2013 GMC Terrain Denali: Motoramic Drives

Neal Pollack

The 2013 GMC Terrain Denali has much to offer: A chrome honeycomb grille the size of a McMansion foyer, a handsome, square-jawed physique that yields willingly to no vehicle, top-of-the-line safety features, including enough warning lights and whistles to scare away a team of burglars, a top-flight entertainment and GPS system with rear-seat TV screens, loads of trunk space, and a black-leather interior trim package that makes you feel like you're in the lair of some sort of mobile Chinese tong. So I'll end the mind-blowing suspense now: The Terrain Denali is a quality machine.

But a key question remains: Who's going to buy this thing, and why?

GMC launched the Terrain line at the end of 2009 as a somewhat human-scaled alternative to its gargantosaur Yukon and the Acadia. The Denali luxury package, which GMC introduced in the late '90s to further distinguish its products from the Chevrolets with which they share mechanical pieces, always had a bit of a lipstick-on-a-pig quality. People got GMCs to haul large families, large boats, or, well into the era when "American" cars are assembled in Mexico and Japanese cars in Tennessee, out of some concept of buying domestic. This is the first time GMC has given the Denali treatment to the Terrain. It may finally have found an ox that wears its garland well.

I spent a pleasant morning a few weeks back in Northern Michigan driving the Terrain Denali, as one does. Generally for drives in cars like this, the routes are lumbering straightaways. But for this one, GMC put in a number of hilly rural roads, some with tight curves. They were clearly confident in what the Terrain Denali could accomplish.

New rear-flow dampers remove the horse-and-buggy-ride feeling that sometimes accompanied previous editions of the Terrain. Fully-loaded, this thing bears a 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine that generates more than 300 horsepower. For a few grand less, you can get a much less powerful 2.4-liter four-cylinder, but even that comes with a best-in-show 32 mpg.

The Terrain is a massive conveyance, more than 4,000 pounds, and you feel it behind the wheel, as though you're being pressed into your highly-adjustable, well-cushioned seat with some sort of extra gravitational push. Given that, it handles remarkably well through tight spots as though it were a much smaller car. Driving it almost makes you feel sedated, but the view from the passenger seat is completely different, where the turns feel air-light. This car pulls off the trick of being simultaneously heavy and smooth, like a decent stout beer. The 3.6-liter engine, which is what we had in our car, gives it a lot of push, and the power boost is noticeable compared with previous editions.

As for its competition in the luxury crossover SUV category -- station wagons built on enlarged car chassis that are very much of this historical moment -- the Terrain Denali emerges a strong contender, if not already a champion, among a field that runs to the Ford Edge, Mazda CX-7, Nissan Murano, and Hyundai Santa Fe, acceptable alternatives that will never be nominated for any kind of Ring of Honor.

But the new Terrain even compares favorably, at least when it comes to non-off-road driving, with the Range Rover Evoque, in which I've been bumbling around town for the last week. The Terrain Denali is certainly a lot less agile than the Evoque. Style-wise, it's like comparing late-era Shaq with Russell Westbrook. But the Terrain has got every bit the mid-level luxury interior and then some, almost identical gas mileage, and, frankly, comparable operating costs. If you're going for the whole Terrain Denali tamale, all-wheel-drive plus the top trim plus the 19-inch wheels and the 3.6-liter engine, the price inches above $38,000 -- within a few thousand of the Evoque. For that much money, the car had better be pretty nice.

Now to return to the above question. Even though the Terrain Denali has a tow capacity of up to 3,600 pounds, which is plenty to pull a small boat, a pop-up camper, or a few ATVs, it's really too nice and pricey a car to thus sully. There will be few Adventures In Luxury Towing for  this model; taking it off-road would be like trying to hike the Appalachian Trail while wearing an off-brand tuxedo. The Terrain does have some potential as a family car. But it would have to be a small family, which means that the Terrain's price point is either too high or that it's not yuppie enough to match the prestige of something like the BMW X3.

This leads us to where so many car-purchasing discussions do, to flyover-state guys in their mid-50s and early 60s. For them, the Terrain Denali hits the sweet spot. It's a nice, uncontroversial salt block of American-made automotive Viagra, and it will probably sell quite well. I can see near-retirees in their baseball caps and wraparound sunglasses trading in their outdated mid-sized cars for new Terrains. For one, it's a lot easier to get in and out than a sedan. It also fits two grandkids perfectly, and it bestows the illusion of prosperity onto its owners.

GMC has created the perfect car if you need to feel special while driving your elderly mother from her assisted-living facility to Walgreens so she can pick up her medication. Most driving trips, after all, are that banal, so why not feel big and comfortable in the bargain?  If the slightly-large chromed-up black shoe fits, you might as well wear it with pride.

2013 GMC Terrain Denali

CLASS Four-door compact SUV
ENGINE 2.4 liter four-cylinder or 3.6 liter V6
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
POWER 182 hp/301 hp
TORQUE 182 ft-lbs/272 ft-lbs
TOWING CAPACITY 1,600 lbs/3,500 lbs.
0-60 MPH 6.7 seconds
EMISSIONS Not available
MILEAGE 22 city, 32 highway (4-cylinder) or 17-24 (V-6)
BASE PRICE $35,350
CONS Heavy, even for its class.
PROS Nice luxury amenities, surprisingly nimble handling.r

GMC provided transportation, lodging, and Kobe beef-and-cheez whiz-filled fried wontons for this review.

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