Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2019 GMC Terrain Denali AWD

AutoTrader SCORE
This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car
  • Safety

It’s an odd thing at the General Motors stable: while Americans are pretty much “meh” on GMC, Canada loves it. Chevrolet is the big seller south of the border, especially for trucks, but up here it’s about 50/50, with GMC often outselling its sibling.

The Terrain is a pleasant driver, with a quiet, bump-absorbing ride thanks to some Denali-specific chassis tuning.

And so for every truck or SUV that Chevrolet makes, there’s a corresponding GMC version – and in the case of my tester, that means my GMC Terrain is the mechanical twin to Chevy’s Equinox. Since both models were completely redesigned for 2018, the 2019 editions receive only a couple of tweaks to their features, including an available bird’s-eye-view camera.

There’s a fair bit of choice, since the 2019 GMC Terrain comes in two- or all-wheel drive, three trim levels, and with three engines (including a diesel) whose availability depends on what model you’ve chosen. The FWD Terrain starts as low as $30,700, but I had the range-topping Denali AWD, which started at $42,200. Mine was topped up with a “Pro Grade” package that added a panoramic sunroof and several safety technologies, such as adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist, plus a block heater, that brought it to $44,945 before freight and taxes.

Despite all those features, alongside the Denali’s generous list of standard items that include heated-and-ventilated front seats and heated rear ones, it still felt like someone had written some too-high numbers onto the sticker. Perhaps it was my tester’s light interior – try as they might, no automaker, regardless of how prestigious it is, can make beige-coloured plastic that doesn’t look cheap – but I thought my vehicle looked like a gussied-up lower-level model, rather than the inherently-luxurious look that GMC puts into its full-size sport-utes and Sierra pickup when they wear the Denali badge.

The Denali trim exclusively uses a 2.0L turbocharged engine, making 252 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, and mated to a nine-speed automatic transmission. It’s not a piston-packin’ powerhouse, but it is smooth and quiet, and off-the-line acceleration is better than in the 1.6L diesel, which I drove earlier in an Equinox. The trade-off between the two is a published combined city/highway rate of 10.2 L/100 km for the gas engine, versus 7.4 L/100 km for the more fuel-economical diesel. The 2.0L wants premium gas to produce maximum power but it will cooperate just fine on 87-octane, which is as I’d expect in a vehicle that’s essentially a mid-market people-mover.

The nine-speed transmission admirably swaps its gears fuss-free, but I’m far less than taken by its push-button controls. They save space that’s dedicated instead to small-item storage, but they require too much time looking down to be sure you’re activating the right one. If compactness is the goal, a dial is far more intuitive. To make matters more difficult, if you want to manually select gears when you’re towing (the Terrain can pull up to 3,500 lb), you have to reach over and tap the small buttons that are the farthest away from you.

I have another thumbs-down for the engine’s auto-stop, which shuts it off at idle to reduce emissions. My issue isn’t with the system itself – the immediate start-up when you take your foot off the brake is relatively smooth – but with the fact that I can’t prevent it from happening. Most vehicles so equipped give you a button to temporarily disable it, but the Terrain does its thing whether I like it or not. I prefer having at least some control over how my vehicle is operating.

All of that aside, the Terrain is a pleasant driver, with a quiet, bump-absorbing ride thanks to some Denali-specific chassis tuning. Unlike the auto stop-start, the all-wheel system is driver-selectable, with a dial that takes it from front-wheel into automatic all-wheel. It can also be placed into an off-road setting for going off the asphalt, such as a cottage trail, along with hill descent control.

Once among the homeliest of GM’s offerings, the Terrain has morphed into a fairly handsome creature that now blends into the general sea of SUVs, rather than standing out for the wrong reasons – although I can’t help but see the Nissan Murano in its “floating” rear roof panel.

The seats are comfortable up front, and flatter but still acceptable in the rear. Those back chairs fold easily and go down flat to increase the cargo capacity, and for carrying very long items, you can also drop the front passenger seat down and get up to 2.4 metres of cargo length.

Climate controls are simple and easy to use, with dials and buttons for everything, including the heated and ventilated seats. Switching on the heated steering wheel – my favourite feature on cold days – is done via a button on the wheel itself.

The eight-inch touchscreen comes with a dial for on/off and volume, as every system should, along with hard “home” and “back” buttons. Everything else is done on the screen, but it’s an equally simple system to operate. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard, as is wireless device charging. You also get satellite radio and a Wi-Fi hotspot that’s very easy to hook into, but once the trial for each is up, you’ll have to buy subscriptions to keep each one operating.

My vehicle’s “Pro Grade” package added adaptive cruise control, forward collision alert, low-speed emergency braking that recognizes pedestrians, lane-keep assist, and automatic high-beam headlights. If you screw something up, or if you’re sitting in reverse while traffic is approaching, you get a warning through the “alert seat,” which vibrates to get your attention – and while I’ve read reviews where drivers think it’s the greatest thing, I find it often startles me enough that my attention goes straight to my butt, rather than to whatever it is I’m supposed to note is happening.

The Chevrolet Equinox starts at a lower price, as the pair’s features list doesn’t match up exactly, and if you’re staying in the GM family, try cross-shopping it with the Terrain. I’d undoubtedly stick with a lower trim level than the Denali, but it’s smooth and comfortable enough that this model should be a contender on your sport-ute test drive list.

Engine Displacement 2.0L
Engine Cylinders I4
Peak Horsepower 252 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Peak Torque 260 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm
Fuel Economy 11.2/9.0/10.2 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 838 / 1,792 L seats down
Model Tested 2019 GMC Terrain Denali AWD
Base Price $42,200
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,795
Price as Tested $46,840
Optional Equipment
$2,745 – Pro Grade Package (panoramic sunroof, surround vision, adaptive cruise control, automatic parking assist, low-speed automatic braking with pedestrian detection, forward collision alert, lane-keep assist, automatic high-beam headlamps) $2,595; engine block heater $150