Way back in 1935, few people if any, realized that Chevrolet had just rolled out “the next big thing”, the do it all Chevy Suburban. It seated a basketball teams starters, coach and a couple backups, and could haul canoes on the roof while towing a trailer of gear though the woods or fields of the back country. It wasn’t a truck, and it wasn’t a car. It seemed like it captured a trucks ride quality in a car, (remember, solid front axles back then!) and a cars capacity in a truck. Which is a somewhat dubious combination. What were they thinking?
Time has told a different story, and the Suburban went on to help inspire the SUV craze. Originally it didn’t have 4 wheel drive (added in 1957) and lacked 4 passenger doors until 1972, but it has stood the test of time, continually adapting, adding features and capability. Today, the SUV genre has splintered into subsets designed to fill every possible niche that consumers can dream up, and some they can’t. There are “Crossovers” and “Sport Activity Vehicles” and “Mini Utes”, just to name a few. Everyone is in the game, from Ford to Bentley. BMW even has M versions. Porsche credits profits from its SUV sales for it’s ability to spawn off so many 911 variants. If that’s the case, there’s a silver lining to everything it seems. Lets face it, us racer types often mock the land barges as being unwieldy, floaty, overweight and awful to drive. Honestly, in many cases, we hit the nail on the head. But at the same time, for many of us, we need just such a vehicle. Something that can get us to work Monday thru Friday, take the whole family on vacation the following week, and, while we are at it, tow a boat or the prized race car and gear. We love their capabilities, but we often hate the way they drive.
Not long ago, Chevrolet saw a niche of people like us. Racers, boat guys, or people with stuff to haul, often big stuff, as well as their friends. Chevy thought we needed a pick up truck. And an SUV. Something we could load big things that got wet into, yet still get us and four of our friends around in comfort. Their ambitious list of “do everything” resulted in the Avalanche, a four door pickup truck with SUV like front space and lockable storage capabilities, but a pickup truck like rear hauling compartment. Is it the next big thing, as the Suburban of 1935? We took one through the woods, to work, down the highway and to the lake with a boat in tow to find out.
Maybe the Suburban was state of the art back in 1935, but the Avalanche is a far cry from that 1935 version. First, its a semi-frame / unibody. Old salts reading that will scoff, but Chevrolet felt that it was a better solution. Using a full frame, such as a conventional pickup means extra weight, less torsional rigidity, and compromised handling, all things being equal. As Chevy had no plans to sell differing length Avalanches, as it does it’s fleet of pickups, a body on frames’ manufacturing flexibility advantage held no appeal. It also freed up the design team to explore features that most have never seen, such as the wall of the cabin that essentially disappears. To add flexibility, and increase the allowable size of hauled objects, Avalanche owners can fold down the rear seats, remove the rear window, and fold down the remaining rear wall bulkhead, called the ‘Midgate”, leaving an extension of the pickup trucks bed which ends right at the back of the front seats, essentially. In this mode, objects 8′ long can be hauled. If they are low, they can be stowed under the Avalanche’s multi-piece hard bed cover. In classic Swiss army fashion, the Avalanche folds one way to be a truck, and other to be an SUV, and yet another way to be a bit of both. Jack of all trades. But a master of none?
Well, as trucks go, this is a masterful driver. GM really upped the game with the newer generation of trucks of the 2007 MY and the fresh GMT900 chassis. That chassis was a huge improvement over the outgoing GMT800, and this truck, which actually was introduced as a 2003 model served as the benchmark for the GMT900. Further refinements to the Avalanche chassis debuted in 2007. Missing is the quivering, shaking and hobby horse ride that pick ups of old were famous for. Heck, this truck can actually trail brake! Credit part of that capability to the rigid body, part to basic engineering advances in bushings and dampers, part to the unique coil sprung suspension with supplemental air assist, but it must also be understood that part credit goes to the fact that the Avalanche carries a lot of weight over the rear wheels that typical pick ups don’t. It’s that ratio of unsprung to sprung weight that gets the standard pickup in trouble, bouncing air under the rear tires as the heavy axle does it’s thing. Not so in the Avalanche. The bed is a far cry from a standard pickup with a heavy cover assembly, full storage in the
quarter panels over the rear wheels (lockable), weather stripping and rain gutter systems, and what are best called ‘flying buttresses’, vertical triangular structural elements that sit atop the rails at the forward part of the box, and attach to the cab. At first glance, they appear as a stylists stroke to add a bit of dash to help differentiate this from the normal pickup. But, look closer, and you see they connect together over the rear window at the roof level, smoothing airflow and presumably keeping the cabin dry while the rear wall is removed to haul larger objects. We had the truck in a period of unexpectedly warm and sunny spring weather, so no rainy open truck testing could be accomplished. Darn.
