By on November 30, 2012

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, an online source of car reliability and pricing information.

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46 Comments on “Review: 2013 GMC Terrain Denali V6...”

  • avatar

    “Led by the buff books, freethinking pistonheads knew better. More power from a smaller displacement engine clearly indicated higher intelligence.”

    LOL, how much torque did that 245 HP L98 powered Corvette make again? I’ll stick with that motor in my heavy SUV over any weak sauce V6, and I guarantee that with the appropriate taller gearing, fuel economy won’t suffer either.

    • 0 avatar

      Absolutely right! It’s not the horsepower stupid, it’s the torque! My old 3,4l 178 hp push rod Oldsmobile Alero feels stronger than my 3,6l 275 hp DOHC Cadillac STS-05 (okay it differs 1000lbs).

    • 0 avatar

      “But the most meaningful improvement is that acceleration now sounds and feels effortless rather than strained in typical daily driving.”

      At the end of the day, that’s all that matters to American drivers: the feeling of effortless thrust at the flick of the gas pedal. That’s luxury.

    • 0 avatar

      The only two performance-things that matter in a heat-cycle engine are power-to-weight and thermodynamic efficiency. Everything else is either cultural bias or truly better in some specific application. Cam-in-blocks are competitive (or can be, anyways) with small displacement OVC engines, when measured by those two criteria. But folks – whether its the writer of the article, or subsequent commentators – seem to have a hard time expressing those basic facts.

  • avatar

    As I was reading this, I kept estimating a price in my head. For something this size, based on an Equinox, (though fancy-fied-Denali) I had hoped for nothing over $32-35K. But $40 grand for THIS!? Get a two-year-old-something vastly superior.

    • 0 avatar

      ” Get a two-year-old-something vastly superior.”

      -Said everyone about the value of every new car in every segment.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s not at all competitive at $40,000 but all of the fundamentals are there in the SLT at around $30,000 real world which isn’t out of line with your estimate or the rest of the market.

      Loading up a cheap car is never a good idea.

    • 0 avatar

      That was the SHOCKING part of the review: $40k LIST?!?!?! YIKES…Think of all the $40k CUVs/SUVs…Heck, you could get a base Audi Q5 for that or a loaded up new Santa Fe 2.0T and have $5k left over…or a Jeep Grand Cherokee…Need I go on…Pure insanity for this ‘questionable’ vehicle…

      • 0 avatar

        If you don’t want the features, don’t buy a loaded car. Load up the Audi and Jeep, and they’re both considerably more expensive. Especially the Audi.

        This said, as noted in the review the Denali needs more features to play in the $40,000 range.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ve driven a Terrain with the new engine and the Grand Cherokee would be my pick, easily, over this or an Explorer. My friend’s Explorer stickered somewhere close to $47K. Insane. It’s a nice vehicle, but I really like the looks of the GC, and it’s cheaper (As I would equip it)than the Terrain and Explorer too. A couple of friends of mine have new JGC’s, and they have been pretty much perfect so far.

      • 0 avatar

        If my choice of a vehicle depended on it having a heated steering wheel I’d damn sure take that secret to the grave. Generic criticism. If only they’d make it in a stick, or wagon, or whatever is what I see all over the web. Funny, but didn’t Pontiac go down right after releasing three cars explicitly for the gearhead set? Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intellect of the masses. To wit – MP3 and the entire Apple marketing strategy. Consumer electronics as gauges of my hipness? Obviously I’m a tiny minority as I notice their share price at $600 again. Can’t we blame this on GM and those accursed unions?

  • avatar

    I test drove one of these a few years back when they first came out. V6 at the time. Was not impressed in the least bit. The far away windshield and overall seating position was awkward. The engine was strained, very unresponsive, and for some reason FWD always feels very awkward in a vehicle this size.

    At the time I had a 2006 Jeep Liberty CRD Limited. 295lb-tq at 1,800rpm is what a vehicle like this needs, not to mention a proper rwd-layout. The GMC might of had a few nicer bits, but the driving experience was a no-contest. Not to mention the Jeep met the 4cyl’s gas mileage, and out-towed the V6 by another 1,500lbs (which I do tow a camper). I still have the Jeep, probably always will.

    • 0 avatar
      Freddy M

      My friend has the non-Denali version of the Terrain with the 3.0 V6. She won’t let me drive it as it’s her baby, but she assures me that after having test-driven the 4cyl, she is quite happy with the standard V6.

      From being a passenger in the car I can attest to Michael’s review of the interior and its packaging, and overall I think it’s a nice big little CUV I suppose.

      One thing my friend and I do like about it is the exterior styling. Yes it’s a soccer mom car that’s pretending to look like a TRUCK :)

    • 0 avatar


      This vehicle is more about incremental sales and giving GMC a low cost to develop luxury niche vehicle rather than a luxury SUV/CUV game changer. GMC needs to find a way to make these Denali luxury versions a real luxury brand.

