- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

A bit of a sleeper, the Chevrolet Avalanche is rarely on anyone’s short list for a pickup truck or an SUV. Chevrolet, however, sold nearly 400,000 between its launch in late 2001 as a 2002 model and the end of 2005. Not bad for a vehicle most people don’t even think about, but General Motors has abandoned vehicles with better showroom performance.

So, it wasn’t a given that Chevrolet would invest the time and resources to redesign Avalanche.

Early on, more than one automotive journalist referred to it as the answer to an unasked question, but like oysters, for many it’s an acquired taste. Chevrolet has steadily improved it since its inception and with the 2007 redesign Avalanche has transcended its gimmick. A handsome truck in its own right, Avalanche is a bigger, brawnier alternative to Ford’s Explorer Sport Trac. And, it’s more versatile too.

A vehicle of compromise, Avalanche is more SUV than pickup, but serves quite handily as either. The gimmick, which allows the rear window to be removed and the partition — or midgate in Chevrolet-speak — between the five-passenger cab and bed to be folded to increase the length of the cargo box, actually works much better than it sounds.

With the partition out of the way and the 60/40 split rear seat folded down, the five-foot cargo box stretches to eight feet and can accommodate a 4-foot-by-8-foot sheet of plywood with the tailgate closed. There are full-size pickup trucks on the market that can’t accomplish that.

While many owners probably won’t ever utilize the extra cargo space the midgate provides, in normal service the cargo box acts like a huge trunk. A removable, interlocking hard cargo bed cover shelters whatever load might be carried and the locking tailgate keeps it secure.

f more space is required, the cover can be removed in three easily managed sections and, tah-dah, you have a conventional short-bed pickup.

Avalanche’s utility notwithstanding, the latest iteration is a good-looking vehicle. Thankfully the Pontiac Aztek-like body cladding and squared-off wheel openings had disappeared in appearance tweaking over the years. The exterior lines of the second-generation Avalanche flow smoothly front to back. It has tremendous curb appeal and its fetching styling prompted walk arounds of the test truck by several passersby.

Chevrolet has reduced the price by a couple of grand for 2007. Including delivery charges, pricing begins at $32,490 for the 2WD LT. Moving up to the LS requires an additional investment of roughly $1,100.

Avalanche shares its platform with the 2007 Tahoe/Suburban, as well as the 2008 full-size GM pickups, so it easily qualifies as rugged. For $3,000, four-wheel drive can be added to either the LT or the LS. A turn of a knob on the dashboard dials in high or low 4WD.

There is also a automatic setting that lets a computer make the decisions. An off-road-specific Z71 version is scheduled for release later in the model year.

A 320-horsepower (310-horsepower in 4WD editions) 5.3-liter V-8 powers the Avalanche. It uses a four-speed automatic transmission to direct output to the wheels. Engineered for serious towing, the rear-wheel-drive versions can pull up to 8,000 pounds while 4WD models can tug 7,800 pounds.

When equipped with the $2,145 navigation unit, a rear-pointing camera is available for another $195. Basically designed as an aid for backing up, the camera points directly at the tow hitch when the tailgate is lowered. This lets the driver hook up to a trailer without a spotter.

Fuel economy is about what might be expected from a V-8-powered big pickup. The EPA rates it at 15 miles per gallon in the city and 20 mpg on the open road.

Inside the Avalanche is roomy and comfortable. The list of standard features on all versions is impressive and includes power windows/door locks, remote keyless entry, dual heated outboard mirrors, OnStar emergency system and cruise control. Opting for the $6,735 LTZ package brings the interior to the level of many luxury sedans with leather seating, power-adjustable pedals, remote start, 12-way power-adjustable front seats, head curtain air bags, upgraded Bose audio system with six-disc CD changer, XM satellite radio, rain-sensing wipers and dual-zone automatic climate control.

Other features included in the LTZ group are 20-inch wheels, Autoride suspension, rear parking assist and power folding outboard mirrors.

Well-behaved, the Avalanche delivers a civilized ride on pavement thanks to its stiffer new chassis and re-engineered suspension.

It handles more like a midsize SUV than a full-size pickup. The steering is responsive and the turning radius manageable even in crowded parking lots.

Four-wheel antilock brakes are standard on all trim levels.

It may be stretching things a little to call the Avalanche a Jack of all trades, but it’s about as close as you can get. Is it an SUV? Is it a pickup truck? It’s whatever you need it to be at the moment. A compromise? You bet, but it’s an exceptional one. And with the enhanced styling, you no longer need apologize for its looks.

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