GM’s GMC division is an interesting animal in that it’s one of the small handful of “middle” brands still left on its feet. You remember middle brands: A notch above the mass-market, but not quite as prestigious as a top-of-the-line brand.
Like Mercury once was for Ford (but isn’t anymore).
GMC is also unique in that it has – mostly – sold only trucks and SUVs (occasional exceptions include models like the Caballero, for those who remember that one; it was a car with a pick-up style bed).
So, what makes a model like the GMC Terrain different from its lower-status (and lower-priced) corporate cousin, the Chevy Equinox? And more to the point, are these differences sufficient to justify having “twins” in the GM portfolio?
Or a place in your garage?
WHAT IT IS
The Terrain is a five-passenger, two-row “near premium” crossover SUV – GMC’s upscale version of the Chevy Equinox – with different (more squared-off and macho) exterior panels – and some features you can’t get in the Equinox.
It also straddles the line between compact and mid-sized crossover SUVs – so it’s an alternative to slightly smaller models like the Honda CR-V but also competes with slightly larger models like the Ford Edge.
Prices start at $25,835 for the base SLE 1 trim with front-wheel-drive and 2.4 liter engine.
At the top is the AWD-equipped, V-6 powered Denali – which stickers for $36,775.
Buyer’s note: The Denali version of the Terrain is priced high enough that cross-shoppers might want to take a look at premium-branded crossover SUVs like the Audi Q5 – which starts at $35,900.
Also the Lexus RX350 – which has a starting MSRP of $39,310.
The Denali package – top-of-the-line for GMC vehicles – is now offered with the Terrain.
There’s also a new – larger and stronger – optional 3.6 liter V-6 available for all trims except the base SLE1.
New direct-injected 3.6 liter, 301 hp engine just about matches the output of Ford Edge’s strongest available engine – and massively outguns the Honda CR-V’s one and only four cylinder engine.
Hunkier – more SUV-esque – styling vs. wagon-like styling of several competitors, including the Edge.
Versatile, space-enhancing “multi-flex” folding and sliding second row.
Not too small – not too big.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Base four-cylinder is weak for the weight of this thing – making the optional V-6 an almost-mandatory upgrade.
Pricey relative to competitor models like the Toyota RAV-4, which you can get in top-of-the-line Limited trim “loaded” with everything, including a 269 hp V-6 and AWD for under $30k. (RAV also has an available third row seat – which Terrain doesn’t offer.)
Cheesy-looking warning lights for collision avoidance system.
UNDER THE HOOD
Base and lower trim Terrains come standard with a 2.4 liter four pegged at 182 hp, teamed with a standard six-speed automatic and either FWD or (optionally) AWD.
One of the nice things about Terrain is that it can be equipped with AWD without requiring you step up to the optional, higher-cost V-6 (more on this engine in a moment). The downside is the little four is on the precipice of being not enough engine to handle the weight of the FWD Terrain, which weighs 3,798 lbs. empty. The AWD version is about 60 lbs. heavier – and with two adults on board, will weigh around 4,200 lbs. That’s too much beef for 182 hp to deal with even under ideal circumstances – as reflected by the Terrain’s languid 9.4-9.6 seconds to 60 time. With two or three people on board plus some stuff in the back, expect a 10 second-plus 0-60 post.
On the plus side: Gas mileage with this engine is potentially very good: 22 city, 32 highway – the latter figure among the best in this class. However, it will probably be tough to achieve that mileage in real-world driving, unless you are willing to drive really uh, patiently – and so avoid overworking the over-matched four.
To avoid a bad case of The Slows, there’s an optional 3.6 liter V-6. It replaces last year’s 3.0 liter engine and makes a sturdy (and more class-competitive) 301 hp vs. the old engine’s 264 hp. In fact, this engine – which features variable valve timing and direct gas injection – is one of the strongest engines available in this class. Ford’s Edge just barely outmuscles it when equipped with its optional 305 hp 3.5 liter V-6. And the Terrain absolutely dominates the four-cylinder-only CR-V and also the current version of the Toyota RAV4, which musters a max-effort 269 hp from its optional 3.5 liter V-6. (But the RAV4 will be redesigned next year; buyers might also want to wait a little bit to see what Hyundai has done to the ’13 Sante Fe, which has been completely redesigned but isn’t quite here yet.)
