I park the 2013 Chevrolet Avalanche LTZ in the shadow of a Tyrannosaurus and stand back to observe the two goliaths, both with their own unique and unmistakable presence, one of them a dinosaur and the other soon-to-be. In the land of giants, the Avalanche is at home, a fitting place to bid farewell to an outgoing legend.
Introduced to an SUV-crazy American public back in 2001, the Chevrolet Avalanche arguably ushered in the crossover era by attempting to combine the size of an SUV and the utility of a pickup truck. Its distinctive bed design shattered conventions and established new rules that have since influenced competitors like the Honda Ridgeline. Now, GM has decided to phase the Avalanche out of production, and we’ve taken the final edition of the trendsetter out to the Palm Springs desert to see how far it’s come.
As mentioned in our Scion FR-S camping trip (here), my wife and I are not exactly thrifty packers. For a weekend in a rented poolhouse with friends, we nearly manage to fill up the cavernous Avalanche with clothes, provisions, golf clubs and our pet guinea pig named Winnie. The back row is completely full, while beach chairs and several more bags are tossed into the durable bed. Before taking delivery of the Avalanche, I wondered why the car has lasted as long as it has in the age of the hybrid. Now I know.
From Long Beach, we head east on the 91 Freeway toward Riverside and immediately run into Friday afternoon traffic. This gives us time to become familiar with the interior features of the Avalanche. After more time than I care to admit, I figure out that the car must be completely stopped to operate the Navigation controls. I understand the safety implications, but the processor is rather slow and it sometimes takes a few seconds to react to your commands, so needing to come to a complete stop can keep you parked for quite a while.
Our car has the Sun & Entertainment Package, which includes the wide touchscreen with XM Radio, a rear entertainment system and power sunroof. Nikol sprawls out across the wide passenger seat and drifts away, while I settle into a satellite hip-hop station, peel back the sunroof shade and rest my elbow atop the massive center console. This is a car made for one-handed driving.
The LTZ is the luxury edition of the Avalanche, draped in beautiful Blue Granite Metallic paint with classy chrome touches and 20-inch polished aluminum wheels that all tie together like an MMA fighter in Varvatos denim. Underneath, however, the Avalanche still falls short of luxurious. While the leather interior is appreciated, there are plenty of plastic parts clearly lifted from the GM bin that are tough to swallow with a $53,715 MSRP. Stop-and-go driving isn’t a strong suit, either. Every one of the 6,000 lbs. makes their presence felt; the steering is a little numb, braking requires a few seconds of forethought and my usual fuel-saving strategy of coasting down hills and into the incline is outmatched by three tons of truck.
The car is more suited to its surroundings when we escape gridlock and the Avalanche opens its 5.3L V8 engine onto the 10 Freeway, where the desert landscape flattens out and the sky opens up. The Avalanche effortlessly devours mile after mile of the majestic desert. Driving at low speeds felt like packing on a few pounds and then squeezing into cheap jeans, but out here, with the giant windshield and windows and sunroof providing 360-degree visibility and beyond, the Avalanche absolutely embodies freedom. The crumble-cake San Jacinto Mountains blast into view, and hundreds of 65m-tall windmills with spinning propellers and the 27-story monument to bad decisions that is Casino Morongo all come and go, inhaled and spit out by the Avalanche, and suddenly, big isn’t weird anymore. Suddenly, I feel like a cowboy rustling a herd of steers across the plains. Winnie chirps in the backseat.
We are the first in our 12-person group to arrive at the property, a palm tree-lined house and casita that harkens back to the days when celebrities with oversized sunglasses and white bikinis flocked to party in Palm Springs. All 221.3 inches of the Avalanche somehow squeeze into the three-car garage, but I’ve backed all the way against the wall and there’s no way to open the bed gate.
Fret not. Instead of repositioning the car, I simply reach underneath the three plastic panels covering the truck bed and loosen their clamps so they can be lifted and removed. Now the back is wide open, and with a boost Nikol hops inside, swallowed by the sheer size of the Avalanche as she hands over bag after bag to be brought into the house. Granted, this isn’t the most enjoyable activity when the desert is nearing 108 degrees, but we get the job done and rejuvenate in the air conditioning while the rest of our friends trickle in.
Before the sun is up the next day, I’m out the door of our casita and tip-toeing around the broken pool straws and soaking wet issues of People and Fast Company strewn about, making my way to the main house to rouse the other males in attendance. We have a tee time to catch at the PGA West Course in La Quinta, and two more sets of clubs are tossed into the still-uncovered bed as our threesome sets off.
At 7:30am we’re already relying heavily on the air conditioning, but the 320 horsepower and 335 lb.-ft of torque are more lively than ever on the long roads free of traffic lights. The Avalanche handles spirited cornering just fine, and slowly but prominently roars to life as you step back onto the gas. Over the course of the trip, the car averages about 18 mpg and, factoring in how long we idled while stuck in traffic and the need for full-blast air, that’s not too far off the 15/21 mpg rating. Thank you, fuel injection.
The saltwater pool beckons after a full 18, and I briefly consider leaving my submerged chair and heading into the San Jacintos to test the Avalanche at altitude and catch the desert sunset. The thought of enduring any more heat, though, keeps me around friends – plus those 20-inch rims aren’t exactly trail-friendly. Barbeque and cannonball contests occupy the rest of the day.
The black plastic panels are searing hot when I reassemble the bed cover the next morning. If Chevrolet offered a power-top, I would consider it. We bid adieu to the glamorous life and head back west for cooler temperatures. Nikol and I pick up a bag or two of discounted duds at the outlet mall and toss them into the bed with the rest of our stuff. It’s then that I wonder exactly whom the Avalanche has been appealing to for the past dozen years. Because, yes, I’m using most every cubic inch of its cargo space now, but 95-percent of the time, I’ll use very little of it. There must be people with the need for all of this space that don’t live on farms or tow space shuttles for a living, but who are they? To my right, a mid-90’s Toyota Tacoma nearly buckles under the pressure of not one but two refrigerators in the bed, tied down with some bungie cord and a lot of tape. That guy, I think to myself, could use this Avalanche.
Of course, you don’t need to use all the cargo space to enjoy the Chevrolet Avalanche; the ride isn’t like that of a Mercedes or even its buttoned-up brother the Escalade, but it is comfortable and certainly spacious. When we make it home I devise a plan to enjoy the ocean air and squeeze some more utility out of the truck. Out go the bed cover panels, but I also remove the rear window, fold down the rear seats and the rear panel – now we’ve got a two-seater truck with nothing but open air behind us. Nikol and I drive up to Signal Hill and relax on a blanket, watching planes come into the Long Beach Airport while Winnie scampers around the bed.
It may not be necessary all of the time, but the 2013 Chevrolet Avalanche offers plenty of utility with which you can do with whatever you please. Ain’t that America? I’ve only owned one for five days, but I sure will miss the ol’ gal when she’s gone for good.