GM's Envoy vs. Ford's Explorer

Who wins in this SUV match-up?

In the family sport-utility business, the battle between Ford Motor and General Motors for the crown has always been a joke. Since introducing the Explorer in 1991, Ford has owned the midsize SUV market. GM's comparatively undersized and underpowered Chevrolet Blazer and GMC Jimmy have been mostly budget options.

That's about to change. For the first time ever, GM and Ford have launched all-new, redesigned midsize SUVs in the same year. And GM finally has a truck that is competitive with the Explorer and Mercury's version, the Mountaineer, in terms of size, passenger space, comfort, and horsepower. In fact, with more aggressive styling and one of the best engines on the market, GM's new GMC Envoy--and its siblings, the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and Oldsmobile Bravada--edge out the new Explorer.

I was originally supposed to test the models in February. But both were recalled: the Explorer because of a faulty fastener in the tailgate window and assembly-line damage to the tire sidewalls, the Envoy because of a bad part in the suspension. Since Ford cleared up its problems first, I drove the Explorer first.

The 2002 model gets high marks for its ride. The older Explorer was always a bit sloppy, dealing its driver and passengers plenty of bounce and shake. This time, Ford's engineers gave the Explorer an all-new suspension that seems to glide over bumps much better than most sport-utilities--even on the rough, decaying roads of southeastern Michigan.

The new Explorer handles well, too. I found I could make quick turns without that uneasy feeling that the vehicle could roll over. In the old Explorer, I always felt I had to make turns gingerly to avoid leaning too hard to one side. To give the vehicle more stability, the new Explorer is two inches wider and 450 pounds heavier.

Ford has also provided most of its Explorers with Goodyear or Michelin tires. The carmaker is trying desperately to get the Explorer out of the white-hot spotlight of the Bridgestone/Firestone tire debacle. More than 200 people have died traveling in the previous generation Explorer when the vehicle's Firestones shredded and caused the SUV to roll over. Ford and Firestone blame each other for the sad situation. And to handle the increased weight, the Explorer now has 16-in. instead of 15-in. tires.

Not surprisingly, Ford (F ) is pressing hard on the safety angle. Its engineers have packed in some great safety technology--for a price. For $500 extra, for example, you can get side-curtain air bags that inflate when a vehicle rolls over. The curtain covers 70% of the window space in the first and second rows. It's a great idea, but sorry, guys--with so much concern over SUV rollovers, the side curtain should be standard equipment.

My biggest gripe with the Explorer is the engine. I tested its 210-horsepower V-6 and found it to be sluggish. The 239-hp V-8 is much quicker and handles the Explorer's newfound bulk with zip--for an extra $700. Fuel economy for the best-selling two-wheel-drive V-6 averages 18 miles per gallon.

If horsepower is your main concern, the Envoy is a better bet. You can get an Envoy only with GM's all-new inline six-cylinder engine. But with this peppy 270-hp motor, there's no need for a V-8. I thought the Envoy was quick enough to weave in and out of traffic, which is no easy trick given its size. Another plus: GM's four-wheel-drive SUVs get 18 mpg, vs. 16 mpg for the 4WD V-8 Explorer. Ford's V-8 does beat GM'S V-6 engine in towing and hauling capabilities, however.

GM's SUVs give a pretty smooth ride--for SUVs. Even though GM chose not to use the newer independent rear suspension the Explorer has, the Envoy is equally matched when it comes to cruising over rough roads. Still, both Ford's and GM's trucks are, well, trucks. They won't ride as nicely as car-based sport utes from Toyota Motor (TM ) and Honda Motor (HMC ).

For a change, GM (GM ) got the design right. Unlike most SUVs, the GMC Envoy has actual rear fenders to give it some style. The Chevy TrailBlazer leans forward with an aggressive stance, and the side panels flare out enough to give it a little sportiness. In any case, both look better than the bland Explorer. Maybe it's brand management run amok, but Ford designed the Explorer to look like a member of the Ford truck family. In fact, it resembles the five-year-old full-size Expedition SUV. That makes the new Explorer look dated even though it has been on the market for just a few months.

I was also unimpressed with the Explorer's interior design. It's just plain dull. Nothing but black plastic and generic-looking gauges everywhere. Even the inside of the top-of-the-line Explorer--priced at $34,655--is boring. Its fraternal twin, the Mercury Mountaineer, got the looks in the family. With brushed aluminum around the controls and in the steering wheel, the Mountaineer's insides look classier than the Explorer's.

So do the Envoy's. GM is not known for impressive interiors these days. But the brushed aluminum around the vents and the faux wood around the stereo and environmental controls give the truck a dash of sophistication. On top of that, the seats are very plush.

GM did miss one important trick: It didn't include a third row of seats like the Explorer has. It won't have one until next May--and then it will charge $2,000 for the option. Why the wait? GM didn't want to put a third bench in the current SUV because it would be too cramped. So it decided to wait until it could bring out a longer version to offer the seven-passenger seating of the new Explorer, in addition to providing more storage space behind the seats. I'm 6 foot 1, and I find the Explorer's third seat too cramped. GM's planned third row is supposed to accommodate a 6-foot-2 passenger.

Which vehicle would I prefer? Ford is trying to win buyers with a $750 loyalty coupon for current Explorer owners and a $500 rebate for everyone else. Still, I like the Envoy better. It handles just as well as the Explorer but has a better engine and drinks a little less gasoline. Plus, the Envoy looks more contemporary. And I doubt that GM will let Ford's discounts and incentives go unmatched.

By David Welch

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