The Chevrolet Avalanche was one of those fun experiments of a General Motors of not too long ago. It’s an SUV and a truck in one, with some clever ways to make it all work. The Avalanche may be dead today, but some of its spirit lives on in the Silverado EV’s midgate. Early on in the GMC Hummer EV’s development, it also had an Avalanche-style midgate. The Avalanche itself could be considered a bit of a special truck but there’s a version of the Avalanche that’s a unicorn. Sold from 2001 to 2005, you could buy a Chevrolet Avalanche 2500. Under the hood is a massive 8.1-liter big block V8 making 340 HP and 455 lb-ft torque. Oh, and did I say it could tow 11,900 pounds?
Last time on Holy Grails, Thomas took the steering wheel and showed you the BMW 540d. Sold for not even a full year starting in February 2018, the mighty luxury sedan sported a B57 diesel inline six making 261 HP and 457 lb-ft torque. Yep, in the post-Diselgate world of 2018, you could buy a diesel luxury sedan! It even scored healthy fuel economy numbers, returning 26 mpg city, 36 mpg highway, and 30 mpg combined. While Thomas did not quote production numbers, this was a vehicle that sold for just seven months. A few months later, BMW would give up on diesel in America entirely. It’s safe to assume a BMW 540d is a rare find.
This week’s grail is another staff pick.
I’ve been helping my parents out with their nearly 8,000-pound 37-foot travel trailer. Thus, I have towing on my mind. Many Americans will lash their trailer up to the back of a 150/1500 pickup truck or SUV and then take off on their travels. My tow vehicles are a pair of Volkswagen Touaregs. The Touareg VR6 in my fleet can tow 6,000 pounds (limited by the aftermarket hitch) while my V10 TDI can haul a whole 7,700 pounds. That’s awesome for a midsize SUV. To put that into perspective, my parents own a 2011 Chevrolet Suburban 1500. According to Chevrolet, its towing capacity maxes out at 8,000 pounds. That wasn’t even really enough to tow their huge camper.
For people who have something substantial to tow or something rather girthy to haul, they may find themselves upgrading to a 250/2500 truck or something even larger. I’ve written about a camper that requires a Ram 5500 or equivalent to safely haul! Some have said that we don’t talk enough about what big trucks can do and today, I will shine a light on a bigger capacity truck that has seemingly faded into the background.
The Autopian staff had a huddle this morning where another utilitarian vehicle from General Motors was brought up as a possible holy grail: The Chevrolet Avalanche. But wait, didn’t Chevrolet make something like 622,380 of those? Indeed, the Avalanche itself is hardly a grail on its own. However, it’s estimated that just 9,524 of those quirky trucks came in a super hauling, heavy-duty configuration.
A Different Kind Of Crossover
General Motors of the 2000s often gets a bad rap for hard plastic interiors and sketchy ignition switches, but look past its dark points and you’ll see a company flush with forward-thinking ideas. It was in the 2000s when Cadillac seriously started chasing the Germans and it was in the 2000s when Americans got to enjoy Aussie muscle with Pontiac badges. Automotive legend Bob Lutz fulfilled a dream of making a pair of affordable American roadsters, and Chevrolet even had some fun with the wicked SSR and the hilarious HHR SS.
The 2000s were also a time when SUVs were in the middle of skyrocketing popularity. People snatched SUVs off of dealer lots and automakers even found space for luxury SUVs. In the early 2000s, Lincoln Navigators and Cadillac Escalades began popping up in music videos, often decked out in shiny chrome wheels and loaded down with custom interiors and sound systems. You know what, I’ll just show you Big Tymers’ Still Fly, a song I still listen to even two decades after it came out:
Look at those pimped-out SUVs!
Anyway, automaker experimentation was pretty hot in the early 2000s. Lincoln tried to combine the utility of a pickup with the comfort of a car with the Blackwood. Ford tried out a four-door midsize truck with the Explorer Sport Trac. Chevrolet? Well, it went even further than either Lincoln or Ford and combined an SUV and a full-size pickup into the same vehicle.
