Once upon a time cars were clearly cars and trucks were clearly trucks, and the line between the two was clear. Then the minivan and SUV appeared, and people began to use even pickups like cars, and the line began to blur. In recent years the traditional vehicle categories have begun to disappear altogether. Manufacturers realized that vehicles within the existing categories left many consumers only partially satisfied, and set out to create many sorts of cross-category vehicle. Were seeing crosses between minivans and SUVs, SUVs and sport sedans, and SUVs and pickups, to mention the most obvious. This review concerns the first example of the last, Chevrolets Avalanche.
The Avalanche was created by cutting the rear portion of the roof off of a Chevrolet Suburban to create a pickup bed. Since the bed and cabin are integral rather than separate units, the Avalanches structure is more solid than a conventional crew cab pickup. But thats not all. Conventional crew cabs have shorter beds than regular pickups. To enable the Avalanche to carry as much as a long bed pickup, the bed may be extended a few feet by folding the rear seat, removing the rear window, and opening up a midgate. To enhance the looks and structural strength of the Avalanche, and minimize dust intrusion when the midgate is open, Chevrolet fitted a faux roll bar where the bed meets the cab.
So, how well does it all work?
Chevrolet Avalanche Reliability
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To further differentiate it from the usual SUV or pickup, the Avalanche was originally designed with a large amount of gray plastic cladding circling its lower body. This was intended to make it look more tough and rugged. This cladding works better than it did with the Aztek, which was developed at about the same time, but many people still did not care for it. Soon after taking over GMs product development in the fall of 2001, industry legend Bob Lutz ordered the development of a sans-cladding Avalanche. His reasoning: not only would some consumers prefer the looks of such a vehicle, but cladding is not cheap to make so such a truck could be offered to them for less money. And so for the 2003 model year a WBH (without body hardware) option removed both the cladding and $600. Seeking the least expensive all-wheel-drive Avalanche, I drove one so equipped.
The Avalanche looks better in WBH form than I expected it would. The current Chevrolet truck front end that originated with the Avalanche somehow looks better here without the cladding than it does on Chevrolets regular pickups. Without the cladding some of the originals character is gone, but what remains is a clean, fairly handsome truck. Part of me finds the cladded versions more macho look appealing, but I doubt Id personally pay $600 for it.
Inside the Avalanche is standard GM pickup. The instrument panel styling is very conventional truck and looks downscale and dated compared to recent Ford truck interiors. Leather is available, but the cloth that covered the seats in the Avalanche I drove looked and felt appropriately sporty and rugged. Its much nicer than the cloth in Dodges 2004 Ram and Durango, for instance.
As with other large trucks its hard to get into the Avalanche without assist steps. The base truck I drove lacked the $585 chrome step option, so I had to jump a bit to get in. Charcoal colored steps cost $190 less, but are only available with the cladding. So if youre getting the steps, a third of the WBH savings goes away.
Once in the drivers seat its comfortable enough. The relatively soft cushions cup you a bit. Id rate them above Dodges seats but not quite as impressive as the larger firmer thrones fitted to Fords new truck. The view forward is expansive. As in other large trucks you sit well above the road. (You sit higher still in a Ford or Dodge, but the Chevrolets seating position is plenty high.) The view rearward is more restricted, but large side mirrors help.
The standard front seat puts a marginal middle seat in between two buckets in a 40/20/40 arrangement. No ones going to be comfortable in the middle, but it will do in a pinch. The middle seatback folds down to provide an armrest for the buckets. It contains a wide but shallow storage compartment within it. For a larger storage compartment, a center console designed more for utility than appearance is optional. The most basic bucket seat package also includes a Bose stereo and CD changer, so it costs $1,575. Still, most Avalanches appear to be produced with it.
The rear seat is roomy enough for three people. Unlike in a car shoulder room is plentiful. The seat is high enough off the floor to provide decent thigh support. Knee room is a bit less than I expected in such a large vehicle, but it is still adequate.
The main loss vis-à-vis the Suburban is the third rowthere isnt one in the Avalanche.
Ive never devoted a separate section to cargo versatility before, but the Avalanche warrants one. With a foldable second row, removable rear window, foldable midgate between the passenger compartment and bed, lockable removable three-section lightweight hard tonneau, numerous tie-downs, and two small lockable storage compartments in the bed sides the Avalanche can be configured in more ways than Ill be able to count here.
Inside the cab the rear seat folds in two sections. First the seat cushion is folded, then the seatbacks. To fold the seatbacks the front seats must either temporarily be moved a few inches forward from their rearmost position or the rear headrests must be removed. This will be an inconvenience for drivers with long legs.
Folding the rear seatbacks alone does not provide a smooth surface. The hinges are exposed and there are numerous gaps around the perimeter. To get a continuous flat surface the midgate must be folded. This is very easy, but it extends the cargo area into the bed. If you only want a small cargo area for groceries and such youre out of luck. An accessory rear seat liner from a dealer for about $48, but this is just a seat cover, not a hard surface.
