The Chevrolet Avalanche is an unexpected crossover vehicle. Coming on the heels of the Ford Explorer Sport Trac - an SUV with a short pickup bed - and the Dakota Quad Cab - a pickup with a short pickup bed and SUV-style cab - the Avalanche takes something old, namely fold-down rear seats, something new, namely removable rear window glass, and puts them into an unusual place - a truck.
We were not excited about the Explorer Sport Trac, because the Explorer is basically a pickup with no bed and a large cab; at one time, nearly all SUVs were based on pickups. But the Avalanche is interesting because it allows drivers to have a large cab without making the truck unmanageably long, as the equivalent Silverado is when it has the full size bed as well as the full size cab. Instead, when a large bed is needed, the rear seat can be easily and quickly folded down to gain an extra two feet or so. In addition, the rear window can be taken out - and, in a fit of brilliance, it can be safely stashed in a convenient pocket so it can actually stay in one piece, and not get left behind.
The bed is covered by a series of three covers, each easy to remove and reinstall. They protect the contents of the bed from thieves and the elements, while making the truck more aerodynamic. As if to compensate for the usability issues of the Aztek and, for that matter, the GM cruise controls, the designers even put glow-in-the-dark handles on the levers that lock and unlock the bed cover, so you can work at night if needed. Two large cargo lamps are mounted in the sides of the bed for further visibility; there is also room for tools or other objects in individually-locking sections of the bed-side.
That's basically the "magic midgate" part of the truck, as well as the much-hyped "SUV to pickup conversion." It's not quite as impressive as it sounds on TV, but it works very smoothly, and a single person can have the rear seat folded down and the window stashed away in about a minute. Likewise, taking the bed cover off is much easier than with a soft tonneau cover, and the cover itself provides better security.
The plastic sides protect against minor bumps and scratches - they reach fairly high - and also provide footholds to launch your way into the high bed. Optional side steps can be helpful for shorter people to get into the spacious cab. The bed itself is covered with a removable plastic mat that protects against damage while holding things in place - a better (and quieter) solution than hard plastic bed mats.
The Avalanche is expensive - over $33,000 - but it comes with many amenities. Ours had drink heater/coolers that worked simply and well, but could not hold, say, a large Coke bottle. It also had an oil change reminder lamp, which can help to extend the gap between oil changes considerably (because oil usually does
need to be changed every 3,000 miles, and GM's computers are better at estimating when it really
need to be changed), and the usual clever GM features like the excellent OnStar and a very well-designed optional thermostatic climate control (the temperature is quickly set by a single knob). Standard functional features include speed sensitive steering, four wheel antilock disc brakes, and antitheft systems.
Owners can also customize various aspects of how their vehicle works - for example, whether one door or all doors automatically lock and unlock. The automatic headlights and DRLs can be overridden, but only on a drive-to-drive basis (it defaults back to automatic when the key is taken out). Fortunately, the automatic headlights go on immediately if it's dark. We'd still prefer an easier manual override.
The front has the new Chevrolet styling, and is more similar to the Impala in some ways than to past Chevy trucks. People on the street seemed to find the styling fascinating, from the rugged-looking mesh grille to the Pontiac-like, grey body cladding.
We could go on with the interior, handling, and acceleration, but for the most part, this truck is a
with the 5.3 liter engine and a clever midgate, bed cover, and plastic body panels, so see our
review for more details.
The Ram cannot match the Avalanche in terms of sheer power, but it does feel nearly as strong in everyday driving (towing is of course another story - see our Ram review for a direct comparison). While we prefer the Ram's five-speed automatic (available only with the 4.7 and 3.7 engines) and its styling, we have to admit that the Avalanche provides a very good value with its proven reliability, midgate, and cleverly designed bed. The Avalanche doesn't even sell for much of a premium compared with a similarly equipped Ram (though the base model Rams cost much less). It may be a sad day in Dodge.
General Motors has done it once again. The Avalanche is an amazingly well executed idea, so simple it's brilliant, and currently unique among pickups and SUVs. It's still a work truck - so if you want one for transporting your family, get a Dodge Caravan, and if you want a big V-8, get a Camaro - but it's a remarkably practical work truck, and it beats anything on the Ford lots. If you're in the market, take a look.
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