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One Week With: 2017 GMC Acadia Denali AWD V-6

Leaner, cleaner, greener

Eric Weinerwriter Jason Lanhamphotographer The Manufacturerphotographer

As the number of people who want big utility vehicles that handle and sip fuel more like cars than truck-like SUVs has grown, the likes of the Honda Pilot and Mazda CX-9 have stepped up to the plate. The 2017 GMC Acadia, with its slimmer physique, sharper looks, and suspension upgrades, is clearly GM's way of telling the rest of the world to kindly step off. The top-trim Denali, then, should be the Acadia best set up to broadcast that message.

On the road, the 2017 GMC Acadia Denali undoubtedly looks a cut above most family SUVs. The unique grille, polished aluminum 20-inch wheels, bright roof rails, and wrap-around HID headlamps give it a flashy but not-too-gaudy flair. On the inside, you'll find just about every amenity you can find today in a family SUV, but the Denali also gets navigation and Apple/Android smartphone mirroring with the standard 8-speaker Bose sound system and unique configurable digital gauge cluster. While most of the desirable goodies you'd want in a high-end family-hauler you'll find on the SLT-2, the Denali adds a touch of class.

At the crux of this redesigned Acadia is GM's Chi platform, shared with the Cadillac XT5. The new architecture slashes 7.2 inches in length and as much as 700 pounds from the last Acadia. That's gastric bypass, not a nip-tuck. There's still plenty of room inside however, as long as the third row — included in all Acadias saved for the off-road-oriented All-Terrain variant — is folded flat. The Denali model we tested came configured with two captain's chairs in the second row instead of a bench, so sister Susie and brother Henry can each play on their iPads without bumping elbows. The third row is predictably cramped, but still suitable for small children.

The moment you take a set of turns in the new Acadia, you appreciate the 2017's shrinkage. It maneuvers around neighborhoods and city blocks with none of the wobble and roll of the last-gen model. A big part of that is the lower center of gravity — this Acadia loses nearly 4 inches in height. (While you most certainly sit in a commanding position, it's a lot less like an 18-wheeler and more like a regular family crossover.) Especially with the Denali's beefy 20-inch wheels, the ride is absolutely polished and composed. We're chalking that up to the adaptive suspension, which comes with continuously variable damping. This setup is offered as a $1,200 stand-alone option exclusively on Denali and SLT-2 models. During a fierce slush storm, we cruised along in all-wheel-drive mode, which we switched into using a handy rotary knob near the center armrest, without so much as a whiff of anxiety.

GM's familiar 3.6-liter V-6 gets the Acadia going without hesitation. The journeyman engine provides 310 hp and 271 lb-ft of torque, more than the Pilot's 280 hp and 262 lb-ft, but the overall power delivery is also smoother than in the Honda. And although it's not quite refined GM's V-6, the CX-9's turbo-four provides more grunt off the line and in stop-and-go traffic, owing to its superior 310 lb-ft of torque available so much earlier in the rev range (max torque is available 2,000 rpm in the CX-9 versus 5,000 rpm for the Acadia). Of the three all-wheel-drive SUVs, the CX-9 gets the best EPA fuel-economy numbers at 21/27 mpg city/highway versus 19/26 mpg for the Pilot and 18/25 mpg for the Acadia.

Once the Acadia inevitably ditches its six-speed automatic transmission for the eight-speed already employed in the Cadillac XT5, expect both better efficiency and crisper shifts. The six-speed gets the job done well enough, but under heavy throttle inputs and quick transitions it can trip over itself here and there when downshifting. It's by no means a deal-breaker, but there's some room for improvement.

Where the Acadia Denali in particular really shines, though, is with its technology and convenience niceties. The standard heated and cooled front seats (a Denali exclusive) are wrapped in cushy and smooth leather, as are the heated rear seats. There's also a Denali-exclusive leather-wrapped heated steering wheel (essential in Michigan) that feels legitimately upscale every time it touches your hands. You'll still find more design appeal and luxury ambiance in comparable the CX-9 Signature, the Japanese wood of which makes the veneer in the Acadia look downright cheap, but there's no doubt most families will relish road trips in the snazzy GMC.

With more competition than ever, the 2017 GMC Acadia Denali makes a strong case for itself — and the Acadia in general. Style, amenities, and impressively sorted driving dynamics keep it very much in conversation, despite Honda and Mazda breathing down its neck. And while $52,000 isn't cheap for the Denali we tested, it's a far cry in price from loaded versions of the Acura MDX, Volvo XC90, or Audi Q7.

2017 GMC Acadia Denali AWD V-6 Specifications

PRICE $47,845/$52,285 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 3.6L DOHC 24-valve V-6/310 hp @ 6,600 rpm, 271 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 6- or 7-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 18/25 (city/hwy)
L X W X H 193.6 x 75.4 x 66.0 in
WHEELBASE 112.5 in
WEIGHT 4,155 lb (est)
0-60 MPH 6.7 sec (est)