to an unloaded truck). With the 130-inch wheelbase of a Suburban and near those of crew cab/short-bed pickups, the Avalanche makes a stable tow platform and the hitch is standard. We'd strongly consider the added cooling and integrated brake controller options because sooner or later someone will ask you to tow something.
The engines deliver adequate acceleration, very linear after initial launch which comes on quite quickly for even light-footed pedal application. Even the optional 366-hp 6.0-liter might sound like a lot but don't forget it has a lot of weight to haul around (a 4WD Avalanche 5.3 has about the same number of pounds per horsepower to haul around as some four-cylinder sedans) so don't expect it to be fast.
The new six-speed automatic transmission helps get the Avalanche going easier and keep the engine at the necessary speed better, but taller axle ratios offset acceleration and it still doesn't respond as quickly for more power as do many imported vehicle automatics. The transmission has a tow/haul mode for towing more than 2500-3000 pounds, and a manual gear selection toggle that is not active until you move the shift lever to M.
The standard Avalanche engine is a 5.3-liter iron-block V8 is rated 310 horsepower and 335 pound-feet of torque; E85 versions are available at no added cost.
The L76 aluminum-block 6.0-liter V8 is optional for LT and LTZ models with 2WD or 4WD, rated 366 horsepower at a lofty 5800 rpm and 376 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. It is not flex-fuel capable.
All engines feature Active Fuel Management, which electronically shuts off four of the eight cylinders when they are not needed. A good idea in theory, but a truck as heavy as the Avalanche needs all eight cylinders nearly all of the time. In our test time with the Avalanche we covered around 300 miles, about evenly between interstate and local surface streets; and the telltale in the dash information display indicating cylinder de-activation appeared only on downhill grades or while coasting, most often to a stop. And this was without ever towing anything, or hauling anything heavier than a week's groceries. Running entirely on gasoline (we had no access to ethanol, our 4WD Avalanche averaged 14.4 mpg.
EPA fuel economy estimates are 14/20 mpg City/Highway for the 5.3-liter engine and 14/19 mpg for the 6.0-liter.
Parking this big truck is aided by the optional rearview camera. We have used the rearview camera for parallel parking, trailer hitching and other maneuvers in tight quarters and can attest to its value. It's convenient and safer, helping alert the driver to the presence of a child or adult behind the truck. You can maneuver the tow hitch ball precisely below the trailer tongue, which is a great feature when hooking up a trailer.
The flexibility of the 2009 Chevy Avalanche is matched only by its brethren Cadillac Escalade EXT, which is more powerful and expensive but does not offer four-wheel drive. As a multi-purpose tool the Avalanche has compromises because no vehicle does everything well: It is too long for serious off-road duty, the bed is too marginal for severe pickup use (are you going to let that bobcat or forklift driver unload it?), too luxurious for work truck use, too heavy and thirsty for a second car, and tows well but not like a Suburban 2500 or Silverado 2500. However, it offers a blend of those activities that nothing else does, and if you've got only one garage space to work with, it's hard to beat.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent G.R. Whale reported from Los Angeles, with Tom Lankard in Sacramento, California.