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First Drive: 2013 GMC Terrain Denali

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GMC's baby Denali launches with a new V-6, tweaked Denali traits.
GM Inside News Forum
June 18, 2012
By: Nick Saporito

In native Athabaskan language the word Denali translates to “the high one.” The literal translation is more than appropriate for GMC’s lineup of Denali vehicles, which serve as the capstone of the brand. That capstone now generates just under 20 percent of GMC’s sales volume, and GMC hopes to boost that calculation even higher with the addition of a Denali variant of the Terrain crossover.

Having launched in late 2009, General Motors has had to perform unplanned capacity increases for Terrain production three times because of the crossover’s success. Throughout much of Terrain’s lifespan, over half of its lofty sales have come from the competition (“conquest” sales).

GMC is now hoping to converge the two success stories with the 2013 Terrain Denali, a vehicle GMI recently got to experience hands on. The fancied up crossover’s Denali treatment is fairly standard compared to the rest of the high up sub-brand, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Though the big story here is what is under the hood.

Undoubtedly the most notable change to the exterior is the Denali exclusive grille treatment. The Denali brand has become symfomous with chrome dipped bullet hole grille designs, which is present on Terrain but with a new twist. Most of today’s Denali vehicles have a two-dimensional pattern on the grille, whereas Terrain has gone with a new bullet hole pattern with an added third dimension. The look, according to engineers, was actually a last minute change – and one that proved difficult to initially fabricate. In our opinion, it was a challenge worth fighting.

Rounding out the exterior changes are darkened headlamps, revised fog lamps and taillamps, tasteful new trapezoidal exhaust tips and chrome. Fortunately GMC has realized that bright chrome is no longer seen as a high-end attribute for vehicles, so Terrain Denali is sporting a new satin finished chrome trim that looks very high end and is tasteful in coverage. Part of the trim additions includes a new chrome piece just above the rocker panels, a nice addition that helps break up the Terrain’s slab-sided panels.

In all, the exterior changes on the Denali are all welcomed changes. GMC’s butch looking little crossover now has an optional tuxedo; one that is tailored and done up in a modern cut.

Changes inside the Terrain Denali are a little less noticeable. The discerning buyer will note that most plastic wrapped portions of the Terrain interior get leather wrappings in the Denali, including the dash, door trims and center armrest. In fact, the dash pad is softer and feels like something at home in a luxury sedan.

Of course with more leather also comes more wood trim. While the wood trim is not the real deal, it is unequivocally one of GM’s better-looking wood-look trims. The dark grain is found on the door trims, shift knob and steering wheel. Like the satin chrome on the exterior, the wood accents are tasteful and devoid of being “too much.” The interior also gets DENALI embossed on the front seatbacks and, of course, the GMC badge on the steering wheel has ben swapped out for Denali font.
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Much of the reason GMC was reserved with interior changes is because the Terrain interior is a great base to work from. Terrain’s red accent stitching has all carried over to the Denali, as have the comfortable seats, class-exclusive sliding rear seat and all of GM’s latest gadgets.

In 2012 Terrain gained side blind zone alert, lane departure warning and forward collision alert as optional features. Naturally 2013 Denali buyers will not have to think about adding all of the electronic nannies, because they are all standard on Denali. The safety features are in addition to the already standard rear-view camera and IntelliLink system, which is seeing some enhancements for the 2013 model.

GMC launched IntelliLink on the 2012 model, but buyers were forced to pick from the voice-controlled infotainment system or navigation (a $795 option). Thankfully GM engineers have successfully integrated IntelliLink with the navigation system for 2013, and it works really well. IntelliLink gives Terrain owners voice control over most audio functions, navigation functions and access to Internet based services such as Pandora and Stitcher. Navigation units will also include access to SiriusXM Travel Link services with weather forecasts, live gas prices and movie listings. Unfortunately GM has not yet included Travel Link’s weather radar, though we hear it will eventually come to the system as well.

Ironically, the biggest change on the Terrain for 2013 is not exclusive to the new Denali trim. GM has continued the phase out of their 3.0-liter V-6 by dropping it from the 2013 Terrain in favor of the beefier 3.6-liter V-6 (LFX). The LFX generates a healthy 301 horsepower 272 foot-pounds of torque, mated to GM’s six-speed automatic. Despite the sizable power increases, fuel economy remains unchanged at 17/24 on the front-wheel drive model and 16/23 on the all-wheel drive flavor.

The power boost over the outgoing 3.0-liter is noticeable in just about every driving situation, though we found it to be the most noticeable when launching from a dead stop and in passing power. The engine’s main downfall is that the maximum torque isn’t generated until a high 4,800 rpm, which explains why we noticed the power the most when we did.

GM appears to have programmed the Terrain’s transmission with the high power band in mind. During our time with the Terrain we noted that the transmission was typically reluctant to upshift – as it should be with the combination of Terrain’s heft and the engine’s rev requirement, which is an appreciable attribute. With that said, during passing and other extreme situations the transmission would get confused, which seems to be the norm with most GM six-speeds.

The one piece of hardware under Terrain that is exclusive to the Denali is dual-flow damping on the suspension system. The revised setup allows the suspension greater flexibility to react to more road conditions, making a smoother ride without compromising handling. We noted on the 2012 Terrain that the ride was rather harsh for a crossover, so this enhancement on the Denali is welcomed and pays off.

On harsh pavement the Denali is far more controlled and does a decent job as smoothing out potholes and buckled asphalt – impressive considering our tester was wearing the V-6 exclusive 19-inch wheels. Terrain Denali’s with the 2.4-liter Ecotec will be forced to wear 18-inch shoes.

Our main complaint with Terrain Denali’s ride quality is the noise level inside the cabin. Terrain has always had quite a bit of road noise and the Denali appears to be much the same. Rough pavement is loud in the interior and the engine noise could be more isolated for the Denali considering it is a premium model. Ironically though, the engine is unusually silent at idle – to the point that we questioned if it was still running.

In all, the Terrain Denali is very much in line with the rest of the Denali family. It is debatable about which competitors it really competes with and if it is worth the near $10,000 premium over the mainstream Terrain, but the familiar formula appears to work for Terrain’s bigger siblings. For those buyers who want everything with few decisions, opting for the Denali is a great approach – even the sunroof is standard equipment.

GMC Terrain Denali starting at $35,350
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