Review: 2013 GMC Terrain Denali AWD

Is GMC stretching its Terrain lineup too much with the Denali range-topper? We find out.

Denali might as well mean "gold” to General Motors' truck division, at least as far as sales are concerned.

Every time GMC slaps a badge named after the Alaskan mountain peak on one of its products, customers create a gold rush of sorts for their local GMC dealers.

The brand's latest endeavor? A Denali variant of its popular Terrain midsize crossover, which is designed to catapult the General's truck brand into a league filled with premium heavy hitters.

What is it?

Updated for 2013 with a new range-topping 3.6-liter V6 cribbed from a variety of GM products including the Chevrolet Camaro, the Terrain is one of the General's biggest recent success stories. Last year, GMC sold nearly 100,000 Terrains, which placed the crossover as the division's second best-selling model.

Underneath Terrain's blocky exterior lies the same car-like platform and powertrain used in the Chevrolet Equinox and, with a few notable massages, the tonier Cadillac SRX.

All Terrains including the Denali come standard with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder and front-wheel-drive, but our well-loaded tester was optioned up with the V6 and all-wheel-drive, plus a few other goodies.

Denalis come standard with a suite of camera-based safety items that are otherwise optional on Terrains. Integrated into a panel tucked against the windshield behind the rearview mirror, the camera feeds data to a lane departure warning system, radar cruise control and an alert that cautions drivers of an impending collision. That last item also pre-charges the brakes to make the Terrain stop rapidly, something we're somewhat ashamed to admit we discovered unintentionally. In short, the alerts work really well and we were able to safely apply the brakes before rear-ending another vehicle.

Other Denali-exclusive items include dual-flow shock absorbers, illuminated sill plates and a power passenger's seat, plus some styling add-ons like a chrome grille, unique wheels and revised tail lamps. All told, our tester listed for a hefty $40,425, which is about $2,000 more than a similarly-optioned Terrain SLT-2.

What's it up against?

With its five-seat capacity and premium positioning, Terrain Denali squares off against domestic rivals like the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX, plus imports ranging from the Lexus RX 350 and Acura RDX to the Audi Q5, Volvo XC60 and BMW X3.

For good measure, we'd even throw in the more off road-oriented Jeep Grand Cherokee in its Limited configuration.

What's it look like?

Terrain's blocky shoulders have never been our favorite - we prefer the cleaner, more elegant lines of the Chevrolet Equinox - but there's no arguing with consumers.

The Denali package's chrome grille feels a little too J.C. Whitney to us, but we do really like the clear lens tail lamps and the subtle chrome bits and pieces. V6-powered models like our tester include a set of attractive satin chrome-clad 19-inch alloy wheels that look more upmarket than the standard 18s. And we remain big fans of chrome cladding, which is actually a durable plastic chrome covering over standard aluminum. That sounds like cost cutting, but it actually reduces the maintenance normally associated with chromed alloy wheels. If only the Terrain Denali's bling was wrapped in better tires - but we'll get to that in a moment.

And on the inside?

Normally, we start at the front and work our way back, but the Terrain's Alaska-sized interior had us camped out in the second row. A grab handle under the bench slid the seat forward for more cargo space and backward for more leg room. Simple. Brilliant.

The rest of the Terrain Denali's inner trappings aren't quite as revolutionary, but there is still plenty to like about this well-packaged crossover. Up front, the driver and passenger have comfortable leather-covered thrones that are heated but not cooled. A dual cowl-style dashboard is attractive and functional, if a bit button-heavy.

The automaker's infotainment system is a breeze to operate, even if some of its markings are a bit small. The home screen button directs users to a page filled with icons, but redundant audio preset buttons come in handy since the main screen is a bit of a stretch for passengers intent on switching stations.

Despite its upmarket intentions, the Terrain Denali's interior doesn't really feel worth its sticker price the way a more modestly-optioned and less expensive Terrain SLE or SLT does. Hard plastics abound, even though their graining is attractive, and what little dark grained synthetic wood is scattered about the cabin doesn't quite scream luxury.

But does it go?

Officially, the Terrain Denali's new 3.6-liter V6 is rated at a solid 301 horsepower and 272 lb-ft. of torque, but the reality is that this crossover has to tug around a chunky 4,200 lbs. worth of sheet metal.

The six-speed automatic mostly felt up to the task, delivering prompt up and downshifts, but the reality is that our tester wound up spending way too much time at the upper reaches of the rev range. In short, the engine had to be worked pretty hard for more than modest acceleration efforts. We noticed fewer lunging shifts in our test car than we saw in the early production model we sampled last year.

Unfortunately, all that throttling reduced fuel consumption to a 17 mpg average in our testing. We did measure as high as 22 mpg on a highway trip, but we failed to meet the 16/23 mpg (19 mpg combined) rating on the window sticker.

On the bright side, the V6 proved essentially inaudible, so your passengers won't realize you're burying the throttle. That said, any noise the V6 might make was drowned out by the loud Kumho rubber on concrete surfaces. On blacktop roads, our test Terrain was much quieter thanks to an active noise canceling system that pumps white noise through the audio speakers to counteract road roar.

Still, the Terrain provided a luxury-level ride thanks in part to its more sophisticated twin tube shock absorbers, which effectively reduced impact harshness while resisting wallow at high speeds. Our Denali rode firmly but not harshly, which combined with a stiff structure to make it a willing companion on twisty roads. The hydraulic power steering offered precious little feedback but did feel sufficiently direct and linear to merit our approval.

Why you would buy it:

The chrome grille had you at "Hello."

Why you wouldn't:

At 40 g's, there are lots of choices.

Leftlane's bottom line

Though it doesn't quite have the goods to compete against more dedicated luxury models, there's plenty to like about the GMC Terrain Denali.

Unless you absolutely must have the handful of fancy bits and pieces that make the Denali feel ever so slightly more special, we'd recommend opting for a less costly Terrain SLE or SLT.

2013 GMC Terrain Denali AWD base price, $36,275. As tested, $40,425.

Cargo Package, $235; V6, $1,750; Navigation, $795; Trailering Package, $350; Iridium Metallic Paint, $195; Destination, $825

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.

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