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Midgate gets funny looks — and buyers

James Morehead, a business insurance salesman, faced a dilemma.

On the weekends Morehead enjoys working on projects around his house in Crystal Lake, Ill. He wanted to trade his 1998 Chevrolet Tahoe for a big pickup that could handle 4-by-8 sheets of plywood. But he was concerned about his image: “I didn’t think it was very professional to be seen driving to my clients in a pickup.”

His solution: the 2002 Chevrolet Avalanche, a sport-utility-based truck that features a covered pickuplike bed and General Motors’ new Midgate, a cargo door in the rear of the passenger cabin.

The Midgate, viewed by some as a gimmick, has found a following. In September, Chevrolet sold 7,639 Avalanches, compared with 13,611 Suburbans, on which the Avalanche is based.

The Avalanche and the Midgate reflect GM’s effort to take risks. The Pontiac Aztek’s ungainly styling was a miscue, but the Avalanche is off to a solid start, despite some criticism of its bulky plastic trim.

Chevrolet says about 35 percent of sales so far are conquests from non-GM products.

The Avalanche has a 5-foot-3-inch pickup bed. But when the cabin cargo door is opened and the seat back for the rear seat is lowered, the cargo bed expands to 8 feet 1 inch from the back of the front seats to the tailgate. Three removable panels cover the pickup bed.

Tradesmen need not apply

The Avalanche is not intended for tradesmen. It is aimed at buyers, like Morehead, who want a large, comfortable four-door vehicle with the flexibility of a pickup.

“We figure that most people will use the Midgate maybe once a month, a couple times of month, if that, to haul a load,” said Avalanche brand manager Ed Schoener.

The Avalanche and the 2002 Cadillac Escalade EXT, which also has a Midgate, give GM an opportunity to stand out in a full-sized truck segment distinguished by chrome and sheet metal rather than product innovation.

“Innovation needs to be functional, delightful, useful and friendly,” said Dan Gorrell, vice president of Strategic Vision, and the Midgate “seems like a real innovation.”

“It does provide more functionality and capability,” he said.

Adds James Sanfilippo, executive vice president of Automotive Marketing Consultants: “The Midgate really adds a feature that makes a lot of people curious.”

Avalanche owner Sandy Olszewski and her husband were looking for a new four-door pickup when they spotted the Avalanche at Reichert Chevrolet-Buick in Crystal Lake.

“My husband’s exact words were, ‘Look at that ugly truck,’ ” said Olszewski, also of Crystal Lake.

But after looking at the Midgate and the other features on the Avalanche, Olszewski pronounced it “really neat.”

“I liked the idea that it has four full-sized doors and that it was the best of both worlds, SUV and (pickup) truck,” she said.

More on the way

A few other players are eyeing the cabin cargo door innovation.

Subaru is planning a Legacy-based wagon with a moveable roof panel and a cabin cargo door. The vehicle is scheduled for the 2003 model year. GMC has a similar vehicle planned, likely for the 2004 model year, created from GM’s mid-sized truck platform.

Ford has shown several concepts with a cabin cargo door. Dodge, though, has no plans to offer that feature, at least not on its new Dodge Ram pickup.

Chevrolet has set an aggressive sales target for the Avalanche: 100,000 a year.

But Jeff Schuster, director of product analysis at J.D. Power and Associates, said his company is forecasting 70,000 Avalanche sales in 2002, with most of those sales taken from GM and non-GM sport-utilities and pickups.

“We see this product cannibalizing the other vehicles that are out on the road already, not increasing truck share,” Schuster said. But it may stabilize the full-sized truck segment, creating an option for buyers who might have considered exiting the truck segment for a car-based sport wagon, he said.

Midgate or not, the Avalanche’s styling could determine whether GM reaches its sales goal of 100,000.

“I don’t think the Midgate is a gimmick. I think they have an interesting idea,” Sanfilippo said. “(But) there’s a visual objection to that vehicle on some people’s part because it isn’t smooth and refined. It is quite ostentatious, big and brawny.”

In fact, some dealers have suggested that Chevrolet also offer an Avalanche model without the contrasting plastic panels or painting those panels to match the vehicle’s body color.

GM is “trying to do things; you have to give them credit,” Gorrell said. “That’s how they’re going to win this game.”

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