Future Curbside Classics: The Cars We’ll Be Photographing Later – Part 5

Envoy XUV 1

Welcome to this week’s installment of Future Curbside Classics, where we take a critical look at cars from the past decade that will be rare or intriguing sightings by the curbside in ten years’ time. This week we have: a truck with an innovative idea that went absolutely nowhere; another truck that could get places fast but not very efficiently; an attractive crossover roughly as popular as toxic waste; and another obscure rebadge.


Resurrecting a 40-year old idea


The GMT-360 platform is one that keeps reappearing in this Future Curbside Classics series. After all, six different marques received a version of it, including FCC repeat offenders Isuzu and Saab. There were outrageous V8 performance editions of the GMT-360, such as the 9-7X Aero and TrailBlazer SS, and short-lived near-luxury variants like the Bravada and Rainier. One of the most obscure permutations of the platform, though, came in the form of the GMC Envoy XUV: absolutely the best truck of the past decade if you are transporting a grandfather clock.

 Envoy XUV 2

found this conveniently right across from my building

How oddly specific, you must be saying. The 2000s were a highly experimental decade for GM as the megalith company was slowly getting its mojo back after many years of poor management of its passenger car lineup. This new, albeit pre-bankruptcy GM was more adventurous, and was willing to invest in sometimes exciting niche models. The Chevrolet Avalanche was one such vehicle, featuring the cabin of a Chevy Tahoe Suburban but with a moderately sized pickup bed and a so-called MidGate. This new feature allowed the user to stow away the panel separating bed from cabin, so that bulkier items could be stowed partially in the backseat area. It was a clever idea so GM applied a similar concept to the 2004 Envoy XUV.

 Envoy XUV 3

The XUV was effectively a GMC Envoy XL – technically a GMT-370, if you want to be specific – with the third-row seats removed, and a 32×32 inch retractable rear roof added. This roof slid forward so that the cargo bay behind the second-row was exposed to the sun. A semi-glass MidGate could be raised to separate the cabin from the “bed”, and the all-weather cargo area featured a QuickDrain system that allowed it to be sprayed out with a hose. An XUV driver could even lower the MidGate and fold down the second row for a larger cargo area. The tailgate was also nifty: it could either be opened sideways or dropped down, and the rear glass could be retracted into the tailgate.

 GMC-Envoy-XUV-SLT2 autobestpics

photo courtesy of Autobestpics.com

The idea of a wagon-type vehicle with a retractable roof wasn’t new, as Studebaker’s Wagonaire of the 1960s also had such a feature. Where the Wagonaire’s roof was known for leaking, XUV owners have expressed dissatisfaction with the roof sensors being far too finicky. For safety reasons, the roof panel can’t move if there is an obstruction in the way, but many Envoy XUVs play fast and loose with the definition of “obstruction”.


a regular GMC Envoy XL

Maybe it was the complexity and relatively small size of this rear cargo area that turned buyers off of the XUV. GM projected 30,000 sales for the XUV’s inaugural year in 2004, but only 12,000 units were sold (one source claimed there were 112,000 sales projected, but that seems ludicrously high for a niche model). Evidently, GM didn’t see those numbers being turned around, and the truncated 2005 model year saw even fewer sold, with just under 4,000 units. To put it into perspective, GMC shifted over 134,000 Envoys in 2004, including the XUV, and over 100,000 in 2005. Suppliers were blindsided by such a speedy discontinuation; Inalfa Sunroof, for example, had specifically set up a $5 million dollar production facility in Oklahoma, where the GMT-370s were made. One dealer interviewed by the Oklahoman said every person to whom he sold an XUV was very happy with it. However, the XUV’s intended purpose was very specific. After all, a normal Envoy XL offered slightly more cargo volume (107 cubic feet vs 95, with the rear seats folded flat). Did it have a hose-down floor or a trick retractable roof? No, so if you were a landscaper or someone hauling dirty things (or grandfather clocks), the XUV would be the better pick. But for most people, an XL would be just fine and would have fewer moving, breakable parts. Fortunately for the dirt-haulers, a base XUV listed for around $32k, only $3k more than a base SWB Envoy.


Setting aside the XUV’s unique features for a moment, its buyers still received all the basic virtues and issues of the Envoy and Envoy XL: a smooth and powerful I-6 (275hp and 275 lb ft, comparable to a V8 Explorer!); an available V8 with even more power and torque; a smooth ride, but floaty handling; and a nicer interior than the TrailBlazer. All in all, the XUV was a solid truck with some trick features but it was too niche to have widespread appeal.



