Field & Stream Online Editors

At first glance, it’s tempting to dismiss the 2002 Chevy Avalanche as unsuitable for serious duty. It certainly looks wild, with sail panels behind the cab, extensive use of side cladding, and the latest trend in Chevy truck styling. But closer inspection reveals a vehicle of extraordinary practicality.

The Avalanche is basically a Suburban that boasts an innovative pickup bed. The first two rows of seats are essentially identical to the Suburban’s, meaning they’re quite comfortable for four passengers and roomy enough for five or six. On and offroad, the Avalanche rides as well as a Suburban — it’s silky smooth and super quiet. Handling and brakes are excellent, and the 5.3-liter V-8 delivers plenty of punch. If anything, it feels even tighter than the new Suburban, with no detectable squeaks or rattles.

Behind the backseat is a 5-foot pickup bed with a three-section, lockable hard cover. Right there, it’s a great setup. Then, quicker than Dr. Jekyll could change into Mr. Hyde, the Avalanche can be converted into a Chevy Silverado with an 8-foot pickup bed — by yourself, without tools. With an 8-foot bed at your disposal, you’ll be able to haul a lot of stuff. Big stuff, too, like a deer stand and lumber.

Because the modular 8-foot bed can be locked, you can put fully rigged rods back there and go in for coffee without worrying about theft. You can store shotguns, rifles, and bows under lock and key as well. In a pinch, you can even sleep there — with your head in the cab so you won’t feel like you’re locked in a coffin.

Key to this magical transformation is what Chevy calls its Convert-a-Cab System. It features a Midgate (similar in appearance and function to a tailgate) behind a split-folding rear seat. For passenger duty, use the cab as is. If you need extra storage space in the cab, simply fold down the rear seat to form a flat cargo floor. For more cargo room, the Midgate folds down into the cabin, creating the large cargo box. Made of a tough yet lightweight composite material called Pro-Tec, the Midgate is designed to take all of the abuse associated with a pickup bed. It’s rustproof and dent resistant. An optional soft cover protects the exposed seat bottoms when hauling something messy.

With the Midgate folded down, you can slide in a load of 4×8-foot drywall, close the tailgate, and drive home in a downpour without any fear of seeing your drywall turn into wetwall. But there’s more. The rear window of the Midgate can be quickly removed and stored out of harm’s way in a special pocket. Remove the cargo cover, which is divided into three 20-pound pieces, slide it into a fabric bag, and store it in the bed. Now you have a fully functional pickup with an 8-foot bed. You also have an open-air driving experience, but with minimal wind noise. Only a slight breeze reminds you that an ATV is sitting in the back.

Versatility makes the Avalanche a compelling alternative to a pickup or SUV, but it’s the attention to detail and the quality of the execution that make it the perfect solution for many outdoor needs. It didn’t hurt that the key engineers and marketing managers who worked on the Avalanche are heavily into hunting, fishing, and boating.

A pair of lockable storage boxes run along the top edges of the bed, providing space for fishing and hunting gear. Throw ice into one of these boxes and it will keep beverages cold for hours; drains facilitate cleaning.

Like the Midgate, the sides of the bed and the tailgate are made of Pro-Tec. You can dump a load of cinder block into this truck without fear of damage. A tough rubber mat protects the floor of the bed and prevents items from sliding. The bed is set up well for partitioning: A sheet of plywood and some 2x4s will divide it into upper and lower compartments. A 533¿¿8-inch piece of 2×8 slides in to divide the rear, to keep camp groceries from being crushed by other stuff. Flush-fiitting cargo lamps light up the bed without getting in the way. Steps on the corners of the rear bumpers make climbing onto the bed or the top of the cargo cover easy. Water is intelligently swept away from the cargo cover, while drains in the bed eliminate puddles. Even the cladding has a function. Made out of a bulletproof composite, it’s practically impervious to flying gravel.

The Avalanche measures 221.7 inches overall, slightly longer than a Suburban, slightly shorter than a Silverado extended-cab long-box pickup. It’s powered by GM’s Vortec 5300, a 5.3-liter V-8 rated at 285 horsepower, 325 foot-pounds of torque. The 4WD model has a trailer towing capacity of 8,100 pounds. Optional four-wheel-drive (GM’s Autotrac) adds $3,000 to the base retail price of $30,965.

If that’s not enough, the Avalanche will also be available as a 2500-series model. It comes with the big Vortec 8100 rated at 455 foot-pounds of torque and 340 horsepower, a heavy-duty transmission, a leaf-spring suspension, and other 3¿¿4-ton features, and is rated to pull 12,000 pounds. The Avalanche 2500 4WD retails for $35,865.

In the next few years, we’ll no doubt see more applications that focus on pickup-SUV combos; it’s the hot new trend in trucks. But it’s rare to see such an innovative combination of versatility and practicality as that seen in the Avalanche. It works on every level.