Chevrolet's Avalanche seems more like a utility vehicle than most SUVs out there. The marketers at Chevy go so far as to call this "configurable" truck the world's first "ultimate utility" vehicle. And with its spacious truck bed, roomy cab, and all the available seating and layout changes, I tend to agree. Then add in the quasi-military good looks and eye-popping Victory Red paint job, and you have a head-turning truck that can handle almost any suburban dweller's demands.

The Avalanche comes in two or four-wheel drive and 1500 and 2500 models. Our test truck was a 2WD 1500 powered by a 5.3-liter, 16-valve Vortec V8. It generates 285 hp, or 325 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm, enough to carry a 1,360-lb payload in the bed or tow an 8,300 lb behind on a trailer. Moving up to the 2500 model gives drivers a 340-hp 8.1-liter V8 and the ability to tow up to 12,000 lb. For my purposes, the smaller V8 was more than adequate. It gives the truck enough get-up-and-go to be confident while getting on freeways or keeping up with traffic. And for those more environmentally conscious, the engine uses a three-way catalytic converter, positive crankcase ventilation, and an evaporative collection system to keep emissions down.

Despite its size, the Avalanche behaves much like a car in its easy handling and refined road manners. Up front, an independent, torsion-bar suspension smoothes rough roads while a five-link coil spring with automatic load leveling in the rear lets the truck track through turns and over bumps. Traction control, part of an $835 Z-66 suspension package, and standard ABS on all four wheels make sure the truck stays on the road and under control. The Z-66 on-road package also includes tuned springs, a locking rear differential, and 17-in. aluminum wheels.

Inside, the $33,000 truck has all the top-shelf accoutrements: power seats, mirrors and locks, a CD player/AM/FM radio, adjustable steering wheel, and plenty of storage space. The fabric covering the seats and other interior components resembles stamped steel, giving the vehicle a rugged look. But the seats, which the manufacturer claims will seat five or six adults, is really a better fit for four.

The rear cab window is totally removable for that "convertible-like" ventilation. With the window removed and the rear seats tucked forward, the entire bulkhead between the cab and the bed, known as the midgate, folds forward to extend the bed. With the midgate down, the 5-ft, 3-in. bed can carry an 8 3 4-ft sheet of plywood. The bed also has three interlocking panels that cover and protect the cargo box. Two lockable storage compartments flank the bed, taking up the space aft of the wheel wells. They offer a total of 3.5 ft3 of cargo space and each has a lowpoint drain, so they can carry ice and be used as coolers.

Fuel economy for the 5,437-lb truck is about 17 mpg, so the 31-gallon fuel tank provides a 520-mile cruising range. And though the truck seems big, the top of the cab is only an inch or so above the 6-ft mark, so it can be parked in most downtown parking garages. The Avalanche is extremely versatile, suitable for today's nuclear family, an outdoor person with a yen for boating and camping, or a construction crew working out in the boondocks.