2012 Chevrolet Avalanche Review

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Marty Padgett Marty Padgett Editorial Director
January 27, 2012

The showpiece of the 2012 Chevy Avalanche is the clever midgate, but it's also easy to drive, and has lots of useful storage hidden inside and out.

Full-size pickups stake their reputations on towing and payload--so what's the be made of a truck that blurs the line between truck bed and cabin? That's the question you have to ask when you consider the 2012 Chevrolet Avalanche, a derivative of GM's big pickups that offers a nearly unique solution to the dilemma of truck owners who don't need another vehicle, but sometimes need a more flexible pickup.

The 'Lanche was new in 2002, and changed along with the rest of GM's trucks in the 2007 model year. It's a truck in silhouette, but the big pillars behind the rear doors are the first clue that this isn't simply a four-door with a bed. Those pillars are the feature that distinguishes the Avalanche from the very similar Silverado and even the GMC Sierra--otherwise, it's nearly their identical twin, from the big split-grille front end to the stubby truck bed out back. Inside, when everything's in its resting state, the cabin could be confused for the ones in other GM trucks--either as a five-passenger truck with a wide console and nicely chosen materials and trim, or a more basic-looking six-passenger version with no console, and a plainer dash.

When it's in an altered state, the Avalanche swaps some of that interior space for pickup-bed capacity. It's simple: just lower the rear window, fold away the rear seats and flip some latches, and the cabin's rear wall flips down. That extends the Avalanche's otherwise abbreviated truck bed into something way more useful for the average contractor, since it grows from 5' 3" to 8' 2", and since the bed wall has a tough surface so it really can be used for truck-type hauling. The downside: the conversion leaves the cabin open to the elements. And yes, those rear seating positions go away, but even though you'll have mixed feelings on their departure (the rear seatback sits too upright for real comfort), you could run into some extreme first-world issues if you're trying to bring home a new bathroom vanity and in-laws. That's rare, though, and most of the time the Avalanche is the only solution for suburbanites stuck between SUVs and pickups and a lack of parking spaces. It's the Murphy bed of trucks--not for everyone, but for those few, the only truly workable solution, except for its near-twin, the scary-expensive Cadillac Escalade EXT.

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There's just one powertrain available in the 'Lanche, and it's one of the best offered in the GM truck lineup. The 310-horsepower, 5.3-liter V-8 comes with a six-speed automatic, and whether you choose rear-drive or all-wheel drive, it's a workhorse of a drivetrain, torquey, able, and pleasant to hear on the move. It's also outfitted with cylinder deactivation and flex-fuel capability, which give it a greener tinge than some of the engines from Toyota, Dodge and Nissan. Shifting duties are handled by a great six-speed automatic. The Avalanche drives as well as other GM trucks, its independent front suspension, well-sorted steering feel and well-damped ride earning the same kudos as the Silverado. There's an off-road Z71 package for those who need underbody protection and big knobby tires, too. The Avalanche can tow up to 8100 pounds and tote 1350 pounds of payload, putting it above the median in full-size trucks.

Crash-test scores have been pretty good, and the Avalanche can be fitted with rear parking sensors and a rearview camera, as well as a blind-spot monitor. Visibility can be an issue, because of those thick pillars, so those features come with our recommendation.

The basic Avalanche, the LS, is intended more for the work crowd though it's quite nicely outfitted. It has standard power windows, locks and mirrors; keyless entry; a power driver seat; an AM/FM/XM/CD player with MP3 capability; a USB port; and steering-wheel audio controls. LT and LTZ features add on some more luxury features from a list including a navigation system; Bluetooth; Bose audio; leather seats; power-adjustable pedals; remote start; and ventilation for the front seats.
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2012 Chevrolet Avalanche

Styling

There's a rich-looking interior hiding behind the Chevy Avalanche's tough-guy sheetmetal.

A tough Transformer of a truck, the Chevy Avalanche looks like every other pickup truck, from some angles, but from the rear pillars it's unmistakable.

