By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The GMC division of General Motors is an interesting animal in that it’s one of the small handful of “middle” brands still left on its feet. You remember middle brands: A notch above the mass-market (e.g., a Chevy) but not quite as prestigious as a top-of-the-line brand (e.g., a Cadillac).
Most have faded away over the past several years — the most recent example being Ford’s mid-tier Mercury division.
GMC is also unusual in that historically it has mostly sold only trucks and SUVs. Occasional exceptions include models like the Caballero — cousin to the Chevy El Camino.
It was a car with a pick-up style bed.
So, what makes a model like the 2014 GMC Terrain different from its lower-status (and lower-priced) corporate cousin, the 2014 Chevy Equinox? Are these differences sufficient to justify having “twins” in the GM portfolio?
And does the GMC iteration deserve a place in your garage?
WHAT IT IS
The Terrain is a mid-sized, five-passenger crossover SUV — GMC’s upscale (and more expensive) version of the Chevy Equinox. Though both are built on the same platform and similar in function, the form of the Terrain is more squared-off and macho-looking. The roster of amenities is also more generous, of course — and there are some features available in this model (such as the Denali trim’s 19 inch wheel/tire package) that you can’t get in the more proletarian-oriented Chevy.
GMC hopes you’ll look at the Terrain as a possible alternative to competitors such as the Ford Edge ($27,700 to start), and also the just-updated Hyundai Sante Fe ($24,700 to start) among others.
Prices start at $26,465 for the base SLE 1 trim with front-wheel-drive and 2.4 liter engine.
At the top is the AWD-equipped, V-6 powered Denali — which starts at $35,155.
The Denali package — top-of-the-line for GMC vehicles — is now offered with the Terrain. It includes an 18 or 19 inch wheel/tire package (depending on whether you buy the 2.4 liter or 3.6 liter engine), rear cross traffic and side blind spot warning systems and “Denali” leather interior trim, among the highlights.
Hunkier — more SUV-esque — styling vs. wagon-like styling of several competitors, including the Edge.
Versatile, space-enhancing “multi-flex” folding and sliding second row.
Not too small — and not too big.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Base four-cylinder is too weak — and too thirsty.
Optional V-6 is an almost-mandatory upgrade.
Pricey relative to competitor models like the new Sante Fe, which you can buy with a 264 hp turbocharged 2.0 engine for $27,950.
Range-topping Denali skirts awfully close to the MSRPs of blue chip luxury-brand models like the Audi Q5 ($37,300) and Lexus RX350 ($39,660).
Cheesy-looking warning lights for collision avoidance system.
UNDER THE HOOD
Base and lower trim Terrains come standard with a 2.4 liter, 182 hp four-cylinder engine teamed with a standard six-speed automatic and either FWD or (optionally) AWD.
One of the nice things about Terrain is that unlike some of the other models in this segment, it can be equipped with AWD without requiring you step up to the optional, higher-cost V-6 (more on this engine in a moment). The downside is the little four is on the precipice of being not enough engine to handle the weight of the FWD Terrain, which tilts the scales at 3,798 lbs. empty. The AWD-equipped version is about 60 lbs. heavier — and with two average-sized adults on board, will weigh around 4,200 lbs. That’s too much metal (and flesh) for 182 hp to deal with comfortably — as reflected by the Terrain’s languid 9.4-9.6 seconds to 60 time under ideal conditions. With two or three people on board plus some stuff in the back, expect a 10 second-plus 0-60 post.
Only without the upside of Prius-like MPGs.
The four-cylinder Terrain comes with an EPA rating of 22 city, 32 highway with FWD — 20/29 if you choose the AWD version.
To be fair to GMC, these are pretty decent numbers for a mid-sized crossover SUV. But when you look at the new Sante Fe — which can be ordered with a smaller (2.0 liter) engine that makes 264 hp (82 hp stronger) and gets to 60 in under 8 seconds but which still delivers 20 city, 27 highway — the GMC’s gas mileage-to-performance ratio seems not so hot.
On the other hand, there’s that optional 3.6 liter V-6. It replaces the previous top-dog 3.0 liter engine and makes a more class-competitive 301 hp vs. the old engine’s 264 hp. In fact, this engine — which features variable valve timing and direct gas injection — is one of the strongest engines available in this class. Ford’s Edge just barely out-muscles it when equipped with its optional 305 hp 3.5 liter V-6. And the GMC’s six is stronger than the Sante Fe’s optional 3.3 liter, 290 hp V-6.
