Editor's note: This review was written in October 2012 about the 2013 GMC Terrain Denali. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2014, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The 2013 GMC Terrain finally gets a proper V-6 engine option, but the new high-line Denali version doesn't distinguish itself enough from the crossover's other top trims.
Both the 301-horsepower V-6 engine and the Denali trim level are new to the Terrain for the 2013 model year. We experienced each in our all-wheel-drive test model, which had an as-tested price of $40,425 including an $825 destination charge. To compare the five-seat Terrain with competitors like the Ford Edge, Nissan Murano and Toyota RAV4, click here.
Compared with its sibling, the Chevrolet Equinox, the GMC Terrain's exterior styling takes a lot more risks. It's a dramatic departure from the Chevy, but not the prettiest one.
A large trapezoidal grille defines the Terrain's front end, and on Denali models the chrome grille has circular cutouts. The look is a little chrome-heavy.
The huge fender flares are a bit jarring, too. There's something not quite right about the exaggerated, blocky shape surrounding a round wheel. Jeep has a similarly rugged fender treatment on its Liberty SUV, but that design seems to work better than the Terrain's look.
Overall, the Terrain's mix of unusual design cues didn't win many points from Cars.com staffers. It's as if GMC was overly concerned the Terrain wouldn't live up to the brand's rugged, truck-centric image if it had more conservative styling.
The Terrain's newly available 3.6-liter V-6 engine is significantly stronger than the old 3.0-liter V-6, which never offered the level of power we've come to expect from modern six-cylinders.
The new V-6 is rated at 301 hp. With it, the Terrain moves out swiftly, accelerating strongly up to midrange speeds. Gradual gas pedal response means you need to press down more than in some cars, but the benefit is improved linearity across the pedal's range and less sensitivity in its first inch of travel.
It accelerates easily to highway cruising speeds, too. Press the gas pedal partway down or fully to the floor and the six-speed automatic transmission responds readily with an appropriate downshift for more passing power. The automatic shifts smoothly … most of the time. It clunked a few times at parking-lot speeds, and there's a persistent drivetrain whine when cruising at city speeds.
Our appreciation of the V-6's gusto is tempered somewhat by its EPA-estimated gas mileage, which at 16/23 mpg city/highway trails its V-6-powered all-wheel-drive competition: The Edge is rated 18/25 mpg with the 3.5-liter V-6, while the Murano and RAV4 get 18/23 and 19/26 mpg, respectively. Fuel-conscious shoppers should consider the Terrain's base four-cylinder engine, which is rated as high as 22/32 mpg with front-wheel drive.
Ride & Handling
The Terrain Denali feels hefty and substantial from the driver's seat, more like a traditional SUV than a crossover. Suspension tuning is firm; it lets you feel bumps in the road, but it handles them in a refined way. The steering wheel turns with luxury-car smoothness, though feedback has been thoroughly suppressed.
The big surprise, though, is how well this crossover corners. Drive it hard into a tight turn and it stays flat and hunkered down in a way that encourages you to push it harder. Among midsize family crossovers, this kind of handling is especially rare, and it's all the more surprising considering how the crossover feels in ordinary commuting — somewhat large and ponderous. The Denali version gets a unique suspension with dual-rate shock absorbers geared toward handling, GMC says.
The Terrain Denali settles in nicely on the highway, and that substantial, secure feeling is the kind of thing that can make a long day of driving less stressful. Road noise is constant but muted, and wind noise starts to build as you pass 65 mph.
The crossover's large turning diameter, however, is a problem, and it revealed itself when maneuvering in a parking garage. With 19-inch wheels and tires, like our test car had, the Terrain's turning diameter is 42.6 feet, 2.6 feet more than models with 17- or 18-inch wheels. Both the Edge and Murano are around 39 feet while the RAV4 tops out at about 37 feet.
Denali-specific details include a soft-touch dashboard with contrast stitching, black leather upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and embossed logos on the front seats, among other things, but the enhancements aren't a dramatic leap from the regular Terrain's higher trims. Some of the premium finishes, like red stitching on a soft-touch dashboard section, seem ill-conceived when the upper door trim remains hard plastic — not ideal for resting your arm.
Visibility from the driver's seat is good overall. The high seating position benefits forward views, and large side windows offer good over-shoulder visibility in spite of the high shoulder line.
It takes some studying to learn the layout of the center entertainment controls; it's not the most intuitive, though it's better than some GM designs. For a number of functions, like selecting a radio preset, you can press either the touch-screen or a hard key, which is a nice feature.
When it comes to backseat space, the Terrain makes the most of its size, offering one of the roomiest second rows in the midsize-crossover segment. The rear bench slides forward and back as one piece, though the reclining backrest is split 60/40. With the seat all the way back, legroom is similar to what you'd get in a long-wheelbase full-size sedan. It's very impressive.
The Terrain's 31.6-cubic-foot cargo area is similar in size to the Edge's and Murano's, but the two-row RAV4 has about 36 cubic feet. The cargo floor in the GMC is a little high, and underneath it is the temporary spare tire. Fold the backseat and a flap on the floor helps prevent anything from falling into the gap created by the sliding backseat. There's a maximum of 63.9 cubic feet of cargo volume with the rear seats folded.
A power liftgate is available, and I like how it lets you choose the opening height of the hatch as well as turn off the power function. However, with the power off it takes a lot of effort to open and close the liftgate; it feels like you're pushing against the liftgate motor.
The Terrain received the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Top Safety Pick designation, and it was awarded four out of five stars overall by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Standard safety features include antilock brakes and an electronic stability system, which are required on new cars as of the 2012 model year. Also standard are side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags for both rows and a backup camera. An optional Safety Package bundles forward collision warning, lane departure warning and rear parking sensors.
Terrain Denali in the Market
The Terrain has only been around for a few years, but it's established itself as GMC's second-best-selling model — through September 2012 only the Sierra full-size truck is ahead of it — proving that a car-like unibody crossover can have success with a traditional truck brand. The Terrain is a better crossover for 2013 with the new V-6 engine option, but the Denali upgrades are underwhelming.
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