Official EPA gas mileage stats were not yet available at the time of this review, because the 3.6 engine (in the Terrain) is so new. But GM is claiming it will deliver about the same figures as the old 3.0 engine, so expect in the neighborhood of 17 city, 24 highway for the FWD equipped model. Maybe 1-2 MPGs less for AWD versions. These numbers are slightly worse than the V-6 Edge and RAV4, both of which can hit 26 MPG on the highway and 19 in city driving.
But the slight MPG deficit is made up for by the V-6 Terrain’s much-improved performance. Its 0-60 time is now in the mid-high sevens, which is competitive with the Edge and V-6 RAV and other V-6 powered crossover SUVs.
The optional AWD system is FWD-biased, as is the case in other models of this type – which are based on car-type FWD platforms. This is the defining characteristic of a crossover SUV vs. an SUV. An SUV (properly speaking) is typically based on a rear-wheel-drive layout. If it’s equipped with AWD or 4WD, most of the engine’s power will, under normal conditions, flow to the rear wheels. If they slip, power is routed to the front wheels until traction is regained. In a typical crossover SUV like the Terrain and its competitors, it’s the reverse of this. Most of the engine’s power is normally routed to the front wheels until they begin to slip – at which point, some of the engine’s power is routed to the rear wheels.
For on-street driving, a FWD-based AWD layout such as the Terrain’s is actually preferable to a truck-type, rear-wheel-drive based AWD or 4WD system because it gives you a handling advantage on dry pavement as well as a traction assist on wet/snow-covered pavement.
The Terrain’s system is fully automatic; the driver doesn’t have to do anything to engage (or disengage) it. If the primary drive wheels (the front wheels) begin to slip, the system will automatically kick power to the rear wheels to restore grip and keep you moving.
Even though it is primarily intended for on-street driving, you could take a Terrain out for some light-duty off-roading such as driving it onto a grassy field or up an unpaved road. Just be careful about clearance – because you’ve only got 6.9 inches. And be sure you have tires rated for off-road use, too.
Max tow capacity is 3,500 lbs. – par for the class.
Crossovers like the Terrain attempt to give their owners some of the (good) attributes of a traditional, truck-derived SUV – including superior grip in poor weather as well as the capability to be driven off-pavement – without saddling them with the bad attributes that usually come with owning a traditional truck-based SUV – including top-heaviness when cornering and noticeably compromised stability when driving fast in a straight line.
The Terrain does a good job of behaving like a car during normal driving – no sense of top-heaviness, no premature tire squeal or frantic intervention of the stability control system when you turn into a corner running slightly faster than the posted speed limit. No tire drone, either. The only beef I have is with the controls for manual operation of the six-speed automatic. They’re located on the left side of the gear shifter – a seemingly sensible place. But the up and down movement of the thumb necessary to alternate between “+” and “-” (for up and down) is not especially ergonomic. Paddle shifters on the steering column – or just a “tap shift” gear shifter – would be better.
I’ve already told you about the borderline inadequacy of the base 2.4 liter engine. It just may be ok for your purposes – but be sure to test-drive before you buy. On flat roads, at lower speeds – and when you’re not in a hurry and not carrying several passengers – it’s adequate. But if your daily drive requires a vehicle with the oats to merge quickly with traffic, or pass slow-moving traffic – or deal with uphill grades – I recommend the V-6. Don’t sweat the on-paper mileage difference. In the real world – in real -world driving – the V-6’s mileage will probably be only a few MPGs less than what you’d actually get out of the four, despite the EPA’s sunny stats. Because that little four will be working full-tilt much more often than the V-6 just to keep up with traffic. This might also mean more in the way of down the road maintenance costs for the four, too – and possibly, a shorter service life.
The direct-injected V-6 pulls strongly at WOT – as you’d expect it to – but it also pulls smartly at low RPM. Flooring it is almost always for the fun of it – not for the necessity of it. You will notice a slight tick-tick-tick-tick dieseling sound at idle. It goes with the direct injection. They all make this sound – at least, every direct-injected car I’ve driven so far (which is dozens of them). It’s not obnoxious. But if you’ve never heard this sound before, you might suspect a problem. Don’t. It’s normal – no cause for concern.
That said, what a vehicle like this really needs is an actual diesel engine. Then you’d have engine that ticks a little, too – but which gave you low 30s – or even better than that.
