2016 GMC Terrain Denali AWD
General Motors considers Denali a premium sub-brand and prices its various models accordingly, my tester just a hundred bucks over $35k without adding freight and dealer fees, or more specifically $35,100 for the base Terrain Denali plus $7,385 in options, which include the stylish White Frost tri-coat paint at a whopping $995, all-wheel drive at $1,750, a V6 upgrade at $1,900 that also added a nice set of machine-finished 19-inch alloys with gray painted pockets, $495 for navigation, $995 for a powered glass sunroof, $285 for a Cargo Convenience package that adds a cargo net, cargo cover and organizer, $200 for all-weather floor and cargo mats, and $135 for a cargo area close-out panel and more for a total of $42,435 including freight.
In case you’re wondering how the Terrain Denali’s $35,100 base price fits into the compact luxury SUV segment it straddles the middle ground with window stickers as follows: Lincoln MKC at $33,260, Infiniti QX50 at $34,450, Lexus NX at $34,965, GMC Terrain Denali at $35,100, Acura RDX at $35,370, Volvo XC60 at $36,600, Land Rover Discovery Sport at $37,455, BMW X3 at $38,950, new Mercedes-Benz GLC also priced at $38,950, Audi Q5 at $40,900, plus the Porsche Macan at $54,400, but that sporty number is in a near ultra-premium class all on its own so we’ll leave it out of the conversation.
Understanding that the Terrain Denali should at least be more appealing than those compact luxury SUVs that cost less, and bloody well better impress me as much as the Acura RDX that only costs a decent lunch for two (with beer) and a trip to Starbucks more, I’m now looking to be suitably wowed. Therefore, taking in its updated styling that certainly looks the part thanks to some snazzy LEDs, loads of chrome, plenty of satin-silver trim and a big set of stylish alloys, I reach for the door handle and… nothing. Come on, no proximity-sensing access? OK, that does cost extra with some of the premium-badged competitors too, but not all, and it’s not even on offer with the Terrain Denali. This isn’t getting off to the best start. I reach into my pocket and pull out the nice substantive switchblade-style key fob and click the unlock button, immediately gaining access. I suppose I can live with less convenience in my life, but fidgeting with car keys isn’t exactly my idea of modern-day luxury.
Preparing to take my seat I put my left hand on the driver’s door upper so as to slide in behind the wheel and, to my astonishment it’s shiny hard plastic. Whoa! This really isn’t going well at all. None of the Terrain Denali’s premium competitors would be so bold as to even attempt to get away with such low class living, even its less expensive rivals. Use the passive smart key system to enter the $1,840 cheaper Lincoln MKC and you’ll be treated to soft-touch surfacing across the door panels, entirety of the dash, center console and elsewhere, while the rest of the interior will make you wonder why it’s priced so competitively. Let’s hope that GMC has done something somewhere else in the Terrain Denali to give me the premium experience I had initially hoped would be part of the update.
Unfortunately, the hard plastic surfaces continued over the majority of that door panel except for a tiny piece of red stitched leatherette above the very firm rubberized armrest, although just above that point GMC added a strip of fairly authentic looking faux wood that even had a decent level of solidity to it. Okay, now things are looking up. Some nice satin silver garnish surrounds the chrome door handle and power lock switch too, that silver treatment also detailing the steering wheel, vent surrounds and center stack. The steering wheel is leather-wrapped and stitched, with an impressive chunk of hardwood arcing over the top quarter, while just ahead is a hood that shades the primary instruments, covered in a padded, genuine leather looking and feeling synthetic with attractive contrasting French-stitched seams. Even better, a large dash pad made from the same ritzy material covers most of the space between instrument panel and windshield. Very nice, GMC.
The gearshift knob is leather-wrapped too, and detailed with chrome, as is the shifter surround and cupholders, but there’s so much sharp-edged hard plastic surrounding the lower console, which is really easy to smack your knee into, that even the remotest feeling of premium pampering caused by looking upward across the dash, immediately becomes null and void when glancing down. This rigid utilitarian plastic continues up the floating-style center stack and around that dash pad just mentioned. Another non-premium detail are hard plastic caps for all the roof pillars instead of the usual roofliner fabric wrapping all the way around, as is the norm with all the luxury SUVs just noted as well as a number of mainstream volume-branded rivals, such as the lowly Mitsubishi Outlander (that also has a full soft-touch dash and soft front door uppers). And where oh where is my panoramic sunroof? There’s a powered moonroof overhead, above the front occupants in an old-school style, but no large panoramic roof is even on the Terrain Denali’s optional menu.
