Not long ago, it was conventional wisdom that General Motors Corp.'s GMC light-truck division was redundant and that it had one foot in the grave, undoubtedly the next GM vehicle division to follow Oldsmobile into the history books.

It didn't help that pundits questioned the division's new “Professional Grade” brand-marketing theme.

Yet, GMC is peppering the market with products and it isn't slowing down for the '02 model year. The formerly stodgy GMC appears to be one of the few old-line GM divisions that's at least got a cohesive understanding of what it wants — and, hopefully, needs — to be in order to connect with contemporary upscale customers.

Among the debuts this fall for one of GM's hottest nameplates: the Sierra Denali performance pickup with 4-wheel steering (see sidebar), Sierra Professional vocationally targeted pickup and the well-received Envoy midsize sport/utility vehicle (SUV) featuring the industry's first DVD-based in-vehicle entertainment system.

GMC also reveals it will offer a hybrid pickup beginning in 2004 featuring a 42-volt battery pack and a conventional 5.3L gasoline V-8 Vortec engine. It improves fuel economy by 10% to 15% via an engine start/stop function used while idling at traffic lights. It recovers braking energy, too, by means of a regenerative system and a small electric motor located between the engine and the transmission that replaces the starter motor and alternator. The power steering system eschews conventionality as well. It is run by an electrically driven hydraulic pump rather than the traditional belt-drive system, saving weight and reducing parts. In addition to making fewer trips to the gas station, the parallel hybrid also may eliminate some visits to the hardware store. The pickup features a pair of 110-volt, 20-amp outlets that could be used for running power tools, camping equipment — even connecting to a house during a power outage. Forget those portable generators and extension cords.

The Envoy with the DVD player will hit the market in September. The flip-down, 7-in. liquid crystal display is paired with two sets of wireless headphones. There's a parental mute control on the overhead console near the driver's right shoulder. The DVD unit also has video and audio input, so footage can be played directly from a camcorder.

GMC is planning to introduce its GMC Sierra Professional pickup in late 2001. Inspired by the concept truck of the same name, Sierra Professional will be available in four different models — 2-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive 1500 Series, and 2wd and 4wd 2500 Series. The pickup is full of nifty gadgets, such as a temperature-controlled cup holder, a center console that accommodates a thermal electric cooler and a lockable storage container beneath the rear seat.