2007 Chevy Avalanche

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Though the changes are subtle, the ’07 Chevy Avalanche is essentially an all-new truck.

And a much better one than it was before.

It still has its rough and tumble Tonka toy personality — and clever mid-gate system, which expands the usable bed space into the interior to accommodate long objects without the need to drop the tailgate and leave them hanging in the breeze. But the questionable Stegosaurus-style plastic body cladding has been retired to the “Aztek Room” deep within a remote GM salt mine in the deserts of New Mexico — and there are equally salutary improvements to the chassis and driveline as well.

The front suspension now uses coil-over shocks riding in light weight/high-strength aluminum lower control arms. This change reduces unsprung mass by 20 percent — but what that means to you is a noticeably smoother ride and specifically, less jarring when you hit a pothole. There’s also a new rack-and-pinion power steering system designed to deliver more car-like road feel, even at high speeds — and a tighter turning radius than last year (43 feet vs. 43.3 feet). A revised 5-link rear suspension designed complements the improvements up front — and the truck’s track (the distance between pairs of wheels) has been widened to spread out its center of mass and enhance its stability during cornering and abrupt, emergency maneuvering.

These changes are readily apparent after a back to back test drive of the ’06 vs. the ’07 model. While you should never drive any truck or SUV as if it were a sports car, the new Avalanche is noticeably more sure-footed — especially when one tries a deliberate hard turn, to simulate an emergency lane change. (The government’s rollover ratings for ’07 models weren’t available at the time of this writing, but the Avalanche ought to score well given all the improvements GM has made.)

The truck’s fully boxed steel frame is also changed — and GM claims 90 percent increased torsional stiffness in the new front section. The use of hydro-forming (a process for extruding steel parts using water under extremely high pressures to make the frame sections as single units instead of welding pieces together) helps eliminate production variances and tighten up tolerances. That should translate into fewer squeaks and rattles — especially over the life-cycle of the vehicle since there are fewer bolted-together sections to work loose.

GM’s “quiet steel” laminates — essentially a sandwich of steel and sound/vibration-deadening materials — are used at many points (in particular, the cowl area) to limit the intrusion of unpleasant vibrations and driveline noises into the cabin. Expanding accoustical foam is also shot into body crevices during assembly in order to further cut down on wind and road noise by sealing up the cabin and isolating it from the external world. There’s even an “accoustically-tuned” plastic cover for the engine — and a “quit-tuned” alternator.

Through these and other design changes, GM has made Jolly Green Giant strides in terms of improving the refinement of its vehicles. The effort put into quieting such a large, heavy (and heavy-duty) pick-up as the Avalanche is more evidence of the automaker’s determination to match or even beat the “civility factor” of the best Japanese imports.

The exterior sheetmetal’s also clean sheet, with most of the front-end panels shared with the also-new 2007 Chevy Tahoe — including the sculpted hood with twin “power domes” and steeply raked “fast” windshield, which gives the truck a better aerodynamic profile.

All trim levels receive body-colored front and rear fascias, too.

These changes render a truck that’s much less boxy/baroque than the original — and to my eye, much less rednecky. The interior is also completely new — and a geological epoch of an improvement over the clunky breadbox dash with four cinder blocks on the floor for seats ambiance of the previous Avalanche. A cockpit-style hooded dash pod similar to what you’d find in a Land Rover or BMW houses the gauge cluster — with the individual gauges finished with stylish chrome trim rings. The dash cover itself is tightly fitted, with no gaping seams or obvious points of attachment in evidence. LED backlighting for the instrument cluster and controls, low-gloss materials, brushed aluminum and wood inserts provide additional detail touches that really classes up the joint.

While the overall wheelbase is still the same (130 inches) the ’07 Avalanche has a bit more front seat head room (41.1 inches vs. 40.7 inches) and rear seat legroom (39.1 vs. 38.9), as well as more substantially more hip room (and a bit more shoulder room) for both front and rear seat occupants.

Overall, it’s a vastly more pleasant truck — inside and out.

Other big news is the bump in output of the standard 5.3 liter V-8 to 320-hp, a 25-hp improvement over last year’s 295-hp engine. Amazingly, fuel efficiency doesn’t suffer even a little — thanks to Displacement on Demand (DOD) technology, which shuts down four of the V-8’s cylinders under light load/part throttle conditions, as when cruising at steady speed on the highway. The EPA hasn’t published official numbers yet, but Chevy claims the ’07 Avalanche with the 5.3 V-8 is good for 16 city/22 mpgs highway — a decent improvement over the ’06 model’s 14 city/19 mpgs highway, especially in view of the substantial uptick in power. Towing and payload capacity also increase slightly to 8,200-lbs. and 1,387-lbs., respectively — vs. last year’s 8,00-lb. towing and 1,337-lb. maxes.

And for those who need more hoofs to stomp the ground with, a 6 liter V-8 with 355 horses — and 365-lbs.-ft. of torque — is available optionally.

Both V-8s are paired with 4-speed automatic transmissions and either 2WD or automatic 4WD with two-speed transfer case and 4WD Low range. Buyers can order at no additional cost (but a slight drop in rated output, to 310-hp) E85/”flex-fuel” capability for the 5.3 V-8 if they wish. This version of the 5.3 has an alumimum block and heads — while the standard 5.3 has an iron block and aluminum heads.

The Avalanche’s 5.3-foot bed/cargo box — its signature feature — is covered with a tough rubberized surfaces that can take abuse and cleans up easily. Just hose it down and wipe it off. And unlike a conventional pick-up’s bed, the Avalanche has an available multi-section weather-insulated tonneau cover that can removed entirely or a piece at a time, depending on how much you want to cover up. Each section slides into place like tongue-in-groove siding and is latched into place with a pair of snap levers. When all the cover sections are removed, the Avalanche can easily handle a pair of dirt bikes. With the lids on, you’ve got weather-proof (and secure) storage for your gear, tools — whatever. And with the second row seats folded flat and the midgate section removed, you can now cart home 8-foot boards (or 4×8 sheets of plywood) thanks to an extra two inches of available space. The handy storage compartments built into the bed have drain plugs in the bottom and can be filled up with ice to keep your favorite beverages nicely chilled.

Other improvements for ’07 include now-standard Stabiltrak electronic traction/stability control and available back-up camera system (packaged with GPS navigation), 20-inch rims (17s come standard), rain-sensing wipers and “real time damping” Autoride semi-active suspension — which firms up (or softens) shock damping based on body roll and wheel motion sensors. Buyers can also order remote start capability and Ultrasonic Park Assist. The Z51 off-road package will be available later this year — and will include 18-inch rims, two hooks, skid plates and fog lights, among other tough and tumble equipment upgrades.

Base price for the standard model LS two-wheel-drive is $31,615; a top-of-the-line LTZ 4WD with all the goodies will push $40k out the door.

With the gas price situation being what it is, a lot of folks are having second thoughts about full-size SUVs and pick-ups. But look at it this way: The Avalanche is a two-fer — a big truck and a big SUV rolled into a single vehicle. Instead of two 16-20 mpg machines, you only need one! That’s like getting double the gas mileage — in a certain light, at least.

Or so you might tell the wife…

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