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Personal Finance > Autos
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Avalanche: Great truck, too plastic
graphic January 18, 2002: 1:07 p.m. ET

If the new Chevy convert-a-truck looked a little better, it might be perfect.
By Jerry Edgerton
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The Chevrolet Avalanche has put General Motors far out ahead in the race for a genuine SUV/pickup hybrid.

Ford got to market first with its Explorer Sport-Trac. But while well-executed, the Explorer's puny bed will barely let you fit in more than a few bags of fertilizer and is too small even for a mountain bike. The new-this-year luxury Lincoln Blackwood pickup, adapted from the Navigator SUV, suffers the same short-bed problem. But the Avalanche lets you haul an 8-foot sheet of plywood, a big ladder or about anything else owners of regular full-size pickups can tote around.

With its power, roominess, comfort, and amazingly clever design, the Avalanche covers a lot of bases. It carries passengers in comfort, like a sport/utility vehicle. And it lets you fold down the back seats and create a full-sized pickup bed for serious hauling. The trouble is, I just can't get past all that gray plastic that seems to be growing on the sides like kudzu. Too bad, really. This is an almost perfect truck badly in need of some design help.

To get that full-sized pickup bed, just remove and stow the rear glass, fold down the seats and lower the "midgate" (the part between the bed and the passenger cabin). GM already has converted the Avalanche technology for its own luxury SUV-pickup, the Cadillac Escalade EXT.

Even though I'm not crazy about its looks, the Avalanche clearly has charisma. At a mall near Tampa, Fla., a woman about 60 rushed up to ask: "How do you like the Avalanche? We just traded in our Cadillac for an Avalanche and we love it." At a nearby supermarket, a teen-aged bag boy also was love-struck: "That's an awesome truck." Not a bad recommendation.

Styling

The basic shape, with the big wheel wells and bulging fenders, is attractive. My problem is just all that plastic, which is gray no matter what color paint you choose. My white with gray test truck wasn't bad, and the cladding looks the least objectionable on the pewter color, where the paint matches the plastic. But with the orange paint, it looks really awful.

Now, we're not talking here about a stylistic disaster like the Pontiac Aztek -- GM's bold adventure in plastic-clad hideousness. And the Avalanche look could improve a lot with just a little restraint -- cutting the 18-inch-wide plastic strip in half, for instance. Then they could take the cladding off the bumpers and just use it as accent on the wheel wells.

Now that GM has made a U-turn in its design management, maybe product czar Bob Lutz can just tell his underlings to clean up the Avalanche look.

Power

The Avalanche is adapted mechanically from Chevrolet's big Suburban SUV and, even in its lightest trim, weighs a pretty hefty 5,400 pounds. But the 5.3-liter, 285 horsepower V8 engine provides the punch to move all that bulk. In a day's drive north of Tampa, the Avalanche gave me plenty of power whether maneuvering through two-lane roads in open country or passing in traffic through four-lane suburban sprawl. My test truck was the 1500. the model most drivers would buy. The 2500 -- more likely for contractors or other business users -- has an 8.3 liter, 340-horsepower V8. The Avalanche acceleration is more than adequate. When you hit the gas, it takes right off. Of course, with an engine that big, the gas mileage is tiny. The EPA rating is 14 mpg in city driving and 18 mpg on the highway.

Handling

I pushed the Avalanche through some twisting back roads to see how it handled the turns. Moving through switchback curves amid horse farms and orange groves, it was quite sprightly for such a big truck (18.4 feet long). Not only did it handle the curves well, I got none of that queasy, tippy feeling that hard turns in an SUV can sometimes produce.

Although good on the open road, the Avalanche is less responsive in tight parking spaces or when doing U-turns. (Its turning circle is 43 feet, compared with 37 feet for a Ford Explorer SUV.) That lack of agility combined with limited rear visibility make backing out of parking spaces a white-knuckle adventure. For those who like to do their driving in the rocks and mud, the Avalanche does offer four-wheel drive. But the version I tested was a street-oriented two-wheel drive model.

Ride and comfort

Independent front suspension and a rear stabilizer bar help deliver a smooth highway ride. Front bucket seats with power adjustments and a minivan-style fold-down armrest make the Avalanche a comfortable place to spend long trips. Rear seats offer plenty of leg room, as well. When equipped with running boards, as my test vehicle was, the Avalanche is easy to enter and exit despite its high stance. The center console has commodious storage, with one big bin, two cup holders and three other small niches for items you need to keep handy while you're on the road.

Cargo capacity

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As I said, this is one serious hauler when you open the pickup bed. Contrary to my expectations, taking out the back window and folding down the midgate proved easier than removing the three-piece cargo cover. Working together, my neighbor and I folded the midgate in about two minutes, but it took another seven minutes or so to remove the cargo cover. I probably could have done it alone but it was a lot easier with help. It's unwieldy but I'm sure I could learn to handle it with practice. The hard cargo cover with all clamps in place provides a secure, locked space for whatever you might carry -- a significant lack in most pickups. Open-midgate hauling may have one drawback: In blowing rain or snow, the rear compartment seems likely to get soaked since the rear is totally open to the air.

Safety

The Avalanche has not yet been crash-tested by the federal government. However, the Suburban it derives from gets four stars out of five in front-end crash tests. And the Avalanche has some valuable safety features, including side air bags and side-strengthening beams to protect occupants in side-impact accidents. Like all GM vehicles, the Avalanche has daytime running lights.

Bottom line

In traffic, on back roads, or driving down for lunch on the sponge docks in Tarpon Springs, Fla., the Avalanche felt comfortable, fun and powerful. Those are the reasons many people buy sport/utilities. And when it came time to haul stuff, the Avalanche was highly useful with an almost-magical conversion to a long-bed pickup. The looks bother me, but strong sales indicate that many buyers don't agree. The two-wheel drive Avalanche 1500 carries a list price of $30,465 before any options are added, but a good negotiator should be able to get it for about $27,860 or about $1200 over dealer's invoice price. The four-wheel drive version lists for $33,465-with a target price around $30,600. graphic





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