Editor's note: This review was written in March 2011 about the 2011 GMC Acadia Denali. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2012, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
As many SUVs have evolved into what some folks call crossovers, they have also morphed from utilitarian, truck-like vehicles into more luxurious ones. Some dedicated luxury brands have entered the market, while other automakers have spruced up their offerings to punch in this class. GMC falls into the latter category, introducing for 2011 its first luxury, Denali version of the Acadia crossover, which can seat seven or eight in three rows of seats.
While the Acadia Denali is a solid offering for this segment, it doesn't do enough to vault its way to the top of the class.
What Makes a Denali
The changes from a regular Acadia to a Denali are obvious from the outside, and they make the Acadia Denali look more put together, as if it were sculpted from one piece of metal rather than glued together from separate pieces of metal and plastic. The Denali gets a restyled front and rear end, body-colored lower cladding, unique body moldings with chrome accents, dual chrome exhausts tips and a restyled grille. It has just the right amount of chrome, and that's a hard thing to get right given many automakers' tendency to add too much in all the wrong places.
Inside, there's a standard dual-pane sunroof for the first two rows of seats, wood trim, perforated leather seats, lighted doorsills and heated/ventilated seats, among other changes. (Compare the differences here.)
Inside the Acadia, it's more of a mixed bag. I don't like wood trim in general, and I'm not a fan of the Denali's. The rear floor, though meant to be covered by a rug, looks cheap when the rug shifts and the floor is exposed. Highlights were the sunroof and the look of the seats. The dual-pane sunroof really opens up the cabin, making it seem very light and airy, and the perforated leather is in line with what better luxury cars offer.
As I say, I liked the look of the leather seats. Once I started driving, though, they offered no support in any direction; I felt like I was sitting on top of the seat rather than in it. While it's true that many seats feel like that, what makes the Acadia particularly bad is that there's no thigh support; the bottom cushion doesn't extend far enough. Also, while I'm not skinny, I'm also not fat, and my rear end felt like it was too wide for the seat bottom. I just could not get comfortable, so about an hour at a time was all I could handle behind the wheel.
It's worth noting that the standard sunroof intrudes on headroom, especially with the shade drawn. I've tested many cars with sunroofs, and this was the only one where I really noticed the intrusion. If you're about 6-foot or taller, you'll want to check that out.
In the second row, the seat is set low to the floor and there's no thigh support. The roominess is tolerable — I was OK even though I'm tall — but I don't think I could take more than an hour back there, either, thanks to the seats' design. I suspect even tiny people wouldn't find the seat comfortable because it's so close to the floor.
The Acadia Denali can seat up to eight people with the addition of a no-cost second-row bench, which would make for a lot of upset tiny people.
It's worth noting that the third row seat is smaller and has less room than the second row. It's the norm to offer very limited room in a vehicle's third row of seats, and the Acadia is no exception. The third row is probably best suited for small children.
Overall, seating is a subjective thing, but you'll really need to check out the Denali's on your test drive. Bring the kids and have them try out the second-row seats, too.
The overriding thing that struck me was how small the Acadia feels when you drive it. Make no mistake, this is a big vehicle, but it doesn't feel that way, and that's a good thing. It's easy to judge the Acadia's width and length, so it was easy to squeeze into small lanes in city driving. Parking was also pretty effortless for such a long, wide car.
Some flaws did pop up on the highway. For starters, the side mirrors are a bad shape to be of much use. The top section of each mirror slopes down, really pinching your vision. The mirrors also seem to be too narrow to give a good panoramic view — which is what's needed in a large vehicle.
Also, the window sills are high, which created a weird blind spot in the next lane. Any small cars zooming by on the right (as small cars are wont to do in Illinois) are invisible for a second. The more I drove the more I adjusted to this blind spot, but better mirrors would solve the problem altogether.
The drivetrain is a solid — if not spectacular — performer. The 3.6-liter V-6 engine and six-speed automatic do a nice job of moving the Acadia from a dead stop and a decent job of passing on the highway.
Same goes for ride and steering: Both aspects fit the type of car the Acadia Denali is trying to be. As used by GMC, the term "Denali" doesn't mean performance. It's a luxury trim, so the ride is soft. At times on the highway, the Denali felt like it was floating along. The steering isn't vague, but it is light, both on the highway and in parking lots.
None of these things are bad, but if you're the sort of driver who enjoys a more engaged driving experience, the Acadia Denali is likely to disappoint. Most luxury car shoppers, however, probably won't find anything objectionable about the Denali's road manners.
One thing those shoppers might find objectionable is the noise — specifically, wind noise and outside noise intrusion. Wind noise, an issue on highways, wasn't extremely loud, but there was a noticeable whistle coming from the windshield, and I've always thought that's the sort of thing luxury buyers spend their money to avoid.
Same goes for the amount of noise you hear coming into the cabin. The fact is, many luxury cars do a better job of isolating you from the din going on around you. When I was driving the Acadia Denali in the city, I noticed every loud diesel engine, every car horn and every construction sound. Other vehicles I've driven have done a better job of at least tamping down that sort of noise, if not completely muting it. The noise is especially noticeable considering GM said it put laminated glass and other sound deadeners in the Denali.
Safety, Reliability & Mileage
Acadias built after January 2011 are Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Picks, meaning they scored the institute's highest rating "Good" in all four crash tests the institute performs: front, side, rollover and rear, and have standard electronic stability systems.
The Acadia is predicted to have worse than average reliability.
With front-wheel drive, the Acadia gets 17/24 mpg city/highway, compared with 16/23 mpg with all-wheel drive.
Acadia in the Market
The Acadia Denali does what it sets out to do: Be a more luxurious three-row crossover than the standard Acadia. GMC includes the right things — dual-pane sunroof, differentiating body panels and interior bits — to set the Denali apart. It has the right mix of features to hang in the luxury crossover category.
If we set aside the subjective things — like the seats and wood-grain trim — where I think the Denali stumbles, the truth is there's little to distinguish it from other three-row crossovers. It's not as if the driving experience is so luxurious it would draw a person who wants a luxury crossover, or as if it has so many unique features it's likely to draw people who just want a cool vehicle. Its appeal, in fact, is much narrower: It's largely driven by the need for three rows of seats.
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