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2020 GMC Acadia Test Drive Review
GMC attempts to remove the invisibility cloak wrapped around the 2020 Acadia, a midsize three-row crossover SUV struggling to overcome an identity crisis.
Long story short, as a friend of mine likes to say, GMC screwed up. This is just my opinion, of course, but when GMC redesigned the Acadia for the 2017 model year, the SUV shrank in size and switched to a softer look in order to plug a huge hole in the Buick-GMC SUV lineup.
Fast-forward to 2020, and GMC may have decided this move was a bad idea. As part of a refresh, the new Acadia adopts bolder styling and adds a new AT4 trim level with greater off-roading capability. Additional changes include the availability of a new turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a new nine-speed automatic transmission, and new and updated technology.
These revisions do help the Acadia to better stand out in what is now an ocean of midsize SUVs, from Hyundai to Kia and Honda to Toyota, and everything in between, but it’s up to GMC to make people aware of this fundamentally good, but oh-so-vanilla SUV. And the company must also address the Acadia’s questionable value.
Look and Feel
Positioned as a premium brand alongside its Buick sibling, GMCs are supposed to be nicer than Chevys but not as nice as Cadillacs. Of course, this is nothing but marketing mumbo-jumbo. You can spec a Chevrolet Blazer or Traverse beyond the $50,000 mark, and the GMC Acadia is built on the same platform, uses the same powertrains, and is assembled in the same Spring Hill, Tennessee factory as the Cadillac XT5.
In any case, if you’re looking for a “professional grade” SUV, the 2020 Acadia comes in SL, SLE, SLT, new rugged AT4, and luxurious Denali trim levels. My test vehicle was the Acadia Denali, equipped with optional all-wheel drive, dipped in lovely extra-cost Satin Steel Metallic paint, and featuring the optional Technology Package. The window sticker read $52,385, including $1,195 for destination charges.
This year’s design changes are most noticeable in front, where the SUV’s flat, blunt face adopts squared-off headlights and a boxier grille with more intricate detailing. This is what a GMC is supposed to look like, and the Denali’s brightwork properly conveys the Acadia’s upscale aspirations.
Changes to the cabin are not as obvious. Aside from new electronic transmission shift switches located beneath the climate controls, a redesigned center console, and real open-pore wood trim for Denali models, it’s the same as it was before.
As is true of the Acadia’s competitors, the cabin contains a mix of soft surfaces and hard plastic panels. Controls are laid out in a logical fashion, and it’s easy to find, reference, and use what you’re seeking. However, in the Acadia Denali, aside from the leather upholstery and wood trim, there is nothing aside from some contrast stitching and bronze-tinted plastic metallic accents to establish the SUV as a premium choice.
GMC offers three different engines in the Acadia. Lower trims have a 193-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. Choose the Acadia SLT, and a new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder is standard, providing 230 hp and 258 pound-feet of torque. GMC Acadia AT4 and Denali variants ditch the turbo and include a 310-hp 3.6-liter V6 engine, which is available in most other Acadias.
All three powerplants are paired with a new nine-speed automatic transmission for 2020, and every Acadia is offered with front-wheel drive (FWD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) except for the ostensibly off-road-focused Acadia AT4, which has an exclusive dual-clutch AWD system as standard equipment. The AT4 also has all-terrain tires and a blacked-out exterior appearance to underscore its rugged personality.
I think the naturally aspirated V6 and nine-speed automatic make a terrific powertrain combination, supplying smooth, refined, effortless power and offering up to 4,000 pounds of towing capacity. You can run a Denali AWD in FWD mode to conserve fuel, but torque steer is a frequent byproduct of such action.
My test vehicle’s powertrain included automatic engine stop/start and an engine cylinder deactivation system, each designed to improve fuel economy. The EPA rating for the test vehicle is 21 mpg in combined driving, and I averaged 20.1 mpg running the SUV primarily in FWD mode.
GMC has finely tuned the Acadia’s ride and handling qualities to the point where the steering, suspension, and brakes behave exactly as you want them to at all times. The good thing about this approach is that the Acadia draws no scorn from its driver. The bad thing, though, is that this SUV is utterly forgettable in terms of its driving character.
Form and Function
Depending on the trim level and configuration, the 2020 GMC Acadia seats five, six, or seven passengers. Denali trim provides 6-passenger seating thanks to standard second-row captain’s chairs, but you can choose a bench seat as a no-cost option.
Up front, wide and supportive 10-way power-adjustable front seats with heating and ventilation ensure comfort within the leather-lined Denali’s cabin. They’re perfect for road trips, as I discovered last year when my family rented a 2019 Acadia SLT for a western-U.S. national park vacation.
