PALM SPRINGS, CA —Corp.'s mantra, of late, has been that it intends to be a leader in innovation and technology. Specifically, the automaker has set a goal for half of its vehicle portfolio to be innovative vehicles or vehicles with innovative features and technologies, moving to 100% in five years.
Though vague in terms of what constitutes “innovation,” the goal appears ambitious, and suggests a refreshing adventurousness not seen from GM in some time. Inherent in such risk-taking, however, are potential failures. Indeed, one of GM's first experiments in this vein resulted in the homely Pontiac Aztek. Although inventive in interior space utilization — and presenting some thoughtful features — the Aztek flopped on the basics of price and styling.
Next out of the gates is what appears to be a safer bet — the Chevrolet Avalanche, a clever and flexible pickup truck cross-pollinated with overtones of sport/utility vehicle (SUV).
“The Avalanche is one of the first vehicles to show what we are capable of in terms of innovative vehicles,” says Carl Hillenbrand, Avalanche assistant brand manager. “We'll continue to bring new products that offer this kind of functionality and features, as well as others, down the road.”
Though not as visually disconcerting as the Aztek, the Avalanche's styling — macho, over-the-top, almost cartoonish — is the subject of debate and obvious concern, even among GM designers. Yet the vehicle likely will enjoy appeal with its mostly male audience.
Chevrolet marketers figure 80% of Avalanche buyers will be men, between 30 and 45 years old with a household income of $80,000. On sale since mid-May, most early Avalanche models will be shipped to dealers in California, Texas and Florida for the first three months of production. Advertising launches in this month.
Ironically, despite its aggressive look, the Avalanche is extremely civilized on the inside. The interior is astonishingly quiet and the ride exceedingly smooth.
The performance, along with the Avalanche's Swiss Army knife practicality, probably will outweigh any doubt regarding appearance. In fact, the Avalanche sets a new bar of practicality and versatility over standard pickups that are the Avalanche's prime competitors, theMotor Co. F-150 SuperCrew and DaimlerChrysler AG Dodge Ram Quad Cab, as well as other pickup/SUV hybrids like Ford's upcoming Lincoln Blackwood and successful — although already incentivized, don't you know — Explorer Sport Trac.
The idea for the Avalanche came from a consumer clinic in which customers were asking for more interior room and rear-seat space along with pickup bed capacity. A consumer suggested a truck be made with a pass-through like a passenger car trunk. That thought-starter was all GM designers and engineers needed; the result was Avalanche's Convert-a-Cab system with the Midgate design, which has patents pending.
Designers and engineers claim the Convert-a-Cab, Midgate and various storage compartments and accessories allow for 25,000 different configurations of the Avalanche. Perhaps 25,000 is an exaggeration, but certainly there are plenty.
The Avalanche can combine 6-passenger seating with a 5.25-ft. (1.6-m) bed, which can be left open or covered with either the standard three-piece rigid cover or an optional tonneau. The glass between the cab and bed can be removed and the optional power sunroof opened for almost convertible-like motoring. (Engineers have cleverly figured out ways to direct the outside air so the interior atmosphere remains cool, calm and clean of exhaust with the glass open.)
Or, the window can be opened, the Midgate dropped and the 60/40 split rear seats folded to create an 8-ft. (2.4-m) bed. The Midgate system is simple to reconfigure: it requires only a couple minutes and no tools. Thankfully, unneeded Midgate components can be stored onboard.
In addition to the Convert-a-Cab and Midgate design, engineers and designers left few stones unturned in terms of space utilization, storage and accessories. Lockable storage boxes are standard along the pickup bed. They can be filled with tools and equipment — or ice for beverages. A spout at the bottom allows for drainage. Developed with GM's Service Parts Operations, accessories for the Avalanche include a tent that fits over the bed (a popular Aztek feature), a bed extender, roof-mounted bike rack, brush and grille guards and a roof-top luggage basket. It should be mentioned, though, that all these ideas have been seen elsewhere.