That last point is a sign of the Terrain’s age, panoramic sunroofs having become popular since this SUV originally hit the market in 2009 as a 2010 model. While the Terrain’s mild 2016 update might help some to consider it that otherwise wouldn’t have, the majority of those will more than likely be facing lease terminations and therefore require something else to move into. In reality, I think we’re all looking forward to a completely redesigned Terrain, one expected for sometime in 2017. So instead of being hard on this final version, an SUV that really doesn’t hit the mark when it comes to luxury, features, technology, and the list goes on, let’s talk about what’s good.
Thankfully on this cold winter’s day the Terrain’s seat heaters get nice and hot quickly, although it doesn’t offer a separate control for the lower cushion like most of GM’s heatable seats, so I won’t go so far to call them best in class like I often do. Speaking of heatable elements, I’m searching high and low but can’t seem to find the button for the heated steering wheel. I’ll keep searching. Still searching… no, it’s not here. I’m really enjoying that feature in the Lincoln MKC that I’m testing this week. Although to be fair, it’s only becomes available in that model’s mid-grade “Select” trim with its optional Climate Package that costs just over $39k… Oh yah, that’s still significantly less than this particular GMC.
The Terrain Denali’s gauge package is trimmed with bright-metal edging, which is nice, but your artistic taste needs to go beyond minimalism, almost to the point of Yves Klein to appreciate the main dials’ matte black faces and simple gray bezels with white increments and numerals. The semicircle temperature and gas gauges that sit in the top middle position are equally understated, and the red light emitting diode multi-information display just below might qualify for throwback Thursday if you’re old enough, but I must admit it gave me warm memories of my first Texas Instruments TI SR-51A calculator received on Christmas of ’76. It’s not quite as advanced as the Audi Q5’s base black and white multi-information display that reminds more of playing tabletop Pong against my older brother on Pacific Northwest ferries in my tween years. Yes, GMC isn’t the only brand to remind me of my age. I had Ford’s Escape Titanium at my disposal the week prior and the Lincoln just mentioned, both of these models offering no distant memory stimulus at all, instead delivering some of the better quality MID resolution available along with bright full-color graphics and myriad functions.
The seven-inch infotainment system atop the Terrain Denali’s center stack is much more up-to-date, with brighter, colorful graphics and plenty of features, although again I was recently spoiled by FoMoCo’s higher resolution eight-inch displays with brand new graphics, class-leading capability including access to downloadable apps, not to mention “pre-wiring” for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay that (I’ve been informed) is being added as I write these words, features that I tried previously in VW’s latest infotainment system and was thoroughly impressed, so what can I say? While slightly smaller and offering resolution that’s not quite as sharp which resulted in a grainy and hardly clear rearview camera, even in the dry, the Denali’s system had good mapping and accurate GPS, it read my text messages out loud and offered a choice of quick, safe responses, while the eight-speaker Pioneer audio system had great sound thanks to an amp and sub, plus included Bluetooth streaming audio and satellite radio with better reception than average. GMC includes dual USBs for phone charging too, but there’s no wireless charging pad, a feature I’m starting to get used to. There is 4G LTE Wi-Fi, however, something GM is making a big deal about in its TV ads, but again this was part of the Escape/MKC system as well, and is starting to become available with others now too.
The Terrain Denali’s switchgear is nicely designed and tightly fitted, although some of the center stack buttons could use more damping to remove some of the wiggle and jiggle. It equals what most premium brands offer, mind you, even Audi suffering from more side-to-side slop than it should be willing to allow. I really like the rubber edges around each rotating dial, including the smaller ones up top for the volume and menu select functions, plus the two larger HVAC buttons. The scrolling vent controllers are rubberized too, literally a nice touch.
That last point brings up another luxury miss, however, mono automatic HVAC. I’m sorry, but I can’t remember the last time I got into a premium vehicle, even a tarted-up luxury impersonator from a mainstream brand, and didn’t find dual-zone automatic climate control at the very least. In fact, in top SUV trims it’s normal to see tri-zone and even quad-zone systems with separate controls in the back, not to mention heatable rear outboard seats that also seem to be missing from this highfalutin SUV. And now that we’re on that subject, where are my cooled/ventilated front seats? Damn, GMC, you make it difficult to stay positive.
