EXPERT REVIEW

Star-Telegram.com's view

The pickup truck came first, then the sport utility vehicle. One was great for hauling stuff around town, while the other was great for hauling people.

Then someone came up with the idea of combining the two, and vehicles such as the Chevrolet Avalanche were born.

Originally introduced in 2002, the Avalanche entered its second generation this year with the completely redesigned 2007 model, which went on sale in the spring. With the full-size Avalanche, and just before it, the introduction of the midsize Ford Explorer Sport Trac, the age of the sport-utility truck — or SUT — arrived. They were joined last year by the Honda Ridgeline, another midsize entry.

The Avalanche, while it is a truck underneath, is a vehicle that is elegant, comfortable and practical all in one package. It starts out as a sport-utility vehicle — in this instance, the ever-popular Chevrolet Suburban — and essentially is the same as the Suburban from the nose to the back of the middle seat, where it then becomes a pickup. Because the Suburban is a full-size SUV, the Avalanche has more room inside the cabin and in the rear bed than the Sport Trac, which is based on the midsize Explorer SUV. The Sport Trac itself has been completely redesigned for 2007.

The Avalanche’s pickup bed can be used to carry big and bulky items such as those ATVs, personal watercraft, motorcycles and mountain bikes.

But its versatility goes way beyond simply being able to load bulky objects in its bed.

Its usefulness stems from its unique “midgate” and “convert-a-cab” system, which give the user several options for hauling people, cargo or a mix of the two.

Similar in appearance to a tailgate, the midgate is at the heart of the system, which is shared with the Cadillac Escalade EXT. The EXT is an upscale version of the Avalanche with the styling and premium features of the Escalade (also completely redesigned for 2007).

Separating the second row of seats from the cargo bed, the midgate serves as the back wall of the cab when it’s up. But when it’s down, it opens the cab to the bed, allowing for more cargo space (with the back seat folded down out of the way), and even offering a bit of an open-air driving experience.

With the gate up, the Avalanche is a five- or six-passenger SUV with a 5-foot, 3-inch bed. But when lowered, the vehicle becomes a full-size, two- or three-passenger pickup with an 8-foot, 2-inch bed.

As before, the cargo box has a lockable top, allowing for secure hauling of cargo that can fit within the height of the bed. And with the midgate opened and stowed, and the rear seat folded, the lockable cargo area expands to a maximum of 101 cubic feet. For taller cargo, the removable rear window stores securely against the midgate to increase storage space. You can store cargo such as muddy mountain bikes with the tailgate closed, keeping them out of the passenger area.

The rear window easily lifts out to open that space to the rear, and there is an indentation in the lower section of the liftgate to hold the removed window. With the window stowed in the bottom of the liftgate, the entire gate can then be folded down. Starting price of the 2007 base LS model two-wheel-drive is $32,685 (including $900 freight) which is almost $2,000 less than the base price for the 2006 model. Our test model, the uplevel LT version with four-wheel drive, begins at $36,195, and can be optioned up into the upper $40,000s, as ours was. Total sticker on ours reached $47,730, including freight.

The lower base price is part of General Motors Corp.’s new value-pricing strategy, which aims to position vehicle list prices closer to the expected final transaction prices so consumers won’t expect large rebates.

In the past, GM has inflated the list prices of its vehicles to allow for the rebates consumers have gotten used to at their dealerships.

While the new Avalanche’s list prices are lower — by the same $2,000 or more across the entire model lineup — transaction prices are expected to be higher than for the previous year’s model. That’s because the vehicle is all-new and vastly improved, and rebates and discounts will be limited, GM said.

The 2007 Avalanche is built on GM’s new GM900 full-size truck chassis that already has spawned the redesigned ’07 Chevy Tahoe and Suburban, GMC Yukon and Yukon XL, and Cadillac Escalade/Escalade ESV (Suburban length)/and Escalade EXT.

The next generation of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickups, also using the GM900 architecture, will go on sale in December as 2007 models With the redesign, the Avalanche gets a wider track, lots of new features, and all-new styling.

The new exterior includes what Chevy calls a “bulging power-dome hood.” To dress up the vehicle, 20-inch polished-aluminum wheels are offered, and were included on our test vehicle as part of the $6,735 LTZ option package.

Of course, a lot more than the bigger wheels came with the package. It brought an entire array of premium features including leather seats; 12-way power/heated front bucket seats; power adjustable pedals; an upgraded audio system with six-disc CD changer and MP3 playback, as well as Bose premium speakers and XM satellite radio; a locking rear differential; a special Autoride suspension system; rain-sensing windshield wipers with heated washer fluid; dual-zone automatic climate control; universal garage/gate opener; rear parking assist; power folding outside mirrors with automatic dimming and integrated turn signals; side-curtain air bags for both rows of seating; and a luggage rack.

