Both are available in two- and four-wheel-drive variants, the latter receiving GM's Autotrac active transfer case. We're especially fond of this system as the driver may choose from 2HI, AUTO 4WD, 4HI, and 4LOW, depending upon road conditions or terrain. It also affords a neutral position, allowing the truck to be towed behind an RV. Off the beaten path, the Avalanche crawls through soft sand and loose shale with ease.

While you might think its underpinnings were derived from the Silverado, the Avalanche actually inherits most of its structure and suspension from the Suburban. Up front, both models use an independent, torsion-bar setup. Rearward, the 1500 gets a multilink live axle with coil springs, while the 2500 rides on a solid axle with two-stage leafs. Four-wheel vented disc brakes (12-in. front and 13-in. rear) with ABS provide powerful, linear emergency stops from 60 mph: 142 ft for the 1/2-ton and 148-ft in the 3/4-ton. Electronic traction control is available on 2WD 1500s

On rough terrain, the 1500 is especially compliant, demonstrating smooth manners over potholed-laden trails. It also offers a superb freeway ride. As expected, the 2500's a bit firmer on-road, and rear-axle hop is almost negligible. Although the Avalanche is nearly 2.5 in. longer than the Suburban, it feels shorter from behind the wheel. During our handling exercises, we were surprised to find the solid-axle 2500 to be quicker (than the 1500) in the 600-ft slalom by nearly 1.5 mph.

Two optional suspension packages are available on the 1/2-ton: The 2WD model is available with the Z66 "on-road" package, which includes 17-in. wheels and tires, Bilstein front and Sachs load-leveling rear shocks, traction control, and unique rubber floormats. Off-roaders will appreciate the Z71 suspension on the 4x4, with trail-grabbing 17-in. rolling stock, stiffer springs, Bilstein shocks, skidplates, high-capacity air filter, and aggressive rubber floormats. But note that neither package is available on the 2500. After a hard work week, Avalanche owners will have no problems hauling their favorite toys to the water or desert with 8300-lb (1500) and 12,000-lb (2500) towing capacities.

Test 1 of our "of the year" evaluation is Design, and Chevrolet has certainly distinguished the Avalanche from your everyday Silverado. Its shape is a quirky combination of bold sheetmetal and hard-edged, contrasting body cladding. Unlike Pontiac's Aztek, the style fits, providing a chiseled look that's aggressive and polarizing to say the least. Some like the edgy theme; others are bored by the in-your-face face and heavy-handed lathering of plastic. Chevy may also offer body color-matched cladding similar to that on the '02 Caddy EXT.

The heart of this new truck's design is what Chevrolet calls the "Convert-a-Cab" system, which includes the Midgate (think of it as a tailgate behind the rear seat), a cargo cover, split-folding 60/40 rear seat, and a locking tailgate.