The notion that vehicular size is associated with luxury is fading fast and one of the latest indicators is the arrival of the upmarket Denali version of GMC's compact crossover Terrain for 2013.
I've always had the sense that General Motors, and likely the buyers of tough-truck-pitched GMC division vehicles, considered the brand one of the last bastions in the ideological fight to preserve a breed of vehicles that espoused "the bigger is always best" philosophy. That was whether they were to serve as rugged work or play trucks; or something that was a little of both; or were purely to serve as a full-size, full-on luxury vehicle, of the type many North Americans still believe God and GM always intended them to drive.
However, people today are facing more constraining fiscal realities, and are more concerned for the environment, or at least worried over the affordability of filling a big, gas-guzzling vehicle's gas tank. Or perhaps it is the realization that muscling an outsized monster around if you don't need to is not particularly enjoyable, and that has resulted in many downsizing their family and recreational vehicle size aspirations, but not their desire for luxury features.
The idea that big trucks and SUVs could replace fast-disappearing large cars, and could be fitted out just as luxuriously, developed through the 1980s and 1990s. GMC formalized the process in 1999 with the introduction of the Denali – the native Alaskan name for Mt. McKinley – version of its Yukon. Denali subsequently morphed into a sub-brand, which now accounts for half of Yukon, one quarter of Sierra HD pickup and 28 per cent of Acadia crossover sales.
Denali identifiers are plenty of chrome on the outside and premium materials, including leather and wood and high-end audio systems, inside.
GMC, which pitches its products as "professional grade" has been late to the civilian crossover market, offering its first vehicle to have a car-like monocoque structure, the full-size Acadia, in 2007. This was joined by the Terrain for 2010, a vehicle GMC describes as a compact crossover, but whose overall length of 4,707 mm stretches that category's size envelope. Ford's Escape is 4,524 mm long and the Honda CR-V 4,529mm.
It was a natural progression that a Terrain Denali would become part of the range, and the first arrived in the latter part of 2012.
A base front-drive Terrain is far from basic and has a starting price of $28,695, but the Denali – which GMC says can be translated to mean "the high one" – bumps the number all the way to $39,830, or $41,885 for the all-wheel-drive version we're looking at here.
With the optional ($2,025) V-6 engine, blingy 19-inch satin chrome wheels, various Bluetooth features, navigation, trailer towing and cargo management systems plus roof rails, and destination charges, the test Terrain peaked at a heady $47,265.
The Terrain (which shares its basic bits with the Chevy Equinox) is a conventional crossover design with independent suspension, two- or all-wheel-drive and a choice of two engines. The 2.4 litre EcoTec four produces 182 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque, while the optional new, direct-injection, 3.6-litre V-6 puts out 301 hp and 272 lb-ft. Both come with a six-speed automatic.
With the V-6, the Terrain Denali weighs in at 1,873 kg, but the combination of six speeds and a broad torque band make it a lively performer. It steps off strongly, is an easy driver round town, and accelerates more than quickly enough for safe passing or merging.
What it doesn`t do is deliver particularly economical fuel economy, with ratings of 13.2 litres/100 km city and 8.4 highway. I averaged 12.4 over a cold winter week.
Handling is what you'd expect of this type of vehicle – tall and firmly sprung to cope with people and cargo. The steering feel is okay, it responds to input fairly promptly, and doesn't lean over too far in normal cornering. Rapid transient moves aren't its forte, as is the case with most of its rivals. Good suspension damping deals with sharp bumpy bits well, and overall it is more than comfortable enough.
While many rivals have tried hard to strike a balance between cargo capacity and swoopy looks, the Terrain retains a tough-guy chunky look, with a huge and unique-to-Denali chrome grille up front and big, squared-off fender flares.
The interior provides comfortable room for four – the rear seat slides to improve room back there – with 894 litres of space behind the seatback, and, with it folded, 1,809 litres. That's more than a BMW X3's 1,600 litres, but not as much as the Honda CR-V's 1,920 litres.
It's inside where most of the money you spend on a Denali is evident, and it doesn't disappoint.
My black test vehicle was finished inside in black soft-touch material and leather – with red "French" stitching, including the dashboard – highlighted with alloy and wood trim, and a leather and wood steering wheel. I found the driving position and control layout fine, the eight-way-adjustable power front seats supportive, the rear seat comfortable, and noise levels low at speed.
The Denali features list is extensive and highlights include cross traffic, blind zone alert, lane departure and forward collision alert systems, rear vision camera and ultrasonic parking aid, power liftgate, sunroof, Bluetooth connectivity, auto climate control and a quality audio system. In fact, the option list is a short one.
The Terrain Denali – which is built in Ingersoll, Ont. – is a pleasant and well-equipped vehicle up against stiff competition in the premium crossover segment.
2013 GMC Terrain Denali AWD
Type: Compact crossover
Base Price: $41,885; as tested, $47,265
Engine: 3.6-litre, DOHC, V-6
Horsepower/torque: 301 hp/ 272 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 13.2 city/8.4 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: BMW X3, Audi Q5, Acura RDX, Buick Encore, Infiniti EX37, Land Rover LR2