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Published: 09/12/2001 - by Liz Kim, Contributor
Rumors of the demise of the SUV have been greatly exaggerated. While a general downturn in the economy has driven the speculation that the end of the reign of the sport-ute is forthcoming, truck production numbers in North America have actually risen over last year's (as of August 2001), and light truck sales still comprise a healthy 49 percent of all new vehicle purchases.
Trucks (pickups, SUVs and vans) have historically provided the highest profit margins in an automaker's stable; relatively low manufacturing costs teamed with the perceived "lifestyle" cachet of SUVs have induced manufacturers to scramble to add their version of the ultimate do-anything, go-anywhere vehicle to your extensive menu of vehicle choices. However, with so much competition in the midsize SUV arena, and with so many consumers using their trucks for urban commutes, it is no longer enough to have an SUV that happens to seat five people; on-road driving dynamics and occupant comfort are huge considerations, as well.
GM took a rather long time in figuring this out. Buyers had to contend with antiquated structures, subpar on-road handling and abhorrent build quality. The Chevy Blazer ignominiously placed next to last in our mid-size SUV comparison test. Its mechanical twin, the GMC Jimmy, was roundly criticized as the worst of the Chevy Blazer/Olds Bravada/GMC Jimmy trio (the Envoy being a Jimmy wearing the automotive equivalent of a gold lamé jogging suit), and the butt of many an automotive journalist's rapier-like wit.
GM has finally given the underwhelming triumvirate a complete overhaul in hopes that they can, once again, be players in this lucrative field. Along with a brand-new engine, chassis and image, engineers have added enough electrical componentry to power a small town in the Everglades.
We took the "professional grade" version, the GMC Envoy, for a drive. Right away, we noticed the distinctive, handsome exterior design. With crisp character lines, bulging wheelwells and an aggressive front fascia, the GMC no longer has the forlorn foster-child look of the previous iteration.
At the heart of the beast is GM's new inline six-cylinder engine, the Vortec 4200, a 4.2-liter powerplant capable of stirring 1,080 hooves (that's 270 horses to you and me, Russ). That number is the largest of any midsize SUV. And 275 pound-feet of twist is available from a broad torque band, 90 percent ready and willing from 1,500 to 6,500 rpm. The Envoy zoomed from 0 to 60 mph in 8.3 seconds, quite good for an SUV of this class. Smooth, willing power was plentiful, if raucous above 4,000 rpm. It also allows for a towing capacity of 6,300 pounds with the 2WD (6,100-lbs for the 4WD version).
What's an inline-six engine doing in a "professional grade" SUV? Its advantages are manifold. First, it costs less to make, driving up profits. Second, it supposedly has the fuel efficiency of a six-cylinder engine (although our test vehicle provided a less-than-stellar 15 miles to the gallon in mostly highway driving) combined with the power of a V8. It also possesses an inherent smoothness over a V-configured powerplant. This is the first new engine in GM's truck lineup in 30 years, and the first with dual overhead camshafts (DOHC). Teamed with a well-behaved four-speed automatic transmission that shifted at the proper points and held third gear when hill-climbing, despite the lack of an overdrive button, the gutsy engine pulled this heavy 4,443-pound vehicle along with determination.
Great for smooth line acceleration, that is. Get it out on any type of curvy road and you'll immediately experience massive body roll, sway and generally subpar maneuvering. Such was the level of sway that through the cones of our 600-foot slalom course it managed a mere 54.8 mph, a disappointing number, even for an SUV. By comparison, Acura's MDX threaded these same cones at 57.9 mph while Toyota's Highlander managed 57.5 mph. Not only was there an excessive amount of side-to-side lean, the front end felt loose and unstable.
"Couldn't be right," we stated in reference to our tester's handling; we've driven larger, heavier GM vehicles that handled better than this. We returned our test vehicle and gave GM a buzz. The Envoy was shipped out to GM's test facility, where it was determined that a ball joint was loose (there was also an April recall of the vehicle; according to NHTSA, "UNDER CERTAIN CIRCUMSTANCES THE FRONT LOWER CONTROL ARM BRACKETS MAY FRACTURE. THIS FRACTURE COULD RESULT IN SEPARATION OF THE FRONT LOWER CONTROL ARM FROM THE FRAME." See NHTSA's Web site for details).
The vehicle was returned to us after its stint in rehab. While its front end did feel more planted, we're sorry to say that there was no improvement in handling. Of course, we don't expect SUVs to behave as well as cars, but the amount of body roll exhibited by the Envoy was above and beyond what is acceptable in any passenger vehicle, especially one with a brand-new suspension design and body structure that has been strengthened to the tune of 270 percent?
