The GMC Envoy (Chevy TrailBlazer)

Review Notes: GMC Envoy XL (similar to Chevy Trailblazer)
Personality Feels like a minivan, pulls like a Yukon
Quirks Some odd control placements, have to fold seat to get to rear seat row
Unusual features V8 power from a six; extra rear seats
Above Average: Power, room in XL, handling, comfort
Needs Work In: Gas mileage, XL price

The GMC Envoy is smaller than the Yukon, larger than the Blazer, and more comfortable than most other SUVs. Like its twin, the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, the Envoy manages to sport a minivan-like comfortable ride and interior, as well as a strong truck frame.

Our Envoy was a new XL model, with an extended wheelbase for more interior space. With three rows of seats, it can seat eight people, though the three in the furthest row back should be midgets, Munchkids, or kids, since the seats are very low to the ground. It's also rather hard to get into that rearmost row - the middle seat has to be flipped down. That's the price of being able to seat eight instead of seven.

Even with all the seats up, there's good cargo space - and two rear rows flip and fold to form a moderately flat load surface when needed.

Capacity is quite good, thanks to a strong, hydroformed steel frame and the standard 275 horsepower straight-six. That makes the Envoy a worthy alternative to the Yukon, Tahoe, and other large SUVs for those who need to tow heavy vehicles. A new, optional V8 is available for those who doubt the six's ability to pull, or who have very heavy trailers.

The Envoy, with its high horsepower and torque, body-on-frame design, and strong towing capacity, is clearly a truck, at least on paper. However, the experience of driving the Envoy is more like the Venture than the Blazer. Bumps are felt but are well cushioned, sound insulation is very good, and the straight six's sound does not provide any evidence of the power within. The well appointed interior includes a cup holder for each passenger (the rear holders ratchet down to fit any size cup). Throw in a sliding door, and you could sell it as a minivan - albeit one with a much better tow rating and much worse gas mileage than usual.

Speaking of gas mileage, the Envoy gets 15 city, 20 highway with the six. That is quite poor by minivan standards, but very high for an SUV - handily beating the less powerful Ford Explorer V-8, for example, and creaming the Expedition.

The instrument panel is typical GMC, with clear oil, voltage, and engine temperature gauges, and a large tachometer and speedometer. They are nicely framed by elegant chrome lines, and the subtle backlighting is clear in all types of light. An optional trip computer provides all sorts of engine data (including estimated oil life) and allows the driver to customize various aspects of the truck's behavior.

Most controls are clear and easy to find and use, with the usual exception of the GM cruise control stalk. The four wheel drive control is a rotary dial, clearly marked and easy to locate. There is an automatic setting which puts in four wheel drive when slippage is detected, as well as full-time high and low gears (which are not recommended for everyday use). Wiper and washers use a similar control, as do the headlights. When the key is inserted, a green LED lights up near the headlight switch to make it easier to find at night. Our vehicle had automatic headlights, so this wasn't a big deal - especially since the automatic headlights react very quickly on startup. A "no headlights" option is nice for those who don't want their truck to think for them, but it must be selected each time you start up.

Some of the controls were not quite as clear, such as the oddly placed rear wiper (bottom of the center stack, on the right) and rear fan (center console) controls. It took us a long time to find the remote mirror control on our $31,000 test vehicle before we discovered there wasn't one - remote windows and locks are standard, but remote mirrors are not.

A dead pedal is placed off to the left, a good thing, since otherwise the left foot dangles on the deep floor.

One oddity is the center-mounted emergency brake and gearshift, still very unusual in trucks and, for that matter, minivans. They were no doubt placed there to make it easier to make a manual-transmission version for export sales, but the position is still disconcerting and less convenient than the traditional foot-brake and column-shift.

The dual-zone climate control is easy to figure out and use, even with gloves on, and large vents keep it quiet in both front and back (optional rear controls can be countermanded by the driver). The stereo, in our case a GM CD player, has useful features and is easy and convenient to use. Tuning knobs help to keep the driver's attention on the road.

The interior is well lit, with two lights above each door - a dome light and an individually controlled light, activated by pressing the light in. The cargo area gets its own light, as well. Headlights and backup lights go on automatically when the keyless entry is used, presumably to help people find their way in, and the front doors have red lights at their bottom.

Both front doors have map pockets, and there are two overhead bins, for sunglasses and such. Both front cupholders and the base of the center console are lined with rubber to avoid rattles. The console includes a coin area, again rubber-lined, that is too far back for the driver to reach or see comfortably. The driver's sun visor is a bit annoying, since the built in mirror has no cover - a surprising cost-cutting measure.

Headroom is very good throughout the truck, but rear passenger legroom is not as expansive as it could be in order to preserve a large cargo area. The rear seats easily flip forward, aided by rotating headrests. A split seat means you can flip one seat forward while someone sits in the other. The front seats use a seat-belt-in-seat system, which makes them stay at a single height.

The rear hatch is convenient to open, and snaps itself shut nicely. Several well-designed hatches make it easy to carry small objects and not have them crash about the cargo area. A larger depression in the middle, covered by a strong removable panel, is convenient for holding four bags of groceries steady. New for 2003 is a removable shelf which looks as though it was taken directly from the PT Cruiser. Though it can be used in different positions, it is somewhat hard to move, since it fits snugly and both ends are tipped with rubber. The only down-side was pointed out by Bob Marks - the new Envoy will only allow the door to open 70 degrees, blocking the ability to slide wide objects straight in. You can do that if you use it as a tailgate, provided that the circumstances allow you to have space directly in back of the vehicle. The right hand hinging is also an issue, not only from the parallel parking scenerio, but also from the safety angle of the traffic side.

Acceleration is strong at all speeds, though the soft transmission tends to soften the feeling of power. It tended to feel spongy at times, reacting more slowly than a modern transmission should.

This is not a sports car - the power is mainly for towing, as with most trucks - but getting onto the freeway is easy, and acceleration often feels effortless. Passing power is ample, but it takes a moment for the downshift to get to it. The Envoy can easily beat the Ford Explorer, even with its optional V-8 engine (and the Envoy also has an optional V-8, albeit one more powerful than the Explorer's).

Handling is very good for a truck, better than its direct competitors, thanks partly to a hydroformed frame that is stiffer than its predecessors. The Chevrolet SSR sports car will use the same frame.

Overall, the Envoy is an impressive vehicle. To us, it clearly beats the Ford Explorer every way, and bumps up against the Expedition. We do recommend that potential buyers who do not need the towing capacity seriously consider the equally comfortable, but much more economical, Chevrolet Venture or Chrysler Pacifica instead.

We have to hand it to GM. Not everyone could have assembled such a clear victory over the sales-leading Ford Explorer - especially with a cool retro feature like the straight six. Nice job, guys.