Luxury sport-utility vehicles figure to be one of the major automotive stories of the 1999 model year.
In terms of sales, luxury SUVs are beyond hot. Most brands of upscale sport-utilities are selling as fast as manufacturers can build them.
For not much more than the cost of a sporty midsize luxury sedan, you can buy this week’s GMC Envoy, a leather- and wood-clad all-terrain vehicle that is no poseur. It’s as capable on the road as it is off.
The Envoy has many good points — it offers respectable quality and adequate performance. But in terms of styling and prestige, it may come up a bit short compared with some other vehicles in its price range, namely the Mercedes-Benz ML320 and the Lexus RX300.
The Envoy comes with a powerful 4.3-liter, pushrod V-6 that makes 190 horsepower. The only transmission available is a four-speed automatic. An electronically controlled, four-wheel drive system is standard on the Envoy.
General Motors makes great engines, and this is one of best. With the 4.3-liter, you get V-8 performance with V-6 economy. Though I didn’t spend much time churning through swamps and fording rivers, I did learn that the Envoy performs well on dirt roads and over bad terrain, such as bumpy hills.
There is plenty of power, so pulling a boat or a trailer won’t present any problems. GMC says the Envoy can haul a 5,000-pound load. The four-speed automatic has GM’s new standard tow/haul button on the shifter. The system adjusts the timing of the shifts based on the load the vehicle is pulling. The button needs a stronger spring. Just rubbing your thumb across it changes the setting.
It’s easy to shift from two-wheel drive to four. All you do is press a button on the dash. The transition is nearly seamless. Also, the Envoy’s performance isn’t affected much when all four wheels are getting power.
The Envoy is aimed at the luxury crowd, so GMC engineers softened up its suspension; I’m not sure this is a good thing. The ride seemed too vague and cushy at times, such as when you ride over a quick succession of small bumps and head quickly into a turn.
What’s really needed is a total rebuild of this vehicle with a state-of-the-art, four-wheel independent suspension system. GM has a new Envoy on the way, but details of its underpinnings are being k ept under wraps.
Steering and brakes are excellent. The Envoy turns a complete circle in 39.5 feet — not bad for a four-wheel drive, off-road vehicle. Several times I maneuvered the Envoy into tight shopping center parking spaces. The brake system consists of four-wheel, anti-lock discs.
Fit and finish
Soft, silver leather upholstery and shiny Zebrano wood trim lend class to the Envoy’s functional interior. The wood and leather, by the way, are the same materials used in various Cadillacs.
I view the Envoy as the little brother to the mighty GMC Denali — GM’s best luxury sport-utility vehicle.
As with the Denali, the Envoy has a long list of luxury creature features and safety items.
You appreciate such things as automatic head lights, outside mirrors that fold in with the press of a button, and the rear window, which opens independently from the tailgate.
The power sunroof and the heated memory seats place the Envoy squarely in the luxury class. As you might expect, power is applied to the windows and remote control door locks.
Because the Envoy is intended to move people around in comfort more than it is to blaze trails, I packed my parents and brother inside for a trip to a posh Italian restaurant.
It seems almost de rigueur these days to ease up to a nice restaurant and have your stylish sport-utility valet-parked.
Looking out the window a few moments after we were seated, I noticed the Envoy seemed a bit outclassed by various other expensive trucks. The Envoy is an older design that’s too square. Some curves here and there would give it a less formal (read: dowdy) look. The new model may address that, but I have my doubts.
GM seems afraid of building anything that might offend anyone. So it keeps rolling out new vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Silverado and Buick LeSabre, that look nice but are virtually invisible in a world filling up quickly with stand-out designs.
Anyway, GMC picked some very rich-looking colors for the paint and interior. Our test vehicle was painted a metallic silver. It had a luster and quality to it that the $60,000 Lexus LX470 sitting next to it couldn’t match.
I found the driver’s seat to be comfortable, but my Dad said the rear seat was a bit too firm for his liking. The rear seat, by the way, splits and folds forward. It folds flat, so you can really stuff the cargo area. A pullout cover hides items stowed behind the seat.
The Envoy comes with a standard set of analog gauges and the same basic dash used in the GMC Jimmy/Oldsmobile Bravada/Chevrolet Blazer. It’s easy to use but not particularly attractive.
Despite a few shortcomings, the Envoy is the right vehicle at the right time — but it’s facing some stiff competition. For just $75 more, you can get a Mercedes-Benz ML320. And a Jeep Grand Cherokee with a V-8 costs less.
1999 GMC Envoy
Base price: $33,600. Safety: Dual air bags, daytime running lights, side-impact protection and anti-lock brakes. Price as tested: $34,875. EPA rating: 16 mpg city/20 mpg highway. Incentives: None.