Our test vehicle was equipped with an electronically controlled load-leveling suspension that uses air pressure to maintain vehicle height under uneven loading situations. GM aroused controversy earlier this year when it decided to remove the standard rollover warnings from the visors, a fixture for all truck-based vehicles. Due to a 4-inch-wider stance and a lowered center of gravity (the engine has been lowered, with a part of the front driveshaft running through the oil pan), they figured that it wasn't really an issue any more. We would beg to differ.
The Stay-Puft ride quality did make for smooth travels on-road, however, enfolding all road irregularities in its smothering grasp. Light-duty dirt roads were also handled with cheerfulness by this rear-wheel-driver. The Kim clan used the Envoy for a camping trip in the Sierras (an anomaly within itself; they're not really the outdoorsy types, those Kims), and the floaty ride, despite their full use of the maximum payload of 1,108 pounds, allowed the squirmy little 'uns to fall into deep slumber.
The steering is vastly improved over the previous Envoy's; its turning circle of 36.4 feet is almost 6 feet slimmer than that of the 2001 model. The four-wheel disc brakes, whose pedal was unilaterally described as squishy with its long pedal travel and lack of intuitive modulation, did their job properly, allowing for 60-to-0 stops in a short 133 feet. Accompanying the halts was excessive, migraine-inducing nosedive, no thanks to the aforementioned suspension.
The Envoy proved convenient for loading the Kims' camping gear, although cargo space is not as impressive as some of its competitors'. With the rear seat in use, 39.8 cubic feet of storage space avails itself. With the seat folded, you've got 80.1 cubic feet; the Explorer offers 88 cubic feet (without a third-row seat), the same as in the Durango, while the Pathfinder gives you 85. In the Envoy, once the seat cushion's been folded, just lift up the lever on the side of the seat and the headrests ingeniously fold by themselves. In the cargo area, a 12-volt power point is provided, as well as a covered well in the floor and a side cubby. Envoys equipped with the self-leveling air suspension include a handy inflator hose that can be used to pump up low tires, beach balls or inflatable mattresses. The cargo floor, once the 60/40-split seats have been folded, is not perfectly flat, as our editor's aching back can attest (she's too snotty to sleep in a tent, so she slept in the car and, some might say, got her just deserts).
Up front, comfortable multi-adjustable power seats with lumbar support are swathed in decent-quality leather. Twin dual-zone automatic climate control keeps both front-seat riders comfortable while seat heaters provide warmth to both bottoms and backs, but front passengers can inadvertently activate the system because of the location of the switches on the door armrest. Dual 12-volt power points are provided, along with dual cupholders and a large center storage console.
Rear climate and stereo controls are available for those occupants old enough to make their own choices about body temperature and aural entertainment. The back seat is larger and more comfortable than before, with three-point seatbelts for all three seating positions. There's a lot of room back there, too, with 37.1 inches of legroom and 58.5 inches of shoulder space.
Our vehicle, equipped with the SLT package, had a locking differential, traction control, the load leveling suspension, handsome aluminum wheels, heated front seats, rain-sensitive wipers and a digital voice recorder. We especially appreciated the Bose stereo with a six-disc CD changer once we figured out the overly complicated controls see the accompanying stereo evaluation for details.
Build quality has been vastly improved over the previous-generation Envoy, with interior components feeling securely bolted down rather than haphazardly slapped together. Still, the cabin was fraught with various rattles and squeaks from the dash and empty cargo area, gap tolerance variances abounded and the passenger-side mirror, set to dip when the vehicle is in reverse, moaned torturously and flipped up instead of down. The mirrors, by the way, are large to diminish blind spots, heated and adorned with turn signals.
A plethora of information is at your fingertips via the Driver Information Center (DIC). Controlled by buttons on the steering wheel, the DIC includes a trip computer and a bevy of features that can be customized to your preferences. Also mounted on the steering wheel are stereo and climate-control buttons. The OnStar communications button glows in the night, providing assurance that the telematics system will guide you safely on your way. Too bad that when we used it, the nice lady on the phone couldn't help us find a major highway system 2 miles away from our location. Hey, Batman, take a road atlas with you. Not included are such useful safety features as stability control or a rear parking sensor.
While the 2002 GMC Envoy represents a vast improvement over the previous-generation model, it doesn't measure up to what we consider to be the standard-bearer of midsize SUVs in the non-luxury category, the Nissan Pathfinder, or even to the newly redesigned bestseller in the segment, the 2002 Ford Explorer. While its handsome exterior looks and multitude of buttons in the interior may attract consumers, GM needs to come up with a better compromise between cushy ride quality and confident handling; specifically, they should lose some of the former to gain some of the latter. The midsize SUV class is populated with highly talented vehicles the Envoy has yet to prove the skills to overtake the segment leaders. While the cabin lights up like the Milky Way in the dark, the Envoy's still-questionable build quality as well as its questionable handling characteristics prevent us from recommending this truck.
