With its minivans and conventional midsize SUVs discontinued, GM relies heavily on its large “Lambda” crossovers—the Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, and Buick Enclave—to serve the family market. With over 230,000 sold in 2010, they’re easily the best sellers* in the segment. In comparison, Ford shifted only 34,000 Flexes. But, now in their fifth model year, the Lambdas are getting old. With cash short leading up to the bankruptcy, what might be done on the cheap to maintain buyer interest? The winning answer: a new Denali variant of the GMC Acadia.
GM got the Lambdas’ exterior styling right from the start. Riding on a bespoke platform, the Lambdas’ tight, athletic proportions are far better than those of the minivan-based vehicles they replaced. With the Saturn Outlook pruned, each of the remaining three models looks good while staking out its own aesthetic territory: sporty and car-like for Chevrolet, sleek and luxurious for Buick, and traditional SUV for GMC. To kick the Acadia’s brawny theme up a couple notches for the Denali, GMC fitted a chrome honeycomb grille, monochrome body kit, and massive 20-inch, two-tone chrome-clad alloy wheels. The bold appearance of the Yukon Denali has been successfully transferred to a Lambda. But the Acadia SLT, with its slimming black lower body cladding and cleaner five-spoke alloys, is arguably more attractive if less likely to draw attention.
Substantial changes to the interior would have been more expensive, so less has been done. The door sill trim plates light up “Denali,” the leather on the seats is perforated (an option on the SLT) and seems more luxurious, matching vinyl trim partly covers the door panels, and dark wood-tone trim replaces faux metal on the console, center stack, and doors. The trim on the steering wheel is allegedly real mahogany, but with no evident grain it looks like “piano black” plastic and doesn’t match the faux timber. These changes upgrade the interior ambiance, but not enough. The wood-tone trim is too obviously fake, the door-mounted armrests retain a downscale look and feel, and there’s too much hard plastic. Judging from more recently designed products like the Chevrolet Cruze, GM would craft a much nicer interior if it were starting from scratch today.
One stupid design choice: a ridge at the base of the A-pillars requires a highly precise instrument panel alignment that the plant doesn’t often achieve. Other quality lapses (in case you’re under the illusion that the press receives thoroughly inspected, even tweaked vehicles): wrinkles in the drivers seat leather and a side panel in the cargo area that refused to fasten. These noted, I should also note that owners of 2011 Lambdas have reported no repairs yet through TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey. The 2010s are about average, while older model years straddle the line between average and “worse than average.” Common problems on the older cars (which might have been fully resolved prior to the current model year) include airbag wiring, headlamp sockets prone to melting, seat tracks, and, hardest to fix, water leaks.
Quite a few features that might have further distinguished the Denali are absent:
* no adaptive cruise
* no steering-linked headlights
* no auto-dimming headlights
* no rain-sensing wipers
* no blind spot warning system (would certainly help)
* no forward obstacle detection (ditto)
* no keyless ignition (standard on most Nissans)
* no power tilt-and-telescoping wheel
* no heated steering wheel
* no heated rear seat (available on a Hyundai Elantra!)
* no fancy ambient lighting.
The absence of so many features can be traced to the age of the Acadia (these features were much less common five years ago), its sub-premium original mission, and GM’s recent history. A mid-cycle enhancement, which normally would have occurred by now, would have added many of these features. But during its brush with bankruptcy GM had to cut everything that wasn’t absolutely essential. The Denali had to make do with features already available on the Lambdas.
Noting that minivans were in decline despite their superior functionality, GM gave the Lambda’s a high SUV-like stance. Getting in requires more of a climb than in other crossovers. Once in the driver’s seat the view forward is commanding without being as expansive as in a minivan. You feel more like you’re sitting in a car, albeit a tall one. In both the second and third rows visibility is much more constricted than in the “stadium style” seating of a Ford crossover.
The Acadia includes more passenger room than any other crossover (though a Ford Flex offers seven inches more legroom in the second row). A largest-in-class exterior (200.7 inches long, 78.2 inches wide, 69.9 inches high) enables over 61 inches of shoulder room; most competitors have a substantial two-to-four inches less. The Acadia’s third row is a tight fit if the second row is all the way back, but the latter can be moved forward a few inches for all but the tallest adults. The largest minivans provide much more third-row legroom, but most people seem willing to sacrifice this advantage to gain more adventurous styling.
