Remember when trucks were regarded as workhorses or construction-site haulers? Today, that simply isn't the case. Last year, the Big Three collectively sold more pickups than cars or sport/utilities. Why? Because trucks are today's go-anywhere/ do-anything-anytime conveyances. They're asked to provide daily transportation to work, haul clients, shuttle the kids, take the whole gang away for weekends in the woods, and haul home-improvement supplies for those honey-do projects. Today's truck buyer demands maximum versatility and function along with the safety, convenience, and entertainment capabilities found only in premium luxury cars a few years back.

From the onset, we knew the Avalanche was a solid Truck of the Year contender. We continually gravitated back to this new Chevy for its potent powertrains, commodious interior, feature content, aggressive styling, workaday capability, and innovative convertible cab.

Available in either 1/2-ton (1500) or 3/4-ton (2500) variations, the Avalanche is based on a three-piece frame that incorporates strong hydroformed components (a process in which chassis members are bent from the inside out via pressurized water, allowing the steel to retain its grain structure). This method allows for precise dimensional control (read: better body panel fit) and greatly reduced chassis flex and twist. We appreciated this technology while traversing numerous bolder-strewn off-road trails.

Power is a hugely important factor in any truck contest. Chevrolet offers two strong Vortec V-8s.

The 1/2-ton receives the 5.3L/285-hp OHV V-8 mated to a smooth-shifting, electronically controlled 4L60-E four-speed automatic. With a torque peak of 325 lb-ft at 4000 rpm (and 90 percent of that available from 1600), the Vortec 5300 gets it done--especially in terms of 0-60-mph acceleration, posting an 8.7-sec time. With ample torque available at such a low rpm range, it also makes the 1/2-ton a capable hauler.

As the saying goes, there's no substitute for cubic inches, and the 2500 Avalanche doesn't disappoint. Motivated by an 8.1L/340-hp OHV V-8--yes, the Big Block Chevy lives--passing an incredible 455 lb-ft of torque (at 3200 rpm) through its 4L85-E four-speed automatic, the Vortec 8100 sounds mean and pulls hard, posting an 8.8-sec time to 60 and a 16.6-sec/ 83.7-mph pass through the quarter-mile. While it's 0.1 sec slower to 60 and 0.1 sec and 0.3 mph slower than its 1500 sibling, the 2500 is also 964 lb heavier (5678 lb versus 6642 lb).

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.

Removing the composite three-panel rigid cargo cover (each panel is capable of supporting 250 lb) exposes a 5-ft-3-in. bed replete with loading lamps. But say you need to load sheets of plywood. Flip and fold down the rear seat, turn the hatch release handle, and lower the Midgate to access the full 8-ft-1-in. cargo box.

Loading motorcycles is also a snap, courtesy of the removable rear window: Just unfasten the top glass latches, pull the glass up and out of its recesses, and store it in the retaining hooks of the Midgate. The glass can also be removed and stored with the Midgate in the locked position, providing an alfresco drive without excessive wind noise or buffeting.

Flanking the bed are two locking, insulated, and self-draining storage boxes that can carry up to 3.5 cu ft of cargo or drinks. And with the standard locking tailgate and rigid cargo cover in place, items in the cargo box are fully secure.

Keeping with the multi-configuration theme, the interior is also a combination of unusual materials and tried and true components. Standard fare includes seating for six, with a 40/20/40 front and 60/40 split-fold rear seat. Three front bucket-seat options are available: Sport Cloth, Sport Leather (a combination of leather with diamond-plate-looking cloth inserts), and full leather.

The front bench includes driver-side power actuation with manual driver and passenger lumbar, as well as a fold-down center armrest with storage compartment. Sport Cloth and Sport Leather buckets feature power driver and passenger adjustments with manual lumbar. Opt for the full leather treatment, and you'll get power everything, including heated surfaces and two-position memory.

Typical of the Chevrolet line, gauges and secondary controls are clearly marked and easy to locate while underway. As with the Silverado HD, we appreciate the large buttons and rotary climate controls that are easy to use while wearing work gloves.

Unlike in some extended-cab four-door pickups, rear seat room is commodious, with ample seating for three large adults. The couch offers good lumbar support and proper rake for long trips. Dual heat and air-conditioning vents provide fresh air for back-seat drivers.

An ever-important criterion for Truck of the Year honors is vehicle safety. For years, trucks have played second fiddle to cars and SUVs on this score, but Chevrolet has packed an abundance of safety features into the Avalanche that are both passive and active in nature.