My test vehicle had heated second-row captain’s chairs with similar levels of comfort, and rear passengers enjoy air conditioning vents, USB ports, and a household-style power outlet.
Though modern Acadias are smaller inside than the original recipe versions, the third-row seat is roomier than you might expect, especially if occupants in the second row are willing to slide their seats forward a bit. However, the distance between the seat and the back of the SUV isn’t generous, a worrisome factor in a rear-impact collision.
Interior storage space improves for 2020, thanks to the Acadia’s new electronic transmission controls and reconfigured center console with a tray underneath the “bridge” that connects it to the dashboard.
Cargo volume measures just 12.1 cubic feet behind the third-row seat, and to use it, you’ll need to stack stuff vertically to the roof. Nobody does that. Therefore, know that you can carry two extra people or some cargo, but not both at the same time.
Fold the third-row seat down, open the liftgate, and the Acadia’s cargo hold is generous at 41.7 cubic feet. Again, speaking from first-hand family road-trip experience, this is plenty of room for such activities. Maximum cargo volume with the second-row seats folded down measures 79 cubic feet, about average for the segment.
Every 2020 GMC Acadia includes the infotainment features people want most. We’re talking Bluetooth connectivity, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and GMC Connected Services including a 4G LTE WiFi hotspot. This year, versions with an 8-inch touchscreen boast a higher resolution display, a simplified user experience, and improved voice recognition.
Equipped with navigation and a decent-sounding Bose premium sound system, our test vehicle’s voice-recognition technology passed most of our test prompts without issue, though sometimes it took more than one attempt to obtain the desired action or result.
In terms of system operation, the Acadia’s infotainment system is remarkably simple to understand and use, and anyone with a smartphone will be able to figure out how it works without opening the owner’s manual.
Additional technology upgrades for 2020 include new USB-C connection and charging ports (in addition to USB-A), a more powerful (and optional) wireless charging pad, a high-definition surround-view camera, and a rear camera mirror. The rear camera mirror uses a video feed to show the driver what’s behind the Acadia, providing an unobstructed wide-angle view that is especially helpful when the cargo area is packed with road-trip provisions.
GMC needs to step up this SUV’s safety game. While the 2020 Acadia comes standard with several helpful features, it is quickly falling behind in terms of customer access to advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS).
Standard equipment includes a rear-seat reminder system and Teen Driver technology, each designed to improve the safety of children at various stages of their lives. Standard GMC Connected Services includes automatic collision notification and SOS emergency calling, among other features, but the free trial period is quite short.
As far as ADAS safety features, GMC equips the base Acadia SL and up with a standard blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic warning system. This is good because studies show these are the safety technologies people are most likely to find useful.
However, if you want forward collision warning and low-speed automatic emergency braking, which are most effective at preventing accidents and reducing collision forces, you must upgrade to SLT or AT4 trim at a minimum.
Even here, these features cost extra, part of a Driver Alert Package that also equips the SUV with lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assistance, pedestrian braking, parking sensors, automatic high-beam headlights, and a head-up display. GMC offers an enhanced automatic emergency braking system that operates at speeds greater than 50 mph, but inexplicably, this is exclusive to the pricey GMC Acadia Denali.
In crash tests, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the 2020 Acadia 5-star ratings in most assessments, plus a 4-star rollover resistance rating. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) offers incomplete data for the Acadia; the SUV hasn’t been tested for headlight performance or for small overlap frontal-impact protection for the front passenger. In other tests, the IIHS gives the SUV high marks.
Attractive, comfortable for up to five people, roomy in terms of cargo space, dynamically agreeable, equipped with idiot-proof infotainment technology, and safe based on the crash-testing conducted to date, the 2020 GMC Acadia appears to be an appealing midsize SUV.
What’s missing here, aside from a discernable driving character, is value.
In addition to its stinginess with driving assistance and collision avoidance technologies, GMC doesn’t come close to matching the free trial periods to its connected services offering that some other automakers do. Also, while GMC provides your first maintenance visit to the dealership at no charge, this doesn’t compare to other automakers who offer a similar benefit. Plus, unless you want flat white paint, every exterior color costs extra money. And if you want a sparkly white paint job, you’re going to spend more than a grand for it.
These factors, combined with interior quality that doesn’t quite meet expectations at an MSRP of over $50,000, reek of nickel-and-dime approach to the Acadia. But GMC almost always offers big discounts on this SUV, no doubt subsidized by this premium brand’s approach to charging extra for everything.
If GMC wants the Acadia to grab attention and sell in greater numbers, solving the value equation is likely the fastest and easiest path to success until the SUV’s next redesign arrives.
Christian Wardlaw has 25 years of experience reviewing cars and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, J.D. Power, the New York Daily News, Autobytel, and Vehix. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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