2002 Chevrolet Avalanche, Z71 Off-Road Edition

First Drive: 2002 Chevrolet Avalanche
Can It Be All Things to All People?

By: BJ Killeen

With apologies to President Lincoln, you can please all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time.

This is a concept I think the folks at General Motors don't quite understand. I'm talking about trying to make vehicles that appeal to all of the people all of the time. My two biggest concerns right now are the Buick Rendezvous and the Chevrolet Avalanche. The 2002 Rendezvous, for those of you who aren't familiar with the product, is what GM calls a "crossover" vehicle. It's not quite an SUV, and not quite a minivan, but falls somewhere in between for those who really can't decide what they want. The same goes for the Avalanche. Is it a truck? Is it an SUV? Is it lifestyle vehicle? Is it a passenger vehicle? What Chevrolet wants you to say is that it's all of those things in one package. Is that a good thing? Chevrolet is betting that you'll say yes, and spend your $30,000 on it. But sometimes when a product tries to do everything well, it ends up not doing any one thing outstanding.

This is the feeling I got from the Avalanche. Is it a bad vehicle? Not at all, but I'm seriously trying to figure out who is going to buy it. Those who need a serious work truck will opt for the Silverado. Those who want a good ride with cargo versatility probably will vote for a Tahoe or new TrailBlazer. But Chevrolet insists the Avalanche is not a "niche" vehicle. If it's not, then what is it? I see the Avalanche as kind of the answer to a question no one asked. Let's face it, history has a way of proving this point. For example, the Nissan Pulsar with the coupe-to-wagon conversion didn't do so well. Neither did the convertible Dodge pickup truck. How about the Subaru Brat, with the seats on the outside of the cabin in the back bed? And remember the Nissan Axxess and the Mitsubishi Expo crossover vehicles?

Yes, that is the production truck's real bed complete with molded ATV tire tracks

Chevrolet says its target audience is 30 to 45 years old, 80 percent male, with an average household income of $80,000. Chevy also claims that it has had over three million hits on the Avalanche website, with many being qualified potential customers. I think that sometimes it's easy to confuse interest with curiosity. Chevy plans to sell 100,000 units in its first year of production, and is placing a lot of its eggs in this new basket.

Since the Avalanche has been around the country on tour at auto shows, county fairs and other events, it should be familiar to you. The truck is based on the Suburban platform, and features the 285-horsepower/325 lb-ft of torque Vortec 5.3-liter V-8 as the only powerplant. When the 2500 Series comes along later, it will offer the 8100 engine under the hood instead of the 5300. The Avalanche also features a choice of 2- or 4-wheel drive, as well as a tow capacity of up to 8300 lbs on 2-wheel-drive models.

But the biggest standouts on the Avalanche are the Convert-a-Cab system and the Midgate design. To learn more about how these features work, check out "Driving the Avalanche" article. These are good ideas that work well in this execution, but I'm not really sure how often people will be fussing with the window removal section since it does take a bit of manipulation. Give me a power-operate sunroof any day. I will admit, though, that with the rear window removed, there's minimal air blowing into the cabin. It does prevent retention of the heater's warm air, so if you have the glass out in cold weather, you would probably crank up the heat an extra notch.

My time in the Avalanche consisted of a day's drive in and around the Palm Springs, California, area, including a side trip to the Camp Ronald McDonald Apple Canyon Center to donate a handful of supplies that included appliances, lumber, and assorted power tools. The object was to drive the fleet of Avalanche's hauling this variety of cargo so we would get a chance to experience the handling and ride characteristics both loaded and unloaded, as well as the many seating/cab configurations on the drive up to the camp.

Our truck was carrying with a power washer and barbecue grille, and both fit easily in the bed without having to drop the back seat. On the highway and under load, the Avalanche tended to wander on the road, but when we unloaded the cargo, the ride improved and the vehicle tracked straight. Once we put the rear window back in (since it was uncharacteristically cold at the camp), the road and tire noise was drastically reduced.

On the way to Borrego Springs we had a chance to drive the Avalanche up and around some of the desert mountains, and it felt pretty confident. Their was a minimal amount of body roll for a vehicle this tall, and on the two-wheel-drive model with the recirculating ball steering, the feedback was good with only a minute dead spot on center.

The Avalanche only has one engine option: GM' 285-hp/325 lb-ft Vortec 5.3-liter V-8

The Avalanche features three suspension setups: standard is the ZQ1 for a smoother ride, the optional Z66 Premium for two-wheel models, and the familiar Z71 for off-road driving. On the highway we were in a truck with the standard suspension, and it provided decent comfort but not overly floaty.

The drive to lunch was via a sandy stretch of dirt road that didn't really require four-wheel drive, but it was a good chance to check out the Z71 suspension and speed-sensitive steering system that comes on the off-road version. The cargo area also had some weight in it, with off-road bikes or ATVs that we transported to the lunch site smack dab in the middle of the Anza-Borrego desert.

The Z71 suspension on the Avalanche, as on other GM off-road vehicles, worked well at keeping the occupants in their seats, and the specially tuned jounce bumpers and large Bilstein gas-shocks minimized the drastic wheel hop that occurs as you bounce up and down over rocks as you move quickly in the dirt.

As we've been noticing lately, GM products, and the Avalanche in particular, have seen drastic improvements in their quality of fit and finish. Off-road driving is where the squeaks and rattles shake loose, but the Avalanche was quiet and solid.

But the Avalanche wasn't designed to take on serious off-road excursions, nor was it designed to be the best-handling vehicle on the road. It's a good compromise between both, but isn't the best at either one.

Something else to note: this is a big truck and is obviously skewed toward taller folks. Items such as the storage areas in the bed rails are a good idea if you can reach down into them, which takes someone 5-ft 10 or taller. Reaching into the bed also needs to be done by someone with a long reach. It's not difficult to climb inside the bed, Chevy has provided lots of footing areas for that, but you can't put the hard or soft tonneau covers on from the outside alone if you're short.

Chevrolet marks the competition as the F-150 Super Crew, the Dodge Dakota Quad Cab, and the Ford Explorer Sport Trac, even though none of those can change the cab and midgate sections. I see these vehicles (Avalanche included) as novelty items, which will amuse some, while others would rather have a more single-purpose vehicle without all the extras, and at a more affordable price. Once the newness wears off, it might be a tough sale two or three years into its lifecycle. If the Avalanche does sell well, expect to see this midgate idea on a variety of other products from GM in the future.

Avalanche instrument panel. A white face gauge cluster is optional.