by Phil Berg
You review the '02 Avalanche
The first thing you think as you approach the new Chevrolet Avalanche is that it’s just a four-door pickup, perhaps based on the ubiquitous full-size Chevy Silverado. It’s got a pickup bed, and it’s got four doors, á la Ford’s F150 or Dodge’s Ram full-size crew cabs. So what’s all the hype about? Of course it can do everything; it’s a monster.
Trust us. It’s not that simple. Peel back some of the skin and you’ll notice that the Avalanche is actually a Suburban underneath, not a pickup. That means it has a full body, not a cab and separate bed, which is how pickups are made. Is that important?
Chevy a self-professed trendsetter
What it means is the bed can be made weather-tight to the cab. So you can use the bed and cab separately or connected, and you can use both spaces—bed and cab—for indoor stuff, and for stuff bigger than would fit in either space alone. This ability was key in the development of the Avalanche. It meant Chevy could add a fifth door, called a “midgate,” between the bed and the cab, without resorting to a big rubber gasket like you’ll find surrounding the doors of two Amtrak cars mated together. Chevy believes that Ford and Dodge will follow suit: “We figure they’re going to do the same thing,” says Tony Posawitz, assistant vehicle line executive. “Our competitors will have to do all of the same work.”
Posawitz’s statement hints that the execution of the midgate is not as simple as adding a tailgate and window, like you’ll find on the back of any station wagon, onto the back of a pickup cab. First, there’s no convenient place for the midgate to go when you fold it down. Chevy opted for flop-forward rear seats in the Avalanche cab, under which the midgate would fold forward and hide. To save the weight, space and complexity of a motorized window, the rear glass must be removed by hand, but can be left in place when the midgate is folded forward.
2002 Chevrolet Avalanche
The midgate is made of a sheet-molded-compound, a lightweight plastic. There’s also a crossbar between the midgate and the rear window, which holds the glass up while the midgate is folded down. This allows loading long things into the bed and having them extend into the cab, while keeping the weather protection of the in-place rear window. Cover the bed with Chevy’s special aluminum-and-foam honeycomb panels, and the whole inside area of the cab and bed combination remains weather-tight.
2002 Chevrolet Avalanche bed
A hauler with Suburban roots
Chevy chose the Suburban as the Avalanche platform—instead of the trimmer TrailBlazer—because it is the only SUV Chevy has that can hold a four-foot by eight-foot sheet of building material inside. The Avalanche will hold four-by-eight panels with the midgate open, which reduces seating capacity to three in front. With all six seats occupied, the Avalanche’s bed shrinks to five feet, three inches long.
2002 Chevrolet Avalanche
Avalanche is built like a Suburban, on the Suburban assembly line in Silao, Mexico, and shares about 85 percent of its parts with the Suburban, says Chevy. “We took a scalpel and cut the roof behind the C-pillar,” explains Terry Woychowski, chief engineer for the Avalanche.
The drivetrain on the standard Avalanche is the 5.3-liter, 285-hp V-8 and four-speed automatic of the Suburban 1500 series. The standard rear-drive and four-wheel-drive models are augmented by a convenience package that contains OnStar and Homelink devices and an auto-dimming rear view mirror. Two performance packages, one for rear-drivers and one for all-wheelers, have larger wheels and tires, a locking rear differential, and traction control on the rear-driver, skid plates on the four-wheeler. Payload is 1363 pounds for a rear-driver, which is about 500 pounds less than an extended cab pickup. The base Avalanche is rated to tow 8300 pounds, though the bigger 8.1-liter 340-hp V-8 engine from the Suburban 2500 series is expected to increase this capacity to 12,000 pounds later in the 2002 model year.
The Avalanche costs considerably more than a Suburban: A four-wheel-drive Suburban starts at $29,602, where a similar Avalanche begins at $33,965. The Avalanche seems like a bargain, however, compared to a four-wheel-drive crew-cab Silverado pickup, which starts at $32,640, although in base form the pickup comes with a larger 6.0-liter engine.
Not a niche vehicle?
What you get for the extra $4363 the Avalanche costs over the Suburban is a pickup-type bed that can be fully accessed from inside the cab, but you lose a row of seats that holds two adults. So seating capacity in the Avalanche is limited to six, where a Suburban can seat eight. Sometimes more is not always better: Cadillac maintains with its DeVille’s seating capacity that all a big car needs to do is haul the mom and pop, the two kids, and the two grandfolks—six people max—to the pancake house on Sunday. Every use after that is an extravagance. These are not minivan folks, these Avalanche people.
2002 Chevrolet Avalanche
What we find most amazing about the Avalanche is Chevy predicts it will sell 100,000 per year! These days that’s an enormous production run for a personal convenience car. Remember, don’t think of this vehicle as merely a segment of a niche, which is what it is—the pickup-bed-on-an SUV-wagon niche. Instead, “Avalanche by itself would be the size of a Fortune 500 company,” says Chevy’s Posawitz. “The Avalanche is not a niche vehicle.”
It’s truly oversized, yet you will be challenged to find a use that it can’t accommodate, other than haul the seven people that fit in a minivan, or the eight that can occupy a standard Suburban.
Chevy says there are more configurations of the Avalanche body than anyone can remember in their heads, which is a marketing challenge, although the company is using the term “configurable” copiously.
As you’d expect, the Avalanche feels a lot like a Suburban on the road, with a five-link coil rear suspension. It’s much smoother and calmer than a Silverado pickup. Most SUV buyers have voted with their dollars that leaf springs—the standard setup for pickups—aren’t what they want holding up their wagons. But the Avalanche still drives like a monster machine, no matter how clever its use of space. It’s enormous, about two and a half feet longer than the new Trailblazer and the latest Ford Explorer. It’s more than two feet longer than Dodge’s Durango, too, which will hold two more people. The Suburban, remember, used to be the biggest thing on the road that didn’t have “The Gutter Guy” stenciled on its doors.
In the Avalanche driver’s seat you can’t see as much in the rearview compared to a Silverado pickup. The view out back is about the same as—surprise—a Suburban’s. Maneuvering in parking lots is naturally difficult, especially given that Avalanche’s turning circle is a foot wider than a Suburban’s, or almost nine feet wider than that of a TrailBlazer.
Finally, one configuration borrows from the tiniest SUVs
out there: You can drive with the back open to the wind and the sun. That
configuration is the one we think most people will settle on as the best way to
describe the Avalanche. They’ll think of the Avalanche as a convertible
Chevrolet Avalanche 4WD
Price: $33,965 base
Engine: 5.3-liter V-8, 285 hp
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 130.0 in
Length: 221.7 in
Width: 79.8 in
Height: 73.3 in
Curb Weight: 5437 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 13/17 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags, four-wheel anti-lock brakes
Major standard features: Air conditioning, keyless entry, cruise control, fog lamps, power heated mirrors, power windows, rear defogger, CD sound system
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles