Posted: 04/25/07 03:55 PM
2007 Chevrolet Avalanche
The Weird Brother Grows Up
By Edward A. Sanchez
Photography: Edward A. Sanchez
Nearly every family has one - the one misfit character who dances to the beat of his own drummer - you know, the middle brother who has embraced the Goth look with white face makeup, black nail polish and lipstick, a monochromatic black wardrobe, and angry speed-metal. But, more often than not, the misfit sibling grows out of their "weird" stage and becomes somewhat more mainstream. Maybe they still have a few unique quirks but by external appearances are relatively "normal."
Now in its second generation, Chevy's Avalanche has undergone a similar transformation. The first-generation resembled a homely lovechild between a Pontiac Aztek and a Silverado Crew Cab. Panned by the critics for the liberal use of plastic cladding, Chevy later offered a "bare" version of the Avalanche with unadorned fenders and doors halfway through its production cycle. For the newest version, Chevy has almost completely abandoned the compulsion to make the Avalanche a stylistic standout, for better or for worse. The overall lines closely resemble the new Tahoe and Suburban. The flying buttress C-pillar supports remain, but for all intents and purposes, the new model looks like a Suburban with its back half chopped off.
Our tester was the fully decked-out LTZ trim level, meaning it had leather, navigation, XM, a DVD player, memory seats, power adjustable pedals, and just about every other item that could conceivably be checked on the options sheet. Equipped as such, it rolls off the showroom floor for a hefty $47,730. But, the case could be made that you're really getting two vehicles in one: stretched-out five-passenger SUV comfort and longbed cargo utility, without the Titanic-like length of a conventional longbed Crew Cab. In terms of noise, vibration, and harshness, not only is the new Avalanche a giant leap forward from its predecessor, it's also subjectively the most refined of the new GMT-900 SUVs. A lot of bystanders asked, "Doesn't it leak or have a lot of wind noise?" It seems GM's experience in refining the Avalanche's formula has paid off in a tight and rattle- free design. With the midgate closed, there is nary a squeak, rattle, or whistle to be heard. Even with the midgate wide-open, hauling a 4x8-foot sheet of plywood, the cabin is still remarkably isolated from road and wind noise.
Road, engine, and exhaust noise are also more muted than in the Tahoe, Yukon, and even the Escalade. Interestingly, the Avalanche, and its first cousin, the Escalade EXT, are assembled south of the border in Silao, Mexico, whereas the short and long-wheelbase conventional SUV derivatives are bolted together in Arlington, Texas. It appears "Made in Mexico" is no longer the stigma it once was. The other GMT-900 SUVs we've tested also had ever-so-subtle interior squeaks, rattles, and second-order harmonics. The Avalanche did not exhibit any such symptoms. Whether we got a particularly well-assembled example, or the Mexican plant has raised the bar for assembly quality, we don't know, but we sure came away impressed with our tester.
At first glance, the design and function of the midgate concept seems hopelessly clunky. The bed is covered by three hard plastic tonneau panels that have to be individually removed to open up the bed area. The rear window must be manually removed and stowed on the backside of the midgate. With GM's power-folding second-row seats on the SUVs, it's surprising the Avalanche doesn't employ more automation with its cargo stowage system. However, upon closer examination, it's evident why GM stuck with its simple, manual modular system. Because the midgate can be lowered independently of the rear glass, the Avalanche allows for a completely enclosed cargo area with the midgate down and the bed panels in place. If the rear window simply lowered into the midgate, this functionality wouldn't be available. And as cool as a roll-top power tonneau would be, the mechanism would probably take up more room and add more complication than it would realistically add to utility and functionality. So, even though the cargo system requires a certain amount of fiddling, it still gets an A for overall versatility.
We've complained about the newest 5.3L Vortec's relative lack of low-end torque in the SUVs, and we feel the same way with the Avalanche. Even with an optional 4.10 axle ratio, the Avalanche doesn't exactly leap off the line. It's not gutless, by any means, and high-rpm power is plentiful. But, trucks have traditionally been characterized by beefy low-end torque, and the Avalanche could use a little more. The Avalanche's portly 5,645-pound curb weight probably dampens some of the engine's enthusiasm as well. Later in the model year, Chevy will offer a 6.0L version of the Vortec with 355 hp and a more substantial 380 lb-ft of torque in the Avalanche to address the shortage of low-end grunt.
Unfortunately, the short axle ratio took its toll on mileage, with our tester returning a thirsty 11.6 observed average mpg during its stay. However, the upside is a more confident cruising pace with the engine turning in the 2,200- to 2,500-rpm range at highway speeds, reducing kickdowns for all but the most aggressive passing maneuvers. If garage space or budget are considerations for you, and you need the room of an SUV with the occasional utility of a longbed truck for weekend projects, the Avalanche makes perfect sense. In our week of living with it, we found it to be a totally workable compromise that's both family friendly and capable of fullsize truck duty when needed.
Some people need the full-blown utility and hose-it-out ruggedness of a longbed work truck. Others need a third row of seating. For them, Chevy offers the Silverado HD and the Suburban. For those who want a little bit of both but don't really need either 100 percent of the time, there's the Avalanche. Who would have thought the homely misfit would spawn so many imitators? Ford launched the Explorer Sport Trac, and Honda recently came out with the Ridgeline. But, GM is alone in offering it on a fullsize truck platform and is the only one with the innovative midgate. Will similar models follow? Only time will tell. But, for now, it seems GM has a lock on this unique market niche.
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