Editor-in-Chief Karl Brauer says:
To say I had high hopes for the newest midsize SUVs from GM would be like saying Robert Downey Jr. has made some bad decisions in his personal life. Despite increasing fuel costs and bad press relating to SUV rollovers, this segment continues to heat up, with everyone from Acura to Volkswagen getting into the business of building utility vehicles. If GM wants to end its market share slide, as well as prove it can compete with the import brands in terms of design, quality and drivability, its redesigned Envoy offers a perfect opportunity.
Though it pains me to say it, the General failed in its mission to deliver a modern, competitive SUV. A new, powerful engine and plenty of luxury amenities would suggest a thoroughly updated vehicle. But driving the Envoy reveals excessive body roll and suspension "squish," accompanied by an engine that, while powerful, is brash and annoying above 4,000 rpm (the range it has to be in to provide adequate thrust). Throw in the squishy brake pedal and numb steering and the promised "all-new" Envoy feels like business as usual from GM.
Only in terms of luxury does this vehicle partially succeed. Utilizing a Corvette-style driver control system allows the Envoy driver to adjust everything from seat memory settings to how long the headlights stay on after exiting the vehicle. Dual-zone climate control, an in-dash CD changer and OnStar communications further suggest a premium feel, but Kansas-flat seats and rubbery dash and door panel coverings do not. A passenger-side exterior mirror that was supposed to tilt down when the vehicle is placed in reverse instead tilted up (and then proceeded to bounce against the upper limits of its adjustment range).
I'm truly baffled that GM could perform such a massive redesign without getting a better result. I like the exterior looks, and I'm impressed by the horsepower they've extracted from a six-cylinder, but if it comes down to this vehicle or a cheaper Highlander (or Explorer or Durango or Pathfinder) it's likely I wouldn't be slowing GM's market share slide with my own money.
Associate Editor Erin Riches says:
This Envoy is much better suited for the average SUV-owner's diet of on-road travel than its predecessor. But there are a lot of choices in the midsize-SUV segment, and this GMC would not be mine.
The new inline six is a huge improvement over the aged 4300 Vortec V6. It provided good off-the-line thrust and ample passing power. There is a decent amount of engine noise, when the transmission downshifts for highway passing, but the powerplant is generally refined and you don't have to stomp on the throttle to get at its power (at least, not with the same force that the 4300 required). This engine should satisfy most midsize SUV owners. Where's the redline on the tachometer? Obviously, it's not a crucial element to an SUV, but why put in an inline six that doesn't find its maximum horsepower until 6,000 rpm, and give the driver nothing to watch?
Handling seemed about average for this segment. I wouldn't call it car-like or athletic, though during city and highway driving, the ride was certainly smooth. Broken and uneven pavement tended to upset the stability, but the suspension still seemed far less wallowy than the 2000 Chevrolet TrailBlazer I drove a year ago. However, I observed significant body roll when cornering and while negotiating snaking canyon roads in the Envoy. The steering didn't offer much help, as it's light and overboosted. At least GM reassessed the steering wheel design the new wheel allowed a comfortable grip and did not force me to straddle the spokes (my chief complaint about the previous design). The brake pedal didn't really have a progressive feel to it, but the pedal placement and actual braking action were far improved over the old setup (Remember the high-mounted pedal and its dead travel?).
This was one of the more attractive, more carefully assembled interiors I have come across in a GM vehicle. I like the shiny faux chrome door release handles that are recessed in their own oval-shaped wells. Usually, GM just slaps rubbery handles in its trucks and calls them done. And there are some pleasing soft-touch materials (with upscale-looking grain patterns) on the dash and door panels. Even the faux wood trim on the dash doesn't look so bad. Unfortunately, cheap plastic (with a contradictory grain pattern) is not so deftly mixed into the ensemble it's used for the glovebox and the underside of the dash. Further, I would prefer a high-quality vinyl to the mouse fur on the sides of the seats if someone pays for leather seats, the cost-cutting should be a bit less obvious. I'll gladly take the all-fur seats. And the center console armrest should have a soft-touch cover. Aside from GM's meager materials budget, I found the seats comfortable (but not supportive) and the ergonomics good. I would only ask for height-adjustable seatbelts, a more precise knob for adjusting the exterior mirrors (This took me forever to do!) and foglights that are activated by pulling out the headlight knob (I was fumbling for the buttons as thick fog enveloped a winding two-lane road).
