Remember the first time you saw the magnifying glass, the corkscrew, and the Phillip's head swing out of a Swiss Army knife? Suddenly a two-bladed pocket knife seemed pretty plain, right? We sort of feel that way now about regular pickups after testing the new Chevrolet Avalanche. Its extra passenger and load flexibility give it a big edge over conventional pickups as well as full-size sport/utility vehicles.

At the heart of Avalanche innovation is what General Motors calls the Convert-a-Cab system. Think of it as the pickup equivalent of a car's trunk pass-through. Instead of a welded-steel bulkhead and fixed glass at the back of the cab, you get a bottom-hinged plastic gate with a pop-out window.

Fold the rear 60/40 bench forward, drop that plastic midgate, as they call it, and the cargo bed stretches from 5 ft 3 in. in length to 8 ft 1 in. Then, bulky stuff like two motorcycles or 4x8 panels of sheetrock can be loaded inside the bed with the tailgate closed. Yes, the back of the cab remains open to the atmosphere as long as that oversize load occupies the bed, and that's something to think about. We found the interior surprisingly calm and quiet driving around this way, but obviously, we're talking local, fair-weather duty only. If you have to haul a motorcycle 400 miles for a race weekend, and you're going to leave your rig in the hotel parking lot overnight, you'll still need a plain old pickup, a big van, or a trailer. But for the majority of transport chores, the Avalanche may be an ideal alternative. It offers a locking tailgate and hard-panel cover that shut the bed up like a trunk, yet the clever midgate adds a degree of flexibility that's truly revolutionary.

Note that the Avalanche's chassis, suspension, and body structure are derived from the famously slick Suburban sport/utility vehicle rather than the rough-and-ready Silverado pickup. (There's no gap or seam between the substantially reinforced cab and the cargo bed.) The mean-looking new sheetmetal, with its wheel-arch bulges and heavy body cladding, rides on an ultra-sturdy three-piece frame. Up front is an independent, torsion-bar suspension while a rugged but compliant multilink live axle with coil springs carries the rear. Maximum tow ratings are 8300 lb (2WD) and 8100 lb (4WD).

To find out if big-truck capability comes with big-truck dynamic compromises, we pushed the Avalanche hard at the track, over curvy mountain two-lanes, and on a brutal chunk of desert trail. As with every GMT800-based truck we've driven, we can report that the Avalanche feels smaller than it is. It also doesn't give up any body stiffness relative to its rigid wagon-like sister. And with its soft-rate springs, long wheelbase, and stiff chassis, the ride is quite smooth. Unlike the new Cadillac Escalade, body motions on dips and diving, off-camber curves are smartly damped. The preproduction examples we drove were even commendably free of shudders, shakes, and rattles.

The power-assisted recirculating-ball steering didn't impress us quite as much. In both the two- and four-wheel-drive versions, the steering has the boost levels correct but falls short in on-center feel. The four-spoke wheel is busy when the road cambers left and right and the driver is working to keep centered in a lane.

The lone powertrain initially available in the Avalanche is a thoroughly civil 5.3L/285-hp OHV V-8 mated with a sweet-shifting four-speed automatic. And 90 percent of this motor's 325 lb-ft of peak torque is available from just 1600 rpm, which made for some brisk track runs despite the hefty curb weight. The best 0-60 blast took just 8.7 sec.

Fuel-consumption ratings from the EPA are 14/18 mpg for two-wheel-drive versions, 13/17 for four-wheelers (which use the slip- sensing Autotrac system with its computer-operated two-speed transfer case). Later this year, a 2500 Series heavy-duty Avalanche will come on-stream, powered by GM's amazing 8.1L/340-hp 455-lb-ft V-8.

With lots of horses, big payload capability, and relatively high towing capacity, top-notch braking is critical, and fortunately, we found no skimping here. The beefy discs are 12 in. in front and 13 in the rear, with twin-piston aluminum front calipers and ABS all around. Our test numbers at the track showed the effectiveness of the system, with a 142-ft stop from 60 mph. That's pretty good for a vehicle with a 5600-lb curb weight and a gross vehicle weight rating of 6800 lb.

Heavy-duty vehicles don't always nail the details on the interior, with control locations, seat comfort, and convenience features often getting shortchanged. However, the Avalanche makes no apologies. This cab is plenty quiet and the seats are soft but supportive. And the full instrumentation is well laid out and clearly illuminated at night. Most of the controls are nicely located-even for small drivers. The exception is the manual backrest-rake adjustment, which requires a contorted reach.

All occupants (either five or six, depending on front-seat configuration) get lots of crash protection from this beefy piece of transport. Besides the margin naturally afforded by generous crush zones and high mass, the Avalanche offers front and side-impact airbags.

It also boasts an impressively long list of standard features. A sampler: lockable storage built into the top of the bed walls, an overhead-storage console, bumper steps, foglamps, full instrumentation (including tach, voltmeter, oil-pressure gauge, coolant-temp gauge, and engine-hour meter), power steering, power driver's seat, trailer-towing package, tilt wheel, and carpeted floormats.

Originally code-named the Warrior, the Avalanche looks likely to draw some blood in its assault on pickup and sport/utility orthodoxy. This is a new kind of vehicle, and it may change some thinking in the marketplace. If it does, it may also change some other truck maker's product plans.

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