A new satellite navigation system ($2,145)is offered and was included on our test vehicle. With it, for an additional $195, came a backup camera system that puts a view of the area behind the truck on the seven-inch dash LCD screen when the transmission is in reverse. It allows the driver not only to see behind the vehicle while it is backing up, but also to back up and couple the hitch to a trailer without having someone outside to guide the driver.

Other extras on our vehicle included a rear DVD entertainment system ($1,295); power sliding glass sunroof ($995), a 4.10 ratio rear axle ($100); and a heavy-duty transmission cooling system ($95).

Inside, GM has upgraded the Avalanche with premium materials, including brushed aluminum and wood-grain trim. There is a larger center console and glove box, and increased head, hip, and leg room, front and rear.

Standard is StabiliTrak stability control with GM’s new rollover-protection technology.

GM said that as with the new Tahoe and Yukon, the Avalanche comes with engines that can operate on gasoline or a mixture of up to 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline (called E85). Ethanol is made from corn, and is being touted as a way to help reduce the United States’ dependence on foreign oil.

Four trim levels are available — LS, LT, LTZ and the Z71 off-road version. Rear- and four-wheel drive are offered at all trim levels.

The new Avalanche comes with a tailgate that can be locked or unlocked along with the doors using the remote control. The previous model had to be locked and unlocked with a key. The tailgate is spring-loaded to reduce the effort needed to open or close it, Chevy says.

Remote vehicle starting is standard on uplevel models and optional on others. The base engine is a new small-block V-8 that has more power than comparable engines in previous models, GM said.. It comes with the cylinder-deactivation system. Standard on two-wheel-drive models, it has 320 horsepower and 340 foot-pounds of torque.

A 5.3-liter aluminum-block V-8, standard on the four-wheel-drive Avalanche, is rated at 310 horsepower and 335 foot-pounds of torque. This is the engine included on our test model.

Also, a new all-aluminum 6.0-liter V-8 is offered, and it comes with both variable valve timing and Active Fuel Management. It’s rated at 366 horsepower and 380 foot pounds of torque.

A four-speed automatic transmission is used on all models.

The Avalanche with two-wheel drive can tow trailers weighing up to 8,000 pounds, while the four-wheel-drive model is limited to towing 7,800 pounds.

EPA fuel-economy ratings for our four-wheel-drive model with the aluminum 5.3-liter engine were 15 miles per gallon in the city and 20 on the highway.

2007 Chevrolet Avalanche

The package: Full-size, four-door, five-passenger, V-8 powered, rear- or four-wheel-drive sport utility pickup.
Highlights: Completely redesigned for 2007, this is the Chevrolet Suburban with the rear chopped off to make a small pickup bed where the third seat and cargo area of the Suburban would have been. A fancier version is marketed as the Cadillac Escalade EXT.
Disadvantages: Poor fuel economy for an everyday family/work vehicle; cargo bed has limited length, so is not practical for serious hauling; no V-6 model offered for better fuel economy; four-speed automatic transmission is dated — five- or six-speed would bring better fuel economy.
Engine: 5.3-liter V-8, 6.0-liter V-8.
Transmission: Four-speed automatic.
Power/torque: 320 horsepower/340 foot-pounds (5.3-liter); 366 horsepower/380 foot-pounds (6.0-liter).
Length: 221.3 inches.
Curb weight: 5,478-5,645 pounds.
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.
Cargo capacity: 54.3 cubic feet, expandable to 101 cubic feet with midgate removed and rear seat folded.
Trailer-towing capacity: 8,000 pounds (2WD); 7,800 pounds (4WD).
Fuel capacity/type: 31.5 gallons/unleaded regular (5.3-liter engine also runs on E85).
EPA fuel economy: 15 miles per gallon city/20 highway (4WD).
Major competitors: Ford Super Crew, Dodge Ram Quad Cab, Toyota Tundra Double Cab, Nissan Titan Crew Cab.
Base price: $31,965 (2WD LS model)/$34,965 (4WD LS model) plus $900 transportation.
Price as tested: $47,730, including transportation and options (4WD LT model).
On the Road rating: **** (four stars out of five)

G. Chambers Williams III is staff automotive columnist for the San Antonio Express-News and former transportation writer for the Star-Telegram. His automotive columns have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1995. Contact him at (210) 250-3236; chambers@star-telegram.com.

Prices shown are manufacturer’s suggested retail; actual selling price may vary due to manufacturer and/or dealer rebates, incentives and discounts, if any.

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