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1998 GMC Envoy

Brock Yates, American auto writing's ace curmudgeon, has described the current trend for 50 and 60-something males to deck themselves in leather and go tootling about on large, expensive motorcycles as "Hallowe'en for old guys." Yates' derision belies the fact that "old guys" have become a very important segment of the automotive market.

Old guys are keen consumers. Old guys have money. With the greying of our population, there are a lot of old guys around. My recent experiences with GMC's Envoy have led yours truly to discover the latest class of niche-mobile sport-utes for old guys.

Incorporating luxury features and up-market status, these vehicles are also conservative in aspect both in the way they look and in the gentle way they ride. The concept is best exemplified by Infiniti's QX4, but other examples might include the Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited (in certain colour schemes) and the Lincoln Navigator. The Navigator is, of course, the sport-ute of choice for rich, big, old guys. The Envoy, exclusive to GMC in its new role as General Motors' purveyor of premium trucks, fits neatly into this category.

In concept and in execution it is very similar to the QX4. Both are based on familiar 4WD sport utilities; the QX4 on the Pathfinder, the Envoy on the Jimmy. Both employ plastic cladding around the perimeter of the lower body to achieve a distinctive appearance. Both are painted in full monochrome. Both have exotic lighting gear the Envoy's illumination consisting of the latest high intensity discharge (HID) headlamps. Both cost about 45 grand including excise tax and destination charges $45,000 even for the QX4 with or without sunroof. A sunroof-free Envoy lists at $44,600. The powered opening is worth an additional $905 for a total of $45,505. GMC must be reading Infiniti's mail.

Inside these vehicles, the cliché-driven demands of luxury are met with leather coverings on the seats and woodgrain accents sprinkled around the cab. The Envoy is trimmed in real "zebrano" wood (whatever the heck that is) and the tone-on-tone coloured leather has that real stink of old cow.

Most automotive leather has lost its natural odour, a casualty, I'm told, of the large number of Asian customers who find it disgusting. Old guys like authentic smells, so GM brought them back under the title Nuance Aromatic Leather (President's Choice "Memories of Connolly"?). The seats, of course, are heated, as are the side mirrors.

I was more taken with the Envoy's premium six-speaker Bose sound system. In an attempt to deliver hi-fi to the entire cab there are big woofers in the front doors, wide-range speakers in the rear doors and tweeters up in the instrument panel. It works. The sound is accurate and enjoyable anywhere one sits. If that's still not good enough, there are two headphone outlets and an audio control panel for the rear seat passengers. (For when the old guy is hauling his grandkids.) The main audio panel sits where it should be, above the automatic climate controls, in the new-for-'98 instrument panel shared by the Jimmy, Blazer, GM's minitrucks and now the Envoy.

From the days of the truly terrible vacuum-fluorescent displays of years ago, GM has been gamely stumbling toward dashboard perfection in its sport utilities. They've come darn close with this one. The outline and the contours are pleasing to the eye and all of the gauges and switchgear are of the right style, of the right size and are in the right place.

Dual airbags are standard and a large "panic handle" now located in front of the passenger was given a warm welcome by everyone who sat in the right seat.

My only caveats relate to the rear wiper switch and the CD changer. The slide-action switch lacks a convenient one-push-one-wipe function. The changer, while handy, is crammed under the dash where it interferes with and is blocked by any use of the 12V power outlets.

The Envoy shares most of its drivetrain and running gear with the garden-variety Jimmy. And that's a good thing, 'cause the 190hp Vortec 4.3 L V6 and four-speed electronic automatic transmission are blissfully smooth and powerful.

GM's proven shift-on-the-fly 4WD transfer case offers enhanced traction at the push of a button. Although the basic suspension components are identical, the spring rates and shock tuning are unique to the Envoy, providing it with the sport-ute equivalent of a 1950s' boulevard ride. Body lean increases a bit and handling precision suffers a little, but not to the decrement of safety. For me, even with stabilizing effects of the Envoy's standard automatic load-levelling rear shock absorbers, the ride is too comfortable and floaty. I prefer more sense of the road below.

All that said, we can't take my old guy conceit too seriously. Heck, I know guys in their late 20s who are older than I ever expect to be. The Envoy could find a nice home in the driveway of an active young family and is capable of towing their boat with a touch of class. (The Envoy comes ready to tow, up to 2268 kg (5000 lb) with the load-leveller plus a platform hitch integrated into the rear bumper fascia.)

Interestingly, both Nissan and General Motors offer sport utilities at the other end of the image spectrum. It's particularly true of our times that age is a factor of spirit, thought and behaviour, not chronology. Say what you will about stereotypes, it shows up in what you drive.

For the young of heart and mind, Nissan has that snazzy Chilkoot Trail Pathfinder. General Motors offers a ZR2 edition of the Jimmy/Blazer two-door bodywork, wide stance, big tires and fender flares apparently set up to be a talented off-roader. Say what you will about stereotypes, but the ZR2 has high school parking lot written all over it.

I mustn't leave you without specific comment on the Envoy's lighting system. It's an unfortunate fact that since the shape of headlamps was deregulated in favour of fuel-saving aerodynamics, the quality of the light produced has been universally lousy. Most contemporary aero-form headlamps are barely adequate; some are downright unsafe.

GM has tackled the problem with a hybrid system, with powerful HID lamps for the low beams and halogens for the highs. The HID's reflectors produce a pencil-beam effect: one beam sent up the lane directly in front; the other covering the shoulder. The clear white light pattern is low, thereby avoiding the reflected-back effect that can be so irritating and dangerous in a heavy snow and rain storms. Plus, the pattern does not stray into the oncoming lane and the eyes of oncoming drivers. Wisely, the engineers have chosen a simple approach to the high beams. The reflectors just blast out a huge bag of light, way down the road, off to the sides and up toward trees, powerlines and the like. Hit the switch and it looks like somebody turned the house lights on in a darkened theatre. It's about time something like this was created. Like most long-overdue good ideas, the Envoy system seems so simple. A gold star to GM.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on weeklong driving experience in an Envoy supplied by GM Canada.

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