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2013 GMC Terrain Denali Road Test and Review

Benjamin Hunting
by Benjamin Hunting
December 1, 2012
7 min. Reading Time

The luxury sport-utility market has expanded its focus beyond the size of the truck in question and the prominence of the logo on its grille.  Automakers have discovered that there exists a subset of compact SUV buyers who are willing to pay a little extra for perceived improvements in comfort, style, and prestige.  This has been a boon to brands like GMC, which has shifted into overdrive in attempt to imbue its products with a more premium feel than the Chevrolet models that it shares its platforms with.

The 2013 GMC Terrain Denali is a successful implementation of this strategy, a small people mover that not only looks the part but also provides a driving experience that is above par when contrasted against that of its Chevrolet counterpart.  The Denali trim exists solely to satisfy customers that they are purchasing a vehicle whose comfort can’t be duplicated by a less expensive automobile, and save for a few small exceptions, the Terrain Denali delivers.

2013 GMC Terrain Denali: Competition

The 2013 GMC Terrain Denali plays it smart by not engaging small European luxury SUVs on their own turf.  Instead of advertising itself as a sporty alternative to a wagon – like the BMW X3 and the Audi Q5 – the GMC Terrain Denali is instead positioned as a comfortable family cruiser that touts interior room, a smooth ride, and conservative yet elegant styling.  This leaves few direct competitors for it to engage: the Lincoln MKX comes across as larger, more tech-laden crossover, while the Infiniti EX prizes handling and doesn’t offer the same amount of interior space.  The more-expensive Mercedes-Benz GLK-Class is also less spacious than the Terrain Denali, as is the top-tier trim of the Volkswagen Tiguan.  GMC has done a solid job of straddling the line between compact and mid-size markets – much in the same way that Kia and Toyota have done – and as a result the brand has carved out a unique space for its high end SUV.


2013 GMC Terrain Denali: Pricing and Trim Levels

The 2013 GMC Terrain starts at an MSRP of $25,835 for the front-wheel drive, SLE-1 base trim edition of the truck.  The Terrain SLE-2 comes in at an MSRP of $26,180, while the SLT-1 trim costs $29,710 and the SLT-2 is priced at $32,955.  The Denali represents the best-equipped, most expensive version of the Terrain, and it features an MSRP of $35,545 for a front-wheel drive model.

The all-wheel drive 2013 GMC Terrain Denali that we drove for a week came with a starting MSRP of $37,295.  After adding in the drivetrain, luxury, and convenience options that were featured on the vehicle, the total MSRP for our tester clocked in at $40,470.


2013 GMC Terrain Denali: Exterior

The 2013 GMC Terrain Denali is a handsome truck, and from certain perspectives its squared-off angles surpass their brutality and emerge as important components of a surprisingly stylish whole.  The Terrain Denali works best when seen from the front, where its polished honeycomb grille and faceted, almost jeweled HID headlights captivate one’s attention and help to set the Denali edition apart from more affordable versions of the SUV.  The driving lights carved into the lower borders of the front bumper and the air inlet underneath the grille also help to break up the imposing nature of the Terrain’s front end – a look that is enhanced by chunky fender flares that were designed almost exclusively with 90-degree angles in mind.

The rear of the 2013 GMC Terrain Denali is not quite as successful, and although it hews to established GMC styling cues such as a tail light / tail gate combination that will be familiar to anyone who has seen the much larger GMC Acadia, the dual exhaust, metal-look roll pan, and back glass come across as ‘nice’ rather than ‘premium.’  Still, as noted above, the totality of the Terrain’s design places it at the front of the pack for drivers seeking distinguished and understated road presence from a small SUV.


2013 GMC Terrain Denali: Interior

In some respects, the 2013 GMC Terrain Denali’s passenger compartment manages to match the elegance of its sheet metal and chrome trim.  A dual-hooded dashboard trimmed in soft leather houses a set of analog gauges behind the steering wheel, with the second cowl sticking out like the brim of a ball cap over the LCD screen in the middle of the vehicle. Drivers will appreciate the well-organized center stack, which groups all of the necessary buttons and knobs together perfectly without sending one searching for this or that heating control or seat heater switch.  Perched on top of the arrangement is GMC’s IntelliLink display, a beautiful high resolution touchscreen that is in charge of navigation, connectivity, and entertainment interfaces.  The system worked well, taking charge of Android phones with ease, and boot-time was minimal.

Where the interior of the Denali falls down is when drivers or passengers are asked to actually interact with the vehicle’s controls.  While the rotary controls are well-weighted, the buttons themselves feel flimsy and – dare we say it – cheap.  The controls offered little resistance and reminded us of the early full logic stereo systems from our misspent teenage years.  This surprised us, especially when contrasted against the other high quality plastics found throughout the cabin, and the comfortable leather upholstery that wrapped each of the five seating positions.

There were also a couple of features that felt like they were missing from a vehicle that was designed to represent the apex of GMC’s small SUV lineup.  Our Terrain Denali did not feature dual automatic climate controls, unusual in a world where such a feature can be found as an option on even entry-level subcompacts.  The car also did not provide keyless ignition, nor the ability to automatically unlock the doors by simply pulling or pushing a button on the exterior handle.  We aren’t big fans of push button starts, but there are some buyers in this segment of the market who are, and the option is available on other premium SUVs.  The lack of true keyless entry, however, struck a negative chord deep inside the lazy core of our road test crew.

