A rugged SUV that can pass for a luxury vehicle.
by Sam Moses
Base Price (MSRP) $29,420
As Tested (MSRP) $34,420
In the past, it was an either/or deal when considering the GMC or Chevrolet sport-utilities: Blazer and Envoy (Jimmy) were pretty much the same. But when GM reinvented its midsize SUVs for 2002, it made a market-based decision to make the GMC distinct.
The new GMC Envoy does use the same chassis and powerful new inline six-cylinder engine as the Chevy TrailBlazer, but after that there are many significant differences, most notably the body styling, interior, and available air suspension. These differences drive the Envoy uptown.
There are two models of Envoy, the SLE and SLT.
Both have four doors, come either with 2WD or electronic 4WD, and are powered by the all-new Vortec 4200 engine, a 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder producing a stunning 270 horsepower, best by a wide margin in a class that includes Ford and Jeep V8s.
So there are only trim and equipment differences between the SLE and SLT. Body-color moldings come with SLE and brushed nickel with SLT. Inside, the SLE gets cloth seats and splashes of that brushed nickel on the console and instrument panel, while the SLT gets leather and wood with nickel trim rings. The driver gets an eight-way power adjustable seat with SLE; both driver and passenger with SLT. Seat position memory (including the heated outside mirrors) is standard on the SLT and heated seats are optional; neither are available with SLE. SLT also adds headlamp washers, driver information center, TravelNote digital recorder, rain-sensing wipers, light-sensitive outside mirrors with turn signals, and more controls on the steering wheel.
SLE and SLT come with the same radio/CD sound system, with the SLT including rear seat jacks and controls. Upgraded systems are optional for both models, but only the SLT can get the Bose premium system.
Compared to its predecessor, the new Envoy is eight inches longer, four inches wider, seven inches taller and has 20 percent more cargo space behind the rear seats. Despite the size increase, its turning circle is 36.4 feet, nearly six feet tighter than before. This is thanks to a new front suspension and the narrower inline engine.
Among the three new GM midsize SUVs (Olds Bravada and Chevy TrailBlazer), the Envoy's styling may be the most sophisticated. It's "logical and precise," says GMC's brand manager. It has a wide-mouth black grille that says (in ruby red) GMC all the way. Sleek and clean are the distinct headlamps, round foglights and front bumper with a wide slim slit at the very bottom. Envoy dispenses with the TrailBlazer's showy fender flares, by housing the standard 17-inch wheels (shod with specially developed Michelins) inside hefty fenders which are part of a trapezoidal design theme. Strong beveled shapes extend along the Envoy's clean sides and around the wheelwells, and help make the Envoy look imposing. The rear bumper is stepped for its full length, and includes big round backup lights.
From behind the wheel the Envoy seems to be raked, as you look down over the strong hood. It looks cool. Under that hood, the inline engine is the big new thing. The straight-six design is hardly new, of course. Jeep Cherokee has been using a less sophisticated I6 for years, while BMW and Lexus have very sophisticated versions in high-performance sedans. Advancements in electronics, metallurgy and manufacturing methods now enable an inline engine to soar, and for 2002 GM has fully exploited this technical opportunity.
The new Vortec 4200 is an all-aluminum, double-overhead cam, 24-valve inline-6 with variable valve timing. It features electronic throttle control, an electrical system using silicon circuit boards (replacing some 1100 feet of copper wire), coil-on-plug ignition (thus no plug wires), and a seven-quart oil pan with a clever tunnel for the front drive axle, which allows the longish block to be mounted six inches lower, contributing to better balance and a lower center of gravity.
The chassis rails are shaped by hydroforming, a process pioneered in the '97 C5 Corvette that makes the rails stronger and lighter. No less than eight crossmembers contribute to a claimed 260 percent increase in torsional rigidity, and there are 12 tuned body mounts made of urethane.
Attention to detail is evident, from a battery box that draws in cooling air, to remarkably sanitary wiring under the hood, to a seven-pin receptacle for towing trailers with brakes, to rear-seat headrests that conveniently flip down for better rearward driver visibility. Because the engine is so quiet and smooth at idle, a feature called "intellistart" was added which prevents the starter from grinding if the key is turned when the engine is already running.
The Autotrac system, standard on 4WD models, features four settings: 2WD, Auto4WD, 4HI and 4LO. In Auto, which shifts power to all four wheels as conditions require, the Envoy can be towed without having to disconnect the driveshaft-a convenient new feature. Switching in and out of 4WD can be done on the fly with a flip of the switch, although the vehicle must be in neutral to engage or disengage 4LO.
