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On The Road Review: GMC Terrain Denali

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Road Review Terrain Danali - YouTube

General Motors’ truck division, GMC, has not enjoyed as much of the 14 percent sales expansion of this year’s domestic auto industry as several rivals have. While sales of the full-size Yukon and Yukon XL have decreased from the previous year, purchases of the compact/midsize Terrain crossover have increased, but not quite enough to compensate. Perhaps introduction of the premium Denali trim level for 2013 will help.

The Terrain, as well as its Chevy sibling, the Equinox, are essentially the same mechanically, but wear very distinct exterior styling. Where the Chevy is sleek and curvy, the Terrain is creased and boxy, making a more deliberate statement. If nothing else, the Terrain closely resembles its Transformer movie character just as Chevy’s Camaro does.

The Equinox, however, outsells the Terrain by better than 2-to-1 due mostly to the proliferation of Chevy dealerships over GMC. That might change as a few modifications for the 2013 models should boost sales of each of these crossovers.

The Terrain and the Equinox are also hard to peg into any particular class as their exterior dimensions are larger than all of the compact class entrants, yet very close to several of the midsize crossovers. A five-passenger design with an extra-roomy rear seat, the 185-inch-long Terrain/Equinox is 7 inches longer than the Honda CRV (with a whopping 10 more inches of wheelbase length: 113 from 103 inches) while weighing 500 pounds more. Comparatively, the Ford Edge is approximately the same length as the Terrain, with a wheelbase 2 inches shorter. Kia’s Sorento, plus the new Hyundai Santa Fe, may be closer to the Terrain/Equinox duo than to other compact/midsize crossovers, while Toyota’s Venza clamors for sales in this segment, too.

While the Honda CRV and Ford Escape are the top-selling individual compact crossovers, the Terrain/Equinox duo is actually the best selling small crossover/SUV lineup with over 260,000 sold through the first 10 months of this year. So, whether you consider the Terrain a ‘tweener’ or just right, it apparently appeals to a lot of new car buyers.

Part of that appeal is an extensive list of virtues. Like many of today’s crossovers, ingress and egress is appropriate for most drivers with a user-friendly height. The Terrain is also based on a supple independent suspension that primarily uses front-wheel drive to propel the vehicle, assisted by electronic and hydraulic all-wheel-drive components as an option. GM also gave this platform that elongated wheelbase to increase stability, ride compliance and overall interior passenger comfort as this design provides for ample people space up front and in the rear (with a generally flat floor throughout) plus the ride dynamics that will satisfy the majority of buyers. No other crossover in this segment rides as well as the Terrain and the Equinox.

Steering feel is decent, too, which is notable, but GM didn’t give the Terrain a small enough low-speed turning radius. Some maneuvers require a three point turn in the GMC where most rivals could drive right into any confined space. Cargo space is also modest with the rear seats up — only 34 cubic feet in a narrow well that will force golfers to get creative. The rear seatbacks split to fold forward — or recline for passengers, as well as slide to and fro for either people or parcels — but there are no handy levers or knobs that make this chore more convenient from the rear load deck. With the seatbacks lowered, the Terrain’s cargo capacity grows to a competitive 64 cubic feet. A power liftgate is optional on all Terrain models and is standard on this top-of-the-line Denali.

When the Terrain debuted in 2010 it set the standard for the class with some clever pieces. Back-up camera, trip computer, satellite radio, Bluetooth and the sliding rear seat were, and are, all standard. Remote starting is also available, but keyless ignition, passive door locks, and one-touch power-up windows are still missing — even in this Denali. The competition has caught the Terrain is some of these features areas.

To counter, the latest GMC offers blind-spot detection components in the front mirrors as well as a forward collision warning system that flashes a center-mount red lamp and sounds an audible warning. Add rear-cross traffic alert and lane departure warning systems and the Terrain regains some of the innovative lead that it lost.

Up front, the Denali also brings three-stage heaters for the memory leather seats, GMC Intellilink Smart-phone integration, automatic climate controls and a convenient 7-inch color screen for audio, navigation, and information display. You also get special red stitching on the leather trimmed cabin, a special Denali front grille, as well as other assorted interior and exterior trim pieces.

Under the hood, Denali trim is available with the base 2.4-liter 182-hp four-cylinder engine, or, the new-for-2013 Cadillac SRX-based 3.6-liter 301-hp V-6 engine. This is a 37-horsepower improvement over the previous 3.0-liter V-6, with the same fuel economy rating; 16/23-mpg with the AWD Terrain. Operating in the real world, the Terrain Denali V-6 tested returned a high of 22.5 mpg and a low of 19.6 mpg, bettering the EPA’s projected average rating of 19 mpg.

The new engine doesn’t protest any request for action, yet it occasionally needs a healthy prod of the right pedal to initiate any enthusiasm. Today’s six-speed transmissions (and seven- and eight-speed automatic transmissions) are geared to create maximum fuel efficiency; in the GMC, this often comes at the expense of immediate response. Although it would help if the Denali’s V-6 had more torque than horsepower, 272 pound/feet, (4,200 pounds requires a beefy powertrain to move urgently or to tow a trailer) this new V-6 has a higher horsepower rating than either the Jeep Grand Cherokee’s V-6 engine or the Ford Edge V-6. When prodded, the new 3.6-liter engine can generate the power that will make the Terrain, as well as the Denali, a more rewarding driver’s car than the previous 3.0-liter engine.

EPA mileage projections for the 2.4-liter four are 22/32-mpg for front-wheel drive models, 20/29-mpg for AWD, so drivers who don’t need V-6 fury can achieve more reasonable fuel economy.

In the contrasts department, the Terrain scores big points with rotary knobs for the climate and audio systems, twirly controls that have great tactile feel and rubber collars so you know exactly what action you are executing. On the steering wheel, you get redundant audio controls plus buttons for the cruise control and safety programs. Each of these requires delicate thumb interaction, an exercise that my hands found dexterity-challenging as well as eyesight robbing.

Pricing starts at $25,835 for an SLE-1 front drive Terrain model and climbs to $36,275 for the Denali trim with AWD and the new V-6. As pictured, our Carbon Black Metallic Denali lists for $40,425 with destination fee.

Terrain pros include a roomy cabin (with excellent rear seat space), head-of-the-class ride dynamics, correct center-stack control devices and a respectable price-to-features quotient.

The Denali trim, with chrome accents, special wheels, dual chrome exhaust pipes, and that unique GMC grille, should add to the Terrain’s steady appeal and help GM’s truck dealers increase showroom traffic.

On The Road Review: GMC Terrain Denali
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