We've finished our drive across the country last week with a new Chevy Avalanche with a full load of college dorm furniture, luggage, and a lot of clothing. Our final day on the road was spent running across the board of Utah, touching a sliver of Arizona, heading deep into the Nevada desert to Las Vegas, and finally traversing the entire state of California before we made it to our final destination near Los Angeles.
If you've never made the run going South on I-15 from Salt Lake City in to Southern California, you are missing some spectacular scenery. Some of our favorite stretches along this long drive were through the Virgin River Gorge and across the Nevada desert.
In all, we drove 2937 miles before we pulled into our driveway after six tanks of gas, averaging 17.85 mpg, consuming 165.5 gallons of fuel, and making about 490 miles between fillups. The average cost of our fillups was $110.40 and we typically ran the tank down to zero miles left as we could (according to our fuel range on-board calculator). We should note, even with the computer telling us we had no more miles to drive before running out of fuel, we typically had at least four more gallons in the tank. The closest we got to running the tank completely empty (thank you 31 gallon tank) was using just over 28 gallons. We took possession of the truck with just over 4000 miles on the odometer and turned it back in to GM with just under 8000. Thanks to the on-board computers and sensors and information prompts, were able to monitor tire pressures, trans temperature, fuel range, engine hours, as well as several other data points along the trip.
Those are the hard numbers, but living with the Avalanche for this kind of trip meant we learned quite a few interesting details about the truck as well. To begin, we think it's a shame a "hybrid" like this (in the truest sense of the word) can't find a way to survive. The Avalanche looks like the off-spring of a pickup truck (in looks) and SUV (in platform), yet the storage and versatility benefits alone should make the right choice for a substantial number of buyers. We had just under about 1000 pounds of stuff in the bed, safely protected under the hard tonneau cover, with the exterior storage boxes stuffed as well, and all of our passengers were comfortably isolated from all that gear up front. The only gear we had with us in our four-passenger cabin were our overnight clothes. And knowing we had the option to drop the midgate at anytime to create even more storage capacity was a nice backup to have.
From the passenger seat, I was told the seats were quite comfortable and the heating and cooling capabilities were wonderful to have as our route included the hot deserts of the Southwest as well as a few snow flurries in Colorado. Also, they were very easy to adjust, even for someone who needed to turn them into a sleeping lounge (college students don't seem to do very well before 10:00 AM).
In regards to fuel economy, we did have several stretches where we lowered our average highway speeds closer to 65 and 70 mph and were getting around 20 mpg (according to the computer), but it was uncomfortable–even the big rigs were passing us. Our average speeds on the big highways were closer to 75 and 80 mph (where legal limits allowed) which certainly cut into our mpg numbers. As to the AFM cylinder deactivation feature, again, according to the on-board computer, it wasn't of much use when cruising above 73 mph, which thanks to our 3.42:1 gears, loafed along at 1400 rpms. Under that speed, though, cylinder deactivation was quite active in helping stretch our mileage. The system is relatively invisible, meaning it is impossible to detect when the fuel is shut off and running in "V-4" mode. However, only when the sleeping injectors are re-ignited, spraying fuel into the cylinders, can a sensitive driver feel the slight shudder from V-4 to V-8.
The overall ride on our Avy was tremendous over the paved highways and interstates, due in large part to the Autoride air-suspension system (standard on the LTZ model). The system kept the 20-inch wheels and low-profile street tires running smooth and under control for the duration of the trip. However, we should note that, after this trip, we did get a chance to take Avalanche over a 12-mile stretch of mountainous dirt road above Flagstaff, Arizona and found the Autoride system quite challenged when trying to control the wheel and tire combination. The system is clearly biased to on-pavement situations which, we assume, should be a matter of software progamming. Still, our guess is the bigger wheel option has got to put quite a bit of extra weight at each corner. Even slowing to 20 and 25 mph, the suspension had trouble keeping the corners quiet.
We liked that the Avalanche has a transfer case with an all-wheel drive setting that allows us to quickly and seamlessly switch from rear-wheel-drive-only to putting available grip to all four tires. There were several isolated downpours we ran into early in the trip that cut visibility and our speeds down dramatically, which also had us reaching for the dial to switch to AWD. The dial hides on the left side of the dash, behind the steering column; we think it would be much easier to access on the right side, closer to the right hand and the shifter column. In the past, GM has tried to create separation between their pickups and SUV by locating different switches and info buttons in different locations. It's our hope they don't continue that design practice and try to make the full lineup more harmonious. We'll find out pretty soon.
A couple things did bother us about the interior and amenities. Although there seems to be plenty of 12-volt plug-in receptacles (and thankfully we brought our own plug-in inverter), it all seems a bit dated when dealing with laptops, iPad, cell phones, and postage-stamp-sized music libraries. To plug in our phone for charging, we had to open the center console and run the cable over the storage box, which felt like it was being pinched. A easy to see and access inverter plug, USB port, and head-unit interface plugs would be huge improvements.
With the changes both Ford and Ram Truck have made to their navi screens and technology centers (and full interiors), it's almost painful to keep seeing what GM still has. The nav system, in particular, is quite complicated, with the same dial switches doing different duties depending on what screen you have on display. So, if you happen to want to change the radio station when looking at your nav-screen location, the right-side dial will not help–it only changes the navi magnification. You have to change to a completely different music screen to get the dial to adjust the channel. We never did get use to that.
In the end, there was plenty like about the Chevy Avalanche and it was the right tool for the work (fun) we had to get done. Whether there really is a large enough customer-base who understands and needs a vehicle that straddles the worlds between pickup and SUV seems to have been answered by the marketplace. Gone is the Subaru Brat; gone is the Ford Explorer Sport Trac; gone is the Hummer SUT; and now going is the Chevy Avalanche (the 2013 model will be the last). The only one to remain in this category looks to be the Honda Ridgeline; that is unless Fiat or Scion or some other creative small-car maker wants to offer a smaller version of something like Toyota's A-BAT concept. There have certainly been plenty of concept vehicles in this category that haven't been able to build the necessary momentum, but we're hoping that changes.
For now, we have no doubt there are plenty of pickups (and their owners) out there just waiting to take their big multi-state tour or cross-country road trip. We'd highly recommend it, even if you're not doing a road test on a vehicle headed to retirement. Even with climbing fuel prices, a trip in the family pickup might still be a less expensive option than a long plane ride, family hotel bills, and amusement park expenses. Think about doing one of these trips yourself, and let us know how it turned out.