Chevrolet Colorado & GMC Canyon V8

Muscle truck 


If the moderately clever Envoy XUV struck you as being a pointless addition to GM’s truck lineup, then the Colorado/Canyon 5.3 V8 can’t be viewed in a much more positive light. After all, the Envoy XUV had a very specific niche: people who wanted SUV comfort but who didn’t own a pickup to carry dirty/tall things. The Colorado and Canyon V8 appeals to a smaller niche: people who don’t want a full-size truck, but want the power and don’t care about the fuel economy.


photo courtesy of Sfoskett

Huh? The 2009-12 Colorado/Canyon V8 actually had the same highway gas mileage and worse city mileage than the larger, heavier Silverado/Sierra V8 with the same engine. Not to mention, the larger trucks had been completely overhauled for 2007 and looked very sharp inside and out. The 2004-vintage Colorado came with one of the drabbest, cheapest interiors on the market, replete with uncomfortable seats and considerably less room than the Silverado. If you were hoping for some kind of competitive advantage over the bigger Silverado, you were out of luck.


Alternative #1

If you were simply craving Chevy V8 performance in an affordable package that wasn’t a full-size truck, you needn’t have settled for the Colorado/Canyon V8. The long, dark winter at Chevrolet had ended, and you could once again buy a Camaro in 2010. This time, the base V6 pumped out 300hp and hit 0-60 in 6 seconds; the 400hp V8 did it in 5 seconds. And that wild-looking pony car even got better gas mileage!


Alternative #2

If you were after a non-full-size pickup with the most towing capacity, the Dodge/Ram Dakota V8 shaded the Colorado/Canyon V8 by 1,200 pounds when properly equipped. The Dakota also boasted ever so slightly more power and torque, a marginally nicer interior (at least visually), and for a little while at least, an available stickshift with the V8.


Alternative #3

So maybe the hypothetical Colorado/Canyon V8 buyer really liked the basic truck and just wanted more oomph. The 2.9 I-4 and 3.7 I-5 were often criticized for lacking low-end torque, but the basic handling of the truck was seen as decent. Unfortunately, the rest of the truck just felt cheap and lacked the refinement of a Tacoma. The Colorado/Canyon V8 sure filled a niche, but the lack of broken-out V8 production figures means we are left to wonder whether that niche was worth filling.


Infiniti EX/QX50

Unloved but not unloveable 


Next up, we have a compact luxury crossover – you’ll recognize that as being one of the industry’s fastest-growing segments – that sells in Acura RL volumes.

Ok, so the Infiniti EX’s sales aren’t quite that low, but relatively speaking they are just as bad for Infiniti. After all, the RL (now RLX) is a flagship sedan for Acura, occupying the fairly low-volume segment of full-size FWD luxury sedans. It’s a small segment without a lot of sales. The compact luxury crossover market? It’s a market that did 211,433 sales in 2013, up almost 30% from 2012 (thank you, Good Car Bad Car, for your excellently organized sales data). Cars like the Acura RDX and Audi Q5 have increased their sales every year since they launched. And what of the Infiniti EX? Its sales fell almost 40% from 2012, echoing a similar drop the year before. Its bigger brother, the FX (QX70), is more expensive and has seen some big drops, too, but still sells almost double the volume. Let’s take a look at why the EX – now known as the QX50 – is a complete sales dud.

 800px-INFINITI_EX37_rear David Villarreal Fernandez

photos courtesy David Villarreal Fernández

A lot of crossovers these days are rather unpleasant to look at (although this doesn’t stop some from selling very well, like the BMW X6) but as far as crossovers go, the EX is actually rather pretty. It has some strong visual similarities to its G37 platform mate, but avoids the usual crossover visual bloat and is actually quite pert in person, eschewing the trend of more recent Infiniti models to be overwrought. The EX has clean, flowing lines and a long, sedan-like hood but a decently high ride height, so it doesn’t quite fall into the Ford Freestyle/BMW X1 trap of just looking like a regular wagon.


So it looks attractive and convincing outside. The interior is where the EX is less convincing. Up front, there is an attractive dash and high-quality materials, especially with available option packages that allow for more leather and real wood. There’s a fairly easy-to-use infotainment system as well, but also plenty of actual, real buttons on the dash. The EX also boasts an innovative rear parking assist that uses four cameras on the car to produce a 360 degree view to help you negotiate a spot. But the EX brings up the rear in its category – pun intended – in cargo volume and back seat space. In short, there’s not much of either. The EX is 4.7 inches shorter and rides a wheelbase two inches shorter than the G, and it’s plainly apparent upon sitting in the back where those inches were taken out. Tellingly, there’s actually less rear legroom than in the G37 coupe. The EX is down eight cubic feet on interior volume vis-à-vis the sedan. Behind the cramped rear quarters, there’s only 18.6 cubic feet of space. So the EX is barely more versatile than the G, if at all.


