Friday, February 9, 2001

General Motors, the world’s biggest vehicle manufacturer, resembles a languid hippopotamus: Usually deliberate and benign, but quick and dangerous when aroused.

That is the overwhelming impression after viewing the company’s new midsize sport utility vehicles, introduced as 2002 models. They are the Chevrolet Trail Blazer, the GMC Envoy and the Oldsmobile Bravada.

Until now, GM had ceded leadership in the midsize SUV class to Ford, with its sales-leading Explorer and the Explorer’s fraternal twin, the Mercury Mountaineer.

GM has had entries in the class, including the current Bravada, the Chevy Blazer and the GMC Jimmy. But they are smaller than the Explorer and lack its consumer appeal. The 2002 models change all that.

They are bigger, brawnier and designed to compete with almost anything any competitor might throw at them in the next few years. The only uncertainty is what will happen to the Bravada now that GM has decided to terminate its Oldsmobile division. Best guess is it could become a midsize Cadillac SUV a couple of years hence.

The 2002 models will replace the current lineup, with one exception. Chevrolet will continue to market the Chevy Blazer as a price leader, emphasizing the two-door model as an economical, youth-oriented machine. The approach is similar to what Chrysler did with the Jeep Cherokee after it introduced the Grand Cherokee.

Although the three new SUVs are essentially the same, they have different styling, equipment and price ranges to compete with the ever-expanding array of utilitarian and luxury SUVs.

The Bravada intends to appeal to folks oriented toward luxury: A Lexus RX-300, an Infiniti QX4 or a Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited. The GMC Envoy is aimed squarely at the upper-middle of the market, and especially at professionals who like high-tech toys and equipment. The Trail Blazer goes after the masses who hanker after the Ford Explorer and Dodge Durango.

The focus here is on the Envoy, which straddles the lineup. For example, it offers a rear air-suspension system as a $375 option, which is standard on the Bravada and not available on the Trail Blazer.

The heart of these new SUVs is GM’s new 4.2-liter in-line six-cylinder engine, which is a state-of-the-art powerplant that slingshots the Envoy and its siblings to the front of the class.

It delivers a whopping 270 horsepower, with 275 pounds-feet of torque. The latter is a measure of hauling power at low engine revolutions, but in this case almost all of the torque is available throughout the engine’s rev range.

In practice, what it means is a vehicle that won’t be embarrassed in stoplight sprints, but also has the grunt to haul trailers and other big loads.

It also is refined. GM would like to have you think of it in the same way as the reverence accorded the in-line sixes of BMW. But it’s not a good comparison because the BMW engines are designed primarily for all-out sports-sedan performance, while the GM engine drives a truck.

Nevertheless, it does exhibit some of those BMW characteristics. It has twin overhead camshafts, a coil for each cylinder (eliminating the need for spark plug wires), and it’s uncannily smooth and quiet, especially at idle.

It works its will through a four-speed automatic transmission that shifts like the tick of a clock. Although two-wheel drive is standard, the tester had the electronic four-wheel-drive system that offers the best of all choices for freeway cruising and off-roading: Two-wheel drive, automatic all-wheel drive, and low- and high-range four-wheel drive. The brakes are anti-lock discs on all four wheels.

Although the Envoy should not be mistaken for a sports sedan, it handles remarkably well given that it basically is a truck albeit a sophisticated one. The body rests on a full frame for strength and isolation from outside influences, and the standard suspension system uses coil springs all around.

The Envoy tester was a top-of-the-line SLT with the optional air suspension in back and a load of equipment, including leather upholstery, automatic climate control, a superb sound system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer, a memory chip for the power seats and outside mirrors, headlight washers, and rear audio and climate controls.

Fully equipped in that fashion, its suggested sticker price was $34,795. That is not much more than a loaded version of its predecessor, the GMC Jimmy, and close to the 2000 Envoy (GM skipped the 2001 model), which was based on the Jimmy.

But you can get a two-wheel drive Envoy SLE for as little as $29,420. And even that model comes with an array of standard equipment that would satisfy most customers.

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