The concept behind the Chevrolet Avalanche sounds silly, but it makes some sense when you consider America’s addiction to pickup trucks and SUVs. What if you could combine the best traits of an SUV with the best traits of a pickup truck? You’d get comfortable seating for you and your family plus a rugged utility vehicle that feels at home hauling home your latest Home Depot buys.
Chevrolet announced the 2002 Avalanche in February 2001. The first trucks rolled out in May 2001, reaching customers in California, Florida, and Texas. A national rollout followed that July. Those customers got a truck with a concept not really seen before and hadn’t been replicated much since.
What did those customers get? Well, I’ll pass the mic to Chevrolet:
Forget everything you’ve seen or heard. With its exclusive Midgate, the all-new Chevy Avalanche is the only vehicle that can go from a six passenger SUV to a three-passenger full-size pickup with an eight-foot protected cargo box in less than a minute, without tools.* Combine Chevy Avalanche’s tremendous adaptability with clever features like a covered, lighted cargo box and a lockable PRO-TEC tailgate, and it’s easy to see why we call Avalanche the Ultimate Utility Vehicle.
A Truck And An SUV
The original Avalanche rode on the GMT800 platform, sharing its guts with the Suburban. The centerpiece of the Avalanche is Chevrolet’s Convert-a-Cab concept, featuring the now famous 53-inch wide by 25-inch high Midgate. The Midgate is a core element of the Convert-a-Cab concept. It’s a foldable bulkhead separating the cab from the bed. When the Midgate is up and the rear seats are up, you can carry up to six people in an Avalanche. In this configuration, the truck has a 5-foot, 3-inch bed.
However, should you need to run to the hardware store and pick up some drywall or 4x8s, the Avalanche can deploy its party trick Fold the rear seats down, fold down the lower-hinged Midgate, and boom, your 5.3-foot bed is suddenly an 8.1-foot bed. Even better, thanks to the three-piece bed cover, that long bed can be covered, so the goods from the hardware store are protected from weather and prying eyes.
If you have a large load or just want to enjoy some fresh air, you can open up the bed and remove the truck’s rear window, which stores safely in the Midgate! As Car and Driver noted in its review, the truck is quite versatile. You could remove the rear glass on its own, use the Midgate without removing the glass, or just open the whole rear of the truck up for something close to that open-air truck experience.
The Avalanche offered more than just a flexible bed and cab. Since it was based on the Suburban, the truck enjoyed the Suburban’s fully boxed frame rails. It also offered greater comfort than a rear leaf-sprung Silverado thanks to the coil-spring suspension borrowed from the Suburban. Of course, lopping off a Suburban’s roof did present some structural challenges. Chevrolet engineers combated that with reinforcements like a C-ring structure around the rear of the cab and flying buttresses behind the cab. Something neat about those buttresses is that they aren’t just there for strength, but they also help divert air away from an open Avalanche cab for less buffeting.
It doesn’t stop there, the Avalanche also had some neat storage solutions. The sides of the bed had locking storage boxes, the floor of the bed had a rubber liner, and the truck’s bumper even had a step to help you get into the bed. Also notable was the Avalanche’s Pro-Tec composite tailgate. The Avalanche had a ton of the features found on today’s trucks a whole two decades ago.
The clever convertible cab tech allowed the 18.5-foot Avalanche to shave two feet off of the longest Silverado at the time. The Avalanche didn’t have more utility than a Silverado (a bed extender gave a four-door Silverado the same bed length) but it did offer better comfort and about the same utility in a smaller package.
At launch, the Avalanche came with a 5.3-liter V8 making 285 HP and 325 lb-ft torque paired to a 4L60-E four-speed automatic. This was capable of punching the truck to 60 mph in 8.3 seconds. The truck was available with the Z71 package, which added off-road tires, a locking rear differential, and off-road suspension tuning. You could also get it with the Z66 package, which equipped the truck with more road-friendly tires and suspension tuning.