Today's Avalanche was new in 2007, and hasn't changed much since then. That's the year GM changed its outlook, stripping off much of the plastic body cladding that had left the first-generation truck looking vaguely cheap and insubstantial. Now, all the attention focused on the 'Lanche goes to the rear of the doors, where a pair of buttresses almost look like a law-enforcement roll bar. They're there to add structural rigidity to the Avalanche, in the spot where the usual twin reinforcements of bed wall and cab wall would give ordinary trucks enough strength to keep from twisting too much. A tweak to the grille here, a little bolder choice in color there, and the Avalanche gets a distinct personality though it's more than 90 percent identical to the Chevy Silverado. In the balance you'd have to call it a successful design--especially if you took a look at the awkward, stubby-looking Honda Ridgeline, which doesn't even get the useful Midgate to go with its very thick roofline.

Inside the 'Lanche, the well-conceived six- and five-passenger versions get distinct interiors. The dash is fairly curvy for such a large, utilitarian vehicle; it's quite carlike. In the five-passenger version, there's a wide center console trimmed with woodgrain plastic. Six-person versions have a higher, plainer dash. The door panels echo the fenders, and the gauges are big and clearly laid out, with minimal fuss.
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2012 Chevrolet Avalanche

Performance

Handling and acceleration are quite good by truck standards, but no one will ever confuse a Chevy Avalanche for a quick-footed compact.

Over the years, GM has pared down the powertrain offerings in some of its SUVs and trucks. But while you can still choose from a range of sixes and eights in the traditional pickups, the nontraditional Avalanche is offered in just one powertrain configuration.

The Avalanche is fitted with what's arguably the best overall engine and transmission combination of all the "GMT900" vehicles (Silverado, Tahoe, Suburban, etc.). It's the 5.3-liter V-8, paired to a six-speed automatic, with a choice of rear- or four-wheel drive.

While there's only a choice of driven wheels, there's not much missing from this alterna-truck. The V-8 grants the 'Lanche good, if not great, acceleration thanks to its ratings of 310 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque. It's a workhorse powertrain, pleasantly torquey and with a throbby engine note just off idle. With a full complement of six passengers, a bed full of payload and a trailer towed off the tail, the engine could be taxed--but we haven't experienced anything like max capability. The engine also is flex-fuel capable, and has cylinder deactivation, which explains very good fuel economy numbers of 15/21 mpg, no matter if you've opted for four-wheel drive or not.

Like its GM truck cohorts, the Avalanche has a capable chassis, with an independent front suspension, well-sorted steering feel and good ride damping. Though the Ram 1500 is still one of the best for ride quality, and Ford's F-150 and its new electronic power steering is zingy, the Avalanche feels predictable and lively, by truck standards. It's bulky for sure, and makes for a tight squeeze in some spots, but it's fairly maneuverable.

Chevy offers a Z71 off-road package that beefs up the running gear for trailblazing; the package brings bigger wheels and tires and a more punishing ride quality.

The Avalanche tows up to 8,100 pounds and hauls up to 1,350 pounds of payload.

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2012 Chevrolet Avalanche

Comfort & Quality

The Avalanche is the only truck on earth that can go from six-seat SUV to full-size pickup--though it loses a closed, two-row cabin in the process.

For the most part, the Chevy Avalanche has a cabin just like the ones you'd find in a four-door Silverado, pretty similar as well to the one in the Chevy Tahoe SUV. It shares their generally high grade of trim and comfortable front seats. But when attention shifts to the back seat, and the truck bed, all similarities end.

There aren't many drivers that will be too large or too tall to find a comfortable seat inside the Avalanche. Available as a six- or five-seater, it's as capacious as most any full-size truck needs to be, with good head and leg room. Six-passenger versions have a broad dash with no center console, which opens up leg room completely while also offering a fold-down armrest that helps passengers brace themselves--there's not much bolstering to hold them in place. Five-seat versions have a wide center console with all kinds of storage molded in and hidden under lids and covers. There's room for a laptop inside the console bin, and everything from mobile phones to soda bottles get extra-large niches built into the cabin.

The back seat holds three adults across, when the Avalanche sits in enclosed form. Like other GM trucks, the back seat sits a little to close to vertical for true comfort, and unlike the Ram or F-150, the floor isn't flat.

