- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 26, 2004

They don’t talk about it much, but almost everybody does it.

No, it’s not illegal. And it’s not fattening, either, unless you count profits. It’s the practice of car companies, especially big ones, to squeeze as many models as possible from a basic chassis and powertrain. So, for example, Toyota has the Highlander, a fraternal twin of the Lexus RX 330. Ford has triplets in the Explorer, Mercury Mountaineer and Lincoln Aviator SUVs.

General Motors does the same thing with the Chevrolet Trail Blazer, the GMC Envoy and the Buick Rainier. Two of them are the subject here and illustrate how a manufacturer can produce vehicles that are more alike than different, but cleverly designed to appeal to different buyers.

They are both truck-based sport utility vehicles, but the Rainier is aimed at Buick buyers, which is to say people who like comfort and serenity in their motoring. It’s a full-blown SUV with all-wheel drive and plenty of ground clearance for possible off-road duty, but it’s also quiet as a church at 3 a.m., has a boulevard-soft ride and nice interior appointments, including wood-grain trim.

The Envoy XUV has some of the same attributes. But it’s a unique vehicle that is an SUV one minute, then with the touch of a button or twist of a key converts into a pickup truck.

Yet it’s also a quiet, comfortable cruiser with a good ride. Though at first blush the XUV comes across as borderline ridiculous — after all, who needs a convertible SUV? — it becomes more likable the more you live with it.

It looks like a standard mid- to large-size five-passenger SUV, except that there’s a panel with a power window behind the second row of seats — something like the privacy window behind the driver in a limousine. It isolates the passenger compartment from the cargo area.

But drop the tailgate window and all sorts of possibilities open up.

An extra twist of the key — or the press of an overhead button from the driver’s seat — starts the roof over the cargo area sliding forward, and soon there’s a pickup bed back there.

The tailgate flips backward or opens sideways for loading, and because the partition behind the back seat seals off the passenger space, the whole cargo area can be cleaned by simply hosing it out.

Built-in drains can handle 30 gallons of water a minute.

But wait.

Suppose you have some really big stuff to haul, such as the ubiquitous 4-by-8 sheets of plywood.

No problem.

The rear seats fold forward, the window in the partition drops out of sight and the partition folds down to the floor. None of this takes very long. The tailgate window drops in about four seconds, and the roof takes about 19 seconds to open. The partition window drops in another four seconds, and the split rear seats each take about the same amount of time.

So you can have a five-passenger pickup with the occupants isolated from the cargo bed, or a pickup with a long cargo bed that is not isolated from the driver and front-seat passenger.

Interestingly, the luxury-oriented Rainier and the practical Envoy XUV are close in price. The Buick comes with more standard equipment, but in the end the separation between the two vehicles is in hundreds of dollars, with the Rainier at $41,290 and the Envoy at $41,985 before discounts and rebates.

The main difference between the two was that the tested Rainier came with the optional 290-horsepower 5.2-liter V-8 engine, while the Envoy had the standard 275-horsepower 4.2-liter in-line six-cylinder engine.

In truth, it’s a distinction without much of a difference. In everyday driving, a casual driver would not notice much difference. The V-8 has 325 foot-pounds of torque, which translates into low-rpm pulling power, while the six has 275 foot-pounds.

In practice, it means the V-8 has slightly better towing capability.

Cargo volume, with the rear seats up, is close, with the Rainier at 40 cubic feet and the closed Envoy XUV at 49. Of course, the Envoy’s cargo area also expands to the sky.

Fuel economy, at 16 miles per gallon city, 21 highway, is actually a bit better with the V-8 Rainier. The Envoy gets 15 and 20, but it’s 16 inches longer and is heavier by 314 pounds.

Both vehicles use a General Motors four-speed automatic transmission to get the power to the wheels. But the Rainier uses a full-time all-wheel-drive system that requires no input from the driver. The Envoy, on the other hand, has a system that can be switched from two-wheel drive to part-time four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.

Both vehicles came with comfortable, leather-covered seating for four (the center position in back is cramped), responsive automatic climate-control systems, decent-sounding audio systems, and full instruments and controls that were easy to read and use. As might be expected, neither the Envoy nor the Rainier has the precise handling of a midsize sedan. But as trucks go, they’re reasonably responsive. The Envoy is a bit more cumbersome, particularly in parking, because of its length of 17 feet 4 inches.

For large, truck-based SUVs, both vehicles offer fairly easy entry and exit. The Rainier was more accommodating because it came with running boards, which the Envoy did not have. But they could be easily added.

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