SUV for converts: Avalanche ahead

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The ad campaign for Chevrolet's split-personality Avalanche rolls in Texas, California and Florida today.

The General Motors Corp. brand wants to start selling the sport utility-pickup cross-over vehicle in the top three truck-selling states to establish momentum for the rest of the country, said Ed Schoener, brand manager. The estimated $35 million push goes national in September.

"Once we go national, the launch will be fully accelerated," he said. "The trucks won't just be dribbling into dealerships."

Ford Motor Co. was the first to market a pickup/SUV a year ago with its Ford Explorer Sport Trac, but Mr. Schoener believes Avalanche has no competitors because it offers the industry's first trademarked so-called "Midgate," a fold-down door between the cab to the cargo bed. The truck can be quickly reconfigured from an open-air pickup to a closed SUV with two rows of seats or a covered, secured pickup. Opening the Midgate expands the cargo area, which can be covered or open by removing a stowable, glass window.

Jim Gorman, exec VP-exec creative director at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich., said describing Avalanche is complicated: "All we had to tell people is we have a new Chevy, and it's the only truck that changes from an SUV to a pickup."

The agency created two :30 TV spots for Avalanche and at least two print ads. All of the ads will run in the three-state launch and nationally, and offer a product demonstration. One spot shows two men tooling through deserted dusty trails. "Wanna switch?" the passenger asks. The driver drops the Midgate and removes the window, creating an open pickup. "Good idea," he tells his buddy. In the other, a passerby asks an Avalanche owner, "Change for a dollar?" The owner reconfigures the truck into the open pickup and takes the guy's dollar.

Avalanche buyers are expected to be about 80% males, lower than traditional pickup truck's 90%, said Mr. Schoener. Buyers are expected to be active, outdoor enthusiasts, between 35 and 45, with annual household incomes of $80,000.

Mr. Schoener has more than 190,000 qualified handraisers, due to early marketing starting in January 2000 on the Internet and expanded to two promo tours and teaser print ads in truck enthusiast titles, with business reply cards.

Avalanche is built on the Chevrolet Suburban SUV chassis. The two-wheel-drive version starts at $30,965, including destination charges, with standard goodies like aluminum wheels, a standard Vortec eight-cylinder engine and CD player. The four-wheel-drive version starts at $33,965. Chevy projects annual sales of 100,000 units.

Jim Hall, VP-industry analysis at consultancy AutoPacific, said Avalanche's "price point is going to make it tough, but not impossible" for Chevrolet to hit its sales goal.

He dubbed Avalanche's styling "a hell of a lot more aggressive" than Chevrolet's Silverado pickup. That could create a new problem for Chevrolet: a new truck that could be more visually appealing than its core Silverado. "I'm not saying it's going to happen, but the potential is there," he said. If it does, buyers who want Avalanche but can't afford it, could end up shopping at competitors for other trucks.

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