If you think I’m beating up on the Terrain Denali, I am. And GM should expect it. After all, when a model that sells into one of the more competitive auto segments is so desperately in need of a major overhaul but only gets a skin deep refresh, yet is priced higher than almost every premium brand competitor despite being a mere trim upgrade of a mainstream volume brand, they’re going to come under criticism by we journos who live week-in and week-out with much more appealing competitors that are priced a lot lower. Being that General Motors does not yet offer a compact SUV within the Cadillac range, its SRX based on the Equinox/Terrain platform architecture but stretched in every dimension (except wheelbase, which is oddly less) to meet the more popular mid-size segment requirements, this GMC Denali is as good as it gets until the Chinese-built Buick Envision arrives (I’m looking forward to that because Buick is doing a good job of luxury these days and the Chinese actually demand better materials quality from luxury carmakers than North Americans). Buick also has a very good subcompact entry in the Encore, and I highly recommend you check that one out, but as it is right now the GMC Terrain Denali is all GM has to compete with in the luxury compact crossover SUV segment.
That Lincoln MKC I mentioned earlier is based on the top-line Ford Escape, if you didn’t already know, another aging design. Sad to say, being that I grew up in a GM family and therefore have a soft spot for its products (usually Pontiacs, RIP, but also Chevys and Buicks), but the Escape Titanium is far superior to this Terrain Denali in almost every way. It’s really no contest at all, so when measuring it against the new Lincoln MKC it almost becomes laughable.
It comes down to what you get for your money. The Ford Escape Titanium’s totally loaded $37,960 price tag broaches premium territory, but consider for a moment that it’s still about $3,500 less expensive than that comparatively naked GMC Terrain Denali, my tester loaded up with a number of extras, all of which were included in the Escape and then some. In fact, everything I’ve complained about with respect to this Denali was addressed in the four-year old Escape Titanium. I could start comparing the Terrain Denali to most of its competitors’ mainstream compact models and even the premium-level rivals mentioned, as I’ve spent at least one week with them all, and after all was done the Terrain Denali would end up looking sadly lacking, so let’s not, at least individually.
Along with the unique styling details that set the Denali apart from lower rung Terrains, the 2016 version includes a standard (and rather anemic for its price) 2.4-liter four-cylinder with 182 horsepower and 172 lb-ft of torque, a six-speed automatic transmission with manual-mode and an eco-mode, AWD, 18-inch alloys, halogen projector headlamps, LED DRLs, body-color bumpers with a silver-painted rear skid plate garnish, satin-chrome door handles, satin-chrome roof rails, deep tinted rear glass, heatable power-adjustable side mirrors with satin-chrome caps, intermittent wipers, remote start, keyless entry, bright metal doorsill plates that are illuminated up front, ambient lighting, perforated leather upholstery, eight-way powered seats with lumbar adjustment, heated front seats, a tilt and telescopic wood-trimmed and leather-wrapped multifunction steering wheel, cruise control, a universal garage door opener, the single-zone auto climate control, seven-inch infotainment system and backup camera mentioned before (excluding optional navigation), 4G LTE Wi-Fi, an eight-speaker Pioneer audio system with a sub and amp, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, rear parking sonar, a powered liftgate that’s programmable so it won’t raise up beyond a certain point and get scratched on your garage door or the low hanging pipe in your underground parking, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision alert and lane departure warning, tire pressure monitoring and all the other safety features that compact SUVs include standard.
