The Sky's the Limit By John DiPietro Date posted: 07-03-2003 With such stiff competition in every market segment, automakers are constantly trying to come up with something that "the other guy doesn't have" that's of real value to the consumer. Recent examples of this niche marketing include vehicles such as the Chevrolet Avalanche/Cadillac Escalade EXT twins and the Subaru Baja — all of which combine the passenger compartment of an SUV with the open cargo area of a pickup truck. GMC takes this idea to the next level with the Envoy XUV. This new variation on the standard Envoy can be either a conventional SUV with the security of an enclosed cargo compartment, or a pickup truck of sorts with a roofless bed to allow the transport of tall, bulky items. The XUV (eXtra Utility Vehicle?) is basically an Envoy XL (the long-wheelbase version of the Envoy) that has been stripped of its third-row seat and fitted with a trick, retractable roof section over the rear cargo compartment. Old-timers and car buffs may recall the Studebaker Wagonaire of the mid-1960s — a station wagon that also had a retracting roof over the back section. Hmmm…seems that there really is nothing new under the sun. Nostalgia aside, situations aplenty should prove the worth of this Envoy's retractable roof. Need to pick up that old armoire from the antique store or get the red maple tree home from the nursery? No problem with the XUV; simply press a button and the rear portion of the roof slides forward, exposing a 32-by-32-inch opening. In addition to the power roof, the XUV also features a two-way tailgate with a power window. The tailgate reminded some of us of the setup used by big American wagons of the 1970s, having the ability to either swing open or drop down. But unlike Dad's old Caprice Estate or Country Squire, the XUV tailgate is handled by electronic (rather than mechanical) release handles, making one-handed operation a little easier. If that's not enough flexibility, the XUV also features a Midgate, a movable partition between the passenger and cargo areas. This "next-generation" Midgate is similar to the original version found in the Avalanche/Escalade EXT, except that the glass powers down into the lower portion instead of having to be manually removed. With the Midgate up and the glass raised, the cargo area is completely sealed off from the passengers. When additional hauling capacity is needed, simply fold the rear seats down and lower the Midgate for 95.2 cubic feet of cargo space. Even 4-by-8 sheets of plywood can be transported by lowering the tailgate and sliding 'em in over built-in side rail supports. A number of tie-down rings, including four that can be relocated to any of 12 positions, further increase the XUV's hauling abilities. Carrying messy and/or wet items is a nonissue for the XUV as well; the scuff-resistant and weatherproof cargo area can be hosed out after the mulch is unloaded. Even driving with the back opened up in the rain is OK, as the XUV's "QuickDrain" system can channel up to 35 gallons of water a minute out of the cargo area via a hidden trough and built-in drains that empty behind the rear wheels. Those concerned with leaks should be comforted by the fact that the XUV passed rigorous tests that simulated monsoonlike conditions, hitting the 'ute with 900 gallons of water per minute. Unless you've got a bird's eye view of this Envoy, telling the XUV apart from its fixed-roof siblings is a challenge. The most obvious giveaway is the aluminum trim that extends down over the rearmost roof pillars. Inside, it's a lot more obvious that this SUV is different, as the Midgate (with the window up) separates the passenger and cargo compartments and the latter is devoid of carpeting so that it's easy to clean. As with the other Envoy models, the XUV can be had in either two- or four-wheel drive, and either six- or eight-cylinder power. The standard Vortec 4200 (4.2-liter) inline six provides 275 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque, sufficient to tow up to 5,800 pounds. With 290 horses and 325 lb-ft, the Vortec 5300 (5.3-liter) V8 can pull up to 6,500 pounds. All the XUVs at our press introduction were loaded V8 4WD versions. As we've already experienced the inline six a few times, it was nice to have the chance to sample the V8. As we expected, the Vortec V8 was smooth and powerful, and the transmission is typical GM, meaning it provided quick, well-timed and seamless gear changes. With just over 5,000 pounds to haul around, one wouldn't expect great fuel mileage, but we were still appalled to see an average of just 11.7 miles per gallon displayed by the Envoy's trip computer. Granted, these vehicles were being flogged by lead-footed journalists, and the drive routes were mostly secondary roads. But still, that's pretty damn thirsty. Preliminary (and evidently optimistic) estimates for this configuration stand at 14 mpg city and 18 mpg highway. As with other Envoys we've driven, the XUV has a comfortable ride that seems to come at the expense of handling performance. Obviously, this is an SUV and not a sport sedan, and it should be driven with that in mind. But when pushed while running through the curves (hey, it's our job!), the Envoy feels soft and the lazy, numb steering (surprising given its rack and pinion design) doesn't help matters much. Most folks, however, should find the Envoy a pleasant enough drive. Trim levels echo the "other" Envoys, meaning base SLE and leather-lined SLT versions will be offered. Pricing (including destination) will range from $31,890 for a 2WD SLE to $38,715 for a 4WD SLT. Inevitably, after we attend one of these product previews and while banging out our review, one of the questions that looms large is: "How well does the vehicle serve the consumer?" Although the Envoy XUV's power-retracting roof might at first seem like a "Gee, look at that" gimmick, it actually has real-world worth. No longer must one borrow a pickup when it's time to move the kid to college or transport that new fridge from Best Buy. So yes, the Envoy XUV is a well-executed and versatile SUV that offers flexible hauling capability. But should you buy one, we'd suggest you resist the urge to tell your friends about the cool retracting roof. The Bottom Line: Far from being a gimmick, the XUV's retracting roof has real-world functionality, raising the art of the SUV to new heights.