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2015 GMC Terrain Denali Test Drive Review
While the Terrain Denali’s cabin was comfortable and nicely outfitted, it lacked the premium materials and flair that a compact crossover vehicle costing over 40 large ought to have in spades.
The 2015 GMC Terrain is a decent crossover SUV that has the unfortunate luck of being a player in one of the most competitive vehicle segments in America. While it has its positive traits, underwhelming utility and execution keep it from being anywhere near a top pick in the class.
Look and Feel
Out of 10
Crossovers. They’re everywhere. Almost every car company offers one, and almost everyone seems to want one. With their flexible passenger and cargo carrying capabilities, high driver seating positions and car-like driving dynamics combined with weather-beating all-wheel-drive systems and outdoorsy styling cues, the reasoning for their popularity is not exactly a mystery. Naturally, GMC wants a piece of this action.
A brand better known for burly pickup trucks, traditional SUVs and commercial vehicles, GMC entered the compact crossover fray back in 2010, debuting the instantly recognizable Terrain. Since then, the Terrain has attracted new customers to GMC showrooms, and the vehicle itself has remained appealing over time, thanks in large part to squared-off and exaggerated exterior styling cues standing in stark relief to the sometimes too-cute utes against which it competes.
Beyond the rugged styling, does the 2015 GMC Terrain still have what it takes to attract buyers looking for something a little different to drive? We’ll find out in the sections that follow. First, though, let’s set the stage.
GMC offers the Terrain in five trim levels: SLE-1, SLE-2, SLT-1, SLT-2 and top-of-the-line Denali. Sounds like the trim-naming team at GMC needs to get more creative. A 4-cylinder engine is standard, along with front-wheel drive. Options include all-wheel drive and a much more powerful V6 engine.
Although the Terrain SLE-1 starts at a comparatively high $27,485, it’s got more standard equipment than many of its competitors. What it doesn’t have is the standard roof rails, 8-way power driver’s seat, automatic climate control, upgraded audio system and voice-activated IntelliLink user interface installed in the Terrain SLE-2 ($28,985).
Next up is the Terrain SLT-1 ($30,745), equipped with leather upholstery, heated front seats and remote engine start. Upgrade to the Terrain SLT-2 ($33,990) for bigger wheels and tires, lots of chrome exterior trim, rear parking sensors, a lane-departure warning system, a forward-collision warning system, a power rear liftgate and a power sunroof.
Each model can be optioned with selected features of the higher trims. Additionally, GMC offers a navigation system, trailering equipment, a rear-seat entertainment system, various cargo-management solutions and more.
Sidle up to the locked-and-loaded Terrain Denali model ($36,415) to get a full load of standard features, plus unique styling upgrades, 19-inch aluminum wheels, an 8-way power front passenger’s seat and enhanced interior trim. The Denali is exclusively equipped with side blind-zone alert and rear cross-traffic alert systems, and the handful of options includes a navigation system, a dual-screen rear entertainment system, trailering equipment, cargo-management solutions, splash guards, a V6 engine and AWD.
My Iridium Metallic test vehicle for the week was a fully equipped Terrain Denali model with the V6 and AWD, meaning that its sticker price was a sky-high $42,430. Unfortunately, while the cabin was comfortable and nicely outfitted, it lacked the premium materials and flair that a compact crossover vehicle costing over 40 large ought to have in spades. As a result, the Terrain Denali just doesn’t look or feel like it should cost this much money.
Out of 10
I’ve previously driven a GMC Terrain with the standard 182-hp, 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, and was disappointed with its lack of pep and its raucous acceleration. I’m happy to report that the optional 301-hp, 3.6-liter V6 represents a vast improvement, delivering smooth, abundant power across the rev range. A quick-thinking, 6-speed automatic transmission delivered power to my test vehicle’s AWD system with nary a hitch, and while the V6 engine’s $1,900 price premium may give many people pause, I highly recommend it.
Of course, you won’t get the same gas mileage as with the unremarkable 4-cylinder. I averaged 18.8 mpg during my week behind the wheel, a tad shy of the EPA’s 19-mpg rating for combined driving.
As for driving dynamics, the Denali’s revised suspension tuning and hushed cabin really transform the Terrain’s character. Driving around town, you barely notice sections of uneven pavement and broken asphalt, thanks to an impressive blend of compliance and responsiveness. The quiet, comfortable cocoon of a cabin easily lulls the driver into reverie, keeping the racket of the outside world at bay. If only GMC could fine-tune the Terrain Denali’s steering and braking to similar levels of refinement, it might erase nearly all vestiges of this crossover’s mainstream origins.
Given the big 19-inch wheels and beefy V6 engine, a tighter turning radius to improve urban maneuverability might not be possible. You’ll also want to watch it on twisty roads, where body lean and roll are evident. If you prefer a vehicle with greater agility, you might want to look elsewhere. Also, despite its name and rough-and-tumble image, a Terrain won’t trek too far off the beaten path. While the AWD system will help you with traction in slippery conditions, this SUV’s meager 6.9 inches of ground clearance means it can’t go much farther afield than a well-traveled dirt road.