Back in 2006 I found seating to be a Lambda weakness. In the years since it has only gotten worse. The front seats are fairly comfortable, but they continue to provide no lateral support and their power lumbar adjustment is now two-way rather than the original four-way. More substantial thrones would help justify the Denali label.
Despite the Acadia’s vast interior, its second-row seats remain among the least adult-friendly in any crossover. They’re thinly padded, insufficiently contoured, and too low. The second-row seats in Chrysler minivans suffer from similar shortcomings, but to enable them to stow beneath the floor. What’s GM’s excuse? Most likely: to enable the seats to collapse like folding chairs as they slide forward, opening up a wide path to the third row. This can’t be done with a child seat installed, so those with young children tend to opt for the “captain’s chairs,” which have a wide (if squishy, because of how the floor is constructed) walkway between them, rather than the three-person split bench.
The third-row is wide enough for three people (compared to two for all competitors save the Pilot), but it’s even lower to the floor. In one of the auto industry’s greatest unsolved mysteries, this seat originally provided the best lateral support of the bunch. A complicated mechanism inside the seatback extended bolsters as the seat was unfolded. Given the cost of this mechanism and the senselessness of providing lateral support in the third row when none was provided in the other two, GM later deleted it.
Cargo volume behind the third row, more plentiful on paper, isn’t as usable as in a Honda Pilot or Ford Flex because there’s no deep well. The Acadia does have a storage compartment beneath its relatively high cargo floor, but (unlike that in the new Nissan Quest minivan) this compartment is too shallow to hold much. Fold the seats, though, and the Acadia can hold much more than any other crossover: 68.9 cubic feet behind the second row (vs. 47.7 in the Pilot and 45.0 in the Flex), and 116.9 cubic feet behind the first row (vs. 87.0 in the Pilot and 86.7 in the Flex). The largest minivans offer 140+ cubic feet atop a much lower load floor, but except with the Chryslers you’ll have to remove the second-row seats to achieve it. One Flex advantage: unlike the Acadia’s, its front passenger seat also folds to accommodate unusually long items.
GM doesn’t provide specific curb weights for the Denali, but it must weigh over 4,800 pounds with front-wheel-drive and over 5,000 with all-wheel-drive. The new Dodge Durango, though nearly as large and engineered to handle the additional stresses of off-roading (in Jeep form) and heavy towing, weighs about the same. GM clearly used a front-wheel-drive, car-like platform to increase interior volume (maximum cargo volume is only 84.5 cubic feet in the Dodge SUV) rather than to reduce mass.
Probably because the Durango’s five-speed automatic has relatively tall initial gearing, its 290-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 feels weak at low speeds. The solution: Dodge also offers a 360-horsepower 5.7-liter “HEMI” V8 that more readily motivates the Durango’s 2.5 tons. GM planned to offer an all-new “Ultra” V8 in the Lambdas, but this engine was aborted a few years ago as funds grew tight. A turbocharged V6 along the lines of the Ford Flex’s optional “EcoBoost” would be an interesting alternative, but GM won’t have such an engine ready until the 2013 model year.
Not a big problem; with GM’s six-speed automatic, a stronger engine is less necessary unless you need to tow something substantial. I’ve argued that the non-turbocharged V6 works well enough in the Flex, and the same is the case with the 288-horsepower direct-injected 3.6-liter V6 in the Acadia. During my week with the Denali I never wished for more power.
I did wish for less torque steer. I had assumed that GM would provide a vehicle with all-wheel-drive. I learned otherwise the first time I put the pedal more than halfway to the floor and the front end went all light and squirrelly. Unless your right foot is almost always feather-light, all-wheel-drive is highly recommended.
GM’s six-speed automatic has gotten smarter in the last half-decade. It now picks the correct gear more smoothly and with more self-confidence. For curves and downhill grades a lower gear can be manually selected via a toggle on the shifter. The transmission isn’t always quick to react to these inputs, but the “range selector” serves well enough for how it’s likely to be employed. The head-up display (HUD) helps by projecting a tach and the selected gear onto the windshield.
