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Car reviews - HSV - Avalanche - wagon

Our Opinion

We like
The poise provided by Contral Trac, the power, the space, the look
Room for improvement
Fuel consumption, underwhelming interior, body looseness on lumpy dirt

13 Feb 2004

IT doesn’t take long to figure out the Avalanche is a different type of Holden Special Vehicle. Just tromp the throttle hard.

Bellowing noises fill the cabin as the 5.7-litre LS1 V8 sucks up great barrel loads of fuel and air and flings you … forward.

Yep, forward. You don’t sit there for a while as the rear tyres debate whether to shred rubber in black strips and blue smoke before hooking up and going.

You simply go.

The reason for all this is the all-wheel drive system, which under normal conditions delivers drive 62 per cent to the rear and 38 per cent to the front, via three open differentials. The electronic ABS-traction control Cross Trac system then apportions drive depending on wheel slip.

All that grip means bye-bye burnouts. Bugger it.

Adventra went on sale in Australia in January – later than expected because of some component delays - and Avalanche in February, with pricing set at $73,990.

The expectation is that about about 250 per annum will be sold in Australia, with another 40-50 finding homes in New Zealand. The forthcoming Avalanche XUV (X-treme Utility Vehicle) is expected to double those sales numbers.

Anyway, put your money down on the wagon and what you’ll get is the first local take on a high-performance cross-over in the mould of the BMW X5 4.6is, the Mercedes-Benz ML55 AMG, or even – can we mention it? – the Porsche Cayenne.

While the exterior styling is in-your-face in typical HSV style (see "The car") inside it’s all far less imposing and far more familiarly Commodore. The steering wheel is out of the HSV parts bin, the instrument dials get white backgrounds, there are alloy pedals, the odd HSV badge is splashed around and there is some plastic trim that looks like it’s been buffed with steel wool.

More noteworthy by far are the heavily bolstered and very comfortable sports seats, which come in a choice of light, dark and red just to add some atmosphere.

But the centre console is straight VY Commodore, along with the handbrake, wiper/indicator stalks and so on. C’mon, HSV: you can do better than this, surely.

There are fewer complaints when it comes to equipment. Avalanche is based on the top spec Adventra LX8, which means dual-zone climate control, six-stack CD player, front and side airbags and powered driver's seat. Leather trim, powered front passenger pew and a sunroof are among items added by HSV.

The high intensity discharge foglights are also worth a mention even though they are an option. They only work on high beam and have the effect of turning night into day - literally brilliant stuff.

Underneath that lot, HSV has bolted up a 270kW (at 5700rpm) version of the 5.7-litre LS1 V8 engine. That’s down 15kW (and 100rpm) on the rear-wheel drive sedans such as ClubSport because the exhaust plumbing had to be compromised to fit in the engine bay along with all the added four-wheel drive clutter, like front driveshafts.

The torque count is also down, Avalanche producing a claimed 475Nm at 4000rpm, while the Clubby grunts out 510Nm at a substantially higher 4800rpm.

There’s a new and very impressive brake system including a PBR-developed two-piston caliper and 336mm ventilated and grooved front discs. The caliper is down two pistons and up 6mm on the normal HSV 'Performance' package.

The fundamental suspension design is the same as the Adventra, but everything’s been firmed and toned to seek that firmer, sportier HSV drive experience. That means unique dampers, a 28mm front anti-roll bar (up from 27mm) and a 16mm rear anti-roll bar (up from 13mm).

But apart from that, the mechanical box and dice is all pretty much straight out of Adventra. Same old clunky shifting 4L60E four-speed auto gearbox and even the same lower 3.46:1 final drive ratio that car’s 235kW Gen III V8 gets. Only some minor calibration tweaks have been made.

And why not? Holden spent $125 million on Cross Trac and HSV piggy-backed as much as it could. There was still 400,000km worth of test driving done though, and Avalanche consumed the working lives of three staff members for 16 months, as well as $4.5 million in development funds.

And the result? Yes it’s still identifiably HSV, but as already noted, there’s plenty that’s new as well.

Right from the start, from the moment you get in it’s different. You sit higher up, further from the road like no HSV sedan. Too high for taller drivers who will quickly run out of headroom, a painful occurrence not helped by the sunroof. A lower seat base would make a lot of difference here, and would also help access into the seat itself.

In the back seat there are no such dramas. This is a Commodore wagon, remember, with a wheelbase nearly three metres long and an overall lenth of more than five metres. Sprawling space in the rear and immense luggage space behind the seats – unless you option the third row kiddie seat. In an HSV? You're kidding.

While we’re talking size there’s another stat worth chucking in here and that’s kerb weight: Avalanche is a porcine 2026kg.

You can feel it in all aspects of the driving. On the positive side this car is planted to the road. While the sedans have always had that twitchy feel to them as you close on the limit there’s no such sensation with Avalanche.

Weight, that wheelbase and all-wheel drive are co-conspirators here. Use those impressive brakes on the way in to a corner, progressively feed on the power on the way through and then punch it on the way out and you’ll be tuning out understeer rather than oversteer.

All aided by heavy but accurate steering that puts most other cross-overs to shame. And there’s not as much bodyroll as you might expect either.

On the negative side, that weight retards acceleration and hits the hip pocket something fierce. The trip computer came up with a 17.2 litres fuel consumption average and at times it seemed like it was being guzzled per second rather than per 100km.

It’s worth the expense sometimes just to listen to that V8 on song. Go for a full-throttle overtake and an almost frightening amount of exhaust noise invades the cabin, perhaps it’s a shock because most of the time there’s barely a burble to be heard, with wind rush and some tyre noise far more prevalent.

But this is a great cruiser as well as a pretty impressive bruiser. On broken and undulating bitumen Avalanche makes full use of its significant suspension travel and long wheelbase to provide a surprisingly good ride.

On dirt roads you can add the surety of four-wheel drive and a beautifully sorted brake and ABS system to the mix to make it a supremely confident cross-country conveyance.

But the Avalanche is less comfortable as the off-road conditions get more severe and closed in. This is not only a long and heavy car but also a wide one.

Narrow bush tracks that Cross Trac and the ride height take in their stride become excruciating as tree limbs and brambles drag screechingly down the side of the car. Research carefully where you are going off-road or prepare for plenty of paint damage.

We didn’t take Avalanche seriously off-road - more subjected it to the sort of stuff that light duty off-roaders should take in their stride – road-oriented tyres, no low range gearing and a limited fuel range all point its limitations.

And while Cross Trac stood up fine in these sandy conditions, kilometres of yumps exposed an unconquerable problem for this car – the age of the fundamental design base, which is a platfrom called W-car.

It is just about at the end of its life and it shows, lacking the sort of torsional rigidity required in these conditions. There were rattles, moans and groans, even the windows were flexing in their frames!

There’s not much HSV can do about that. It’s core engineering that can only be cured from 2006 when the new Zeta architecture that will underpin VE Commodore and much more – including future HSVs – is rolled out.

The engineering that HSV puts into the Avalanche now is undoubtedly impressive, but that can only achieve so much. This car is no sophisticate, but then, some crudeness has never hurt HSV. Indeed, that rough tactility is part of what makes it such a hit with Aussie performance car fans.

Overall, there's a lot to like about Avalanche. It's not to everybody's tastes, that's for sure, but no HSV is. Those who buy it will love it.

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