Welcome to the jungle.
by Marty Padgett
There's little argument that General Motors has struggled to stay ahead of the sport-ute game.
While the 1990s saw steady improvements to the sales-phenom Explorer and the introduction of a clutch of new nameplates, GM's midsize utes - the Jimmy, Blazer, and Bravada - doddered on an aged platform. All the while, legions of crossovers, cute-utes, full-sizers and sort-of-SUVs overtook the shopping malls and parking lots of all of North America.
Today, not only does GM face a stable if not shrinking market for traditional midsize utes, they also face serious direct competition in the form of the $28,380 '02 Ford Explorer and the $35,000 Acura MDX.
So, for a number of reasons, GM's new midsize sport-ute trio had better be good.
They are, and to my taste the GMC Envoy may be the best of the three. While the Envoy, Chevy's TrailBlazer, and the lame-duck Olds Bravada are as fraternal as a keg of Schaefer's, the Envoy is outfitted with the best mix of style and content.
The most important feature of the new Envoy, though, may be that "new" part. To get a sense of how fundamentally different the Envoy is from the Jimmy that GMC used to sell, just pop open the hood and examine its new 4.2-liter in-line six. It's completely new, smooth, quiet, powerful, and it's one of GM's most technologically advanced powerplants. The aluminum double-overhead cam design has variable valve timing with mechanical actuation, puts out 270 horsepower, and twists out 90 percent of its 275 lb-ft of torque from 1600 to 5600 rpm. Yes, the strapping 4400-lb Envoy needs every one of the 270 hp to possess itself of speed, but acceleration feels brisk and reasonably quick.
The overriding impression from the power room, though, is of refinement. All the fancy tricks and refinement make the six-cylinder seem too expensive to use just on these products. We hear a five-cylinder and four-cylinder are in the works based on the same architecture; don't be surprised to find them in GM's future small trucks and crossover vehicles.
The Envoy's spacious cabin is another sign of the times changing. The '02 Envoy is seven inches taller, four inches wider and eight inches longer than the model it replaces, while the wheelbase is six inches longer. Ford claims a skosh more headroom in front and a few more cubes in the back, and Acura asserts it's more hip in the front and leggier in the second row, but the Envoy is competitive in most measurements and bigger in many.
The great divide here is that the Acura and the Ford offers third-row seating right here, right now. A true seven-passenger version will come to GMC and Chevrolet sometime in the next year, but the current Envoy can't be had any way but as a five-seater.
The body structure itself is 270 percent stronger than before, and feels even better. It's clear GM has learned the lesson of structural rigidity in trucks: the Envoy's body resonance is 23 hz, which doesn't matter much unless you compare it to today's luxury sedans, where it's nearly on par. You get the feeling that GM has spent a lot of money and time developing a strong body structure, something that never could be said about the former Jimmy.
As far as roadgoing behavior goes, there hasn't been a greater leap forward in stability since Prozac. To its longer wheelbase and wider track, the Envoy adds a new short-long arm suspension in front and a five-link rear suspension with a live axle and coil springs. The Bilstein monotube shocks so in fashion these days are a standard high-dollar item; a set of load-leveling rear air springs are optional. The ride quality of the non-airsprung Envoy is supple and surprising, especially on Baja California's nasty broken stretches of pavement.
The four-wheel drive system is GM's Autotrac, which does what most drivers want -acts invisibly when there's less than optimal traction. There's very little talk of departure angles, creeper gears, or throttle tip-in among the folks who drive these utes anyway, and very little need for all-wheel drive; thus the Envoy's also made in a two-wheel-drive version that slots in just below the $30,000 mark.
We'll hold off on judging the Envoy's rack-and-pinion steering, which like our co-pilot, was all over the map. On some vehicles it felt sharp; on more it was wandery and vague as a campaign promise. The brakes seem like the buzzwords you'd hear at democratic convention: strong and progressive, if ultimately a bit dull in feel. At least they're ventilated up front, with four-channel anti-lock control and 17-inch wheels and tires (Michelins, which GM is quick to point out).
The Envoy, more so than the plain-looking Bravada and the Spartan TrailBlazer, is a smart styling job. It's handsome, raffish in a way with its kicked-up rear pillar, and it has a tougher countenance with that large grille and logo up front. Inside, it's even better: it's not real wood on the dash, but the twin round air vents on the center stack remind us more of sports cars, the controls are nicely placed and the steering wheel neatly frames the gauges. The seats felt comfortable during our hundred-mile hump to Todos Santos and back to Cabo San Lucas; seat-mounted belts are a big part of that equation.
Of course, there's enough standard equipment to qualify as extravagant excess. The base model Envoy SLE carries the OnStar service free for a year, and has standard anti-lock disc brakes, dual front and side airbags, cruise control, remote keyless entry and a rich-sounding AM/FM/CD stereo. The SLT adds leather-wrapped heated seats, a Bose stereo with six-CD changer, headlamp washers system, and a power passenger seat. Coming soon: a factory-installed DVD player. Is there any reason to actually live in a house anymore?
The Envoy/Bravada/TrailBlazer will be at dealers within a month or so, just in time to take on the heavyweights in the midsize SUV segment. And to their benefit, the GM utes are now hotly competitive in a niche where it's just as steamy as the midsize car market.
While they may never reach the Explorer sales mark of 445,157 units in 2000, the GM utes are indeed good, a light-year or two more advanced than their ancestors, and a pretty convincing display of GM's current engineering skill. These days, it takes at least that to join the fray.
Welcome to the jungle, guys.
2002 GMC Envoy
Base price: $29,420 (SLE 2WD)-$34,420 (SLT 4WD)
Engine: 4.2-liter in-line six-cylinder, 270 hp
Transmission: Four-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 191.6 in x 74.7 in x 71.9 in
Wheelbase: 113.0 in
Curb weight: 4442-4628 lb
EPA (City/Hwy): 15/20 mpg (est.)
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry, power locks/windows/mirrors, AM/FM/CD stereo, OnStar, HomeLink garage door opener
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
© 2001 The Car Connection