Although I didn't find anything inside the cabin that was about to fall apart (of course, this Envoy was very new), a quick exterior inspection revealed a misaligned rear hatch and taillights. Disappointing but not surprising. I feel rather ambivalent toward the new Envoy I like its new engine and find its cabin comfortable, but I'm not impressed by its handling or its build quality. I think most buyers would be happier with a Nissan Pathfinder or Toyota Highlander. For those determined to buy a GM truck, I would suggest moving up to the larger GMC Yukon (or Chevy Tahoe) for its more stable, confident feel on twisty roads and its V8 engine choices.
Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
GMC's redesigned 2002 Envoy is a dramatic improvement over its small, slow, unrefined predecessor. Loaded with thoughtful features, constructed of what appears to be high-quality materials and substantially kinder to occupants while providing more space for cargo, the smooth new Envoy is also quite a looker, with bold fender bulges and attractive detailing front and rear.
My concerns relate to two issues. First, this truck handles like a pig. Don't even attempt to explore its limits on a twisty two-lane road, unless you've got a spare pair of tighty-whities aboard. Tuned to provide as smooth a ride as possible on pavement, the soft suspension allows the Envoy's weight to sway precipitously from side to side, and if you aren't off the brakes before entering your turn, the rear end threatens to swap spots with the front, especially if mid-corner bumps unsettle the solid rear axle. A version of GM's StabiliTrak stability control system is required here. Ironically, GM opted to remove the 2002 Envoy's rollover warning labels from the visors so that customers would feel safer. Maybe they should have done some suspension work instead.
Second, build quality of our test vehicle did not inspire confidence in its ability to hold up over the long haul. The center console squeaked constantly; on hard acceleration, looseness in the steering column and front suspension could be felt; a part of the OnStar system disconnected itself from the windshield; and the right passenger mirror displayed blue sky rather than the curb when reversing. On the plus side of the construction-quality ledger, I couldn't pull any parts of the interior off in my hands, like I was able to on the previous-generation Envoy.
The new 4.2-liter inline six is quiet and smooth unless you're accelerating, and then it's loud and smooth. The transmission shifts perfectly under most conditions, hesitating to provide a downshift only when maximum passing power is demanded. I'm no fan of the fact that the PRNDL display is located in the gauge cluster rather than on the center console next to the gear selector. Oh, and there's no "overdrive off" switch, either.
Oddly, it seems GMC has decided that cryptic German-style markings for the cruise control and steering-wheel-mounted switchgear are appropriate, making it somewhat difficult to cycle through all the functions the first few times out. But once you get the hang of it, you'll be amazed by how much of the Envoy can be controlled by the buttons on the steering wheel spokes.
All in all, I think that compared to its predecessor, the 2002 Envoy is a pretty amazing piece of work. You feel how stout its new structure is over speed bumps, you feel and see the attention to detail in the materials and design, you know it's quieter and smoother than ever before.
Trouble is, lots of competitors are also this good. And if it comes down to choosing one modern midsize SUV over another of equivalent size, value and quality, I'm taking the one that can manage its weight properly when the going gets tough.
System Score: 8.0
Components:The Bose system in this Envoy begins with an unusual-looking head unit. This would appear to be shades of things to come in the GM minivan/truck world, since we saw this identical head unit in a Pontiac Montana minivan several months back. Depending on your taste, it's either a good or a bad thing. If you're the type of person who likes widgets, this is your cup of tea. If not, keep shopping. This head unit offers a full array of programming buttons, such as CD repeat, random, song list, auto eq, auto volume and more. It also has a great ergonomic feel, with round rubberized knobs for both tuning and volume. But if your VCR is still blinking "12:00 12:00 12:00," this one may be a little beyond your grasp.
Speakerwise, this system is impressive. It includes a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear doors, plus a pair of 6.5-inch midbass in the front doors. Best of all, a pair of upward-firing tweeters grace the top of the dash. Whenever we see this kind of tweeter, we know we're in for a treat, and these don't disappoint. See our listening notes below.
Performance: This kind of tweeter makes a huge difference in the sound quality of an audio system. Specifically, the sound fires upward from the tweeters into the windshield, then reflects back into the cabin. The result is great sound staging and imaging throughout the audible range. Other complements to this system include great thumping bass, detailed and intricate mids, and superb attack on drums. However, like most GM truck systems, this one is not designed to be lifelike or realistic. Instead, it's trumped up in all the right spots to give it a very "lively" sound. Still, this is an impressive system overall, with a lot going for it. Considering it doesn't contain a subwoofer, it really cranks out the bass.
Best Feature: Dash-mounted tweeters.
Worst Feature: Overly busy head unit.
Conclusion: This is a great truck system. Perfect for cranking up the volume and drowning out that tire noise.
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