The rear glass can be kept in place with the midgate folded. Together with the rigid lockable three-piece bed cover, you get a large cargo area secure from weather and people.
The rear glass can also be removed without folding the midgate for an open-air affect.
With the WBH Avalanche, the rigid cargo cover can be deleted in favor of a soft cover for another $600 savings. Although the soft cover is easier to store, the hard cover is likely easier to attach and remove. This and the security benefits the hard cover provides mean its worth the extra money in my opinion.
The bed, essentially a very long wide trunk when the cover is installed, is not your conventional painted metal pickup bed. It has a removable rubber mat on the floor and durable plastic on the walls. Numerous tie-downs are provided to help secure cargo. Smaller items can be stored in a pair of 1.7 cubic foot lockable compartments located in the bed walls. These contain drain holes to enable them to serve as coolers. Both these compartments and the main cargo box are lighted.
One useful feature deleted with the chrome bumpers that attend the WBH option is a step built in to the charcoal step bumper. The bed walls are higher than in a standard pickup, so these steps can be very useful for accessing the cargo box.
Frankly, I suspect most people keep the cover in place and use the box as a large trunk. I asked a friend of mine what he does to keep cargo in place. He works as a photographer and loves his Avalanche because it provides such a large amount of covered, lockable storage. Apparently the rubber floor works as intended. He told me that he actually wishes things slid a little more easily across the floor to make loading and unloading easier. Apparently the mat is also durable--no evident damage yet in his case.
Items too tall to leave the cargo cover in place and too long to leave the midgate up require that the cab be open to the air in the rear. I did not drive the truck with the cover and rear window removed, so I cannot comment with how turbulent the cab becomes in this situation.
On the Road
The Avalanche performs much like the Suburban on which it is based.
For 2004 the 5.3-liter V8 gains ten horsepower, for a total of 295. This brings it nearly even with the 5.4-liter in the new-for-2004 Ford pickups, but not with the 345-horsepower Hemi in the Dodge. Neither of the others can compare with the Avalanche for cargo versatility, though, and the Dodge also cannot compare for rear seat room and comfort. In midrange power the Chevrolet engine lags even the Fords by a significant margin.
None of this matters much on the road. The 5.3-liter feels adequately powerful, even with the heavier four-wheel-drive version I drove. Sure, its not blazingly fast, but Im personally confused about the appeal of hyper-fast large trucks anyway. (I have a review of the Silverado SS on the way.) The V8 is smooth but like other American truck V8s doesnt sound especially refined.
The EPA ratings are 13/18, not good but typical for such a large vehicle (the vehicle I drove weighed about 5,700 pounds). Anecdotal evidence suggests that GM's large trucks do get about 15 percent better fuel economy than Ford's and Dodge's, at least.
A huge, 320-horsepower 8.1-liter V8 is available in the three-quarter ton Avalanche 2500, but dont expect faster acceleration. The 2500 is significantly heavier owing to its stouter frame, and this extra weight easily cancels out the extra displacement. The 2500 also exchanges the standard rear coil suspension for leaf springs, so Id expect its ride and handling to be inferior. For some reason GM does not offer its excellent Duramax diesel in the Avalanche. This would seem an obvious pairing. Maybe research has found that too few Avalanche buyers would pay the diesels high price?
Im of two minds about the handling of GMs large trucks. On the one hand the steering effort is overly light and they feel less solidly planted than the Ford and Dodge trucks. They lean a bit more in moderately hard turns, though not so much as to be disconcerting. On the other hand, perhaps for these same reasons, GMs large trucks feel lighter and more agile than others. I normally drive a small car. GMs large trucks are the easiest for me to simply get in and drive with a minimal learning curve. They react to steering inputs in a balanced, intuitive, responsive manner lacking in the others. The interaction between vehicle and driver is more fluid and fine-tuned here.
Owing to their more compliant suspensions, GMs trucks also ride better than the competition, especially that from Ford. In the Avalanche with all windows up noise levels are low. This would be an easy vehicle to take long trips in with lots of stuffas long as you can afford the gas.
I drove an Avalanche with the base suspension. Optional suspensions are part of the Z66 package for the rear-drive Avalanche and the Z71 off road package for the four-wheel-drive Avalanche. Either of these would firm up the suspension, how much I cannot say. Both listed for $878 last year, but additional content for 2004power folding trick mirrors in the Z66 and Onstar and those same mirrors in the Z71boost the 2004 prices to $1,335 and $1,955, respectively. Stability control is a new option for 2004. It is available only with the Z66 package, so only with rear-wheel-drive. It deletes the traction control and limited slip differential, yet still costs $750. Pricey.