      The question to Ford is where is a Lincoln answer. Jeep has a new Cherokee on the way as well as more fuel efficient Grand Cherokees.

  • avatar

    How does this price compare to a standard Acadia? If there’s no fuel economy advantage, no performance advantage, why get the smaller vehicle unless you must have bling?

    • 0 avatar


      I don’t think it makes sense to compare a loaded X to a basic Y. Either you want the features and luxurious materials, or you don’t.

      Comparing the two models in SLT trim with leather upholstery, the Acadia lists for $9,685 more, about $2,800 of which pays for extra features like a third-row seat. So the larger vehicle costs considerably more.

  • avatar

    I’ve got the advertising tag-line…

    “Terrain Denali – the only CUV aspires to be a Yukon.”

  • avatar

    Personally, I feel this is the nicest-looking of all the CUV’s out there. Our neighbor owned one, but he changes cars very often, as he has that ability to buy well at an auto auction.

    If that’s the same 3.6L I have in my Impala, it’s a powerful engine.

    I like the blocky appearance – it’s a beautiful brick on wheels.

    I’d never buy one, as I’m either a pickup truck or a car guy. Wifey, however, loves her CUV and they are very practical, so who knows what the future holds?

  • avatar

    “Led by the buff books, freethinking pistonheads knew better. More power from a smaller displacement engine clearly indicated higher intelligence.”

    I take exception to this. The larger displacement pushrod V6s of the day had very good low end volumetric efficiency and BSFC which were very well suited to every day grocery getters and mommy wagons where “peak” power as advertised is largely useless by itself.

    The old HP/L argument that the “gearheads” and “buff books” loved to throw around is still meaningless. Simply adding cams and valves and pushing the power band higher into unusable territory did no good for the average vehicle.

    Only with the advent of overall VE improving technologies such as variable valve timing, variable valve lift, variable intake runners and large leaps in forced induction technology have we been able to keep acceptable powerbands while downsizing engine displacement.

    • 0 avatar

      “Only with the advent of overall VE improving technologies such as variable valve timing, variable valve lift, variable intake runners and large leaps in forced induction technology have we been able to keep acceptable powerbands while downsizing engine displacement.”

      Acceptable maybe, but the pushrod 350 that Michael referenced, with its early long runner TPI setup still outperforms any newfangled naturally aspirated V6 in low-midrange torque. No contest, esp in a two ton plus SUV.

      • 0 avatar

        Of course it does. The engine is much more efficient at building low end power necessary for that application. However it wouldn’t outperform a twin turbo, variable valve timed V6 of say 2/3 the displacemet.

        Apply the same enhancements to the V8 and well, then you get some very serious power.

    • 0 avatar

      Big agreement here.
      Torque matters!
      Unfortunately, some folks still cling to the nonsense those buff books were pushing in the 90s.

      • 0 avatar

        “However it wouldn’t outperform a twin turbo, variable valve timed V6 of say 2/3 the displacement.”

        Such as Ford’s 3.5L EcoBoost. A direct comparison with the EcoBoost and Fords own 6.2L SOHC V8 can be had in the F150, without any confounding factors arising from comparing different vehicles. As good as the EcoBoost motor is, the V8 is still superior in throttle response, and is so much cheaper to build and maintain, that there really is no contest in bang for the buck. The extra 2 mpg highway comes at a huge cost for the TT/VVT/DI V6.

        Oh, and the V8 sounds a million times better, too. ;-)

      • 0 avatar

        “As good as the EcoBoost motor is, the V8 is still superior in throttle response, and is so much cheaper to build and maintain, that there really is no contest in bang for the buck. The extra 2 mpg highway comes at a huge cost for the TT/VVT/DI V6.”

        You won’t get any disagreement from me on these points, but it’s not really what we were talking about. I would get a 6.2L in the F-150 over an Ecoboost any day, even for the price premium. It’s a work horse.

        The Ecoboost is using technological complication to pull double duty and deliver power when you want it, and fuel economy when you don’t want the power. Under light load conditions, the EB will consume significantly less fuel than the 6.2L.

        It’s not really about which one is better, but which one is better for what you plan on doing with it, and if you can handle the costs vs. benefit.

      • 0 avatar

        Umm, there’s a lot more bang for your buck in the Ecoboost vs the 6.2L V8. The EB Super Crew 4×4 is rated at 15/21, the same 6.2L is rated at 12/16. Oh yea, the 6.2L is also a $2,500 option vs the $1,000 for the Ecoboost.

        The fuel savings over the life of the vehicle is worth it, that’s for sure.

