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It sells more vehicles than Buick and Cadillac combined. Its Denali sub-brand sold more vehicles in May than all of Jaguar and Land Rover did in the U.S. Still, some call the GMC brand the company's red-headed stepchild--and not only because of its plain red logo.

GMC may get less attention when it comes to new product than other divisions, but it's far from sinking below the radar. In the best possible sense, GMC is the last Mercury, or Oldsmobile, or Plymouth--a badge-engineered division that uses subtle distinctions and a long history to keep itself independent and alive. Even today, when those other buried nameplates have long since ceased to be.

The formula's worked for decades, and it's still working today. Development costs are low and profits are high, two of the reasons GMC was left intact during the automaker's trip through Chapter 11 a few years ago. In 2011, it sold 397,986 vehicles, up 18.8 percent over the year prior, with retail sales up 16 percent. Every one of its vehicle lines posted year-over-year increases--even the Sierra and Canyon pickup trucks, in their final months of production.

The Canyon's future is unclear, but GMC is embarking on a major product replacement cycle that will see two models refreshed and a new version of the Sierra due within the next 18 months. That reinvented full-size pickup is coming in 2013; an updated Acadia crossover arrives in the fall.

At dealers in the third quarter of this year is a refreshed Terrain crossover, which GMC says is growing and getting better although it's halfway through its life cycle. Introduced in the 2010 model year, the Terrain sports a few major upgrades for the 2013 model year, including a new Denali trim package; a powerful new V-6 engine that replaces its former, outdated six; and suspension retuned for better ride comfort.

With the Denali model, the Terrain joins the Acadia and the Sierra in bundling luxury features with some distinctive trim to shift buyers into a slightly higher price range. There's not much the Terrain Denali offers that can't be had in the Terrain's SLT package, aside from new blind-spot monitors. But GMC executives say the draw of the Denali badge is strong, and that they expect most of those SLT shoppers to move up to the new luxury package.

They're making a fairly safe bet. Sales of Denali vehicles were up 79 percent from 2010 to 2011, posting their best month ever in May with 5,514 units sold--an increase of 18 percent for the month, and 26 percent year-over-year. Denalis account for more than half of all Yukon sales, almost a quarter of Sierra HD pickups, and more than a quarter of all Acadias.

Still, the Denali badge doesn't add the performance of a 6.2-liter V-8 to the Terrain, as it does in the Yukon SUV. As such, GMC marketing manager Hugh Milne doesn't expect that the Terrain Denali will be quite as strong a draw in the Terrain as in other model lines. In fact, the Terrain's very position in the market makes it less likely buyers will opt for the most expensive models, he says.

If they do, they'll get at least a few touches that no other Terrain buyer receives. Denali models get specific touches like a mesh grille; a standard leather interior with red stitching; woodgrain trim on the steering wheel; a soft-touch dash cap that replaces the hard plastic on other versions; and satin metallic trim on the mirrors and door sills. The Terrain Denali is also the only version to offer blind-spot monitors with cross-traffic alerts, a new feature for 2013.

The 2013 GMC Terrain Denali is priced from $35,350, including destination. Fully equipped, prices exceed $41,000. That compares to a base Terrain price in the 2012 model year of just over $25,000, and a base Chevy Equinox price of under $24,000, not including destination charges.

If nothing else, the Terrain Denali is more business as usual at GM's sometimes forgotten profit center--a smart mix of upgrades and tweaks that make the Terrain better and more lucrative at the same time.

2013 GMC Terrain Denali: First Drive And Video Road Test
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