A Useful Habitat for Hauling
2004 GMC Envoy XUV SLT

We arrived with plants, lumber and other equipment needed to turn vacant lots into neighborhoods.

It was a Habitat for Humanity International housing development.

I wish I could say I was part of the good work. I wasn't. I just wanted to drive the 2004 GMC Envoy XUV SLT, a sport-utility vehicle that takes "utility" seriously.

The mission was part of a General Motors Corp. program to show that SUVs play useful roles in society -- and that the Envoy XUV is designed to take center stage in Habitat and similar practical endeavors.

Mission accomplished.

The volunteers building affordable houses in the early-summer heat were happy with the donated cargo. I was impressed with the Envoy XUV.

Somehow, in the auto industry's drive toward bigger and more luxurious sport-utility vehicles, the notion of "utility" got lost. It was supplanted by posh gimcrackery -- supple leather seats, DVD players, super stereos.

That trend was followed -- or, more precisely, joined -- by the introduction of "crossover vehicles," essentially station wagons masquerading as something larger than life, often possessed of marginal utility. The 2004 Chrysler Pacifica comes to mind.

The tested Envoy XUV SLT, by comparison, strikes the right balance. It has enough luxury -- XM satellite radio, power seats and windows, leather surfaces, and a Bose Audio premium sound system -- to please the average hedonist. It has enough room to accommodate a tailgate party of five. But in the matter of utility, it has something extra, or "Xtra," as in "Xtra Utility Vehicle."

Check out the tailgate. It has a power window and the ability to swing both ways -- side to side or up and down. That makes it easy to load bags of gravel and groceries and other bulky packages.

Flip the tailgate down. Collapse the rear seats. Flip down the Midgate after lowering its power glass window, which seals off the passenger compartment from the cargo area. Now you've got a perfect floor for loading plywood and drywall.

What? How do you get a ladder or a tall sapling tree in there? That's easy. Push a button. The cargo-area roof majestically slides forward. Stand the ladder and/or sapling tree atop the drywall and plywood. Use the four tie-down rings, which can be attached to any of 12 locations in the cargo area, to secure the ladder and the tree. Drive away with the confidence that everything will get to its destination without slipping or shifting around -- or falling out.

And, hey, it matters not how dirty you get the cargo area. Mud, dirt, gravel, sticky mess -- put it all back there. Raise the Midgate window after loading, hauling and unloading. Grab a hose. Release the torrent. The cargo area has a patented "QuickDrain" system that can drain as much as 35 gallons of water a minute.

If you need detergent to clean the cargo bay, no problem. Soap it. Wet it. Scrub it. Rinse it. It's all tough, all-weather composite material back there. It can take it.

The Envoy XUV can run, too. You can choose from two engines -- the standard 4.2-liter, 275-horsepower in-line six-cylinder or the optional 5.3-liter, 290 horsepower V-8. I drove the V-8. I didn't bother to measure 0-to-60-mph times. That sort of thing seems silly to me in an SUV loaded with building materials.

Besides, I noticed something on the way to and from the Habitat for Humanity building site. I slowed down along with the Porsches, Corvettes and legions of pocket rockets when approached by the Michigan State Police.

Nuts & Bolts

Complaints: I have none at the moment. I'll see what happens on a longer follow-up drive.

Praise: GM is to be congratulated for using much of the thinking and many of the innovations employed in the Chevrolet Avalanche pickup truck wi hout producing a small Avalanche copy. The Envoy XUV has a completely different personality and feel from the big truck. In many ways, it is also more versatile.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent, carlike ride. Competent acceleration. Excellent handling, loaded and unloaded.

Head-turning quotient: High. Many favorable looks -- more than I received in the Acura MDX. But I drove the MDX in Honda-loving Washington and the XUV in GM-loving Michigan. Skewed views.

Capacities: The Envoy XUV seats five people. Cargo capacity is 95.2 cubic feet with rear seat down and 49 cubic feet with rear seat up. The payload range is from 1,150 pounds (V-8 two-wheel-drive) to 1,305 pounds (V-8 four-wheel-drive). Depending on equipment, the Envoy XUV can be equipped to tow up to 6,400 pounds. Fuel capacity is 25 gallons of gasoline. Regular unleaded is okay.

Mileage: I averaged 17 miles per gallon mostly on the highway.

Engines/transmissions: Both the 4.2-liter, 275-horsepower in-line six and the 5.3-liter, 290-hp V-8 come with an electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission.

Price: The Envoy XUV goes on sale this fall. Preliminary pricing ranges from $31,890 to $38,715, including a $650 destination charge, depending on vehicle type and equipment chosen.

Purse-strings note: It's a buy. Compare with any vehicle in the mid-size sport-utility category, including the Ford Explorer, Acura MDX/Honda Pilot, Toyota 4Runner or Mercedes-Benz M-Class.