With the tailgate up, midgate up and the bed covers installed, the bed will hold objects just over four feet by 6 feet, and as high as 2 feet (45 cubic feet). Open the midgate and a standard 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood fits, or even a cabinet grade 97″ x 49″ version. Or you can strap a dirt bike in there. Or 1200 pounds of gravel. We’d suggest keeping the midgate UP for that load. Like everything on the road today, curb weight is significant, at just under 6000 pounds…3 Tons! Fortunately, it can tow even more, up to a maximum rating of 8100 pounds. (Keep your eye on this site, as we are working to debunk the towing capacity myths in a later article.) With capacity like that, choices are significant. Enclosed motorcycle trailers, good sized boats and cars on open trailers are all fair game. We tested the Avalanche with our standard approximate 4,200 pound boat package, and honestly were not surprised. As expected, towing was a breeze. From a dead stop, the 5.3L 320hp, and 335lb/ft accelerated the rig with three adults to 60 in approximately 18 seconds. Unencumbered with a trailer, expect the sprint to 60 to drop to 8.3 seconds. The coil sprung rear seemed at ease with the load and the standard air assist rear leveled the chassis with no drama. Optional towing extras are a towing package that includes engine oil and transmission coolers, and a 3.43 rear diff ratio (standard is 3.08) and is a steal at $330. Another good buy option is an integrated trailer brake controller that shows its output and functioning via the dash display. Well worth the $200 if only to avoid the usual added on unit knocking your shins under the dash, but also better to have close at hand should the trailer ever start a waggle. Ours tracked straight and true. Hills are are no longer feared, thanks to the 6 speed automatic with the tow/haul feature, which, when engaged, holds gear ratios a little longer to avoid hunting between gears. Unseen below was a limited slip locking diff (mechanical, yes!), and four wheel drive, with 2High, Auto, 4High and 4 Low switchable from the dash. Braking, steering and handling added no drama either, and were difficult to fault. It sounds boring, and it was, which is just what towing should be, drama free.
Off-road, the 4H and 4 low got it up and down wooded trails and thru the muck with aplomb. Ride height is adequate, and overhangs are reasonable. Of course, it’s no Wrangler, but it’s more than capable for it’s intended uses. Beaches, deep snow, backroads and the like won’t slow it down. And the locking diff and traction control (defeat able) will help on slimy boat launching ramps. The biggest off-road fear will be tracking the mud inside the leather lined interior, where it’s tough to complain about your digs. Ours was the top LTZ trim level, and even though the design is now 5 years old, it’s still handsome and fresh looking. A list of missing features would be shorter than listing the included bells and whistles. A big hit for guys like us who tow was the rear view camera, which makes single handed trailer hookups a breeze. A camera in the tailgate handle surround is viewed on the Navigation system screen when reverse is selected. It’s one of those features that once you’ve used it, you bemoan having to hook up to a trailer without it, and we grew to count on it in day to day parking as well. The cabin was a pleasurable place to be, with the usual array of features such as satellite radio, MP3 and aux audio connectivity, heated (and cooled!) seats, and leather everywhere you normally touch. Extra options are limited to a moonroof and a rear seat entertainment system, and the usual array of wheel and tire options. Compared to our Volt tester, the navigation, climate and audio controls were well thought out and easy to use. The navigation system isn’t state of the art, but, it’s effective. Audio purists will be merely tolerant of the audio system, but all others will be quite satisfied, partly thanks to the trucks hushed interior. Only the exhaust note can break the hush, and then only when you ask for all of it’s might. And those who love the sound of a V8 will have a tough time not smiling, and will bury the accelerator now and then just for the aural treat.
On staff, I’m known as the truck guy, even though I resisted buying one for years. But, now I drive one nearly daily, and have been in quite a few. And it always strikes me that so many people have bought trucks over the years, and they really didn’t need one, or if they did, it was very infrequently. Some just want to make a statement. But in reality, this is the truck most people need. It’s capable, it’s comfortable, it’s easy to drive, and since the redesign in 2007, it’s actually pretty good looking. A parking attendant in Providence RI at a builders trade show singled it out after seeing trucks in and out of the lot all day, calling it handsome, and loved the pearl white paint of our tester.
But all of this goodness hasn’t been reflected in sales recently, which has slipped, and the inside story is that the 2013 model year will be it’s last. So, what went wrong? We think it’s a number of factors. Like gas mileage. Good luck breaking 20MPG, and the 15 MPG city means it costs a whopping $128 to fill the 32 gallon tank and travel less than 500 miles. Of course, that issue applies to most trucks. But the premium that Chevy charges for the Avalanche isn’t a pittance either. Our tester stickered at $55,285 including destination charges. Even with current $5000 cash back offers, it’s pretty steep. Shopping Chevrolet’s Silverado line shows an equivalent crew cab pickup version with similar features, size, options and towing capabilities is about $48,000, roughly $5000 less. Of course, you’re stuck with a 6 foot bed, so your plywood will hang out the back. And with no cover, it will get wet. Or stolen. Not to mention your wetsuit, or water skis or luggage getting wet or disappearing. With a full frame, handling will suffer a bit as well. And lacking the rear air suspension, the rear springs need to be stiffer, damaging the ride quality.
It’s a shame the Avalanche didn’t find more buyers, because other than price, it’s probably the right truck for most. But, people shopping for trucks often have specific needs, and want the truck that hits those needs with little compromise. The Avalanche is the American army knife. A jack of all trades, but a master of none, when many buyers want more for less. A pity, we think it’s a great all around do anything, and do nearly everything truck.
Vehicle type: Front Engine, Four wheel drive
Base price: $50,225
Price as tested (including destination): $55,285
Horsepower: Vortec 5.3L SFI V8, 320hp
Transmission: 6-Speed Automatic
RWRT’s 0 – 60 MPH: 8.3 seconds
EPA Rating MPG (city/hwy/comb): gad – 15/17/21; E85 – 11/13/16
Required Fuel: Regular unleaded or Ethanol (E85)
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