Intrepid explorers that we are, my husband and I knew that penetrating Mexico's jungles and navigating its rugged coastline would require a sturdier vehicle than the typical Mexican rental car (which, oddly enough, is a PT Cruiser). Our basic Jeep - and by basic, I mean little, if any, suspension and a total lack of side curtains - did the trick for the most part, but many times we longed for the little comforts of home.
With its machined-billet styling and ultra-luxury options, the GMC Envoy Denali would have been overkill on the near-primitive roads of the picturesque Yucatan. The extra-long XL with leather seating for seven, or the XUV with its powerful V8, diminishes your bartering ability in Tulum's flea markets: Flashy gringo tourists don't score bargain basement prices on turquoise.
GMC offers a jumble assortment of Envoy models. HGTV considers the Denali an appropriate added enticement to its Dream Home giveaway, but it's worth foregoing the luxury chrome grille and polished aluminum wheels, as well as the heavy V8 of the XL and XUV, for the superior handling of the standard Envoy.
While the XUV features a 44-inch pickup-like bed when the window, mid-gate and rear seats are lowered, plus a retractable rear roof and a dual-function tailgate that can be dropped like that of a pickup or swung open like a door, its longer wheelbase diminishes its handling and responsiveness when compared to the standard Envoy. Ditto for the XL, whose wheelbase is a full 16 inches longer! It neither corners well nor maintains stability at high speed in windy coastal conditions.
By contrast, the standard Envoy feels smooth and stable at high speeds. Its car-like ride makes it enjoyable for passengers, and its nimble responsiveness makes it a pleasure to drive. A low-mounted engine (and, thus, low center of gravity) and wide track contribute greatly to its stability and handling. It doesn't roll in the corners and its rear end stays planted even on high-speed washboard surfaces like we encountered on the heavily rutted road to the sleepy fishing village of Punta Allen. Unfortunately, its low ground clearance of 8 inches would have spelled trouble in the pock-marked paths that pass for roads in much of Mexico.
For the notorious sand pits along coast-hugging roads, the Envoy's Autotrac four-wheel-drive system would be a blessing. I wish the couple mired in a sand pit on the one-lane road in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere would have been driving an Envoy instead of a PT Cruiser. For these conditions, I suggest leaving it in 4HI, but the Auto4WD is especially good in mixed, inconsistent conditions, such as ice or patchy snow, because it shifts power to all four wheels as conditions require.
The mid-size, five-passenger Envoy is well-engineered with four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes that don't dive under hard braking. Equipped with a powerful 4.2-liter inline six-cylinder engine with dual overhead camshafts, it produces 275 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque. It's got grunt without inflicting screaming torture on the engine. The Envoy is rated to pull 6,100 pounds with 4WD, and 6,300 pounds with 2WD. That's a lot of hauling for pyramid building.
The conservative, brawny exterior styling promises an aggressive attitude with a touch of sophistication. A large black grille spans the front between sleek headlamps and round fog lights perched above a pouty front bumper. Strong angles blend with clean lines, stretching back to a stepped rear bumper with big round taillights. A raked hood enhances the tough, masculine appearance.
Inside, it's more about comfort than convenience. Seat cushions are long, wide and thick - suitable for the manly audience GMC pursues - with supportive side bolstering. The chassis (and engine), shared with Chevrolet TrailBlazer and Buick Rainier, offers ample room for passengers and cargo; plenty of room for wallet-emptying quantities of brightly colored Mexican talavera pottery. Unlike in our open-sided Jeep, cargo is securely locked inside the Envoy.
Map pockets in the front doors and behind the front seats can keep you on the straight and narrow in foreign territory; however, the center console's open storage bin and enclosed compartment don't offer a lot of places to put small items like coins, cameras and suntan lotion. The three power outlets in the center stack would be more beneficial if they had power when the ignition is switched off.
The instrument panel is clean and simple, with a center speedo and a big tachometer on the left. Stylish brushed nickel trim surrounds switches and HVAC registers. The four-spoke steering wheel is wrapped in leather.
The Envoy delivers a smooth, quiet, stylish ride. Maybe it is too big, too thirsty, too luxurious and too expensive for Mexico, but then, your daily drive isn't the rugged adventure that a Yucatan exploration entails. At least when it rains, you can roll up the windows!