There is an optional load-leveling air suspension intended to provide a more luxurious ride. It uses a silent air compressor, which yields one small fruit: a 22-foot air hose for filling everything from tires to toys. It attaches to a small valve in a compartment in the cargo area.
All Envoys seat five passengers, compared to the Ford Explorer's optional seven seats on a nearly identical wheelbase, with its third row of seats squeezed in. A seven-seat Envoy with longer wheelbase is in the works. GM says their buyers told them that seven passengers on a five-seat wheelbase didn't appeal to them. So GM will build a separate chassis.
For legroom, the Envoy offers 44.6 inches in front and 37.1 inches in the rear. Working with a vehicle width that exceeds the Explorer by 2.5 inches, the Envoy's rear seats offer slightly less shoulder room but 3.8 inches more total hip room.
We tested the Envoy at the same time we tested the TrailBlazer, and one clear difference was in the comfort of the seats. The Envoy's seat cushions are longer, wider and thicker than those on the TrailBlazer, and offer noticeably more side bolstering-in fact, we would choose an Envoy over a TrailBlazer just for the seats. The SLT's leather was way plush, while the SLE's cloth was grippier. On both the SLE and SLT, the driver's bucket is eight-way power adjustable, with four-way lumbar support and four-way adjustable head restraint.
The instrumentation is complete and clean. A big tachometer is on the left, speedometer in center, and on the right are smaller gauges for water, battery, gas and oil. The brushed nickel trim looks classy, with or without the wood. Four big round registers for heating and air conditioning look both stylish and purposeful in nickel. The four-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel comes with both models, and on the SLT includes controls for climate, sound, cruise control and driver information center in eight languages.
The console includes an open storage bin, an enclosed compartment and two cupholders forward of the gear lever (with two more for the rear passengers). The emergency brake lever is also located there. There are pockets in the front doors and behind the front seats, though none in the rear doors. Standard behind the rear seat is a small hidden compartment under the floor, a cargo net, scrolling tonneau cover and power outlet.
The overhead console includes a sunglasses holder, plus the SLT's Travelnote digital recorder, which might be considered an important safety feature, as it allows the driver to orally take phone numbers while on a cellphone. The heating and air conditioning can be controlled separately by the driver, front and rear passengers.
Interior lights abound, including reading lights. GM calls the interior lighting "world class," developed by the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Lighting Research Center in Indiana.
The standard sound system is a radio/CD, but optional are a radio/CD/cassette, radio with six-disc in-dash CD, or six-speaker 275-watt Bose system. Our test model was equipped with the Bose, offering outstanding sound quality and adjustment versatility. All the systems include RDS (Radio Data Systems) technology, allowing the listener to search for stations by type, display information including song and artist information, and provide traffic and weather updates.
The OnStar communications system is standard. It includes GPS navigation, hands-free cellphone communication including free first year safety and security service-automatic crash and theft reporting, as well as remote unlocking if you lock yourself out. Mind-boggling possibilities include everything from having your email read to you by a computerized voice ("Virtual Advisor") to getting directions to the nearest ATM.
Also optional is a rear seat DVD entertainment system, with a seven-inch flip-down screen and wireless headphones.
The new Vortex 4200 engine is exceptional. It incorporates state-of-the-art engine construction and management, and its 16/21 mpg city/highway mileage improves on GM's V6. From 4.2 liters, the inline-6 produces a dazzling 270 horsepower, 30 more than Ford Explorer's new 4.6-liter sohc V8. And it has a very broad torque curve peaking at 275 pounds-feet, only 5 less than the Ford and coming 400 rpm sooner. Ninety percent of the peak torque is there at 1600 rpm-and still there at 5600 rpm. According to the engine's designer, Ron Kociba, there's another 30 horsepower to be had just by adding dual exhausts.
General Motors introduced the Envoy, TrailBlazer and Bravada in Baja in December. We got about 100 miles of driving on rough and fast Mexican two-lanes-flat and climbing, straight and twisting-and maybe eight laps around an off-road course with steep climbs and descents and 50-mph washboard trails.