Of course, the six is thirsty, too: 17 city, 24 highway with FWD — 16 city, 23 highway with AWD. In real world mixed-use driving, expect to average high teens. That’s a pretty steep cost-to-feed. The upside is you’ll be able to get to 60 nearly three full seconds sooner than you would had you bought the four-cylinder Terrain: Just under 7 seconds for the FWD version and about 7 flat for AWD-equipped models. This is excellent — substantially quicker than the V-6 Sante Fe (7.5-7.7 seconds) and also the V-6 Edge (also 7.5 seconds).
The Terrain’s optional AWD system is FWD-biased, as is the case in other models of this type. Most crossover SUVs are based on car-type FWD platforms. This is the defining characteristic of a crossover SUV vs. an SUV. An SUV (properly speaking) is typically based on a rear-wheel-drive, truck-type layout. If it’s equipped with AWD or 4WD, most of the engine’s power will, under normal conditions, flow to the rear wheels. If they slip, power is routed to the front wheels until traction is regained. In a typical crossover SUV like the Terrain and its competitors, it’s the reverse of this. Most of the engine’s power is normally routed to the front wheels until they begin to slip — at which point, some of the engine’s power is routed to the rear wheels.
For on-street driving, a FWD-based AWD layout such as the Terrain’s is in many ways preferable to a truck-type, rear-wheel-drive based AWD or 4WD system because it gives you a handling advantage on dry pavement as well as a traction assist on wet/snow-covered pavement.
The Terrain’s AWD system is fully automatic; the driver doesn’t have to do anything to engage (or disengage) it. If the primary drive wheels (the front wheels) begin to slip, the system will automatically kick power to the rear wheels to restore grip and keep you moving.
Even though it is primarily intended for on-street driving, you could take a Terrain out for some light-duty off-roading such as driving it onto a grassy field or up an unpaved road. Just be careful about clearance — because you’ve only got 6.9 inches. And be sure you have tires rated for off-road (M/S) use, too.
Max tow capacity is 3,500 lbs. — significantly lower than the. 5,000 lbs. max rating for the V-6 equipped Ford and Hyundai.
ON THE ROAD
Crossovers like the Terrain attempt to give their owners the desirable attributes of a traditional, truck-derived SUV — including superior grip in poor weather as well as the capability to be driven off-pavement — without saddling them with the undesirable attributes that usually come with owning a traditional truck-based SUV — including top-heaviness when cornering and compromised stability when driving fast in a straight line.
The Terrain does a good job of behaving like a car during normal driving — no sense of top-heaviness, no premature tire squeal or frantic intervention of the stability control system when you turn into a corner running slightly faster than the posted speed limit. No tire drone, either. Of course, this is partially due to the fact that the standard Terrain tire is a street-minded all-season radial — not an M/S-rated off-road knobby.
I’ve already mentioned the borderline inadequacy — for my purposes — of the base 2.4 liter engine. It may in fact be adequate for your purposes — but be sure to test-drive thoroughly before you buy. On flat roads, at lower speeds — and when you’re not in a hurry and not carrying several passengers — the 2.4 seems up to the job.
But if your daily drive involves, er, terrain — hills and such — or you like a vehicle with oats enough to be able to merge quickly with traffic, or to pass slow-moving traffic — I strongly recommend the V-6.
And: Don’t sweat the on-paper mileage difference. In real-world driving, the V-6’s mileage will probably be only a few (3-5) MPGs less than what you’d get out of the four. Because that little four will be working full-tilt much more often than the V-6 just to keep up with traffic. Another thing to consider is that the harder-working four might end up costing you more in the way of down the road maintenance/repairs, too.
But perhaps the most important criteria is simply this: With the four, flooring it is often a necessity. With the six, flooring it is almost always for the fun of it.
The controls for manual operation of the six-speed automatic are awkward.
They’re located on the left side of the gear shifter — a seemingly sensible place. But the up and down movement of the thumb necessary to alternate between “+” and “-” (for up and down) is not especially ergonomic. Paddle shifters on the steering column — or just a “tap shift” gear shifter — would be better.
One other thing: You will notice a slight tick-tick-tick-tick dieseling sound at idle. It goes with the direct injection. They all make this sound — at least, every direct-injected car I’ve driven so far. It’s not obnoxious. But if you’ve never heard this sound before, you might suspect a problem. Don’t. It’s normal — no cause for concern.
That said, what a vehicle like this really needs is an actual diesel engine. Then you’d have engine that ticks a little, too — but which also gave you low 30s on average . . . instead of high teens.
