ASH FORK, Ariz. — Cruising I-40 west from Flagstaff on a cushy test drive, our luxurious sport-utility wagon follows paths of the historic Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe rail line and old Route 66 in a descent from the Colorado Plateau of northern Arizona. Ponderosa pine forests in the White Mountains gradually cede to hardy high desert vegetation like juniper, yucca and sage.
What a way to go. Perched high on ultrasoft leather-bound buckets, we tour the West in sublime comfort surrounded by trappings of luxury, with Zebrano wood dotting the doors and console and a symphony of melodic CD sounds flowing from six speakers of the deluxe Bose stereo system. Warm light filters softly through a glass sunroof as sensors in the climate-control system compensate for any heat gain and subtly maintain cabin temperature at a preferred level for comfort.
The list of practical equipment is impressive as well –- traction for all wheels; anti-lock disc brakes; automatic load-leveling suspension; heated rearview mirrors; high-intensity discharge (HID) headlamps; on-board trailer equipment, including platform hitch and harness; and even the latest in navigation and communication gear with satellite link to global positioning satellites (GPS) and OnStar's staff on call to find roadside attractions or to summon help.
Envoy to luxury
What's the deal with such special wheels?
1999 GMC Envoy interior
The Envoy’s interior contains every imaginable luxury device, like automatic climate control, trip computer, CD changer, and buttery leather seats.
We're floating along in an Envoy, latest luxury vehicle to come from the GMC Truck Division of General Motors. The Envoy is a sturdy midsize sport-utility wagon, one in which the outfitters went positively manic in specifying every conceivable component for luxury, comfort and convenience.
1999 GMC Envoy
But here's the secret surrounding development of the Envoy: Peel away decorative body cladding and strip off tone-on-tone leather from cabin seats and the essence actually amounts to a maxed-out version of the four-door Jimmy, GMC's familiar midsize wagon.
The Envoy, it seems, represents an ultimate interpretation of Jimmy as harbinger of future products, as the line of GMC Truck gradually evolves into an array of deluxe wheels. In that process of repositioning GMC's image, the Jimmy badge is expected to fade away as too common a moniker.
So call this wagon the Envoy, not the Jimmy, but realize that underpinnings of the Jimmy remain the solid foundation, following a generational redesign back in 1995 and subsequent face lift in 1997.
Envoy rides from a truck platform
The Envoy rides on a platform derived from GMC's compact truck, Sonoma, but it contains the luxury gear of a fancy sedan and serious four-wheeler hardware of a rugged off-road warrior. Its frame is boxed to improve torsional rigidity and bending stiffness, which in turn reduces squeaks and rattles normally associated with trucks. The passenger compartment is fortified with acoustic insulation to diminish road and powertrain noises.
Both the Sonoma and the Envoy share a streamlined face incorporating aerodynamic corner headlamps and body-colored bumpers which meld into a smooth frontal wrap. The Envoy goes further to distinguish its exterior form with a monochromatic paint scheme that unites all body cladding, bumpers, wheel flares, door handles, side mirrors and the rooftop luggage rack.
The body-colored front bumper contains round fog lamps and integrated tow hooks, and at front corners high-intensity discharge headlights mark the first use of this technology on a sport-utility vehicle. These gas arc tube lamps emit true white light that's almost triple the brightness of conventional halogen bulbs. They provide a broader and longer beam pattern to boost nighttime vision, too. In back, a body-colored spoiler and high neon stoplight mount above a unique step bumper for easy access to the Envoy's rear cargo area or roof rack.
1999 GMC Envoy
Perhaps the best thing about the Envoy is that although it's borne from a truck, rides on the chassis of a truck and carries the heavy-duty handling components of a truck, it doesn't drive or ride like a truck. Actually, it's about as easy to use as a sedan, but more convenient.
Vortec power from a big V-6
In the power department, the Envoy gets the familiar but reliable GM Vortec 4.3-liter V-6 engine rigged with overhead valving and lightweight pistons. It brings aggressive horsepower — 190 maximum — with plenty of torque at hand to help when pulling a trailer to 5000 pounds.
A four-speed electronic automatic transmission serves as the sole shifter. The Envoy also has GM's new automatic active transfer case — called AutoTrac — as standard equipment. When on-board sensors detect wheel spin, the smart AutoTrac four-wheel-drive system automatically switches from normal rear-wheel-drive traction to a mode which channels power equally to the front as well as the rear wheels. If wheel sensors detect too much tire slippage, the system automatically locks into full-time 4x4 mode without needing the driver's prompt.
A premium suspension package on the Envoy links to a built-in air compressor which automatically raises or lowers rear shock absorbers according to on-board or towing load. As a novelty, the compressor has an auxiliary air valve in the rear cargo bay for inflating recreational gear such as an air mattress, bike tire or sports ball.
An updated interior features ergonomic placement for analog instruments and dual airbags engineered with decreased power for added safety. Tone-on-tone soft leather covers front buckets and the rear bench seat, with the Envoy's signature stitched into headrests. Buckets contain a heat element and eight-way power controls, and the bench's backrest splits and folds for flexible arrangemen