Passengers are protected by safety-cage construction on a full frame. Inside, seat-mounted safety belts move with every adjustment to provide maximum retention during an impact, while optimizing fit and comfort. Dual front airbags and seat-mounted side-impact airbags are standard.

Though GM's OnStar telematics system was originally offered only on swanky Cadillacs, it's been continuously updated and has worked its way onto many other models, including the Avalanche. The OnStar communications center--manned by live people--can interpret vehicle diagnosis codes, automatically summon help if airbags have been deployed and unlock the doors remotely, all via a combination of cellular and GPS technologies.

The entry fee for an Avalanche is a tad over $30K--$30,245 for a base 2WD1500, to be exact--that, even in base form, is well equipped (there will be no six-cylinder, manual-trans, strippo Avalanches). A ton of available options allow owners to customize their rigs. For those seeking a designer model, the 1500 North Face edition (which includes green and black interior trim, distinct badging, white-face gauges, NF-only exterior color, two Summit Pod backpacks, and Water Duffalo storage bags) tops out at a hefty $41,111. High-water mark for the 2500 series is $39,924.

Our complaints with Chevy's new truck are few: We wish the Z66 and Z71 suspension packages were available on the 2500. And while the Midgate is a major innovation, it's useful only during fair weather--when the skies turn sour, so could the interior. Plus, with the Midgate dropped, the interior is open to prying hands, should you leave the vehicle unattended. We'd also like to see the 325-hp Vortec 6000 as a 1500 series option.

After two weeks and thousands of miles with this year's competitors, evaluating every aspect, nuance, feature, and crevice, the Avalanche stands out as this contest's most significant truck. With its outstanding powertrains, off-road and towing prowess, smooth on-road driveability, and passenger/cargo-space flexibility, the Chevrolet Avalanche has proven itself a solid choice as Motor Trend's 2002 Truck of the Year.


  '02 Chevrolet Z71 Avalanche 1500'02 Chevrolet Avalanche 2500
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
Drivetrain layout Front engine, 4WDFront engine, 4WD
Engine type V-8 OHV, 2 valves/cyl, iron block/alum heads V-8 OHV, 2 valves/cyl, iron block/heads
Displacement, ci/cc 326.9/5358 496.0/8128
Horsepower @ rpm 285 @ 5200 340 @ 4200
Torque @ rpm 325 @ 4000 455 @ 3200
Transmission 4-speed automatic 4-speed automatic
Axle ratio 4.10:1 4.10:1
Final-drive ratio 2.87:1 3.08:1
Suspension, f/r Upper & lower control arms, torsion bars, anti-roll bar/, solid axle, multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar Upper & lower control arms, torsion bars, anti- arms, torsion bars, anti-springs, anti-roll bar
Brakes, f/r 12.0-in vented disc/ 13.0-in vented disc, ABS12.0-in vented disc/ 13.0-in vented disc, ABS
Wheels, f/r 17x7.5 cast aluminum16x7.0 cast aluminum
Tires Goodyear Wrangler AT/S 265/70R17 113S Firestone Steeltex Radial A/T LT245/75R16 120/116R
DIMENSIONS
Body style 4-door, 5-pass 4-door, 5-pass
Wheelbase, in 130.0 130.0
Length, in 221.7 221.7
Width, in 79.8 79.8
Height, in 73.5 73.5
Curb weight, lb 5678 6642
Tow capacity, lb 8100 12,000
Legroom, f/r, in 41.3/38.9 41.3/38.9
Shoulder room, f/r, in 65.2/65.2 65.2/65.2
Hiproom, f/r, 61.4/62.0 61.4/62.0
Headroom, f/r, in 40.7/38.6 40.7/38.6
Cargo capacity, cu ft 41.1 (Midgate up) 97.6 (Midgate down) 41.1 (Midgate up) 97.6 (Midgate down)
Fuel capacity, gal 31.0 37.5
TEST DATA
0-60 mph, sec 8.7 8.8
1/4 mile, sec/mph 16.5/83.9 16.6/83.7
Braking, 60-0 mph, ft 142 148
600-ft slalom, mph 53.1 54.5
Turning circle, ft 43.3 44.1
Top gear rpm @ 60 mph 1850 2100
CONSUMER INFO
On sale in U.S. Currently Currently
Base price $33,245 $35,145
Price as tested $37,530 $38,223
Airbags Dual front, dual side Dual front, dual side
EPA mpg, city/hwy 13/17 11/15 (est)
Range, city/hwy, miles 403/527 412/562
Basic warranty 3 yrs/36,000 miles 3 yrs/36,000 miles
Powertrain warranty 3 yrs/36,000 miles 3 yrs/36,000 miles
Roadside assistance Yes Yes

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