First Drive: 2013 GMC Terrain Denali

2013-gmc-terrain-denali

With GMC's chrome-faced, top trim level, Denali, having already expanded from the Yukon and Yukon XL to the Acadia crossover, it was only a matter of time before GMC sought to imbue the compact Terrain crossover with similarly lofty levels of profitability. After all, so far in 2012, the Terrain is GMC's biggest-selling SUV -- why not entice a percentage of those buyers to go for a fully loaded version, wrapped in a more brightly finished package?

At $35,350, the 2013 Terrain Denali is about $9000 dearer than the (2012) base model, Terrain SLE-1. That "price walk" (to use industry parlance) is pretty similar in scale to the hike buyers make when ascending to the Denali version of the Acadia (where it's nearly $12,000) or the Yukon/Yukon XL (more than $14,000).

Of course, you don't just choose between a base model and the Denali; there are plenty of trim levels in between. So a better way to look at it might be to say that the Denali comes in at a bit more than $3000 over the SLT-2, the next model down in the Terrain's lineup, which now comprises five trim levels.

What does one get for going all the way to the Denali? First of all, you get nearly all the items that are optional elsewhere, including a power liftgate, a sunroof, leather, chrome wheels, forward collision warning, lane departure warning, and a power driver's seat with memory. Additionally, the Denali is the only Terrain in which you get a power front passenger seat, dual-flow dampers (on the front suspension), a blind-spot warning system, and rear cross-traffic alert. Navigation, a rear-seat entertainment system, and a trailer towing packing are the only major remaining options -- outside of the powertrain.

Like all Terrains, the Denali can be had with four-cylinder or V-6 power and front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The 182-hp 2.4-liter four, with 172 pound-feet of torque, carries over from last year, but the V-6 is new. In place of the previous, 264-hp 3.0-liter, GMC is now offering a larger, 3.6-liter V-6 unit good for 301 hp and 272 pound-feet. The 3.6-liter replaces the 3.0-liter V-6 as the optional engine in all Terrains (and in the Chevrolet Equinox as well).

The larger, more muscular V-6 knocks about a second off the 0-to-60-mph time (now estimated at just under 8 seconds) but achieves the same fuel economy figures as the old engine, 17/24 mpg (front-wheel drive) and 16/23 mpg (all-wheel drive). Currently, some 70 percent of buyers go for the four-cylinder, but the V-6 is definitely our choice. It works well with the six-speed automatic transmission, which is not afraid to let the engine rev. We're less enamored of the transmission's awkward plus/minus toggle switch on the side of the shift lever, but we imagine most owners will rarely want to shift for themselves. Both engines have the same tow rating of 3500 pounds, and the standard Stabilitrak features trailer sway control.

Mechanically, the Denali is also the recipient of new, dual-flow dampers up front, which are supposed to make for a more comfortable ride with no detriment to handling. However, on our morning-long drive over the surprisingly hilly back roads of northwestern Michigan, the Denali actually would have benefitted from better control of body motions. We also were disappointed with the steering; six-cylinder models use hydraulic power assist rather than the electric system that comes with the four-cylinder engine, but the steering still seems light and artificial, and the car lacks a strong sense of straight ahead.

The smallest GMC fares better when it comes to packaging, where it does not feel very small inside. The rear seat, among the most spacious in its class, slides fore and aft eight inches, allowing for additional cargo space or more generous legroom. The front seats are comfortable, and the upscale interior's materials are pleasant. The driver faces a well-designed dash -- its center stack of buttons is arguably the best laid-out of any GM car, and the Intellilink touch screen interface and navigation unit are logical and easy to use.

Of course, a big part of the Denali is styling. The Denali gets a special, body-color front fascia and rear bumper; a chromed-mesh grille; unique headlamps and taillamps; satin chrome exterior trim; and rectangular exhaust outlets. The standard leather interior adds cowhide on the door panels and the center armrest. The interior is further fancied up with a wood-rim steering wheel, a soft-touch dash with contrast stitching, embossed upholstery, and illuminated door sill plates.

The Denali does little to transform the Terrain driving experience, but it provides easy shopping for those who want a loaded-up SUV with less bulk than GMC's bigger offerings but no less bling.

2013 GMC Terrain Denali
On sale: September
Price: $35,350
Engines: 2.4L I-4, 182 hp, 172 lb-ft; 3.6L V-6, 301 hp, 272 lb-ft
Drive: Front- or all-wheel

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