The Chevrolet Avalanche
had been in our Four Seasons fleet barely one week when it became apparent that we were in for a contentious year. In the very first logbook entry, truck aficionado and editor emeritus David E. Davis, Jr., expounded on the qualities of the big and chunky Chevy: "This is a remarkable vehicle. The harmonious interrelationship of ride, handling, roadholding, and power is very sweet. It is very carlike. In fact, there are a lot of cars that aren't this good."
Almost immediately, there followed the prickly comments of executive editor Mark Gillies: "How light can steering be? How on earth can you get away with such awful interior quality for $37,000? Can you see anything out the rear-view mirror? Which twit put the seatback adjuster there? If this is carlike, I may have been driving the wrong cars."
Clearly, we were still figuring out what to make of the Avalanche-which bills itself as "the industry's first 'configurable' truck"-and its signature folding Midgate. The Avalanche is carved from a Suburban, one of our longtime favorite SUVs, but we still had some questions about where this curious truck-SUV hybrid belonged in the automotive firmament. Was it an innovator that would define a new market niche, or was it simply another clumsy automotive novelty act such as the Suzuki X90 or the Isuzu VehiCross? Was it unrealistic to expect carlike handling from a 5900-pound truck? Was its $37,000 price justifiable? Reaching a consensus after twelve months looked unlikely, however, given the wildly divergent opinions of the pro- and anti-Avalanche contingencies within the editorial ranks.
Gillies's opening salvo sparked a war of words. Associate editor Joe DeMatio weighed in: "Yes, a little more steering feel wouldn't hurt, but, really, it's not that bad. It's best to just point this thing down the road and hit the gas." Entering the fray alongside DeMatio was copy editor Matt Phenix: "This is not a sport sedan, and anyone who tries to drive it as such gets what they deserve. Why should light steering be an issue?" Contributor Kirk Seaman volleyed back: "It's not so much how overboosted and light the steering is but how indirect. It takes cranking a good five degrees of input into the wheel before the truck responds, by which time it could easily be heading in a different direction. This leads to constant adjusting of the wheel. It was more like sailing a boat than driving." Six months on, the internecine battle had yet to abate. Gillies again: "All the carlike comments are getting on my wick. It doesn't drive like a car, unless your benchmark is a late-'50s luxury sedan. Floaty suspension, light steering, dead brake pedal. Yuck! What's more, it's ugly."
About those looks: When the Avalanche was unveiled at the 2000 Detroit auto show, design editor Robert Cumberford noted that "the stylists went crazy with their excess cladding. A cleaned-up version would be an ideal pickup for work or family." The production Avalanche, however, which made its debut sixteen months later, was virtually identical to the concept truck shown in Detroit, complete with copious amounts of gray plastic cladding and creases and bulges on every flank. When we first started tooling around town, one staff member complained about "scoffing and derision from three baseball-cap-wearing workmen in their Ford pickup," and another described it as having "hobgoblin exterior styling. Not a single surface has been left alone to be itself." Still, some found themselves strangely enamored with the quirky-looking oddball, such as business manager Kim Ewing: "I think I love the Avalanche so much because everyone else hates it. But it looks the way a truck should-rough and tough."
We eventually agreed to disagree about the Avalanche's handling and appearance, but the boat metaphor proved to be apt. On the issue of rearward visibility (or lack thereof): "You look back there, and it's like the landing deck of an aircraft carrier, with an abrupt dropoff at the far end. You have no idea what's behind your ship, and the ocean (or the road) is no-where in sight." Not only was the road invisible, but at times whole cars disappeared from both rear- and side-view mirrors when they followed a little too closely. A reverse-parking aid should be standard on all full-size trucks and SUVs; not only would it help avert parking-lot mishaps (yes, we had one), but errant children and stray animals could be saved from unfortunate driveway incidents.
Other than that, the standard equipment list on our Avalanche 1500 4WD was fairly comprehensive, as it should be for a base price of $33,465. Safety and convenience features, such as four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, front- and side-impact air bags for driver and front passenger, Autotrac four-wheel drive, a three-piece rigid cargo cover, and lockable storage boxes integrated into the rear fenders-not to mention the signature Midgate-were all standard. We added six-way power seats with leather trim for $1115, the off-road package for $835, the $653 convenience package, and $395 running boards. With destination charge, the total vehicle price was $37,183.
That's a lot of money for any vehicle, much less a glorified pickup, and it explains the disappointment some felt at climbing inside and being met with what was little more than a standard GM interior. Opined senior editor Eddie Alterman: "For some reason, we seem willing to accept a level of interior quality in trucks that we won't brook in cars. We forgive crappy plastics in a $37,000 Avalanche but not a marginally more expensive Corvette. With trucks accounting for more than 50 percent of the market at last check, doesn't anyone see this as an old way of thinking?" Whether the instrument panel and console looked up to the standards of a $37K vehicle was debatable,
but the interior was nothing if not functional. Cubbyholes and storage bins abounded, with spots for storing wallets, cell phones, notebooks, and soft drinks all within easy reach of the driver. And a luxurious interior perhaps would have been anomalous in a vehicle that turned out to be such a workhorse, because twelve months of hauling, towing, mud running, and various odd jobs resulted in a general griminess that spoke to the working-class roots of all pickups, faux SUV or not.
When staff members needed to move a household, pull out a tree stump, make a run to the dump, or haul landscaping supplies, this big brute was ready. It takes only a couple of minutes to convert the Avalanche to full-truck mode. Simply take off the three bed-cover panels, flip a handle to remove the rear window, and fold down the two rear seats. With a nonskid removable plastic bed liner, the Avalanche is ready to swallow boxes, couches, broken-up concrete, or a gas grill. Chevy's workhorse 285-horsepower, 5.3-liter OHV V-8 proved up to every task, although for those who need more power and towing capability, an 8.1-liter V-8 producing 340 horses is optional. Even Gillies, the Avalanche's most staunch critic, was forced to acknowledge its all-around utility: "For any Brits who wonder why Americans love pickups, my weekend's hauling and dumping would convince 'em."
Also convincing was the Avalanche's reliability. Besides regular oil changes and tire rotations, maintenance amounted to warranty repairs to a broken turn-signal stalk and a malfunctioning taillight. Fender damage from an encounter with a parking-garage pillar set us back $1635.26, a $52.90 wheel-well fascia was damaged during a photo shoot, and an errant stone cracked the windshield. The running cost of $0.13 per mile isn't bad for a vehicle that averaged a paltry 14 mpg. On the other hand, the Avalanche took a huge hit-more than $16,000-in the depreciation department.
Some of the items with which we took issue have been addressed since the delivery of our Four Seasons Avalanche. Chevrolet says the '03 model has "improved brake performance, better pedal feel, and quieter operation." It also comes standard with a WBH (without body hardware) package, which should help to quiet the fashion police. Pricing remains about the same, which is to say dear, although Chevy offered a $4000 rebate in February, perhaps to clear dealer lots for the new WBH models.
After a year, we were pretty happy with this nonconformist truck from Chevrolet, even though it failed to convert the nonbelievers. The revolutionary Midgate is indicative of the sort of innovations that used to distinguish American car companies, and we applaud GM for its forward-thinking take on the pickup truck. Like many good ideas, however, it may prove to be ill timed. With gasoline prices heading toward $2.00 per gallon, dilettante SUV buyers might gravitate toward vehicles with better fuel economy. And hardcore truck users are likely to stick with the tried-and-true full-size pickup, eschewing this odd half-breed. It's a shame, because the Chevrolet Avalanche is arguably the best of both worlds.