For years General Motors fought a rearguard action, asserting that its relatively big cam-in-block engines were at least as good as the “high tech” DOHC mills offered by “the Japanese.” Led by the buff books, freethinking pistonheads knew better. More power from a smaller displacement engine clearly indicated higher intelligence. Honda, smartest of all, extracted 270 horsepower from a 3.0-liter V6. The 1990 Corvette made do with 245 horsepower from a 5.7-liter V8. Two decades later, GM finally developed a 3.0-liter V6 with an NSX-like output, and without the Acura’s pricey titanium innards or need for premium fuel. The new engine took the place of a previous-generation 3.6. My response after sampling the then-new V6 in the similarly new GMC Terrain: “Perhaps the 3.6 will at least find its way into a future Denali variant?” Three years later, the future has arrived.
As 1990s GM argued, horsepower wasn’t the issue with the 3.0. Rather, 264 horsepower were easily sufficient, but arrived at a lofty 6,950 rpm. These days, even sports car buyers prefer more accessible thrust. At people hauler engine speeds, the V6 wasn’t up to the task of motivating a 4,200-pound crossover. While the 3.6 churns out 37 more horsepower at a lower (but still high) 6,500 rpm peak, it pays its biggest benefits through the midrange, providing 50 pound-feet of additional twist (272 @ 4,800 vs. 222 @ 5,100). Put your foot to the floor, and the 2013 Terrain is certainly quicker. But the most meaningful improvement is that acceleration now sounds and feels effortless rather than strained in typical daily driving. The slightest hill no longer requires that the transmission drop down a cog or three.
The key point of wringing more power out of a smaller engine, beyond bragging rights, is superior fuel economy. Substitute a 3.6 for a 3.0 in an all-wheel-drive Terrain and gas mileage…stays exactly the same, with EPA ratings of 16 city and 23 highway. Curb weight also has a major impact. Step up to the larger, 4,850-pound Acadia, and gas mileage…is exactly the same. So if you’re considering the relatively compact Terrain to save gas, don’t, unless you’re willing to live with the 182-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine (EPA 22/32 with FWD, 20/29 with AWD). Performance with the four feels better than the stats suggest it has any right to, partly through the electronic trickery of active noise reduction. But many owners have found the EPA numbers difficult to replicate. In the tested Denali, with the 3.6 and AWD, we observed high teens to low twenties in typical suburban driving, a few mpg below lighter, more compact competitors.
The GMC Terrain has been a strong seller for the past three years despite the engine mismatch. Though many competitors have been redesigned in the interim, the GMC retains some substantial differences, beginning with its distinctive exterior styling. The Terrain isn’t pretty. It’s not supposed to be pretty. Instead, it successfully channels the spirit of Hummer for a far brawnier road presence than that of any other compact crossover. Most competitors (including the closely related Chevrolet Equinox) aspire to resemble the cars with which they share a badge. Well, GMC doesn’t sell cars, and the Terrain looks like a truck. In Denali trim this look is turned up another notch with a big chrome faux billet grille and body-color lower body trim.
Three years ago, the Terrain’s interior was perhaps the nicest in the segment. The Denali adds upgraded black leather with red stitching (on the door panels as well as the seating surfaces), a soft-touch stitched pad atop the instrument panel, wood on the steering wheel, and illuminated door sill trim plates. These bits look and feel good, but the rest hasn’t kept up. The switchgear (much of it beyond reach) and the econo-car thin-and-hard door armrests in particular aren’t worthy of the Denali’s price.
Other Terrain strengths shared with the related Chevrolet Equinox include plentiful leg room and the ride quality of a larger crossover. A 112.5” wheelbase (others are in the 103- to 106-inch range) likely deserves a fair amount of the credit for both. Though compact in width (and thus shoulder room), the Terrain goes down the road with a steadiness and solidity that you won’t find in truly compact crossovers. The Denali’s big 235/55R19 tires (an optional size on the SLT) clomp a bit over minor bumps, but the ride (enhanced with Denali-specific dual-flow dampers) is otherwise very smooth and quiet, even too quiet. Especially with the new V6 it’s shockingly easy to lose track of how fast you’re going.
If you’re seeking agility in a compact crossover, get a Ford Escape or Mazda CX-5. The Terrain is larger than those competitors, and partly thanks to a distant windshield (between massive pillars) feels even larger than it is. The steering has some play on-center (GMC DNA?), but weights up well as the wheel is turned. Typical of this sort of vehicle, understeer arrives early, but the chassis handles intuitively, with a very stable rear end (not a given with tall vehicles). I’ve experienced handling like this before: in GM’s big traditional SUVs. The Terrain is downright tight and nimble compared to a Yukon, but the way they feel through the seat of your pants is oddly similar.
