The compact SUV tourney is where it’s at these days. And the big field vying for the big prize money looks like a multinational U.S. Open tennis draw with everyone dressed in the same outfit — all-wheel-drive, five-door utes riding a half-foot off the ground.
Like tennis nationalities — big-serving Americans, steady Spaniards, flamboyant Frenchman — auto brands tend to conform to stereotype. They know what they do well and they bring their A game to family utes. Jeep Cherokee ruggedness, Honda CR-V efficiency, Mazda ZOOM ZOOM, GMC nimbleness.
Wait. ... GMC what?
Isn’t GMC a truck brand? A hunky wall of steel that can break through walls and spit nails? A relative newcomer to the small ute segment, GMC is using America’s SUV transformation to do some transforming of its own. The all-new, 2018 GMC Terrain is a breakout vehicle, softening the brand’s truck-tough image and maximizing its premium-grade swagger.
If the stylish GMC Sierra Denali pickup is a Chevy Silverado in a tux, then say hello to Terrain Denali — the compact Chevy Equinox’s stylish brother. Upscale in taste, this GMC competes at the high end of the compact segment with the VW Tiguan and my segment standard, the Mazda CX-5 — two more well-dressed brands that blur the line between mainstream and lux.
The new GMC Acadia I flogged all over Northern Virginia a year ago attempts the same trick in the mid-size space, but its wardrobe falls short when compared to a looker like the Mazda CX-9.
Not so Terrain which the designers have knocked out of the park.
Gone is the first-gen Terrain’s chunky shoulders and square jaw. The bold look is still there — like GMC has been carved from granite. But straying from its truck roots, the Terrain is a riot of expressive details echoing Japanese fashion.
I test drove the compact ute from Pittsburgh to Fallingwater, Pennsylvania — architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece that was heavily influenced by his time in Japan. American animation has also dipped its quill in the Japanese ink well. Add Terrain as a student of Asian fashion.
There’s its “floating roof” C-pillar pioneered by the Nissan Murano and Toyota C-HR crossovers. The canopy’s flowing lines depart from SUV tradition even as it creates a blind spot the size of Rhode Island. Hey, Wright’s Fallingwater created some creature discomforts too. Fortunately, Terrain has the driver covered with safety systems on offer like blind spot assist on all but the base grade.
More Japanese influence appears in back with the Terrain’s signature “C-clamp” taillights bent to stylized “boomerangs” — an echo of Nissan and Honda. The Cs are sprinkled liberally throughout the GMC including the beautifully integrated front fascia with scalloped bodywork cupping the C-clamp peepers and big grille.
Mission accomplished: The designers have our attention.
Inside the design is more truck-like — blocky console screen here, squared-off dash trim there — but I hardly noticed because GMC dug deep to provide a truly untruck-like, high-tech driving experience. Begin with the automatic transmission.
Shift-by-wire systems have liberated engineers from the gated lever (and freed up console space for more storage). Their innovations have run the gamut from balky mono-stable shifters (Chevy Bolt, BMWs) to my preferred rotary dial (Chrysler Pacifica, Ford Fusion Sport). With the Terrain, GMC’s tinkerers have innovated “Electronic Precision Shift” buttons — nicknamed “Trigger” because the reverse and drive buttons are pull tabs.
The buttons are horizontally-arranged on the console — park, reverse, neutral, drive, low — similar to Honda’s vertically-aligned trigger. Simply slip your index and ring fingers into the (most used) reverse and drive slots — then use your thumb and middle finger to access PARK and NEUTRAL buttons. It beats diverting your eyes to a shifter gate.
The nine-speed slushbox at the other end of your DRIVE finger is a treat. While GM’s rear-wheel-drive ten-speed has won huzzahs in the track-stomping Camaro ZL1, the FWD nine-speed has quietly found its way into daily drivers like the Chevy Malibu, Chevy Traverse, and now Terrain.
Mated to either the 1.5-liter or 2.0-liter (an expensive diesel option is also available with the ol’ six-speed) turbocharged engines, it completes a chassis-engine-tranny trifecta that makes this GMC a treat to ride. Sharing the same diet as sibling Chevy Equinox, the Terrain’s chassis has lost a whopping 350 pounds since Gen One. Like Equinox (which proved surprisingly athletic over North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains earlier this year), the Terrain begged to be flogged on the rural roads around Fallingwater.
Through a twisted valley on two-lane, State Route 381, Terrain’s body roll was minimal. Uphill out of a gulch, I encountered traffic, which I obliterated in a passing-line stretch – the tranny downshifting seamlessly to unleash the turbo’s torque.
The experience reminded of my favorite Mazda CX-5 ute — absent the Mazda’s 2.5-liter, normally-aspirated 4-buzzer which shouts under the strain of hard work. You go, turbo. If the Terrain’s handling shatters its trucky image, its VW premium competitor, Tiguan, rebels against family type. Three-row Tiguan is less precise German handling and more three-row room and comfort.
The GMC hardly neglects the rear passengers, however. My 6’5” inch frame rode comfortably in the backseat with legroom to spare — and if I wanted more the GMC’s front seat will fold flat (a trick borrowed from the Buick Enclave and Chevy Trax) as an Ottoman. Optional rear heated seats and full sunroof further spoil rear-dwellers, making the GMC a nice cross between Mazda sportiness and VW roominess.
Compact ute shoppers will be hard-pressed to find a better value than a fully-loaded Mazda CX-5 (190-horse, adaptive cruise, auto high beam, heads-up display, the works) at $34,060. At that price, GMC offers just the 170-horse, 1.5-liter mill, though its complimentary 9-speed tranny and suite of safety systems makes it a better value than sister Equinox.
Opt for GMC’s chrome-plated Denali edition, however, and it matches V-dub for uptown swagger. Both cars will push north of $40,000, but should make Audi blush for charging $52k for an Audi Q5. The GMC offers Audi Q5 performance (both 2.0-liter turbo-4s produce 252 ponies) and panache for an Audi Q3 price.
Such is the packed draw in today’s five-door ute derby where upstart mainstream brands are as worthy as top, premium seeds. It’s an opportunity for newcomers like GMC — especially newcomers that play way above stereotype.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
2018 GMC Terrain
Front-engine, front and
1.5-liter inline-4 cylinder;
2.0-liter inline-4; 1.6-liter
3,622 pounds (1.5-liter
AWD); 3,801 pounds
(2.0-liter AWD); 3,815
pounds (diesel AWD)
$28,970 base 1.5-liter
($43,955 2.0-liter Denali
as tested); $32,295
170 horsepower, 203
(1.5 liter); 252 horsepower,
260 pound-feet torque
(1.5 liter); 137 horsepower,
240 pound-feet torque
0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds
(2.0-liter AWD, Car and
Driver est.); tow capacity:
1,500 pounds (1.5 liter
and diesel); 3,500 (2.0-liter)
EPA est. 24 mpg city/28
mpg highway/26 combined
(1.5-liter AWD); 21 mpg city
/26 mpg highway/23
combined (2.0 liter AWD);
28 mpg city/39 mpg
Innovative tech like
“Trigger” shifter; Denali
“Trigger” shifter not for
everyone; Denali sticker
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★