Review: GMC Terrain

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh

Many people have questioned why General Motors needs so many brands. Why have both Chevrolet and GMC selling essentially the same vehicles? With the new GMC Terrain, we might just have an answer. Or not.

The GMC Terrain essentially replaces the Pontiac Torrent in GM’s burgeoning Crossover linuep. Where the Torrent was a rebadge of the first-generation Chevrolet Equinox, the Terrain shares everything under the skin with the second-generation Equinox. And yet it’s not a rebadge. The Equinox is blandly attractive, with a moderately aero shape that could have issued forth from the design studio of a number of manufacturers.

The Terrain, in contrast, is all bulky angles, battering-ram grille, and bulging fender flares. No one will mistake it for an Equinox, and it’s not attractive to my eyes. But for anyone who (still) desires the look of a Hummer, but with the mechanicals, packaging, and fuel economy of a car-like crossover, the Terrain is (with the partial exception of Mitsubishi’s failed Endeavor—155 units in October) the only current option.

With the interiors, GM has sprung for different IP fascias and door panels, but the payoff is considerably less than with the exteriors. The lines differ—for example, the Chevrolet’s outer air vents appear to be swapped left to right for the GMC—but the interiors do not feel any different as a result. Side by side comparison is necessary to note the differences.

In either case, the interior is a definite step up from that in the first-gen Equinox. The center stack—shared between the two models—is especially stylish, with its knobs and buttons arranged and shaped so you can tell them apart and find the one you’re looking for (memo to Honda). Vertical air vents flanking the center stack lent flair to the interior of the new Cadillac CTS, and they do the same here. Most of the interior plastics are hard, and some appear lower-rent than others, but this is typical of the price point. You weren’t actually expecting a well-finished cargo area, were you?

Red stitching on the door panels and seats and numerous faux aluminum trim bits nearly save the black cloth interior from a work truck ambience. Those seeking a less somber but higher maintenance interior should opt for the light grey cloth, which brings with it high contrast gray/black interior panels. Want some actual warmth, even luxury? Then spend the extra bucks for the SLT with the brown leather.

Thanks to the blocky exterior styling, the Terrain appears larger than the Equinox, even though the Chevrolet is actually a couple of inches longer. Both combine the width of a compact

crossover with the wheelbase and length of a midsize. This translates to the interior dimensions. Even exceptionally tall adults will feel comfortable in the rear seat, with a high cushion and abundant legroom–unless there are three of them. Seats front and rear are moderately firm and nicely contoured.

The driving position is largish SUV. While the cabin isn’t broad, you sit higher than in most compact crossovers and the instrument panel runs high and deep between massive A-pillars. The storage bin atop the IP cannot be reached without leaning far forward, and the base of the windshield might be in the next time zone. As a result, the Terrain doesn’t only look larger than it is. As with many GM vehicles, once underway it also feels larger than it is. Some people might consider this a good thing. GM certainly always has. Bigger is better, right?

Not necessarily. Anyone hoping for agile handling (you can always hope, right?) won’t find it. The Terrain’s handling is accurate and secure, with nicely weighted steering, good body control, and modest body lean. But agile or sporty it is not. GM leaves that for the imports.

The Terrain’s moderately firm suspension absorbs bumps well without any float, but transmits enough of the impact that you know you’re not in a luxury vehicle. Wind noise is low, tire noise not quite so low.

Then there’s engine noise. GM has convinced itself that engines with similar power ratings are interchangeable. So last year’s base engine, a 3.4-liter V6 good for 185 horsepower, has been replaced by a 2.4-liter four good for 182. Just three fewer horses, but can revs substitute for the lost liter? Can 2.4 liters move two tons?

That will have to be answered in a later review. The test vehicle had the optional V6. Though only 3.0 liters, thanks to direct injection it produces the same 264 horsepower as last year’s 3.6. Are you old enough to recall when Honda wowed the enthusiast world by getting 270 horsepower out of three liters in the Acura NSX? Well, now GM is squeezing nearly as much power out of a 3.0, on regular gas and without titanium internals.

Problem is, engines that peak at 6,950 rpm make more sense in sports cars than truckish crossovers. The 3.0 moves the Terrain fairly well at full throttle, if not as well as the torquier 3.6 moved last year’s lighter Equinox, but the amount and quality of the resulting engine noise suggests that you’re doing something you really should not be. Even during regular cruising the six-speed transmission must drop down a cog or three to handle barely-there hills or the slightest demand for acceleration. The engine broadcasts every such downshift with a dramatic increase in induction and exhaust drone, perhaps so you’ll know it’s doing its bestest. Not a good fit for the Terrain’s brawny exterior.