A quick comparison with any of the aforementioned competitors will show that the majority of of these Terrain Denali features come standard, plus more, whereas when the various challengers’ prices approach the mid-$40k range the $42k GMC looks downright inadequate. For instance, most come with more efficient base engines putting more power to all four wheels, while some completely outperform the Denali’s top-line V6 for thousands less, plus many offer additional forward gears with more engaging manual modes including paddle shifters, as well as efficiency technologies such as auto start/stop and regenerative brakes resulting in better fuel economy. The competitor improvements continue with bi-Xenon HIDs or partial/full LED headlamps with auto high beams, auto-leveling and adaptive cornering capability, power-folding side mirrors, rain-sensing wipers, proximity-sensing access with pushbutton start, powered tilt and telescopic steering columns, multi-memory seat/mirrors/steering, adaptive cruise control, dual- or tri-zone auto HVAC, more comprehensive infotainment with clearer backup cameras, auto-dimming side mirrors, front parking sonar and autonomous self-parking, panoramic sunroofs, proximity access for their powered liftgates, with some even featuring hands-free auto opening. Some active safety features normally incorporated at the $40k price point include autonomous lane keeping and auto slowing/stopping, front knee and rear side-impact airbags, and the list goes on. Of course, some of the Terrain Denali’s premium competitors get much pricier when loaded up, especially the Germans, but once again they almost always include many more features than GMC even has on offer, not to mention better performance, arguably nicer styling, much better interior refinement and of course that premium badge that so many are willing to pay much more for all on its own.
To the Terrain’s credit, while most of the premium competitors mentioned have more available active safety kit and when trimmed out with all the goodies achieve Top Safety Pick + ratings from the IIHS and 5 stars from the NHTSA, not all do, but the Terrain Denali gets 5 stars and achieves a Top Safety Pick award (without the +), which is still very good. What’s more, the Terrain earned the top Compact SUV spot in the J.D. Power 2015 Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS), although it wasn’t entered into the Premium SUV class that saw the Mercedes GLK finish ahead of the Acura RDX and BMW X3. Nevertheless this is an impressive result from a prestigious third-party analytical firm.
The Terrain Denali is actually fairly good on fuel too, at least in base trim. Yes, that would be the underpowered version, but its 22 mpg city, 32 highway and 26 combined EPA rating with FWD or 20 city, 29 highway and 23 combined results with AWD might make you willing to put up with yawn-inducing acceleration. The V6, on the other hand, is rated at 17 city, 24 highway and 20 combined with FWD or 16 city, 23 highway and 18 combined with AWD, these numbers only made more palatable thanks to a thirst for significantly cheaper regular unleaded.
Considering its less than ideal fuel consumption that’s in sharp contrast to its overall size, you may want to consider moving up to a full-load mid-size mainstream CUV instead. For instance, the new Kia Sorento offers a more appealing range of turbo-four and V6 engines, certainly more modern styling and a hands-down more appealing interior, not to mention a longer warranty, a higher J.D. Power Initial Quality Study score and more for a great deal less money. Likewise for a top-line Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, or Nissan Pathfinder, or for that matter you can also get into an Infiniti QX60 for about the same price as my Terrain Denali tester.
Still, the Terrain Denali should be commended for its optional V6 and impressive suspension tuning. It delivers a better than average ride due to dual-stage dampers that aren’t available on other Terrain models. These do a good job of isolating driver and passengers from pavement irregularities such as frost heaves and potholes, not to mention more regular breaks in blacktop, grooved roads and gravel. I wouldn’t say it rides on the proverbial cloud, but GMC strikes a good balance between comfort and decent handling, the Terrain Denali not as nimble through the corners as some and not as softly sprung either. This said its ride isn’t as comforting as that aging Escape Titanium and it’s certainly not as agile, while the MKC does seem float on a cloud, and for that reason is too soft for my tastes.
As for refined power, the Denali’s 3.6-liter V6 is one of the better optional engines in its class, while the sound emanating from ahead of the firewall is wonderful. I have to say this engine is the Denali’s trump card, if it has one, because at 301 horsepower and 272 lb-ft of torque it not only delivers strong performance off the line and superb highway passing power, but also allows this slightly larger than compact and rather hefty 4,204-lb SUV the tow up to 3,500 lbs. That’s more than most compact models can trailer. GM was an early adopter to multi-speed transmissions, installing six-speed automatics when competitors were still running four- and five-speed units, so it’s reasonable that they haven’t updated to a more modern seven-, eight- or nine-speed autobox like the majority of premium competitors and a number of mainstream models; I’m just glad it’s not a CVT. It’s plenty smooth, offers excellent kick-down for good throttle response, and if you slip it into manual mode by pulling the gear lever rearward you can flick a toggle on top of the shift knob for really slick manual cog swapping. Of course, this isn’t as engaging as paddle shifters that are offered standard with some rivals (MKC), optional with others and are also unavailable with a few (QX50).