  • avatar

    Two of my friends have new Yukon Denalis. I’m pretty sure the point is that they’re not attention seekers. This CUV screams LOOK AT ME!, while previous Denalis have been about a luxurious interior in a package that’s only recognized by other one-percenters. The interior of this $40K CUV looks like something out of a Pontiac I rented a decade ago.

  • avatar

    For the ’09 model year, Chrysler released around 1700 PT Cruiser Dream Cruiser 5s, each equipped with a special grille made out of REAL billet aluminum.

    Considering the jump in cost from non-Denali to Denali, and the “PROFESSIONAL GRADE” lip service, you’d think they’d sport real billet grilles too…

  • avatar

    Seems Cadillac-like… Too bad GM won’t commit

    Can you imagine if you could get an Acadia V8?

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    The horsepower rating of the L98 at 245 is practically meaningless as far as how a 90 Vette actually performs in real life situations.

    Dual overhead cams and the other modern accouterments also add height to the engine and a high center of gravity. Theoretically, a pushrod V8 should be able to offer a lower center of gravity and thus a lower front end in aid of handling. Additionally, a pushrod V8 can be made into a smaller exterior sized package, fitting into a smaller car.

  • avatar

    I love that rear-collision idiot light! That arrow indicating direction is amusing overkill.

  • avatar

    $40 large for a compact/midsized CUV? I hate being able to do math. It keeps me in my old, paid-for car in perpetuity.

  • avatar

    GM can be really silly when it comes to packaging. Why, for example, can’t the Chevrolet Equinox and GMC Terrain have the color instrument-panel LCD that’s found in the Buick LaCrosse and 2013 Chevrolet Malibu? Ford has them all over the place, even on a mid-grade Focus…

    • 0 avatar

      I agree completely. When I looked at a Yukon Denali, to get Navigation, I had to get a Sun, Entertainment, and Destination package with a sunroof and rear DVD player, two things I didn’t really want.

      Also, now to get the 5.3L in a Silverado, one has to get the All Star Package or something like that. I wish GM would a-la-a carte some of these options.

      The worst, however, for option packing is Infiniti (specifically QX56), no questions asked.

      • 0 avatar

        The way car options are packaged now confuses me. I understand the pricing of it, but forcing something I would never buy on a car/truck, like a sun/moonroof is just stupid. If it’s on the lot, well, it’s on the lot, but if you order a car, you should be able to pick and choose pretty much all the options. There’s a car I was optioning out years ago on a website, can’t remember what it was now (old age, I guess), but getting a certain stereo was somehow linked to what TIRES/WHEELS you ordered, due to some packaging nonsense! I thought it had to be a mistake, but I talked to a salesman at the local dealer and he said that was correct, and just shook his head and laughed, saying, “We called and asked the factory, not thinking it was right either, but it is!” They would sell you the wheels that you couldn’t get at a pretty decent price (for a dealer), and either give you so much credit on the original wheels towards the new ones, or you could ebay them yourself. The engine options being linked to the trim line is the most annoying thing that manufacturers do these days. I liked being able to order a big engine in a stripper car, kind of like a ’68 Roadrunner was just the taxi with a funny horn and a big motor.

    • 0 avatar

      The clusters differ between the platforms. I wouldn’t expect them to spend the dollars to do mid cycle refreshes on instrument clusters.

      And forget the puny little display, why not go all out like the optional cluster on the Dart?

  • avatar

    The exterior styling somehow manages to look like a car with too much body cladding

  • avatar

    This here rig is an ugly POS. it makes an Avalanche look positively aero. Fitting that the writer sees it has a Hummer replacement. Another GM evolutionary dead end.

  • avatar

    “Package” groupings always seem to give you something you don’t want as the cost for something you do. Considering non-essentials such as sunroofs, navigaation systems, audio systems, wheels etc., does it make sense in dollars and desired feature to purchase a lower spec model and add aftermarket features?

  • avatar
    Angus McClure

    Sure looks like the Saturn Vue I used to have. Have seen them on the street and they look like they might be the same chassis and same 4 cyl. I used to love my Vue except when it was broken….which, come to think of it was all the time. $40K…. no thanks.

    Son bought one with the four. Not happy with the gas mileage which is about 2mpg under the EPA estimate. Oh well. He didn’t talk to Dad before he bought it.

  • avatar

    “Led by the buff books, free thinking pistonheads knew better.” The typcial motor trend, C&D, road and track reader doesn’t know a cam from a crank, or a ridge reamer from a harmonic balancer puller. Actual pistonheads work on and build their own engines and read real publications, that feature engine buildups and the like. The aforementioned pistonhead wannabes are the only ones that think a OHC engine is better.

  • avatar

    It’s the best looking small crossover I’ve ever seen. Beautiful, inside and out!

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