But crossover buyers aren’t always looking for the most versatile option. Often, they simply appreciate the perceived style of a crossover and the higher ride height. Where the EX gains ground as a convincing compact luxury crossover offering is in how it drives. Utilizing the front suspension componentry of the G but the rear set-up of an FX, the EX boasts both a fairly compliant ride – some critics argue one better than the G – with sports sedan handling. The EX also only weighs around 200 pounds more than a G sedan, and since last year has been available with the same 3.7 V6 with 320hp and 270 lb ft, mated to a seven-speed auto; the previous powertrain was the award-winning VQ35 with 297hp and 262 lb ft, albeit with only a five-speed auto. Critics have praised the quick turn-in and maneuverability of the EX; it has a 52/48 weight distribution that helps it handle comparably to many sport sedans.


photo courtesy of Mujitra

Maybe, though, the critics are right. Maybe the EX has sold slowly and continued to lose sales because people think it looks like a hatchback, and crossover buyers prefer something more butch, like the upright GLK. Or maybe crossover buyers are just really turned off by the surprising lack of versatility. The G-replacing Q50 just launched so I’m sure a new QX50 isn’t far away, as Infiniti will want to field something less sales-resistant in this hot segment. They’ll also be wise to heavily advertise the new names in the Infiniti lineup. I’m not convinced Infiniti’s new Q-name branding strategy is the horrible adventure in rebranding everyone is making it out to be as using a number system makes more sense in some ways: there’s no confusion as to which car is further up in the hierarchy (e.g., Lincoln’s MKS vs MKZ and Cadillac’s CTS vs XTS); and there’s less priority placed on the engine, which is especially pointless these days when BMW and Mercedes label their cars 535 and E350 when neither are powered by a 3.5 engine. However, it does confuse in that a Q60 and a QX60 are completely different vehicles and don’t even occupy a similar place in Infiniti’s separate passenger car and crossover lineups. One is (or rather, will be) a sport coupe variant of the Q50; the other is a seven-seat, FWD Nissan-based crossover. Fortunately, the EX is now the QX50; this clearly ties it to the Q50, much like how the EX is known as the Nissan Skyline Crossover in Japan. I sincerely hope the next QX50 finds a way to increase sales volume without throwing away its sports-sedan dynamics, but given Infiniti’s newest crossover is a reskinned Nissan Pathfinder with FWD-biased AWD and a CVT, it’s entirely possible this QX50 could be a developmental dead end.


Obscure Rebadges – Part 4


Mazda Tribute

Mazda was no stranger to receiving product from former corporate parent Ford, although arguably Ford got the better end of that stick. The Mazda Navajo was a rebadged Ford Explorer sold by Mazda during the early 1990s, but Ford only let them have the two-door; not a great agreement when four-door SUV sales were taking off like a rocket. This time around, Mazda’s Ford SUV was a four-door; the 2001 Tribute was smartly-styled, and came with a standard 2.0 four cylinder with 130hp and 135 lb ft of torque and five-speed manual or four-speed auto – not an ideal powertrain option for a 3200lb car – or the more powerful Duratec V6 from Ford, with a four-speed automatic and a class-leading 200hp and 200 ft lbs. 2005 brought a new base engine with 20 more horsepower and pound feet of torque, but the thirsty V6 was unchanged. Of course, the competitive Tribute didn’t sell anywhere near the volumes of the Ford Escape. No one expected it to do so, with Mazda’s much smaller dealer network and advertising budget. Ford anticipated its variant would sell four times as many units as the Tribute, and that is effectively what happened until around 2007 when sales fell by half from the year before.


As with the Escape, the Tribute received a sharp makeover in 2008 but it was looking more out of place in the swoopy Mazda lineup. The boxy, upright Tribute had a neater front fascia and inside received the same higher-quality but button-heavy interior as the Escape. However, this arrangement also allowed Mazda to sell their first hybrid. Despite these changes and the following year’s improved gas mileage and more powerful engines (a new base 2.5 again had an extra 20hp and 20 lb-ft; the V6 added a standard six-speed auto and 40hp and 33 lb-ft), Tribute sales continued their decline. Perhaps it was a lack of marketing support, the sexy new CX-7 across the showroom, the Tribute’s 2001-vintage design, or a combination of all three, but 2009 saw sales fall under the 10k mark and continuing to shrink. Meanwhile, Escape sales actually increased despite heavy competition, and by this point it was the rebadged Mercury Mariner selling four times as many units as the Tribute. The Tribute Hybrid was axed after 2009 (I wonder what’s rarer, it or the Chrysler Aspen Hybrid?), and the Tribute itself limped on until 2011. The modern, Mazda-engineered and designed CX-5 eventually filled its place, and is earning plaudits left and right. It’s easy as a big company to have an old model in your lineup because you can still milk the cash cow of long-ago amortized tooling by selling to fleets, which I’m sure Ford did heavily with the old Escape towards the end. As a smaller company like Mazda though, you have to keep it fresh. The Tribute, despite some solid mechanical and visual improvements, was simply getting on in years and people switched off.


So, what do you CC-ers think? Was the Envoy XUV as terrible an idea as its sales and manufacturer support suggest? Would you have picked a Colorado V8 over a similarly-priced Silverado V8? Why won’t people buy the Infiniti QX50? Did you ever see a Tribute that wasn’t painted in that sandstone beige color? Share your thoughts in the comments!