GMC makes SUV with split personality

Friday, July 23, 2004

GMC Envoy XUV is a mid-size SUV or a pickup truck

It happened again yesterday when I was driving this week's test vehicle, GMC's innovative XUV. "Hey, Robertson," a friend called, "I read your articles. You like every car you drive! When are you going to write about a bad car?"

"All the bad cars are in the junk yards." I grinned.

We bantered back and forth as I explained that I've only driven one really bad car -- a four-year-old 1962 Simca, my very first car. I think everything on that car was cheap plastic, including the window cranks. By the time I traded it for a year-old Chevy II the entire heap was held together with epoxy glue and bailing wire. I spent so much time scrounging Simca parts at the junk yard that I was on a first-name basis with the counter man. Jeff Foxworthy would say, "You might be a redneck if … you take your date to the junk yard."

Compare that uninspired Simca to the new GMC Envoy XUV, a truly innovate product with no competition. The vehicle has a split personality -- it can be either a conventional SUV or a pickup truck that can haul tall, bulky items. It's basically an Envoy XL (the long-wheelbase Envoy) that has been stripped of its third-row seat and outfitted with a retractable roof over the rear cargo compartment.

General Motors previously tested the "morphing" waters with its revolutionary Chevy Avalanche pickup that combines its passenger compartment with its cargo area by dropping the wall separating the two. But the Envoy XUV takes this idea to the next level. In fact, Studebaker did the same thing with its Wagonaire station wagon when it gave it a retracting roof over the back section in the 1960s.

The XUV has a two-way tailgate, just like the popular station wagons of the 1980s. It hinges down like a traditional pickup tailgate, or opens like a regular car door. The tailgate has a power window that is controlled from the driver's seat via an overhead console. After the window is retracted, a second button on the console activates the power roof, which retracts horizontally into a slot above the passenger compartment roof. Voila! A four-door pickup truck that seats five in comfort! But there's more. Push a third button on the console and another power window retracts into the wall that separates the passenger compartment from the cargo bed. Finally, fold the rear seats flat, push a button to drop the separator wall, and you now have a long cargo compartment that extends from the driver's seat 76 inches back to the tailgate.

GM executives think about one third of all Envoys will be XUVs. Envoy is considered a mid-size SUV, but the XUV, with its all-weather cargo bed, seemed large and spacious. You can't tell by looking at it that it has a dual personality. It appears to be an ordinary SUV, and a handsome one at that.

Learning curve

Converting the XUV into a truck is easy, but it takes a few minutes. The retractable roof can be operated with a key in the rear door or via the button in the overhead console I mentioned. It's more fun to operate the roof from the front seat because the information display in the instrument panel tells you that the roof is closing, opening or locked. Folding the second row of seats and dropping the mid-gate is also time consuming, involving walking back and forth to both sides of the vehicle to fold the split seats, retract the power mid-gate window, and finally fold the mid-gate down. But remember that's only necessary if you want to carry unusually long objects using the passenger compartment and the cargo compartment at the same time. Leave the mid-gate up and you will be in normal pickup truck configuration, with a watertight truck bed that can be cleaned up with a garden hose.

The XUV is 208.4 inches long, and uses the same four-wheel-drive system and the same engines and four-speed automatic transmission as the Envoy XL, which is good, because I found them to be smooth, quiet and powerful. The base power plant is a 4.2-liter, inline six-cylinder, generating an amazing 275 horsepower and 275 pound-foot of torque. I tested this engine previously in the short-wheelbase Envoy and found it to be more than adequate for most driving situations. My test vehicle had the optional engine, a 5.3-liter Vortec V-8 that produced 290 horses and 325 pound-foot of torque. It moved the XUV with authority, and sounded great when pushed to the limit. The transmission shifted smoothly. With the V-8, the XUV is rated to tow up to 6,500 pounds, but neither engine provides fuel economy numbers to brag about in this 5,000-pound vehicle. The V-8 should get 15 mpg in the city and 18 on the highway.

The comfortable seats in the XUV are the same as those in the other Envoys. Headroom, legroom and shoulder room for the two rows of seats is also identical and adequate for long road trips. The XUV provided an unusually smooth ride, thanks to a sophisticated air suspension with an independent double A-arms up front, and a five-link solid rear axle. Power rack-and-pinion steering is standard, and my vehicle had optional power adjustable pedals, once considered a novelty, but now moving into the mainstream. Just about any driver of any size can find a comfortable driving position with the power seats and a tilt steering wheel. The test vehicle listed for $44,095.

The XUV has also solved another problem inherent in owning a pickup: having to loan it to friends and neighbors. Since you can't tell it isn't an ordinary SUV, you can keep this baby all to yourself.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at steve@robertsonsphotography.com.

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