Editor's note: This review was written in June 2016 about the 2016 GMC Terrain, but little of substance has changed. To see what's new for 2017, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years. The Terrain was redesigned for the 2018 model year, and you can read our First Drive here.
It's also fallen behind the class with a multimedia setup that had me relying on my phone more than I should in a $40,000-plus SUV. And its safety options aren't as advanced as others in the class.
Exterior & Styling
The Terrain is related to the Chevrolet Equinox, but where the Chevrolet has more curves and angles, the Terrain is much blockier. It's a good, rugged look and helps the little SUV appear bigger than it really is. Because, while the Terrain is bigger than compact SUVs such as the Kia Sportage, Toyota RAV4 and Subaru Forester, the specs indicate it's only a few inches larger here or there.
For 2016, some trims have a new grille with stacked frames, and GMC also redesigned the textured grille of Denali trims.
How It Drives
The Terrain does not offer an exciting driving experience. That in itself is fine — not every vehicle needs to be a sports car — but the Terrain's performance really lags behind the rest of the class. It's very slow away from the line and the steering is heavy. One trip around the block and it's clear that it lags behind the RAV4, Forester and especially the peppy and redesigned 2017 Sportage.
We had the optional 301-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6, which makes 51 more horsepower than the next-most-powerful competitor (the Forester with its optional 250-hp four-cylinder), so the numbers indicate there's more grunt under the hood than you feel. It suggests that the V-6 has been tuned in favor of mpg rather than power, and more than one editor suggested that a Sport mode would go a long way toward eliminating that perceived lack of power.
On the highway, you notice the V-6's grunt in a good way. It's able to cruise at higher speeds without the engine making as much noise as the competitors. It doesn't seem to be working very hard when you're cruising in the 65 mph range. The Forester, RAV4 and Sportage are unable to match the hushed experience of the Terrain, which also exhibits limited wind noise — a surprise, given the Terrain's blockiness.
Overall, the Terrain is a very comfortable car on the highway. In addition to the hushed cabin, the ride is among the best — easily superior to the Forester and RAV4 and more comfortable than the Sportage. Only the Honda CR-V, the winner of our 2015 Compact SUV Challenge, is able to match it for ride refinement. (The Terrain has since been updated in some respects, but I can say as a judge from that Challenge that the driving experience is unchanged.)
But when you get off the highway and go to park the Terrain, you'll notice immediately that the turning circle is very wide. Depending on the wheel size, the specs indicate the Terrain needs anywhere from about 3 feet to almost 8 feet to complete the circle compared with the Sportage, RAV4 and Forester, but it feels like more. It's noticeable in every parking situation that I came across, no matter if it was in a garage or in the open field of a forest preserve. It's deal-breakingly bad for me.
The GMC Terrain Denali with the V-6 and all-wheel drive like we tested is rated an estimated 16/23/18 mpg city/highway/combined. The Terrain also is available as a V-6 with two-wheel drive (17/24/20 mpg city/highway/combined) and with a four-cylinder engine. Four-cylinder models get 22/32/26 mpg with front-wheel drive and 20/29/23 mpg with all-wheel drive.
The Denali trim level that we tested includes standard leather seats and leather-appointed door inserts as well as some wood-trim accents. The wood trim is subtle and suits the Terrain. The seats drew praise for their comfort not only from me, but also from other reviewers.
Interior room is another area where the Terrain shines: Up front, the center console is large enough to be useful, but not so large that it cramps the occupants. But the real winner is the backseat. The seat both reclines and slides forward and back, but more importantly, there's enough room to sit back there comfortably, even if you and the occupant sitting in front of you are tall. I'd go so far as to say the rear seats in the Terrain are the most comfortable in the class.
After that, the Terrain starts to struggle...
For starters, those rear seats better be comfortable, because there are no amenities — such as climate controls or vents — for passengers, and the armrest cupholders are only decent.
Up front, the materials on the door — especially the molded plastic of the lower door — didn't quite measure up to the rest of the interior quality. Further, the chrome trim of the gearshift didn't look or feel like metal and reflected an annoying glare on any sunny day. It felt like a tacked-on extra.
The same goes for the dashboard's center control panel: It didn't look integrated and, on the whole, there were so many buttons that it just didn't look like a compact SUV aimed at luxury buyers — as a Denali model should.