If 4x4ing is your thing I recommend GMC’s larger truck-based Yukon, or a mid-size Canyon or full-size Sierra pickup. All of these models are very impressive off-pavement and on. The Terrain is not a true off-roader, instead falling into the soft-roader category. When equipped its automatic all-wheel drive system is totally suitable for the majority of peoples’ needs including negotiating wet roads, snowy conditions, loose gravel and even some light-duty off-roading.
Along with that optional engine and optional AWD, another Terrain Denali highlight is its large and accommodating interior. Where it falls into compact category is in width, but from bow to stern it’s longer than most competitors resulting in more rear legroom and a deep cargo hold. On that note, however, you need to walk to the side doors to fold the seats down via a lever atop the seatbacks, at which point they don’t actually fold flat at all, but instead leave a hump where the base of the seatbacks meet the load floor, while those seatbacks are left on an upward slant. Making matters worse, even if you slide the rear seats as far rearward as possible there’s still a three-inch gap between the load floor and the base of those seatbacks that allows smaller items, such as wayward fruit and veggies, to roll down below. The load floor is carpeted, as are the backs of the seats, but the Denali’s cargo compartment isn’t finished as nicely as most $35k-plus luxury utes as well as many mainstream competitors, with no sidewall carpeting, no chromed metal tie-downs, and no metal bumper protector.
Metal detailing in mind, do you remember when I mentioned that the Terrain Denali received a refresh for 2016? Most of it went into dressing up the SUV’s exterior styling with a refreshed grille, revised lighting elements and a completely reworked lower front fascia, the latter boasting a very stylish set of aluminum-look trim pieces that visually hook around slick looking stacked fog lamps, while the rocker panels also get brushed aluminum moldings to match the aforementioned satin-chrome finished half mirror cap (that strangely doesn’t include turn signal repeaters), door handles, roof rails and license plate garnish, while the rear end also gets a redesigned lower fascia with the same metallic treatment wrapping around a set of red reflectors. An attractive aluminum-look undertray folds upwards from under the car to the halfway point of the rear bumper cap before surrounding a set of rectangular chrome exhaust tips that finish off a very a sharp looking rear end design. That’s why I got a bit excited when first approaching the upgraded Terrain Denali, because this rugged, truck-like design looks quite nice from the outside.
In summary, GMC makes some very good SUVs, while even this Terrain was quite competitive seven years ago when it arrived on the scene. Aging can be hard, as I’ve learned, but the clock keeps ticking, another calendar page turns, and unless we change and adapt we get left behind. Out of 13 compact SUVs from mainstream brands currently on sale, the Terrain ranked 8th most popular last year, finishing behind the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, Nissan Rogue, Chevrolet Equinox, Jeep Cherokee, and Subaru Forester while just sneaking past the Mazda CX-5, with the only others lagging behind the Hyundai Tucson, Kia Sportage, Volkswagen Tiguan and Mitsubishi Outlander (I can’t do a similar premium-brand comparison with the Terrain Denali because GM doesn’t separate out Denali sales from the rest of the line). So, while you might think I’ve been tough on the Terrain Denali, the real critics GMC should be concerned about are those potential customers speaking with their wallets, most of which are buying something else. The updates made to this 2016 model are much too little, much too late, whereas the price of this Denali is way too high.
If General Motors wasn’t doing such a fine job with so many of its other vehicles I’d be worried for the automaker, but as those who read my writings regularly will know, I’ve been more than praiseworthy when they get it right. Recently I’ve recommended the Buick Encore and Chevy Trax subcompact SUVs, praised the Chevy Colorado mid-size pickup, named its Cadillac CTS the best car in its class, and will soon lay accolades upon the amazing new Cadillac Escalade (stay tuned). GM is hitting the mark with a lot of new vehicles, but unfortunately only minor tweaks done to the 2016 Terrain Denali won’t be enough to overcome its tired, dated and plasticky interior, lackluster technology, void of features, poor base performance, and outrageously high price.
I’m looking forward to 2017 when GMC launches an all-new Terrain. Until then, make sure you get a big discount on this one.
Story credits: Trevor Hofmann, American Auto Press Photo credits: Karen Tuggay, American Auto Press Copyright: American Auto Press