The Acadia Denali’s trip computer usually reported a little over 16 MPG in typical suburban driving. This is consistent with the EPA ratings of 17 city and 24 highway (16/23 with all-wheel-drive). Not bad considering the Acadia’s size and consequent weight.
Aside from louder clomping across minor bumps (especially at low speeds), the Denali’s ride isn’t affected much by its chrome-clad dubs. Slightly firmer suspension tuning to compensate for the upsized wheels’ additional unsprung mass has, if anything, improved on the Acadia’s already good body control. (In the front seat at least; children in the third row reported a bumpy, noisy ride.)
For anyone used to a smaller vehicle, the Acadia’s size requires considerable acclimation. The big crossover is out of its element in parking lots, where the corners are hard to locate and there’s little room for error, and in very tight turns. But in more generous curves it feels poised and planted, with minimal lean and understeer for this sort of vehicle. The stability control, if and when it does kick in, is unobtrusive.
Given this capable, thoroughly predictable chassis, it’s a shame that the Denali’s steering is inferior to that of an Acadia SLE I drove for the sake of comparison. The shorter, stiffer sidewalls of the Denali’s tires should make its steering feel more direct. Instead the Denali’s tiller often feels more disconnected and vague, even sloppy on center. My guess: while the suspension was tweaked to work with the 20-inch wheels and tires, the steering was not. One other difference: while the SLE has constant effort steering, the SLT and Acadia have a variable-assist unit. I failed to observe how the latter was preferable at any speed. Firmer, tighter steering—like that in the revised Chrysler minivans—would make the Denali much more confidence-inspiring and enjoyable to drive.
In keeping with its luxury theme, the Denali is fitted with the Buick Enclave’s laminated front side glass and additional sound deadening. As a result, the Denali is quieter inside than other Acadias, with a more upscale quality to the remaining noise. But even the regular Acadia is quiet inside (and, if memory serves, quieter than when it was introduced).
The tested vehicle lists for $48,125 with nav ($1,690), rear entertainment ($1,445), and “white diamond tricoat” paint ($795). Add $2,000 for all-wheel-drive. The rest the Acadia’s available features (including a two-panel sunroof, HID headlights, and the HUD) are standard on the Denali.
GM didn’t do much to transform the Acadia into a Denali. But, to its credit, it’s not charging much for the changes: just $1,205 more than a similarly-equipped Acadia SLT. Adjust for the largely cosmetic items not offered on the SLT using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and the difference is only about $250. If you prefer the Denali’s appearance, and want all of the features it includes, this isn’t much extra to pay for it. With the GMC Yukon, the Denali upgrade commands a nearly $4,000 premium.
A similarly-equipped Dodge Durango Citadel lists for $2,320 less than the Acadia Denali—enough to pay for a HEMI upgrade, and then some. What’s more, the recently redesigned Dodge has many of the “latest and greatest” gadgets not available with the GMC. Adjust for these and the Dodge’s advantage widens to about $4,300. With such aggressive pricing, the Durango seems like a steal if you don’t need the Acadia’s additional interior space.
But if you do need the Acadia’s interior space, there aren’t any alternatives aside from the other Lambdas. No other crossover comes close in this regard. The Acadia also continues to perform, handle, and ride well. Unfortunately, those aspects most in need of improvement—the seats and the interior materials—haven’t improved over the past five years.
In this context, the Denali is a disappointment. It adds no new non-cosmetic features, much less a stronger engine, its interior isn’t enough of an upgrade, and its steering is a step in the wrong direction. Apparently recognizing how little the Denali bits add to the Acadia, GM charges very little extra for them. Even so, unless you prefer the bolder, more massive look of the Denali I’d opt for the SLT until GM offers a vehicle more deserving of the premium sub-brand. How soon might this happen? With GM now in much better financial shape, the Lambdas are being redesigned for the 2013 model year.
* The Lambdas are the top sellers if you define the segment as three-row crossovers. If you include the Odyssey (along with the Pilot and MDX) Honda takes the top spot.