Not too long ago, Chevrolet engineers went snowshoeing in Aspen, Colo., with a group of designers and athletes from The North Face, the San Leandro, Calif. maker of rugged outdoor gear and apparel. On the challenging trek, they bonded and brainstormed about co-creating the ultimate outdoor vehicle.

"It would be pretty cool," said Tony Posawatz, assistant vehicle line executive on the 2002 Chevrolet Avalanche, who attended the unusual business gathering. The group's fantasy vehicle "would have things like a built-in bug zapper. It would have a satellite dish for global positioning out in the woods. There would be an aerodynamic tent that stays attached to the back, even at speeds of 80 miles an hour."

Those flights of fancy have yet to make it beyond the middle-of-the-woods talking phase. In the meantime, Chevrolet and the outdoor supplier came up with The North Face edition of the Avalanche, a new crossover that converts from a six-passenger sport-utility vehicle to a full-size pickup.

Chevrolet has had links with non-automotive firms in the past, from Ducks Unlimited to GT Bicycles, but this is one of the first efforts in recent memory to result in the development of an actual product, according to Posawatz. The North Face had turned down offers from other automakers to partner in the past. But they jumped at the chance to work on the Avalanche, because they were included two years ago during the design process, when they could have a greater influence on the end product. Both say they hope the Avalanche is the beginning of a long relationship.

"We expect there to be more collaborations with The North Face in the future," Posawatz predicted.

Adds Victoria Hernandez, director of brand management for The North Face: "It's a natural fit and helps us to reach a broader audience than we would reach with our own marketing."

The North Face Avalanche is the latest in a string of so-called affinity marketing vehicles that seem to be infiltrating the automotive marketplace. Often, outdoor outfitters are the most natural partners for the makers of SUVs and trucks. Ford was one of the first to capitalize on this trend in the 1990s, with offerings like the popular Eddie Bauer edition of the Ford Explorer. Chrysler followed suit with an Orvis model of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Apparel makers are another favorite partner. Witness the Nautica version of the Mercury Villager minivan. More recently, Japanese automaker Subaru debuted a 2001 L.L. Bean edition Outback wagon, linking up with the Maine outdoor retailer.

But there are unexpected pairings, too. Bugs Bunny is featured prominently in the Warner Brothers edition of the Chevrolet Venture minivan, which offers families a built-in video entertainment system. Lexus linked up with leather-goods manufacturer Coach to create the latest in a series of special-edition ES 300 sedans. In the 1980s, Chrysler had a similar arrangement with Mark Cross. M ore recently, Lincoln unveiled the $58,800 Neiman Marcus Edition of its all-new 2002 Blackwood luxury truck. Customers will be able to order the special-edition Blackwood starting on May 4. The special-edition Blackwood features headrests adorned with the Neiman Marcus logo and entertainment elements like a built-in DVD player with Panasonic wide-screen monitor.

"That one in particular takes excessiveness to the limit - in a fun way," said Jeff Schuster, director of North American forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates in Troy. "You take an upscale truck and you put an upscale retail image with it. It creates a buzz for both brands. But the brands must complement each other. You wouldn't want a Target edition Blackwood. It's not the right image."

Matchmaking between automakers and retail brands is a trend that is only just beginning. To make it work, the two audiences must be similar, say experts inside and outside the auto industry. If the alliance works, it exp the consumer base for both brands. Because of their money-making potential, the pairings are likely to continue.

"Consumers will see more of their favorite brands linked up with vehicles in the future," said Schuster. "There's a move to market more toward individuals, as opposed to just selling mass-production vehicles. Co-branding is one way to achieve this, although it does command a premium price tag."

The 2002 Ford Explorer XLT 4WD is priced at $29,745, while the Eddie Bauer version of the same vehicle retails for $34,055. A base 2001 Lexus ES 300 has a $31,395 sticker price. The Coach edition costs another $3,000 on top of that and adds upscale items like a Coach duffel bag, Coach logos inside the cabin, plus perforated-leather seats and bird's-eye maple trim. A base Subaru Outback wagon starts at $22,895. We tested the L.L. Bean edition with a $29,990 price tag and a new 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine. L.L. Bean logos are splashed all over the wagon, from the seats to the fenders and floor mats. It also has luxury amenities like an eight-way power driver's seat, two-tone leather-trimmed upholstery and a security system. There's plenty of attention to branding inside the Outback, but we were disappointed that at least one critical feature was overlooked. If the front passenger flips down her visor, it hits and jars the rear-view mirror - a distressing situation for the driver. We loved the looks of the L.L. Bean edition, but wondered how a wart like the errant visor got by Subaru and the L.L. Bean people. As Schuster warned, we were hard pressed to find any bargains among the co-branded vehicles we checked.

A base four-wheel-drive Avalanche starts at $33,965. The North Face Avalanche is priced at $37,465. Granted, it does have some unusual touches. The special-edition Avalanche comes with an exclusive sage green exterior and a cabin that is decked out with The North Face logo everywhere, from the white instrument cluster to the floor mats and green-and-black seats. Also included are two day packs that hook onto the backs of the front seats, plus two waterproof duffel bags that the retailer made exclusively for Chevy. An engine-block heater and standard four-wheel drive are part of The North Face package, along with a premium off-road suspension and a high-capacity air filter. Chevrolet says this special edition will be available by August. Like the snowshoeing partners, we did some brainstorming of our own.

Anyone up for a Godiva Edition Saturn?