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wall in place to get that open air feel. The glass conveniently stows behind the rear seats in a protected cubby hole. With three removable Pro-Tec composite panels covering the bed, it also acts like a giant trunk to store items so they are protected from the elements

You can tell that lots of thought went into the entire Convert-a-Cab system. A single person can operate the Midgate in about a minute and two people can zip through it in 30 seconds if you practice enough. It doesn't take much practice.

How tough is the Midgate and how well does this hybrid system work in real life? We put it to the test by loading two dirt bikes, a Husqvarna TE400 and Cannondale MX400 (see inclusion) side by side into the bed. That's a lot of bike. We discovered that while you can get the Husky and Cannon loaded with the Midgate down, it's best to keep it up and then drop the tailgate combined with a bed extender.

We also loaded one superbike into the Avalanche, an MV Agusta F4S (see inclusion). It was so large we needed to strap it in with both the Midgate and tailgate down but the truck still swallowed the motorcycle without complaint.

2002 Chevrolet Avalanche - Superbikes not Included

Loading up the Avalanche at Munroe Motors in San Francisco to test the bed capacity and determine how to transport a few extra wheels was fun. We had a chance to play with some of the more exotic forms of transportation that you will find on this planet. The bikes you see in the Avalanche are regular brands sold in the US, but not regular in their abilities or heritage.

MV Agusta F4S (the racy looking one!)

More than a mere motorcycle, the Italian (where else?) MV Agusta F4S is rolling artwork. Designed by Massimo Tamburini, the original designer of the current Ducati 748/996, it is regarded as the pinnacle of his design career. Virtually every part was specially designed from a clean sheet of paper to render exceptional performance and style. The F4S is powered by a 749.4cc inline four cylinder engine using 16 "radial format" valves, electronic fuel injection and a 12:1 compression ratio to produce a healthy 126 hp at 12,500 rpm. That's 2.7 horses per cubic inch, so a comparable 350 Chevy engine would have 945 hp, to put things in perspective. Six-piston calipers on the dual "floating" disks on the front and a rather more conventional caliper/disk on the rear provide the stopping power. The gauges are particularly cool, especially the part where the tach needle swings to 17,000 rpm every time the ignition is switched on. It weighs in at 419 lbs dry and supposedly goes 171mph owing to its exceptional aerodynamics and 3.32 lbs/hp power to weight ratio (at this ratio, that 350 engine above would only be powering a 3150 lb truck!). All this finery costs $18,995 at your local dealer, although a limited edition "Oro" version was also available for $39,995. It featured sand-cast engine cases, magnesium frame and swingarm castings, and full carbon fiber bodywork. Yes, even the gas tank.

On the road, The F4S feels as if it were machined from a single billet-probably the most remarkable difference between it and the mass produced bikes of similar specification. And it's prettier. The suspension feels smooth and precise, if not overly stable-the bias being toward quick turn-in and flickability. The brakes are linear and progressive. It feels as if your right wrist is connected directly to the engine. So, feel is what its all about. But all you can see in the mirrors are your elbows, so be careful.

Husky TE400 (yellow)

Husqvarna is another old-time name justifiably proud of its heritage. Their most recent accomplishment is winning the ISDT on a TE400, the second bike pictured here. Actually a cousin to the MV (Cagiva owns both), the TE400 Husky exemplifies in its own way the pinnacle of heritage: originally Swedish, now Italian. While not the visual standout the MV is, the TE400 similarly benefits from years of engineering excellence honed by the successful pursuit of championship competition titles (59 since Husqvarna's 1903 inception)

The Husky's forte is going fast in the dirt. Except that it doesn't feel especially fast-which is the point as it helps you to ride faster. The TE is very easy to ride. The suspension is progressive and somewhat firm, so it doesn't bottom when going fast. Turn-in is razor-sharp. Brakes are not overly sensitive, offering great modulation when braking from speed on low-traction surfaces. The advantage of the four-stroke engine is its linear powerband, offering exceptional pull at all engine speeds, again with easy modulation to help find available traction. In all, with its narrow profile and slim, flat sides, it's a lot like riding an arrow through the woods. Fast. Husqvarna's have a great reputation for reliability, and have now started marketing supermotard versions of their famous dirtbikes for those who want a Husky for the streets.

Cannondale MX400 (red)

So you ride a Cannondale. A bicycle that is. Well lookie here. Cannondale is hot on the trail of making excellent motocross bikes and this first effort is terrific. The MX400 pictured in the bed of the Avalanche is a break from the normal. The first thing you notice is the reversed cylinder head. With the pipe coming out the back of the head and working its way back to the underside of the seat, the Cannondale has an unusual look with no curled set of headers or a massive exhaust pipe having to be routed around the engine and frame. Supplied with Ohlins forks and shock as original equipment, the machine is capable of being set up for the most finickly off-roader, but also capable of being ridden in the dirt right out of the crate. The first models have had their teething problems but most everyone who has tried them is really impressed with the level of function given this first effort. The new model year promises some impressive improvements in the engine and transmission area, and some new models with a very high level of OEM equipment. With Cannondale being a US company, now you can own your Harley and your Cannondale and feel as patriotic as the next guy, without supporting those foreign manufacturers. (Yeah, we know all about Marysville!)

- John Gillies

All the beating on the Midgate to figure out the best positions for the bikes had no effect on the tough composite surfaces.

Mechanically, the Avalanche is more Chevy Suburban than Silverado and this has a very large and beneficial impact on ride and handling. It was hard to tell you weren't in a Suburban while driving, the Avalanche was so solid and quiet. Its integrated cargo box and cab also provides a much higher degree of rigidity than you normally find in a pickup.

Our Avalanche had the optional Z71 4x4 off road package which comes with P265/70R16 tires, 17-inch wheels, front and rear Bilstein shocks, and a locking rear differential. We took it on some fire trails to test out its Autotrac four wheel drive system. Road chatter and oscillations were minimal over the gravel and dirt surface and it never got too slippery even on some of the more finely powdered sections.

The most dissatisfying driving experience we had was when we picked up a piece of gravel that somehow got past the dust shield and worked its way into the brake rotor of one of the rear wheels, finally eroding away with obstinate high-pitched squeals of protest.

Out in the real world, in two wheel drive, the Avalanche handled very nicely on the highway and surface streets. We drove a 10 mile stretch on the freeway with the rear window glass stowed and it was very quiet inside the cabin. It didn't require raising your voice to hold a conversation or turning the radio up. In parking lots the Avalanche was as nimble as could be expected, though for finer movements a rear parking assist option would be very handy.

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