Sandy Trujillo was picnicking with her family in a parched riverbed in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park when 15 2002 Chevrolet Avalanches rumbled by. The 38-year-old mother of two from Valley Center dropped her peanut-butter sandwich, waved her arms and hollered for the last vehicle in line to "STOP, STOP, STOP!" "What is that thing?" demanded Trujillo, as her husband Al, a 43-year-old geologist, watched in amusement. We felt obliged to explain this Godzilla of a vehicle to the thunder-struck woman. So we pulled over. In many ways, the Trujillos are the ideal buyers for the Avalanche. Chevrolet's newest creation, an edgy, aggressive-looking spinoff of the Silverado truck, is really a vehicle for active families. Call it an SUT. It combines elements of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles into a new vehicle type dubbed "sport-utility truck" by the industry, and is similar in concept to the new Lincoln Blackwood. The Avalanche is being pitched by Chevrolet as the Ultimate Utility Vehicle, or UUV. Chevy says it shares 85 percent of its parts with the Suburban, which is also based on the Silverado. The Avalanche is already on sale in some parts of the country, but Michigan dealers won't get many vehicles until August. The new Chevrolet has what's called a "midgate" behind the second row of seats which can be used to reconfigure the vehicle from a six-passenger utility vehicle to a full-size pickup truck with an eight-foot cargo compartment. A base two-wheel-drive Avalanche starts at $30,965. A base four-wheel-drive model ranges in price from $33,965 to $38,000. The one we showed to the Trujillos had a sticker price of $37,663 and was decked out with everything from a $1,095 sunroof to an $835 Z71 off-road package that includes 17-inch aluminum wheels, a premium suspension, high-capacity air cleaner and rubber floor mats. The Avalanche, which is built in Silao, Mexico, comes with a 5.3-liter Vortec 5300 V-8 engine that makes 285 horsepower and 325 pounds-feet of torque. The Trujillos are in the market for a new vehicle to replace their 1987 Nissan 4x4 pickup, which they have customized in a very plain and homemade way with a five-gallon water cooler in the rear, a stove, a table on rollers and sleeping bags. But they've outgrown the Nissan. Karl, 5, and Eva, 2, are getting too big for the pickup's facing rear jumpseats. "All they do is kick each other and squirm for the whole ride," Sandy Trujillo said. "We need something new." The young family seems to fit the Avalanche demographics perfectly. Chevrolet is targeting 30- to 45-year-olds - mainly men - whose dual-income families make $80,000 a year. Says Avalanche brand manager Ed Schoener: "They don't look at a vehicle as a status symbol or my buddy, the pickup truck. They are challenge seekers who use their truck as a tool." The tool, in this case, would most likely be a sledgehammer. "The mos t significant design theme on the Avalanche was toughness," explained Tony Posawatz, Chevrolet assistant vehicle line executive. Designers sheathed the lower portion of the Avalanche with wraparound bumpers and light-charcoal cladding they call "body armor." The exaggerated wheel wells are squared off and expose some of the workings underneath the truck. The headlight stack on the front end has what Chevy executives call "evil eyebrows" - all part of a calculated effort to give the Avalanche an air of invincibility and intimidation. Outside, the Avalanche may have the personality of the WWF's Stone Cold Steve Austin. But in the cabin and behind the wheel, the Avalanche is very tame. In fact, it's so easy to drive and park that it's not one of the GM vehicles under consideration to get the new QuadraSteer all-wheel steering. Avalanche has the older-style recirculating-ball steering system, instead of the more modern and precise rack-and-pinion steering. Although it 130-inch wheelbase, the same as a Chevrolet Suburban, and weighs more than 5,400 pounds, it's not too difficult to handle. Like a traditional SUV, it gets dismal gas mileage, at 14 miles per gallon in the city and 18 mpg on highways. The most dominant interior feature of the Avalanche is the midgate. It's clever because it allows you to customize the vehicle to fit your needs. It makes the Avalanche feel like a terrific Tonka truck for grownups. If you want an open-air feeling, you can remove the Avalanche's rear window and stow it in a compartment molded into the midgate. With the rear seat folded, the midgate can be lowered to create more cargo space. All of these different functions can be accomplished by one person; women will find it just as easy to operate as men. And it requires no special tools, either. There are other delightful features, such as clever storage units located above the rear fenders. They even have drains, so you can fill them with ice and use them as coolers. There are two cupholders built into the tailgate. A three-piece rigid cargo cover is standard. The Avalanche team - a macho group comprised of outdoorsmen - says the cover can hold two deer. They have the photos to prove it. As we wrapped up our rambling discourse about the benefits of the Avalanche, we were surprised to find the Trujillos were not ready to ditch the old Nissan and run right out and buy the new Chevy. "We're simple people," said Sandy Trujillo, backing away from what has to be one of the most novel vehicles to ever invade her picnic grounds. "It's too big. It's too much truck for us. But it is pretty impressive."
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