Nor is the all-wheel-drive system. It should serve to get the Terrain out of the subdivision before the plow comes through, and does banish torque steer (which this less-than-torquey V6 nevertheless achieves in front-drive applications). But, without a low-range, skid plates, or any other non-aesthetic pretense towards off-roadability, the Terrain isn’t traversing any wild terrain. Beneath the skin, it’s just another tall car pretending to be an SUV, only with more pretense. The trail is conceded to the less aggressively styled, more compact Jeep Patriot. The Terrain is a superior Hummer H3 considering how most H3s are actually used.

The point of the 3.0, one might assume, is efficiency. And when you assume…how about we check the numbers? Well, what do you know: in every vehicle in which both the 3.0 and the related 3.6 are offered the 3.6 gets the same—or better—EPA ratings. The 3.0 might have a fuel economy advantage over the 3.6 in a 3,500 pound (or lower) vehicle. But GM has yet to so deploy it, and perhaps never will, instead using a turbo four in such applications. In the 4,188-pound AWD GMC Terrain, as in the similarly hefty Buick LaCrosse, Cadillac CTS, and Cadillac SRX, the 3.0 simply makes no sense. Use this new engine in something much less massive, or kill it. Perhaps the 3.6 will at least find its way into a future Denali variant?

As it is, the GMC Terrain looks big, feels bigger, but has been deprived of an engine or drivetrain that can cash the checks the tough guy exterior writes. Rear seat comfort (for two adults) and legroom are exceptional, and the interior can be stylish as long as the black cloth isn’t selected. The ride and handling are good without being luxurious or sporty.

All in all, a good fit for what the typical two-row crossover buyer on a budget is seeking—except for the styling. All of the other plusses and minuses are shared by the Equinox, so your typical buyer will gravitate to the prettier Chevy. The Terrain undeniably serves a different, less common aesthetic taste—no look-alikes this time. This is the benefit of multiple brands—the Terrain’s styling is too polarizing for any company with just one offering in the segment. But are there enough people who prefer chunky to creamy in their crossover sheetmetal? Lackluster powertrain notwithstanding, GMC dealers are quickly selling every Terrain they can get—nearly 3,000 of them in October—so we seem to have our answer concerning the point of GMC.

[Michael Karesh owns and operates True Delta, a reliability and cost analysis survey site]

Michael Karesh
Michael Karesh

Michael Karesh lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan, with his wife and three children. In 2003 he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. While in Chicago he worked at the National Opinion Research Center, a leader in the field of survey research. For his doctoral thesis, he spent a year-and-a-half inside an automaker studying how and how well it understood consumers when developing new products. While pursuing the degree he taught consumer behavior and product development at Oakland University. Since 1999, he has contributed auto reviews to Epinions, where he is currently one of two people in charge of the autos section. Since earning the degree he has continued to care for his children (school, gymnastics, tae-kwan-do...) and write reviews for Epinions and, more recently, The Truth About Cars while developing TrueDelta, a vehicle reliability and price comparison site.

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  • DetroitsaRiot DetroitsaRiot on Dec 11, 2009

    A Four is a full size Truck?? Watch out for engine issues.....

  • Bill Safreed Bill Safreed on Jul 29, 2010

    Michael, 100% agree with your review. Recently rented one on a Montana vacation. Although it had more luxury features than our Subie Forester, I'll still take it over the Jimmy. Can't abide that suspension slop and the seemingly more anemic engine response.

  • Lou_BC As others have pointed out, some "in car" apps aren't good or you pay for upgrades. My truck did not come with navigation. It was an expensive option. There's a lame GM maps app that you need to subscribe to "in-car" data. The map does not give you navigation other than to tell you where restaurants and gas stations are located. I'd want Android auto since I already pay for the phone.
  • Theflyersfan Given so many standard nav systems aren't the best and updating could mean a dealer trip, and I stream all music, Android Auto is an absolute must. Wireless isn't necessary and some wireless chargers overheat the phone. And there are some hacks that let YouTube stream on the screen - excellent for listening to concerts.
  • Jeff I going to guess by the condition of the body and interior that there is little to no rust on the frame. Appears to be a very well maintained car.
  • MaintenanceCosts Would not buy a new daily car without it.
  • Namesakeone I hate the thought, and I hope I'm wrong. Mazda. They're a small fish in a really big pond, and they made their reputation on sports cars--a market segment that nobody seems to want to buy new anymore.