About 85% of the Avalanche's components come from the Chevrolet Suburban, which itself is derived from GM's relatively new GMT800-series fullsize pickups. That of course includes its Vortec 5300 5.3L OHV V-8 engine, rated at 285 hp and 325 lb.-ft. (441 Nm) of torque, paired with a 4-speed automatic transmission. A substantial change from the Suburban underpinnings, though, is the addition of significantly more structure to support the integrated box and cab. To further reduce costs, GM is building the Avalanche at its Suburban-making assembly plant in Silao, Mexico.
The Avalanche is available with two basic drivelines: the standard 2-wheel drive model and that featuring Autotrac 4-wheel drive, which automatically engages 4-wheel drive when required — yet includes a low-range in the transfer case. Other packages, including a Z66 premium on-road package and Z71 off-road package, allow further customizing of the Avalanche chassis.
The Avalanche slots in price between the Silverado extended-cab pickup and the Suburban. Which in three words means: not exactly cheap. The 2-wheel-drive Avalanche starts at $30,965, with the average transaction price expected at about $35,000. The 4-wheel-driver opens at $33,965, with a typically equipped model fetching about $38,000. Standard on all Avalanche are 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, front occupant side airbags, seat-integrated seatbelts and lockable top box storage and lockable tailgate.
Chevrolet marketers are shooting for 100,000 Avalanche models in its first year. They theorize that's a relatively small slice of the 2 million-unit fullsize truck market, most of which are extended cabs. Or, figure it this way, they say: 30 million of 100 million households own a pickup truck or SUV — all of whom are possible buyers for the Avalanche.
“If you consider that our closest competitor, theF-150 SuperCrew, sells 10,000 or so vehicles a month, we should do even more than 100,000 Avalanches, because it has more to offer in the way of flexibility and versatility,” says Mr. Hillenbrand.
Although there are doubters who believe Avalanche might simply siphon-off Siverado buyers, Chevy's 100,000-units expectation is bolstered by extremely positive consumer clinics done with the concept and through the 24 months of development. Moreover, Chevrolet marketers feel increased confidence from their early marketing efforts. The Avalanche Web site, launched in January, has generated a list of 200,000 handraisers and has become GM's second-most-visited Web site, behind that of the Silverado.
The question remains: Is GM introducing the Avalanche at the wrong time, with an economy that's softening, truck and SUV sales slowing and gas prices skyrocketing? The Avalanche is rated at a dismal 13 mpg (18L/100 km) city and 17 mpg (13.8L/100 km) highway for the 4-wheel drive version and the 2-wheel drive setup delivers only one extra mile per gallon in city and highway driving.
“We're still selling high quantities of fullsize trucks and fullsize sport utilities, even with talk of $3-a-gallon gas. But we are watching those sales closely,” says Mr. Hillenbrand, adding the Silao plant is flexible to handle decreases and, preferably, increases in production as required.
Regardless of likely short-term market and economic trends, the Avalanche represents the right direction for GM, which should do as did the formerCorp., leveraging existing platforms to quickly, efficiently and economically develop vehicles that create new niches — and eventually, entirely new segments — of the marketplace.
2002 Chevrolet Avalanche 4WD
Vehicle type: Front-engine, 4-wheel drive, 6-passenger 4-door pickup
Engine: 5.3L (5,328 cc) OHV V-8; iron block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net): 285 hp @ 5,200 rpm
Torque: 325 lb.-ft. (441 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Bore × Stroke (mm): 96 × 92
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 130 ins. (330 cm)
Overall length: 221.7 ins. (563 cm)
Overall width: 79.8 ins. (203 cm)
Overall height: 73.6 ins. (187 cm)
Curb weight (auto): 5,678 lbs. (2,576 kg)
Market competition: Ford Explorer Sport Trac; Ford F-150 SuperCrew; Dodge Ram Quad Cab