Outward visibility is pinched due to the wide A-pillars and rear pillars. Those rear windows, combined with the wide turning circle, only added to the parking challenges in the Terrain.
Ergonomics & Electronics
This area rivals the Terrain's turning circle for "Most Annoying" aspect. Simply put, the multimedia system and navigation trail the class both in usability and usefulness.
For starters, there's both a touch-screen and a series of buttons on the dashboard to control many of the same functions. The buttons are somewhat easier to use because they're grouped logically — climate controls together, audio controls together — but it's still too hard to figure out which button to hit. And the display is sometimes too sensitive to the touch, yet can take too long to respond once the touch registers, particularly when inputting destinations into the navigation system. Furthermore, some editors pointed out that using the touch-screen itself wasn't a joy, as it was far away from the driver's seat and oddly angled in such a way that it was too easy to hit the rough surface of the hood that shields the display from sunlight.
It also takes too many steps to do something simple, such as switching from satellite radio to FM or an MP3 player and the like. GM has always mitigated this with a class-leading radio that lets you store presets regardless of FM/AM/XM band, but it hasn't kept up with the times, as streaming music apps and phones-as-musical-storage-devices are easily as important today.
Further, the navigation system let me down on three occasions. First, it incorrectly located the entrance to a forest preserve (something my phone did correctly); second, it couldn't accurately determine whether I was on the highway or frontage road; third, it gave directions that didn't correlate with the layout of the highway I was on. (Had I taken the exit the navigation suggested, it would have involved crashing through a guardrail and falling 50 feet.) All in all, I found myself wanting to use my phone through Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, but these features are not offered in the Terrain, even though they're proliferating throughout GM's vehicles.
Owing to the layout, the size of icons and the fact that the submenus do little to make things less complicated, the Terrain's 7-inch screen seems smaller than it really is. A small screen doesn't necessarily make for poor viewing, but in this case, the screen is just too distant and cluttered. Again I wanted to use my phone, not the system. It's doubly interesting because GMC's parent company GM — noticeably in its 2016 Chevrolet Malibu — has shown it knows how to make a multimedia system work effectively and be appealing. They just missed with the Terrain.
Finally, on the highest trim level, not having keyless access and keyless start just doesn't cut it in 2016, especially on a car that has a sticker price of more than $40,000.
Cargo & Storage
The Terrain has a very large, very useful cargo area. It's not so high off the ground that I think shorter people will have difficulty, and it manages to be both wide and deep, which allowed me to pack a lot of stuff for my weekend camping trip. What's interesting is that the specs indicate the Terrain cargo area isn't the biggest of the RAV4/Forester/Sportage set, but this is a case where the specs don't always tell the full story. I've always found the RAV4 to have a very good cargo area that can accommodate a wide variety of objects, but the Forester seems to be a touch narrower than the rest, and the Sportage is OK but not quite as useful as the Terrain and RAV4.
Cabin storage is good, with four cupholders up front; a deep, wide center console bin; and a nice-sized cubby underneath the multimedia system that I found myself using consistently through the course of my test.
The 2016 GMC Terrain received the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's highest rating of good in its crash tests.
A backup camera is standard, and our test model had the optional rear cross-traffic alert, blind spot warning and forward collision warning that kicks in at speeds greater than 25 mph. All worked well, in that they weren't overly sensitive or so annoying that I wanted to turn them off. You can browse the safety features here.
However, the Terrain does not offer forward automatic emergency braking or active lane departure prevention. In this way, it trails the Forester, RAV4 and Sportage as those cars offer at least forward automatic emergency braking. However, only the RAV4 also has active lane departure prevention.
Value in Its Class
The safety options are the best reflection of where the Terrain stands in the market: Others offer more, and what they offer is more advanced. When it made its debut, more than a few of us were impressed with the Terrain, but just as forward collision warning has been surpassed by forward collision prevention, so has been the Terrain by its rivals.
The Terrain still excels with its ride and interior room. If I had to schlep three big, tall adults from where we're based in Chicago to, say, Omaha, the Terrain would be at the top of my list. And if you're part of a family of big, tall people, you already know there's no substitute for interior cubic feet. That space, its hushed cabin and smooth ride would be most welcome.
However, that's a pretty narrow range for a vehicle to perform in. Aside from the room and ride, the Terrain has been left behind in practically every other way. That we say this of a model that was updated for this model year is all the more damning.