The Terrain’s mid-cycle revisions haven’t affected its packaging. Despite the crossover’s long body, cargo volume is only about average thanks to a high, narrow floor and second row seats that don’t fold nearly flat.
The appearance modifications and smooth, quiet ride are worthy of the Denali label. But are these enough? The label got its start as a quick-and-dirty response to the success of the Lincoln Navigator. GM’s initial, soon-reversed decision was that Cadillac would not offer SUVs. Instead, luxury SUVs were GMC turf. To transform a Yukon into a Lincoln-fighter, GMC added cladding and a unique front end to the exterior, upgraded the interior, and made everything standard. In later iterations, the Denali gained more unique content, including an engine and drivetrain not offered in lesser Yukons. This helped justify a much higher price. A 2013 Yukon Denali lists for $3,640 more than a similarly-equipped Yukon SLT.
Two years ago, GMC added a Denali trim level to the Acadia large crossover. A new DOHC V8 died in development, and few other unique features made it through circa-bankruptcy GM, leaving the Acadia Denali short on content compared to other luxury brand vehicles. Accordingly, it lists for only $1,685 more than a similarly-equipped Acadia SLT.
With the new Terrain Denali, a power passenger seat and a blind spot warning system are the only notable Denali-specific features. These do help justify a larger price bump than with the Acadia: the Terrain Denali is $2,640 more than a similarly-equipped SLT, about half of this accounted for by feature differences (per TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool).
A $1,300 bump seems reasonable for the upgraded exterior, interior, and suspension. But the Terrain was already among the pricier compact crossovers. The tested vehicle, with nav and a few minor options, had a $40,425 sticker. At this price, the Denali-only (yet optional on a mid-level Equinox) power passenger seat is not so much special as expected. Other things commonly desired by buyers opting for a special luxury model with a price over $40,000 include:
* xenon headlamps
* steering-linked headlamps
* rain-sensing wipers
* adaptive cruise control
* keyless ignition
* power steering column adjustments
* heated steering wheel
* dual-zone climate control
* rear seat air vents
* auto-up for at least the driver’s window (VW commonly does all four)
* cooled front seats
* heated rear seats
* premium audio
None of these features are offered on the Terrain Denali.
I compiled a similar list for the Acadia Denali two years ago. A couple of safety features on that earlier list are new to a few GM models for 2013. As noted above, a blind spot warning system is reserved for the Denali among Terrains. A single-camera forward collision alert and lane departure warning system is optional on the SLT and standard on the Denali. The former feature should prevent quite a few rear-end collisions by people too tired or too distracted to notice that the car ahead of them has stopped. The latter works less well. It’s too slow to react some times, too quick many others. Most buyers will likely grow annoyed with all of the beeping and deactivate it via the handy button on the steering wheel (no need to dig through menus).
GM’s new-for-2012 Intellilink infotainment system, which includes Bluetooth and streaming Internet radio apps, is standard on the Denali. Pairing could hardly be quicker or easier. The system sends a PIN to the phone. You merely click “OK.” GM’s SD-based nav has a modest feature set and slow reactions to some commands, especially zoom. But it is far less expensive than the 2010-2011 HDD-based system, $795 vs. $2,145.
If you want a more sophisticated infotainment system, or the items in the above list, GM wants you to buy a Cadillac SRX. Unlike the original Denali, the new top-level Terrain isn’t properly outfitted to fight any Lincolns. The new Acura RDX is a closer match. Load up both crossovers and the Terrain Denali is $685 less before adjusting for feature differences, and about $1,115 less afterwards. Against any compact crossover with a sub-premium label (save the VW Tiguan) the Terrain doesn’t fare as well. A similarly-equipped Ford Escape Titanium is about $2,370 less before adjusting for feature differences, and about $3,800 after adjusting for its additional features.
Really, though, I don’t see many people cross-shopping the Escape and the Terrain. The Ford has car-like styling, a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, Germanic dynamics, and a tight second row. In sharp contrast to the Escape, the GMC is thoroughly American in its appearance, driving feel, interior space, and (after a three-year wait) engine displacement. The Denali is short on features for a $40,000 vehicle, but it does have a more attractive exterior and interior, for a modest price bump. If you happen to be seeking the character of a Yukon Denali in a relatively tidy package, GMC (and only GMC) has what you’re looking for.
GMC provided an insured vehicle with a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.