AT THE CURB
Back in the ’70s, no one did badge-engineering better than GM. That’s a compliment. For example, the Camaro and Firebird of that era. Though they shared a common platform, each was a very visually distinctive car. Camaro was harder-lined, with angles and pleats. The ‘Bird, meanwhile, flowed. It had gentler curves, less abrupt transitions. Now look at the Terrain — vs. its sibling, the Chevy Equinox. It’s hard to see they’re related — let alone twins. The Terrain is squared-off and rugged-looking — the Equinox, the opposite. One (the Terrain) looks like an SUV — a real SUV. The other — the Equinox — looks like . . . well, a crossover SUV. Nothing wrong with either look. The point is, they’re very different looks. And so, each model gives the buyer a real choice.
Unfortunately, the different cosmetics don’t extend to the interior.
They’re basically identical — just nicer finishes in the GMC. My tested Denali had individually sectioned, leather-wrapped and baseball-stitched panels — which were very handsome. But the presence of some hard plastic Chevy-level stuff such as the center console became all-the-more noticeable in contrast. In the Equinox — and base/mid-trim Terrains — the hard plastic trim plates aren’t objectionable. But in the pushing $40k Denali, they are iffy. Because at that price level, it’s fair to compare the GMC to Lexus and Audi . . .and the comparison isn’t favorable to GMC.
Related to this: The warning lights for the Forward Collision Alert and Lane Departure systems are as cheesy-looking as early ’70s sci-fi special effects. Think Logan’s Run or the BBC TV series, UFO.
A green “car” silhouette that flashes red when you’re bearing down on a car up ahead. No digital or LED stuff here. It reminded me of the idiot light panel in my mom’s ’83 Olds 98 that had red and yellow lights for “batt” and “charge.” It is striking to see a replay of this in a vehicle almost 40 years newer!
The system itself works as advertised — however, I am not a fan of this stuff because it’s basically idiot- proofing. In this case, we have a system designed to wake-up addled/distracted drivers who aren’t paying attention to the road ahead. If they were paying attention — it’s free, anyone can do it — these over-the-top electric nannies would not be necessary.
A Terrain plus is the sliding and folding second row — which is both unusual in this class of vehicle and functionally very helpful. For example, instead of having the front seat occupants slide their seats forward to give the second row occupants more legroom, the second row occupants can just slide theirs back.
But, there’s no third row option — which the new Sante Fe does offer.
Overall, the Terrain has 31.6 cubic feet of space behind the second row; 63.9 cubes with the second row folded. This puts it just slightly behind the the Ford Edge (32.2 cubes behind the second row; 68.9 cubes overall) and the Sante (35.4 cubes behind the second row; 71.5 with the second row down).
Another vehicle in this general class — the Toyota RAV4 — has 36.4 cubic feet behind the second row and 73 cubic feet overall. The RAV4 also has a third row — and theoretical seven-passenger capacity.
As far as passenger space, the Terrain’s numbers — front and rear seat legroom, headroom, etc. — are all within about half an inch or so (either way) of its major competitors.
So, a draw as far as that goes.
Available amenities include a twin-screen rear-seat DVD entertainment system, power liftgate and a premium Pioneer audio system.
Something nice I noticed when I raised the hood of my Denali tester was the accessibility of the oil filter. It should be easy to do an oil change on your own using just basic hand tools. This is about more than just saving money, too. It’s about saving time. It’s a time-consumer to have to drive to a dealer (or the not-so-quick lube place) and wait for them to change your car’s oil. But when your car’s filter is a PITAS to get at, you’ll end up wasting even more time, probably, trying to do the job yourself. I like to see a vehicle set up like this — with the filter positioned so that you could probably remove (and certainly, re-install it) by hand — without even using tools. Spin on — spin off. Excellent!
One thing I’d be concerned about if I were GMC — and GM — is that the Terrain, in Denali form at least, strays arguably too close to Audi-Lexus territory in terms of price without having the cachet (or resale value) of those brands. There’s nothing wrong with GMC. But GMC is not Audi — or Lexus.
The Audi Q5, for example, is only slightly smaller than the Terrain — and it only costs about $2k more than a Terrain Denali. You could also get into an AWD-equipped Lexus RX350 for $39,660 — probably too close for comfort to the $35,155 Terrain Denali.
Of course, the out-the-door price of the GMC is apt to be less than MSRP — precisely because it is a GMC — while the out-the-door price of a Lexus or Audi is more likely to be at least full MSRP.
And maybe more.
Precisely because it’s a Lexus — or an Audi.
THE BOTTOM LINE
At some point, I think GMC will have to walk the plank — or at least, quietly fade away. There’s too much overlap — and probably not enough market — to justify having a nicer-than-Chevy. . . but not-quite-Cadillac.
That’s within GM, mind.
GMC’s also got to make a case for itself against Audi and Lexus — and Hyundai and and Honda, too.
It’ll be interesting to see how things shake out.