We were able to bound past Mexican trucks on steep uphill two-lanes with excited confidence. With the engine's broad and bountiful torque, the transmission does dramatically less downshifting; during two-lane passing, the I6 leaves the surge in while taking the jerk out. And when the full-throttle upshift comes at about 6000 rpm the engine is only striding, not screaming. The smooth-shifting four-speed automatic transmission is the proven Hydra-matic 4L60-E, used in GM applications from Corvettes to Cadillac Escalades. Our test model was equipped with the standard 3.73:1 rear end differential; 4.10 for better towing and 3.42 for better gas mileage are available. Earlier we had driven a TrailBlazer with the 4.10, and the engine's torque buries any acceleration disadvantage with the 3.73.
Towing was a high engineering priority, and the Envoy is rated at 6200 pounds for 4WD, 6400 pounds 2WD. According to Ron Kociba, during GM's own testing, an Envoy blew away a Jeep Grand Cherokee V8 in a trailer-pulling race up a mountain. He added that it ran way cooler (thanks in part to that big seven-quart oil pan) and used 20 percent less gas.
And the faster the Envoy goes, the smoother it gets. With an official Mexican Highway Patrol escort along on the test drive, we felt free to squirt up to 100 mph, and found much to our pleasure how silky the inline engine is at 80 and above.
The chassis and suspension boast such racy things as rack-and-pinion steering, beefy four-wheel vented discs with twin-piston calipers in front, independent front suspension with short/long control arms, a solid rear axle using five-link suspension with Bilstein gas-charged shock absorbers and coil springs, plus thick antiroll bars front and rear. It was the first truck for the Envoy's chief designer, Ted Robertson, whose experience includes the '90s Camaro/Firebird. GM wanted his soul as well as his chassis knowledge in their midsize SUVs, and they got it. His goal was to put some "sport" in sport utility.
Robertson said he designed the Envoy to roll exactly five degrees in the corners, and then stop leaning. Because the vehicles in Baja were pre-production, there were some suspension discrepancies that taint any specific observations of the ride and handling-most notably, as Robertson himself only discovered near the end of the test, the rear coil springs were not the correct stiffness. But the ride was still very smooth, eminently car-like without being overly soft in the twisty parts.
Envoy's track is the widest in class, 2.2 inches wider than the 2002 Explorer between the front tires and 0.9 inch wider between the rear tires. This, coupled with a lowered mass from the engine position, drops the center of gravity. This could be a strong selling point, as the big issue with SUVs nowadays is their higher incidence of rollovers than sedans.
The Envoy offers an optional load leveling suspension, using electronically controlled air bladders fitted to the rear coil springs. It's intended to improve the ride while dealing with off-road nearly as well as the rugged coils. Road inputs are monitored by sensors that inflate and deflate the bladders independently, leveling the load horizontally as well as vertically.
The four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes are impressive. The front rotors are 12.0 inches and the rears 12.8, with a total swept area of 424 square inches. In addition, the aluminum front calipers are twin-piston. Under hard braking, we especially noticed that the Envoy's nose didn't dive, keeping the vehicle remarkably level and stable. However they seem to be susceptible to catching debris, especially off road. On three occasions over two days, we heard rubbing and loud squeaking, from our vehicle and another. However the problem might be easily cured-and may have been, in the two months between this introduction and vehicle production at its plant in Moraine, Ohio.
On an off-road course, we found that the Envoy with air springs bottomed quite easily on the dives, signaling that the optional skid plates are necessary for off-road driving. Our test model (equipped with 17-inch BFG Rugged Trail radials) had the skid plates, of course, which we also dragged in soft sand, chugging easily along at 5 mph in Auto4WD. Here is where the compromise appears to be buried. The bottoming was partially caused by a slightly low eight-inch ground clearance under the engine, a result of that clever tunnel through the oil pan for the front driveshafts, allowing that lower engine mounting for better balance on the road. But a ground clearance that's 1.2 or 1.3 inches lower than the competition (Explorer, Grand Cherokee) seems a reasonable and maybe even prudent payoff.
We had deliberately driven into that soft sand in 2WD, gotten bogged down, and switched to Auto4WD on the fly; it clicked and began pulling us right along again. On the higher-speed washboard surface, the rear end stayed impressively planted. On low-speed whoop-de-doos, the front end bobbed up and down more than we would have liked. This was with a pre-production suspension setup, however, and may be improved on vehicles at the dealerships.
For the money, the Envoy might be as much truck as any SUV has ever been, and more car than any SUV has ever been. There is so much impressive engineering in this totally new vehicle. Unless it's plagued by bugs its first year, it's hard to imagine it not being a giant in the midsize SUV field.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.