The Chevrolet Avalanche almost won Truck of the Year. Yes, it's based on the Tahoe, and while GM doesn't pigeonhole it into any particular category, we have a rule here that if it has a bed, it's a truck. The Sport Utility Truck concept was invented by Ford with the Explorer Sport Trac, and the Avalanche is an effective expression of that concept. The Avalanche takes the best of what the GMT900 platform has to offer and combines it with the versatility of a people-pleasing SUV and an open bed for hauling awkward cargoes, both connected by that handy midgate.
What we liked about the Avalanche is the fact that it still doesn't have that nasty plastic cladding anymore. We liked its bullet-like shape notched by the bed in the back. Yes, that behind slopes up and out-like J-Lo's after a weekend with Ben and Jerry-negatively impacting visibility, but luckily there was a rearview camera to help us back out of parking spots. The optional navigation system competed with Ford's as overall best among our testers, with DaimlerChrysler's system definitely third. The center console offered good storage, as did the side-bed storage that we used as a cooler during our track day. The new front suspension and five-link rear soaked up bumps pretty well. The brakes were strong. Dual-zone A/C and cushy seats felt great for long hauls.
What we didn't like was experiencing the 5.3L V-8 trying to push that 5,600-pound behemoth down the quarter-mile (it ranked last among the trucks) and on the road. And the Avalanche is somehow simultaneously easy to drive but wallows like a scow. We don't like its $46K price either-it's higher than the Sierra, which has a larger engine, larger bed, similar passenger space, navigation, etc. Perhaps the drawback of vehicles like this is that they try to be everything to everybody, resulting in a package that is certainly effective, but potentially bloated. Vehicles like this are certainly versatile and unconventional, and that latter point could be why they are still around.
We've had a lot of experience with Dodge trucks in the past year. The 1500 Mega Cab SLT won our Truck of the Year for 2006 and we've just written the last of our yearlong coverage of that vehicle. We also are currently driving a Cummins 2500 Mega Cab Laramie for a long-term evaluation. Therefore, in some ways, we felt right at home driving the 1500 Sport. One of the benefits, or curses, of driving this version was that we realized how spoiled, maybe even preoccupied, we had become with the Mega Cab's huge interior.
Sitting in the driver seat of the 1500 Sport, we couldn't tell much of a difference between it and its cousins. Here's why: That aggressive front-end design still screams "Ram;" we still appreciated the 5.7L Hemi-enabled ability to pull hard when the truck was full of people or towing; center console storage spaces were still huge; and it had the same no-nonsense overall interior design with cloth seats wrapped now in stain- and dirt-resistant material.
What distinguishes the 1500 Sport is its five-speed automatic transmission; body-color fascia and grille (in this case, painted a Brilliant Black glittered with metallic); 20-inch chrome-clad aluminum wheels; and fog lamps. Available options are the same as the SLT trim level.The Ram got 14.03 mpg, which tracks with what we got from the Mega Cab 1500. This fuel economy is close to the Sierra with its larger engine, and the F-150's smaller one.
The downsides include the two-wheel, rather than four-wheel, ABS; front IFS that's not as smooth as GM's; a rear that still likes to bounce on the freeway; and second-row seats that are not as roomy as you would expect from a crew cab configuration.
One thing about this truck that became clear to us: It's like a hot-rod work truck. It has power and performance; it did great off-road (as one staffer put it, "If you can't Dodge it, Ram it"); and carries people and cargo confidently. But, when it comes to creature comforts, Rams lag a bit behind GM brands and to some degree Ford brands. It's a well-rounded competitor that really only stands out as having an aggressive aura. As another staffer put it, "It knows it's a truck." If you use it as nothing more than a truck, you'll like it even more.
Like the Chevrolet Avalanche, we decided that the SUT feature of attaching an open truck bed to the SUV makes the Explorer Sport Trac a truck.
Looking at it through that filter reveals a non-traditional vehicle. In fact, Ford thinks so, too. The company counts the unusual Honda Ridgeline as the Sport Trac's nearest competitor, although we would think that the Tahoe-based Avalanche would be on the Sport Trac's hit list. The Ridgeline is hardly setting the truck world on fire, but the Explorer may only be running neck-and-neck with the Ridgeline (and Avalanche) in unit sales as of third quarter this year.
Regardless, the Sport Trac has been a successful vehicle that launched the SUT segment; and it's been redesigned along the same lines as the 2006 Explorer SUV. In a way, the Sport Trac offers mid-sized pickup capability, albeit with a shorter bed, and the full benefits of a mid-sized SUV. It offers refinements in interior comfort, perceived quality, and ride quality that are similar to its Explorer ancestor. A first for the Sport Trac is the addition of Ford's 5.4L Triton V-8 to the choice of powerplants. This lends it more hauling capacity-1,500 pounds more than one equipped with a V-6. Ford's roll-abatement technology is standard as part of the traction/stability control suite, a handy safety feature. We like the tri-sectioned plastic tonneau, the adjustable bed extender, tie-downs, and small storage compartments in the bed-all serve to maximize the utility of the tiny bed.
But it didn't really keep up with the Avalanche, or any of the more traditional pickups in our field. The Avalanche was a closer contender for Truck of the Year, as the Sport Trac didn't accumulate enough points. Perhaps its body style had something to do with it. The vehicle's seemingly compact dimensions and the way that the bed is differentiated from the cab gives the body an off-balanced, toy-like appearance compared to the other trucks. It's not as unified-looking as the Avalanche. The interior appointments, while well-endowed, didn't appear as plush as you would expect from a Limited trim level. The seats felt too firm, although that may be indicative of us driving too much and not spending enough time walking or going to the gym for the two weeks we had these vehicles. The inside door handles are in an odd position, not offering the best leverage. The two-toned upholstery on the seats didn't look as classy as the buckets in the other vehicles. As one staffer indicated, it's hard to put a finger on why the Sport Trac didn't win. Most of us appreciated its utility, but were otherwise neutral about the vehicle, which might as well be a negative in a tough market.