- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Are you getting tired of cladding — the composite lower body panels that have been growing ever larger on SUVs and some pickups in recent years?

There’s good news: This year, the Chevrolet Avalanche can be had with — and without — cladding.

In fact, buyers of a 2003 Avalanche who choose to forego the composite lower body panels, which Chevy calls body hardware, will see a $600 deduction on their window sticker.

And they’ll drive away with a combination full-sized, four-door sport utility vehicle/pickup truck whose exterior looks more like that of a regular Silverado pickup and less overdone.

“The entire issue of cladding over the last three to four years has gotten overdone,” said George Peterson, president of automotive research firm AutoPacific of Tustin, Calif. “And certainly, with the [Pontiac] Aztek and then the Avalanche, the biggest violator of good taste has been General Motors.”

Mr. Peterson’s research into the Avalanche, which was released as a 2002 model with lots of standard cladding on the body, showed some buyers selected the color of their Avalanche in order to minimize the cladding.

For example, these buyers preferred black and dark gray paint over white or red because the darker colors provided a more tasteful appearance to the Avalanche, Mr. Peterson said.

Some Chevrolet dealers in Southern California even began painting the cladding, he said.

The de-cladded look isn’t the only change in the 2003 Avalanche, which has a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $32,965 for a two-wheel-drive, half-ton model.

New safety features and new amenities such as power-adjustable pedals and entertainment systems make this most flexible of Chevy trucks even more suited to family and personal duties.

The test Avalanche, a four-wheel-drive, half-ton version without the cladding, capably carried my passengers and cargo in all kinds of terrain.

On pavement, the ride in the 220.8-inch-long Avalanche is quite smooth and cushioned with vibrations nearly imperceptible, even with the pickup bed empty.

Of course, in a truck weighing more than 5,000 pounds, there is considerable body sway over curves. And there can be some bounciness when the Avalanche is off road.

The independent front suspension in the vehicle uses torsion bars, while a five-link configuration with automatic load leveling works at the rear.

This year, Chevrolet began offering StabiliTrak, a stability-control system that works to keep the Avalanche on track with where the driver is steering. It’s available on half-ton, two-wheel-drive Avalanche models with 5.3-liter V-8.

The test four-wheel-drive truck had the optional off-road package that included specially tuned shock absorbers and springs, locking rear differential and 17-inch wheels and tires. Sixteen-inch wheels and tires are standard equipment.

There’s some play in the Avalanche’s recirculating ball power steering, and this big truck doesn’t feel particularly nimble in parking lots. For example, the turning circle is at least 43.3 feet.

So I had to do some advance planning when turning into parking spots.

Backing out of parking spots was challenging. For one thing, the side view is somewhat obscured by the large pillars of the rear window glass. For another, the tailgate of the Avalanche sits so high that it can be difficult to see if even small-sized adults are directly behind this vehicle.

Yet a reverse park assist system is not among the Avalanche’s factory-installed options.

Engine power is pleasantly capable in the Avalanche, with only V-8s used.

Neither engine is fuel-thrifty, but drivers are able to tow up to 12,000 pounds with the 340-horsepower, 8.1-liter, Vortec 8100 V-8 and up to 8,200 pounds with the 285-horsepower, 5.3-liter Vortec 5300 V-8.

Maximum torque is 325 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm in the Vortec 5300 that was in the test Avalanche, and while power wasn’t instantaneous as it is in a sports car, it does get the Avalanche moving well once it comes on.

Note fuel economy in the four-wheel-drive Avalanche is just 13 miles a gallon in city driving and 17 on the highway, but the fuel tank can hold at least 31 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline.

It’s a sizable climb up to get into the Avalanche, so I was glad the tester had the optional tubular assist steps.

The interior has the same dashboard look as other GM trucks, complete with a large handle at the top of the dashboard on the front passenger side.

This year, a sensing system that can automatically detect if a child is in the front passenger seat is standard in the Avalanche.

Dual-stage frontal air bags are new, too.

But all four head restraints in the Avalanche continue to slide easily up and down, without locking in place, and the middle ride in the back seat doesn’t have a head restraint.

Also, looking into the rearview mirror, I noticed a lot of distracting reflection in the back window at certain times of day in bright sunshine.

Headroom is a plentiful 40.7 inches in the front seat and 38.6 inches in the back. Legroom of 41.3 inches in the front seat and 38.9 inches in back is commendable.

Note the Avalanche is available with front bench seat so maximum seating can be as much as six people.

I also enjoyed that in the test truck, with front bucket seats, the seat cushions were lengthy, coming nearly to the backs of my knees.

The large rear windows that opened all the way are a nice treat, and everyone inside gets a great view out and over most other vehicles.

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