They say the customer is always right. Well, according to the assistant brand manager of the Chevrolet Avalanche, Deborah Michael, the inspiration behind this “reconfigurable” truck came from a customer attending a focus group.

“Cars have pass-throughs,” the customer said. “Why can’t trucks have the same thing?”

Why, indeed? Turns out they can, and the truck pass-through from bed to cab became the launch pad for Chevy’s new vehicle concept. Having a Midgate–a removable body panel between the passenger compartment and load bed of what otherwise would be an extended-cab pickup truck–lends the Avalanche enormous potential flexibility.

Seen for the first time at the Detroit auto show last January, the Avalanche will go into production early next year and go on sale sometime in the spring of 2001. Michael forecasts a production run of about 100,000 vehicles annually and predicts a base price about midway between LS-grade four-wheel-drive versions of the extended-cab pickup and Suburban on which the Avalanche is based. Call it $32,000, and you shouldn’t be too far off.

Will it sell? We think so, because the concept demonstrates a flexibility that enhances both the SUV and pickup-truck characteristics of this peculiarly schizophrenic vehicle.

How’s it work? For starters, the bed and cab are one structural unit–a Suburban with the rear of the top cut off. At the rear is a pickup-style tailgate, except this one seals weather-tight to the bed. The three 18-pound composite panels that form the tonneau cover also seal to one another and to the bed. Flip the rear-seat cushions forward, fold the seatbacks down, release two latches, and the Midgate folds down into the cab. This extends the short five-foot, three-inch truck bed to just over eight feet–long enough to transport sheets of drywall with complete weather protection.

The window above the Midgate can be removed for ventilation–as in a ’68 Corvette–and stowed against the inside of the Midgate. Fold that gate down, remove the tonneau panels, and the Avalanche will accommodate a snowmobile. Or a go-kart. Or an ATV. Or a pair of bicycles. Or pretty much any of the toys adopted by the relentlessly active consumers to whom this vehicle will appeal.

Extensive wind-tunnel tuning of those C-pillar sail panels ensures that even with all panels removed and the tailgate down, exhaust fumes do not enter the cabin. And because the roof extends over the front part of the load bed, it still offers rear-seat occupants reasonable protection against mildly inclement weather.

Clever touches abound in the cargo area, which is made of a rugged composite material called PRO-TEC that resists scratches and dents. The three interlocking cargo covers are held in place using latches borrowed from the Corvette’s targa roof, and they’re strong enough to stand on. Each can be removed independently, so you can take off just one to accept a tall, narrow object, leaving the other sections in place. The panels stow along the sides of the pickup box. Slots for vertical dividers have been provided to prevent cargo from sliding back and forth. Two lockable containers are integrated into the rear quarter-panels, offering five cubic feet of secure storage space, and there are four tie-down brackets molded into each side of the box to secure loads. Step sockets in the rear bumper and grab handles at the tailgate make it easy to climb into the bed. In the concept Avalanche, lamps have been mounted into the quarter-panel storage compartments as well as along the sides of! the bed for loading and unloading in the dark. These are a good idea and might make their way onto the production vehicle in some form.

Although the Avalanche is based on the Suburban, chief designer John Cafaro has wrought enough change to the vehicle’s face, wheel wells, and rear aspect to successfully project a wholly original image. The cladding took inspiration from armored military vehicles, says Cafaro, and the rectangular fender lines were inspired by off-road racers.

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