These equipment missteps aside, it’s important to note that the GMC Terrain Denali offers a very spacious interior.  This is especially true when examining its rear accommodations, as the back bench can be slide backward in order to provide additional leg room, or forward to accommodate larger cargo.  We found the Terrain to be remarkably practical during out time with the SUV, and the configurability of the interior seating was a big plus for backseat riders.


2013 GMC Terrain Denali: Powertrain and Fuel Economy

The 2013 GMC Terrain Denali's standard engine is a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder mill that produces 182 horsepower and 172 lb-ft of torque while returning fuel mileage of 22-mpg in city driving and 32-mpg on the highway.  An all-new optional V-6  - the engine found in our test vehicle - debuts for the current model year, and this unit's 301 horses and 272 lb-ft of torque are sourced from its 3.6-liters of displacement.  Fuel economy drops somewhat to 17-mpg in stop and go driving and 24-mpg during highway cruising, but is a match for the less powerful six-cylinder offered in the 2012 edition of the SUV. 

All-wheel drive is available with either version of the Denali (and was installed on our tester), and it lowers fuel economy by a few miles per gallon for each respective measure.  Every edition of the Terrain come with a six-speed automatic transmission.


2013 GMC Terrain Denali: Driving Impressions

From behind the wheel, the 2013 GMC Terrain Denali feels far more buttoned-down than its Chevrolet Equinox sibling.  The Terrain’s steering feel is solid and gives the impression that the SUV is firmly planted at all times.  In fact, during our entire week with the all-wheel drive version of the GMC we never once experienced the traction or stability control systems kicking in, despite sub-freezing temperatures and a lack of winter tires on the truck.  The Terrain might not be designed to corner with the poise of a sport sedan, but this attribute is completely unnecessary in a luxurious family vehicle, and in fact often contributes to a suspension implementation that is far stiffer than it actually needs to be in daily driving.

The GMC Terrain Denali definitely does not suffer from a bouncy chassis, as the shocks installed in the vehicle absorbed even the harshest complaints from the pock-marked pavement and unpaved construction zones that serve as part of our test loop.  The units are new, and their dual-damping capability is a welcome addition to the Terrain’s bag of tricks.  The cabin remained quiet and comfortable at all times, without excessive body lean or wind noise intruding into the SUV’s place of refuge.  We didn’t take the Terrain off-road, because we expect almost none of its owners will ever challenge it with anything more precarious than drifting snow or a rutted cottage road, but the truck’s decent ground clearance suggests that it would be able to hold its own over mildly rough ground.

Under the hood our test Terrain Denali sported the previously-mentioned new V-6 engine, and the bump in power – and especially in how it is delivered – is a welcome change to the SUV’s character.  Whereas four-cylinder editions of the Terrain have in the past felt adequate, but wheezy when push hard, the older available V-6 didn’t do much to improve acceleration but still exacted a definite fuel mileage penalty.  The new engine’s 301 horsepower can be readily felt when the right foot is exercised, giving the SUV the ability to surge forward at a more respectable rate of acceleration.  Throttle response is well tempered by the weight of the truck and the traction management capabilities of its all-wheel drive system, keeping the Terrain Denali from leaping off of the line and eliminating any twitchiness.  The engine feels perfectly matched to the SUV, and the six-speed automatic that comes with the GMC is another competent performer.  A manual mode – accessible via buttons mounted on the side of the shift knob – is on hand to assist while towing.


2013 GMC Terrain Denali: Safety

The 2013 GMC Terrain Denali features dual forward airbags, seat-mounted side impact airbags for the front passengers, and side curtain airbags that extend along either side of the cabin to protect those riding in all positions.  Electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, traction control, and a rearview camera are standard, and the Denali also comes with features such as a lane departure warning system, a collision warning system, parking assistance, and blind spot monitoring.  As with every GM vehicle, the OnStar system - with its ability to automatically notify police, fire, and ambulance  services in the event of an accident - comes free of charge.

For the most part, our test vehicle's active safety equipment worked well.  We did have a bit of a bone to pick with the collision warning feature, however, which had a habit of sounding the alarm while we were rounding a long bend in the road, despite no vehicles being visible directly ahead of us.  This happens because the sensor on the front of the Terrain projects straight in front of the SUV, and as such it can detect stationary objects positioned off of the highway while the vehicle is in a sharp turn.  There's no easy solution to this issue, which is not restricted exclusively to the GMC Terrain Denali but can be found with varying degrees of sensitivity in vehicles produced by a wide array of automakers.


2013 GMC Terrain Denali: Final Thoughts

2013 GMC Terrain Denali: Final Thoughts

The 2013 GMC Terrain Denali is a luxury truck that, despite the absence of a couple of key features, does an excellent job of serving the market it is aimed at.  Why subject the kids to a harsh ride in the back seat of a premium compact crossover if the most strenuous driving it will ever do is to the cottage and back?  Why sacrifice interior volume for style when the Denali offers both?  Why pay more for a brand name that promises performance that isn’t really usable on American highways or urban subdivision streets?  No aspect of the GMC Terrain Denali feels superfluous, as owners will be able to get maximum enjoyment out of its passenger compartment, cargo area, and drivetrain.  It’s not the most luxurious SUV in its class, nor does it lead when it comes to pure performance, but it certainly puts the emphasis on the ‘utility’ in that particular acronym.

What We Like About The 2013 GMC Terrain Denali

  • Attractively styled
  • Good V-6 power
  • Comfortable, rumble-free ride
  • Big inside without being big outside
  • Handles like a big car, not a small tuck

We Aren’t So Hot On

  • Lack of dual automatic climate control
  • Cheap-feeling buttons on center stack


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