Chicago Auto ShowCHICAGO – A crucial piece in the product strategy designed to turn the fortunes of General Motors Corp. is revealed today in the form of the ’07 Chevrolet Avalanche pickup here at the auto show.

The Avalanche springs forth from the GMT900, GM’s new architecture for fullsize SUVs and pickups. The all-new Chevy Tahoe went on sale in mid-January, the same month production began for the new GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade SUVs.(See related story: ’07 Chevy Tahoe on Heady Mission )

But the Avalanche represents the first pickup product to launch from the program.

To say GM has a lot riding on this architecture is an understatement. The outgoing GMT800 platform has generated most of GM’s profits since its 1998 launch.

In 2005, the platform sold more than 1 million pickups (including Silverado and the first-generation Avalanche) and nearly a half-million SUVs (including the previous-generation Tahoe and Suburban), according to Ward’s data.

Revamped Chevy Avalanche.

The new fullsize Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups are set to launch in the fourth quarter.

For now, the Avalanche takes its place in the product-launch chute, arriving in showrooms in the second quarter.

Its numbers are dwarfed by that of the Silverado, but nonetheless command attention. Chevy dealers have sold 379,500 Avalanches since the truck’s spring 2001 launch, although deliveries slipped 21% from 80,566 in 2004 and fell further to 63,186 in 2005. GM declines to offer an annual sales projection for the ’07 Avalanche.

With the new model, the auto maker is eager to tout more than the vehicle’s trademark versatility, with a midgate that allows the vehicle to function both as an SUV and as a pickup.

GM will market the Avalanche as environmentally friendly, powered by a new 320-hp Vortec 5.3L V-8 with Active Fuel Management, which saves fuel by seamlessly switching from 8-cyl. to 4-cyl. operation in certain driving conditions.

Available later will be an all-aluminum 6L V-8, also with Active Fuel Management and variable valve timing. The engines are mated to a Hydra-Matic 4L70 4-speed automatic transmission.

GM says several engines available in the Avalanche, including the small-block 5.3L, will be capable of running on E85, a renewable fuel consisting of 85% ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and 15% gasoline and produced domestically from agricultural products, primarily corn.

The Avalanche will be offered in LS, LT and LTZ models, with 2- and 4-wheel drive. A Z71 off-road package will be available later in the model year. The Avalanche can tow up to 8,000 lbs. (3,629 kg).

Visually, the new Avalanche is more attractive than the original, when it launched in 2001 with vast gray plastic cladding on the lower body panels.

Two years ago, Chevy gave buyers the option of a cladding-free Avalanche. To date, about 85% have been sold without cladding, estimates Gary White, GM North America vice president and vehicle line executive-fullsize trucks.

The new model arrives without cladding, to reduce weight and cost and improve aerodynamics, White says. The front and rear bumpers are clad in body-color fascia, making for a clean, esthetically pleasing appearance.

Flexibility is the calling card for the Avalanche.

The clever midgate opens to extend the 5.3-ft. (1.6-m) long cargo bed to 8.2 ft. (2.5 m) – a full 2 ins. (51 mm) longer than previous models.

With the rear seats folded flat, the Avalanche can carry 4-ft. by 8-ft. (1.2 m by 2.4 m) sheets of plywood with the tailgate closed. A 3-piece rigid cargo cover with interlocking panels also is available.

The interior of the Avalanche is pleasing, with snug seams throughout and effective use of wood trim and faux brushed aluminum on vents above the center stack.

However, the entire instrument panel consists of grained hard plastic, and high-gloss black plastic is pervasive in the center console, most visibly in the cupholder. Otherwise, materials appear to be of high grade, especially the headliner, which is a woven fabric.

Safety features include roof-mounted head curtain airbags as optional for both rows and pre-tensioning seatbelts and tire-pressure monitoring as standard equipment. White says the Avalanche remains the only pickup to have anti-skid electronic stability control as standard equipment.

All models come with the Generation 6 OnStar communications system, with a 1-year Safe and Sound service plan free.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com