The latest must-have feature in trucks -- following on the craze for cup holders in minivans and more doors on pickups -- is a third row of seats for sport utility vehicles.

General Motors Corp. said on Wednesday it plans to offer stretch versions of its mid-size SUVs that will include the extra seating, in an effort to compete against DaimlerChrysler AG's highly successful Dodge Durango and the redesigned Ford Motor Co. Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer.

The stretched version of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, the GMC Envoy and the Oldsmobile Bravada will likely go on sale in late 2001 or early 2002, within a year after the regular-size versions reach U.S. dealerships in the first half of 2001, GM officials and analysts said.

Once again, GM is trailing its competitors into a new segment.

The Dodge Durango, one of the top-selling SUVs since it went on sale in the fall of 1997, was the first to offer an optional third row of seats in a vehicle smaller than the bulky full-size SUVs like the Chevrolet Suburban and Ford Expedition.

"The success of the Durango shows that there's a significant number of people who want that third row," said Saul Rubin, an analyst with UBS Warburg. "(Customers) are clearly after greater functionality for their vehicles."

The redesigned Explorer, which will offer the third row as an option, and the Mountaineer, with the extra seat as a standard feature, arrive in U.S. dealerships in the first quarter next year.

The GM mid-size SUVs are expected to follow six to 12 months later.


Robertson, referring to the Ford Explorer, said GM decided against rushing to market with a third row squeezed into the regular-size SUVs. The Explorer, both with and without the third row seat, is 189.5 inches long, while the stretched GM mid-size SUV is expected to be more than a foot longer.

"We've got a real third-row seat that is comfortable, that you and I can sit in," said Ted Robertson, GM's chief engineer of mid-size trucks.

While GM trails the Durango and the Explorer/Mountaineer, Wall Street analyst Nick Colas of SIC Capital said the automaker has an edge on another prime competitor, DaimlerChrysler's Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The Grand Cherokee is not expected to offer three rows of seats until around 2004, when a stretched version of the redesigned Grand Cherokee is scheduled to be launched.

"The company that has a bigger problem is DaimlerChrysler," Colas said. "Ford has a nice edge. GM is actually ahead of Chrysler, who historically has been more innovative."


GM's mid-size SUVs are noticeably wider, longer, taller and lower to the ground than their predecessors, giving them more interior space. The new GMC Envoy will be about 190.5 inches long, and the stretch version is expected to be another 16 inches longer.

The new SUVs avoid government-mandated rollover warning labels, which are printed on the sun visors on the current GM mid-size SUVs. Public awareness of the risk of SUVs tipping over in an accident has grown following the publicity over rollovers involving Ford Explorers fitted with Firestone tires.

The new GM SUVs, as well as the Explorer and Mountaineer, have a 113-inch long wheelbase; only SUVs that are 110 inches or shorter carry the warning label.


The new GM SUVs will also be a few inches lower to the ground, making them less dangerous to lower-riding passenger cars by reducing the risk of riding over smaller vehicles in collisions.

Robertson said the new 6-cylinder engines in the GM mid-size SUVs will get better fuel economy and have more power than the larger V-8 engines offered by its competitors.

He said the new GMC Envoy is expected to get about 21 miles per gallon (mpg) on the highway, 18 mpg in the city, versus 20/17 mpg highway-to-city on the current GMC Jimmy.

The Ford Explorer four-wheel drive gets 20/15 mpg.

Envoy brand manager Tony DiSalle said he expects Envoy sales to top 50,000 in 2001. Envoy sales are expected to grow significantly past the typical 80,000 a year achieved for the Jimmy in 2002 and beyond after production for the vehicle is fully ramped up.