Form and Function
Out of 10
Slide behind the Terrain Denali’s wood-trimmed steering wheel and you’ll be met with nice, soft, high-quality leather wrapped around a supportive and well-bolstered driver’s seat. While the seat is agreeable, many interior surfaces that should be padded for comfort are instead covered in hard plastic, perhaps most egregiously the upper parts of the door trim panels.
Rear passengers will enjoy unusually expansive legroom thanks to a 60/40-split folding rear seat design that allows each side to slide independently on 8-inch tracks. That means maximum flexibility when it comes to rear-seat legroom and cargo space.
With 31.6 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear seats in use and 63.9 when they are folded, the GMC Terrain falls short compared to many of its competitors. While my family has previously proven that a Terrain can swallow up luggage for a weeklong vacation with no problem, we’ve had trouble loading strollers into this crossover, whether full-size or umbrella, due to narrow cargo-area width. If you’re planning to haul baby gear, make sure you test out that aspect of the Terrain.
As for the Terrain’s control layout, it strikes me as a jumbled if stylish mess. Plus, some controls are a real reach for the driver, and many of them feel inexpensive when used, repeatedly calling the Denali’s value equation into question.
Out of 10
I’m not a big fan of this older version of GMC’s IntelliLink infotainment system. While it’s not necessarily complicated, it lacks simple intuitiveness. The simpler the system, the less distracted you are from the task at hand: driving.
There’s no denying, though, that IntelliLink does its best to make sure you’re well connected while underway. This year, GMC adds a standard built-in Wi-Fi hotspot to all Terrain models, though service costs extra following a short grace period. Smartphone users on limited data plans with spotty reception will no doubt appreciate this service.
Additionally, IntelliLink provides a text-messaging function that alerts you when new messages are available, and it can read them aloud over the Terrain’s stereo speakers and help you respond to them. Standard Siri Eyes-Free technology enables iPhone 4S, 5 and 6 users to access Siri via the steering-wheel controls. Terrain owners can also stream their own music, listen to Pandora Internet radio, or access a Stitcher SmartRadio app that allows users to create personalized radio stations based on favorite artists or genres.
A navigation system is a reasonably priced upgrade for IntelliLink and comes with SiriusXM traffic reports as well as Travel Link services, which can help the driver find cheap gas, among other features. Note, too, that GMC offers a dual-screen DVD entertainment system for more expensive versions of the Terrain, though as I observed in my own children, they could have cared less. My recommendation would be to skip this in favor of the Wi-Fi.
Out of 10
A reversing camera is standard for every 2015 GMC Terrain, a good thing since the SUV’s rear roof pillars are rather thick and impede vision. Most models are also available with a fairly simplistic forward-collision warning system and a lane-departure warning system, the latter of which gets aggravating fast. Good thing you can turn it off.
What I most appreciated was the blind-spot warning and cross-traffic alert systems that are standard in, and exclusive to, the most expensive Denali model. That’s utter nonsense, in my opinion. GMC should not be forcing people to spend thousands of dollars extra just to get these two incredibly helpful safety features.
If you’re wondering how well the Terrain will protect you in the event that a crash can’t be avoided, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives this crossover an overall safety rating of 4 stars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) takes a more favorable view, giving the Terrain a Top Safety Pick commendation.
Out of 10
Just for argument’s sake, let’s take the Denali’s overpriced window sticker out of the cost effectiveness equation. Does a standard-issue Terrain make good financial sense?
As far as fuel economy is concerned, I averaged 18.8 mpg in mixed driving, which measures up to the stated 19-mpg EPA rating for the optional V6 engine and AWD. So far, so good. Reliability is average, though, with the V6 engine performing better than the 4-cylinder in this regard. Quality has picked up in recent years, but has been historically unremarkable, and the Terrain’s ability to hold its value is also average.
The Terrain makes up some ground in terms of ownership costs, where Consumer Reports says it performs at above-average levels. Also, GMC is almost always offering deals on this crossover SUV, though as dealers close out the 2014 model year, the lease, rebate and finance specials are not nearly as attractive as might be expected.
In the end, the answer to the cost-effectiveness question is no. This SUV is priced higher than small crossovers, isn’t as big inside as midsize crossovers, and is an average achiever in other respects. Plus, it is far too easy to see beyond the Denali’s model’s veneer of luxury, which serves as a constant reminder to the owner that he or she likely paid too much for this SUV.
Liz Kim has worked within the world of cars for 15 years, at various points reviewing and writing about, or analyzing and marketing, everything automotive. It’s no wonder that she married a fellow automotive journalist. Liz can be found examining and assessing the latest vehicles when she’s not busy keeping the peace between, and the schedule for, her two young daughters.