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.