New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2013 GMC Acadia Denali

While it’s hard to pin General Motors’ post-bankruptcy success on any one model or family, it’s also hard to deny that the Lambda platform (Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave, and GMC Acadia) has been a bright spot for the General. The family of 7- or 8-passenger crossovers lost one of its own during the 2009 bankruptcy — the Saturn Outlook — but managed to carry kids, dogs, groceries, and an embattled car company through an era of liquidation and government control in equal measure.

Credit the trio’s blend of quality and simplicity. As competitors dabbled in engines big and small, like the Durango’s thirsty but hearty HEMI V-8 and the Highlander’s expensive hybrid, the GM crossovers instead offered one workhorse powertrain and a selection of different interior and exterior designs. Consumers snatched them up like post-bankruptcy Twinkies: nearly a million Traverses, Enclaves, Acadias, and Outlooks have been sold since the Lambda’s introduction in late 2006.

For 2013, all three of the remaining GM three-row crossovers get a nip and a tuck, including the swanky-yet-brutish GMC Acadia. But in the years since the Acadia’s premiere, other competitors have enticed more buyers with new technology and conveniences, not to mention Acadia Denali-fighting premium trim levels. Can the marginally updated Acadia Denali still compete in an increasingly tough segment? We hopped in to find out.

The Glitz and the Glamour

Both the Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave get minor exterior changes, but the GMC Acadia‘s changes are the most striking: the new Acadia eschews the last model’s pointed front end for a blunt, rectangular one. Denali models add a three-bar mesh grille, body-color cladding on the bumpers and side skirts, and standard HID projector headlights with LED daytime running light surrounds. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen similar, sideways-U-shaped DRLs on other crossovers — specifically the Audi Q7 — but the Denali uses more piping to mask individual diodes and maintains a slick look day or night.

The “slick” look is in contrast to the previous Acadia Denali, which was a slapdash affair — GM heaped chrome, wood, and leather onto the Acadia after the base model’s release. The 2013 model, however, was clearly designed with both base and Denali trim levels in mind. The chintzy, chromed-cheese-grater grille and shiny wheels have been replaced by matching graphite-color wheels and grille inserts, which show some design restraint (chrome wheels are still a $495 option, if that’s your thing). If the Chevrolet Traverse is a pair of soccer cleats, and the Buick Enclave is the flashy pair of earrings, the GMC Acadia Denali is the perfectly tailored pair of jeans with boots to match.

Get Up and Go

Strangely, the Acadia’s updates don’t extend under the hood. Eagle-eyed GMC fans will notice that the Acadia, equipped with GM’s 3.6-liter sequential direct injection V-6 engine, makes 288 horsepower; its little brother, the Terrain Denali, makes 301 with the same engine. GMC says the changes come down to packaging, specifically the V-6’s intake system — the Terrain’s newer design allows for more power than the Acadia’s old one.

GMC would do well to give the Acadia that system: while the Acadia Denali isn’t intolerably slow, the car needs a firm push of the accelerator pedal to move its 4850-pound heft at a clip that many competitors would shrug off. In turn, pushing that accelerator harder makes for a louder experience. “The V-6 provides decent power and the transmission shifts gears with commendable smoothness, but under heavy acceleration those shifts don’t happen until high in the rev range, and so it sounds like the engine is struggling even when it isn’t,” said managing editor Amy Skogstrom. For an SUV that uses the upper register of the tach more often, a lack of new intake/exhaust system also makes for a coarser engine note. Despite its sensory shortcomings, the Acadia Denali’s V-6 provides enough grunt to tow some 5200 pounds, dwarfing the Honda Pilot’s 4500-pound and Toyota Highlander’s 3500-pound ratings.

The acceleration leaves something to be desired, but the ride and handling strike a good balance. Buyers in this segment are obviously looking for ride quality more than handling prowess, and jittery or vague steering is the last thing you’d want with a camper hitched to the back of your SUV. Thankfully, the Acadia’s steering is pleasantly well weighted and acceptably precise, and the ride — no doubt aided by new dual-flow dampers — is soft without being floaty.

Cigar Bar on Wheels

The Acadia Denali’s large exterior footprint pays dividends inside, because its interior is big. Passengers behind the front row have plenty of room to stretch out (or recline, in the case of the second-row captain’s chairs), and even the third row — long the penalty box of three-row crossovers, suitable only for children — has room for at least two six-foot-plus adults. Second-row seats collapse and third-row seats fold flat, although neither are power-assisted. Where some competitors would put power-folding third-row seat switches in the rear cargo area, GMC instead mounted a second set of controls for the audio system. It’s a boon to tailgaters…and a feature we’re likely to hear about many times during NFL commercial breaks.

If the Acadia Denali’s exterior brings a more masculine — and more restrained — look to the GM three-row trio, it’s much the same tale once you open the doors. While the Enclave’s interior is brown-on-brown-on-brown, and the Traverse goes for gray-on-gray, the Acadia Denali’s blend of silver, brown, and black (with red accent lighting) strikes the best balance of the GM three-rows. In fact, the cabin reminds us of a dimly lit hole-in-the-wall bar with worn leather chairs; crank the stereo and you could almost simulate some live music, too.

Elsewhere around the cabin, the dash is wrapped in soft-touch materials with “live stitching” (as opposed to fake, stamped stitches) and festooned with new rotary knobs for the HVAC controls. The new IntelliLink infotainment system makes do with just two physical knobs and a small set of touch-sensitive buttons.

IntelliLink shows serious promise among the freshman class of new high-tech setups. It beautifully integrates smartphone apps like Pandora and Stitcher and voice-activates tracks on your iPod with help from Gracenote’s music database. But in GM’s haste to kill center-stack clutter it eradicated too many buttons — it’s still too hard to switch through applications (like going from a navigation map to your currently playing track) or quickly mute your voice guidance on the GPS, typical tasks for other systems. The upshot, however, is that the GMC’s dashboard looks much cleaner than competitors like the Toyota Highlander.

Our tester was equipped with second-row DVD rear-seat entertainment, heated and ventilated front seats, a Bose surround sound stereo, and a dual-pane panoramic sunroof with a power sunshade. The driver also receives a head-up display, a blind spot monitoring system, and a rear-view camera with cross-traffic alert. We only wish that the Lambda platform would support passive entry and ignition: the Acadia must soldier on with an antiquated key and remote.

Not Bad…Given the Circumstances

The last Acadia was a successful, compelling entrant in the premium three-row crossover segment even before its upgrades for 2013. Still, the new Acadia Denali ditches the awkwardness of the blinged-out last generation and still has some swagger in its step. But the 2013 Acadia Denali obviously had little room to grow, saddled with a good-but-not-excellent platform and engine that would otherwise hinder big improvements to the nameplate. We commend GMC for making a Lambda look and feel this good, but we also wish those engineers could have done more.

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17 City / 24 Hwy

Cargo (Std/Max):

NA / 116 cu. ft.