If you're absolutely in need of carrying five or more passengers along with cargo, the Silverado will be a better choice. But if those plans can change--and need to on a moment's notice--the Avalanche has a nifty load gate cut into the wall behind the back seats. Called the Midgate, the panel locks into place to preserve an SUV-like cabin, but folds down to extend the otherwise short bed. Lower the glass and flip down the midgate, and the Avalanche's rear seats turn into more bed space--the bed lengthens from 5' 3" to 8' 2", giving it something more akin to full-size pickup capacity. It's a temporary, occasional solution, since there's no way to enclose the cabin at that point, to keep out rain or snow or even wind.

For more secure storage, the Avalanche's rear fenders have locking bins, but there's no real place for tools to live--another dividing line between full-size, full-time duty and the kind of weekend duty the Avalanche really excels at.

Like GM's other pickups, the Avalanche got serious about comfort and quality when it was redesigned four model years ago. The interior's still loaded with plastic, but it's of the high-quality kind, and it's put together with more care than you might see in the basic work-truck versions of the Silverado. Big gauges and buttons are glove-friendly, and the Avalanche only lets in lots of noise when the midgate is lowered.

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2012 Chevrolet Avalanche

Safety

Crash-test scores are lacking, and we recommend any Avalanche buyer opt for the parking sensors and rearview camera.

Since the major change to both crash-test ratings systems, the Avalanche has been left out in the cold.

It's performed well over the years, but the Avalanche has no official crash-test scores to its credit now. Both agencies--the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)--adjusted their testing regimens and formulas for the 2011 model year, and neither has re-tested the Avalanche, likely because it's more than halfway through its current model cycle.

It's difficult even to look at the similar GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado for any relevant data, because the Avalanche is so distinct from those vehicles in terms of side-impact strength--thanks to its clever Midgate.

We're giving the 'Lanche its relatively high score because it's performed well in the past, and continues to add safety technology. The usual airbags and stability control are also programmed to behave more actively in a rollover accident, and GM throws in free OnStar hardware with emergency notification, with an option to extend other infotainment services on a monthly subscription.

Safety options on the 2011 Avalanche include a rearview camera and rear parking sensors; a blind-spot warning system; and an integrated brake controller for towing systems. The camera and sensors are recommended, since the truck's high haunches can make rearward visibility a major issue in parking lots.
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2012 Chevrolet Avalanche

Features

Like GM's other big trucks, the Avalanche has a wide range of features, some for off-roading, some for pure luxury.

With virtually no changes for the 2012 model year, the Chevy Avalanche continues to cover a pretty wide set of driving needs with its standard and available features.

With three basic trim levels and some option packages, the Avalanche can venture off-road as easily as it can absorb long-distance trips, with features like standard keyless entry; a power driver seat; power mirrors, locks, and windows; and an AM/FM/CD player with a USB port, steering-wheel audio controls, and MP3 playback. That's for the basic LS model: LT and LTZ trims can be fitted with features like Bluetooth; Bose audio; power-adjustable pedals; ventilated front seats; a navigation system; and remote start.

There's also a Z71 package of recovery hooks, fog lamps, and distinctive trim, which give the Avalanche very good off-road capability.

All Avalanches get the Midgate that expands the pickup bed into the cabin, and all get a three-piece locking cargo cover, nonslip bed mats, and a locking compartment in each rear fender.

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2012 Chevrolet Avalanche

Fuel Economy

In the grander scheme not so green, the Avalanche is good on gas in a big-truck way.

It comes in just one drivetrain configuration, and since that's one of GM's most efficient truck pieces, the Chevy Avalanche does better than most full-sizers on gas.

The EPA rates it at a relatively miserly 15/21 mpg rating. Of course the Avalanche isn't strictly a full-size truck, but against the most efficient, latest Ford F-150s, it almost keeps up--while it bests trucks like the Tundra, Titan and Ram 1500.

Chevrolet hasn't announced any plans to add diesel or hybrid technology to the Avalanche, though both drivetrain options exist within its truck lineup.

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7.8
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Styling 7.0
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