I was generally impressed with the performance and versatility of the Avalanche, but couldnt shake a concern that this is a much larger vehicle than Id personally want to own. Why isnt the same concept available in a midsize truck? I suppose that is basically what the new Envoy XUV is about, with its retractable roof and interior midgate, but with styling much like that of the Envoy XL its not quite right from an aesthetic standpoint. I might take one for a drive just the same.
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The following is from when the review was originally written:
I drove the base Avalanche with the WBH option to maximize versatility for the dollar. It listed for $35,965. According the Edmunds, the typical dealer discount and a $3,500 rebate take this down to about $28,600.
The rear-drive truck lists for $3,000 less. Even here in Detroit the salesperson said four-wheel-drive isnt necessary unless you plan to go off road. It seems that in such a heavy vehicle handling on slick roads is not treacherous even with just rear-wheel-drive. The optional traction or especially stability control would no doubt further help. Even with the latter and Z61 package youd save money over the four-wheel-drive, so for people who wont be venturing off road thats probably the way to go. At under $26,000, a rear drive base Avalanche would be a heck of a lot of vehicle for the money.
The price is even better for people who live in or near California, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. They get a special package that includes a roof-mounted luggage rack and trailering equipment, usually about $400, for free and further knocks $600 off the price. So they pay about a grand less assuming they wanted the rack and trailering package.
Nothing is directly comparable to the Avalanche. So Ill go with the closest alternatives.
Two are other Chevrolet products, the Silverado crew cab and Suburban. In LS trim equipped like the Avalanche (power drivers seat as the only option), the former lists for $34,765. The typical discount and a $2,500 rebate reduce this to about $28,900. The Silverado comes standard with a larger, 6.0-liter engine, and this combined with less weight should make it quicker than the Avalanche, but in just about every other way it is not nearly as good a vehicle for a family. For $300 more money I cannot see why one would be bought except as a work truck. Chevrolet has been offering some free and low-cost options on its pickups this year to blunt the impact of Fords new pickups, but even with these the Avalanche seems the much better buy.
A Suburban is far more expensive than the Avalanche despite their great commanality. An LS with the optional liftgate lists for $40,950. Even after the typical discount and a $2,500 rebate it costs about $34,600. The Suburbans main advantages are a third row seat and available stability control with four-wheel-drive. But for carrying cargo it isnt nearly as versatile as the Avalanche. All in all, a very expensive third row seat.
For an Avalanche in higher performance, more luxurious form spend $20,000 more for the Escalade EXT. Although a Cadillac pickup has an interesting ring to it, its not nearly as good a value.
A GMC Envoy SUV SLE with a power drivers seat lists for $34,590, and costs about $30,400 after the typical discount and a $2,000 rebate. For a 5.3-liter V8 add $1,500 to the list and $1,300 to the typical price. Even with the standard six the smaller truck is a couple grand more expensive. Based on my test drive of the similar Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT, the Avalanche actually handles better and feels more nimble despite its greater width and mass. So I dont see the point in this one unless you really need the taller enclosed cargo space or highly value the convenience of a retractable roof instead of a removable tonneau.
A Ford F-150 XLT crew cab with the 5.4-liter engine, power drivers seat, and rear defroster lists for $34,390. After the typical discount the price is about $31,600. Edmunds lists no rebate, but I believe one for $1,000 was recently announced. Even at $30,600 the Ford costs about two grand more than the Avalanche. Its a very good pickup, but its versatility cannot compare.
Nissan is currently introducing an aggressively-priced new large pickup. With split bench and floormats a Titan SE crew cab lists for $30,380, or over $4,000 less than the comparable Chevrolet Silverado. However, there are no rebates available on the Nissan, and Edmunds suggests youll pay sticker. Also, this price does not include a power drivers seat; for that you must ante up another grand for the Popular Package. So the Titan ends up more expensive than the Avalanche or Silverado. Its main advantage is a standard V8 that performs better than the Chevrolet engine despite a similar power rating owing to superior midrange power and an extra ratio in the transmission.
Honda will be introducing a Pilot-based pickup that might be similar to the Avalanche next fall. Stay tuned.
I have not included assist steps in any of the above prices. They make getting in and out much easier. Expect to pay about $300. For those interested in heated leather, sunroof, DVD entertainment system, and so on these are all available. Check all the boxes and an Avalanche 1500 will still cost well under $40,000.
Especially once pricing is thrown into the mix the Avalanche offers an amazing amount of passenger- and cargo-hauling capability and versatility. Performance and handling and both very good considering the size of the vehicle. Its major weaknesses are an interior not quite up to those in Fords trucks and fuel economy. A similar midsize truck for, say, $3,000 might be nice. But dont expect much better fuel economy judging from the EPA ratings of the Envoy.
Before price Id give this truck four stars. Considering it, it earns five.
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