Not mid-low 20s.
Back in the ’70s, no one did badge-engineering better than GM. I mean that as a compliment. For example, the Camaro and Firebird of that era. Though they shared a common platform, each was a very visually distinctive car. Camaro was harder-lined, with angles and pleats. The ‘Bird, meanwhile, flowed – gentler curves, less abrupt transitions. Now look at the Terrain – vs. its sibling, the Chevy Equinox. It’s hard to see they’re related – let alone twins. The Terrain is squared-off and hunky-looking – the Equinox, the opposite. One (the Terrain) looks like an SUV – a real SUV. The other – the Equinox – looks like . . . well, a crossover SUV. Nothing wrong with either look. The point is, they’re very different looks. And so, give the buyer a real choice.
Unfortunately, the different cosmetics don’t extent to the interior.
They’re basically identical – just nicer finishes in the GMC. My tested Denali had individually sectioned, leather-wrapped and baseball-stitched panels – which were very handsome. But the presence of some hard plastic Chevy-level stuff such as the center console became more noticeable in contrast. In the Equinox – and base/mid-trim Terrains – the hard plastic trim plates aren’t objectionable. But in the pushing $40k Denali, they are arguably questionable.
And the warning lights for the Forward Collision Alert and Lane Departure systems are flat-out cheesy-looking. A green “car” silhouette that flashes red when you’re bearing down on a car up ahead. No digital or LED stuff here. It reminded me of the idiot light panel in my mom’s ’83 Olds 98 that had red and yellow lights for “batt” and “charge.” It was just weird to see a replay of this in a vehicle 30 years newer!
The system itself works as advertised – however, I am not a fan of this stuff because it’s basically idiot proofing. In this case, we have a system designed to wake-up addled/distracted drivers who aren’t paying attention to the road ahead. If they were paying attention – hey, it’s free and anyone can do it – these over-the-top electric nannies would not be necessary.
A Terrain plus is the sliding and folding second row – which is both unique (others don’t have this) and functionally very helpful. For example, instead of having the front seat occupants slide their seats forward to give the second row occupants more legroom, the second row occupants can just slide theirs back.
Overall, the Terrain has 31.6 cubic feet of space behind the second row; 63.9 cubes with the second row folded. This puts it just slightly behind the the Ford Edge (32.2 cubes behind the second row; 68.9 cubes overall) but well behind both the Toyota RAV4 (36.4 cubic feet behind the second row; 73 cubic feet overall) and the Honda CR-V (37.2 cubic feet and 70.9 cubic feet, overall).
Also, as mentioned earlier, the Toyota does have an available third row. It’s for kids-only, but it is there.
As far as passenger space, the Terrain’s numbers – front and rear seat legroom, headroom, etc. – are all within about half an inch or so (either way) of its major competitors. So, a draw as far as that goes.
Something nice I noticed when I raised the hood of my Denali tester was the accessibility of the oil filter. It should be be easy to do an oil change on your own using just basic hand tools. This is about more than just saving money, too. It’s about saving time. It’s a pain to have to drive to a dealer (or not-so-quick lube place) and wait for them to change your car’s oil. But when your car’s filter is a PITAS to get at, you’ll end up wasting even more time, probably, trying to do the job yourself. I like to see a vehicle set up like this – with the filter positioned so that you could probably remove (and certainly, re-install it) by hand, without even using tools. Spin on – spin off. Excellent!
One thing I’d be concerned about if I were GMC – and GM – is that the Terrain, in Denali form at least, strays awfully close to Audi-Lexus territory in terms of price, but doesn’t have the cachet of those brands. Nothing wrong with GMC. But GMC is not Audi – or Lexus.
The superb Audi Q5, for example, is only slightly smaller than the Terrain – and it costs about $4k less than a loaded Denali Terrain. You could also get into an AWD-equipped Lexus RX350 for $40,710 – virtually the same price as the Terrain Denali with AWD I spent a week with ($40,425).
THE BOTTOM LINE
The new 3.6 liter engine’s a great addition – and the Terrain itself is a nice vehicle without any serious flaws that’s also different enough from its Chevy-badged sister to justify its existence in the portfolio. The main issue, as I see it, is justifying the Denali Terrain’s $40k MSRP.
Throw it in the Woods?