Review: 2013 GMC Acadia Denali

By Andrew Ganz
Sunday, Mar 17th, 2013 @ 5:07 am
Before they even spoke up, General Motors answered the demands of big families a while back when it debuted the industry's first full-size crossovers - but the GMC Acadia and its siblings from Chevrolet and Buick were starting to show their age.

To rectify that, GM lavished a thorough update on all three models for the 2013 model year. Although the revisions stop short of what we'd consider "all new," the latest Acadia is vastly improved inside and out.

Are the updates enough to make it worth adding to your shopping list? We loaded everyone into the luxo-laden Acadia Denali to find out for sure.

What is it?
Think of the Acadia and its Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave brothers as light-duty versions of the Chevrolet Tahoe/ GMC Yukon and you're somewhat on track. Instead of the typical body-on-frame construction that makes most full-size SUVs rugged for towing and unpaved roads but somewhat ungainly to drive on pavement, the GM triplets use a car-like unibody platform. Codenamed Lambda in GM-speak, the platform was really the first plus-size three-row crossover to hit the market when it debuted for the 2007 model year. (Trivia fact: There was once a Saturn version, too).

Power is sent to the front wheels (or, optionally, all four wheels) via a 3.6-liter V6 engine and a six-speed automatic gearbox.

For 2013, the changes are primarily cosmetic - but they're comprehensive. If any interior is worthy of "most improved," it might be this one. Hiding in the interior - and not tested, fortunately - is a new front center airbag designed to prevent the driver and front passenger from bumping heads in the event of a serious wreck.

Opting for the roughly $1,400 Denali package brings unique interior and exterior styling cues and more standard features, but no mechanical changes aside form dual-flow dampers to improve the ride quality.

What's it up against?
Acadia's natural rivals include its siblings, but we'd also throw the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Highlander on your shopping list.

How does it look?
Boasting a far more expressive front end than before, the Acadia looks more truck-like than its rounded-off predecessor. Overall, the Acadia remains modern and stylish, a testament to its circa-2006 debut.

Denali-specific touches include a chrome "three-dimensional" grille and body color-matched lower cladding (unpainted on other Denalis). Cool details abound, including LED running lamps and stylish 20-inch machined alloy wheels.

We especially like the chrome touches to the rear lower bumper area, where a set of Denali-only dual chrome tailpipes exit.

And on the inside?
Jump into a 2013 Acadia after riding in its predecessor and you'd be forgiven for thinking you've been in two entirely different cars. While the interior is ostensibly the same - the bones haven't changed - the dashboard, door panel and center console panels are all new.

Carried over is a roomy interior with plenty of space for six (or seven with the optional middle row bench seat). Front seat passengers are treated to acres, although second row leg room is surprisingly tight for tall drivers even with the bucket seats that move forward and backward. The third row is best for kids, but adults can squeeze back there in a pinch. Pushing the second row captain's chairs forward to gain rear-seat entry is a two-handed affair, which could be a struggle for younger kids.

On to the new stuff: An attractive dashboard that mixes a richly-grained, soft-touch upper surface with French stitching and an intriguingly other-worldly faux wood trim. Normally, we're not a fan of synthetic dead trees. The Acadia Denali, however, seems to embrace its fakeness with a shimmery finish.

Denalis offer an exclusive "Cocoa Dune" interior scheme that we found richer than a typical "beige" interior.

Centered on the dashboard is GMC's MyLink infotainment, which uses touch-sensitive buttons and a high-resolution screen to convey audio and navigation information. It also includes convenient Pandora integration, making SiriusXM seem rather 2012. The system is particularly easy to operate, but we think its screen is a little small for the amount of info it's sometimes tasked with displaying. While there's a convenient USB port in the dash-top bin, there's no cutout for a device's cable in case passengers want to access a device while it is charging.

Look closely and you'll spot some carry-over bits - a thin-rimmed steering wheel, so-so gauges, a low-tech display in the instrument screen and a handful of buttons below the climate controls. We find these acceptable, but we balked at the traditional key and remote fob - at this price, the Acadia should include a proximity key fob. A heated steering wheel might be nice, too, but the nifty heads-up display that projects current speed and audio information onto the windshield is a fair compromise.

But does it go?
At around 4,700 lbs., Acadias are portly even without all the luxo add-ons seen in the Denali. That heft taxes the 288-horsepower 3.6-liter V6, forcing it to make the most of its 270 lb-ft. of torque.

The six-speed automatic transmission fires off fairly quick downshifts and GM has done a generally good job keep dreaded noise, vibration and harshness out of the cabin, but there's no denying that this vehicle needs to be throttled to keep up with traffic.

That's not to say the Acadia Denali is a slow poke; there's just not a whole lot in reserve. Fuel economy, at 17/24 mpg, suffers as a result, although our 20 mpg average was better than we would have seen in a GMC Yukon.

Similarly, no Yukon handles or rides as well as the Acadia. Revisions to the steering rack have made the tiller more precise. It's no sports car, but it takes corners predictably and offers up just the right amount of heft for real-world use. The fully independent suspension and truck dual-flow dampers pay dividends with a ride quality befitting a genuine luxury vehicle. We couldn't find a road that left the Acadia unsettled.

But it was the open road that our tester liked the most. Nearly silent at high speeds, its expansive windshield and chair-like front seats made it a terrific highway cruiser - even with the whole family aboard.

Leftlane's bottom line
Thoroughly updated for 2013, the GMC Acadia Denali has received one of the nicest interiors in the business.

It could use a few more ponies under the hood, but this vehicle remains remarkably good at hauling families just about anywhere. If you're in the market for a big family cruiser, it should be on your list.

2013 GMC Acadia Denali FWD base price, $45,945. As tested, $49,805.
Navigation/rear DVD package, $2,240; White Diamond paint, $795; Destination, $825.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz. Follow Andrew on Twitter.

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