Some people weren’t so hot about the miles of cladding found on the Avalanche, so, starting in 2003, Chevy sold the truck with the WBH “Without Body Hardware” package, which deleted the cladding for a cleaner Avalanche that looked a bit closer to a Silverado.
The original Avalanche was such a novel truck that it won a North American SUV of the Year award and Motor Trend nominated the Avalanche as its Truck of the Year for 2002. It’s amusing that the Avalanche has won both SUV and truck awards. Yet, this isn’t the grail. According to the Black Diamond Avalanche coffee table book that Chevrolet gave to owners of the 2013 Chevrolet Black Diamond Avalanche, about 436,632 Avalanches were sold between 2001 and 2006. Of those, just 9,524 units qualify as today’s Grail.
The Chevrolet Avalanche 2500
Less known is the fact that Chevrolet sold a heavy-duty version of the Avalanche. Available from 2001 to 2005, the Avalanche was available in a version meant to be a bit of a super truck. In its best configurations, the regular half-ton Avalanche, also known as the Avalanche 1500, could tow 8,200 pounds and haul 1,363 pounds. That’s for the rear-wheel-drive configuration. Four-wheel-drive Avalanches towed 7,900 pounds and had a 1,349-pound payload.
If you wanted a little more beef with your truck, Chevrolet was willing to sell you the three-quarter-ton Avalanche 2500. Stepping up to the 2500 first got you access to the big-block Vortec 8100.
This 8.1-liter beast made 320 horsepower and 440 lb-ft torque. That was paired with a 4L85-E four-speed automatic. In addition to the heavy-duty drivetrain, the 2500 ditches the rear coils of its 1500 sibling and substitutes in heavy-duty leaf springs. These changes help pump payload up to 2,021 pounds and a tow rating up to 11,900 pounds.
Additional changes with the 2500 include harder-wearing carpet, rubber floor mats, a 37.5-gallon fuel tank (1500s get 31-gallon tanks), and extra instrumentation. The 2500s got their own transmission temperature gauges, their own transmission oil coolers, and skid plates. Chevrolet Avalanche 2500 wheels are also forged rather than cast. Sadly, the Z66 and Z71 packages weren’t available for the more hardcore Avalanches.
As I said before, it’s estimated that just 9,524 of these were sold. That’s 2.1 percent of all Avalanches sold from 2001 to 2005. The Avalanche did go on to get a second generation that ran from 2007 to 2013. If you count all 622,380 Avalanches ever built, the chunky big block accounts for just 1.5 percent of production. Sadly, I’ve found zero professional reviews of the Avalanche 2500. Considering the morsel of units sold, I’m not surprised. As a consolation prize, please watch this MotorWeek Retro Review of the regular Avalanche:
Perhaps there is a good thing about this truck’s rarity. When I featured an Avalanche 2500 in a December Mercedes’ Marketplace Madness, it was just $8,800. It seems people do not know that these exist, or perhaps don’t want to pay to fuel it up. Amusingly, these 8,600-pound GVWR trucks are heavy enough to be excluded from EPA testing, but if user-submitted fuel economy on Fuelly is any indication, you can expect to get about 10 mpg.
Finding one of these for sale seems to be relatively easy. Without even trying too hard, I found this Avalanche 2500 for sale in Atlanta, Georgia with 148,000 miles for $10,000. They’re worth basically nothing in the rusty Midwest and out east.
So, if you happen to be in the market for a slightly offbeat truck that has the chops to haul a big trailer around, watch out for one of the Avalanche 2500s. They’re a rare piece of early 2000s General Motors galaxy brain thinking.
Do you know of or own a car worthy of being called a ‘holy grail’? Send me an email at email@example.com or drop it down in the comments!
(Photos: GM, unless otherwise noted.)
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