GMC Acadia Denali — Taking it to the next level

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Nearly half of all GMC Yukon full-sized SUVs sold are luxury-trim level Denali models.
The Denali was launched in 1999 to give buyers an additional taste of luxury with their sport utility, to give GMC loyalists the same treatment as buyers of the Cadillac Escalade. The Denali’s success makes it logical that the brand’s top-selling near-full-sized crossover, the Acadia, be adorned with the Denali treatment. It took four years, but finally there is a Acadia Denali.

Denali brings the bling to the Acadia with an enhanced exterior treatment including 20-inch polished aluminum wheels that shout luxury. It also brings some upgrades that add to the vehicle’s enjoyment including a tuned suspension and a more insulated cabin.

We think the Denali trim level will drive sales, which have already rebounded from the depths of 2009. After selling 72,000 copies in its initial year (2007), sales leveled out to 66,000 in 2008, but dipped in the crash of ’09 to 53,000. Based on 11-months of 2010 sales, the Acadia should again finish around 66,000.

If you want the Denali, however, you will have to open the pocketbook wide to the tune of $43,995, a $4,130 premium over the previous top trim level. But if you desire an Acadia and are under some budget constraints, don’t despair, the well-equipped base SL with front-wheel drive stickers for $32,615, and $34,615 with all-wheel drive. The other packages in front-wheel drive format stair step up, SLE ($35,240), SLT-1 ($38,960) and SLT-2 ($39,865).

Our test vehicle came with several options including navigation and a rear entertainment system that brought the bottom line to $50,125.

So exactly what do you get for the Denali’s extra cash outlay? The Denali upgrades include unique grille, front and rear fascias, side moldings and wheel flares; those 20-inch chrome wheels with black chrome accents; xenon headlights; additional sound insulation; illuminated sill plates; the "SkyScrape" power front and fixed rear dual sunroofs; head-up display; perforated leather upholstery; heated and ventilated front seats; and a leather and wood steering wheel.

Inexplicably not included in the standard package is touchscreen navigation with rearview camera and rear entertainment.

A reasonable person would assume that the new top trim would at the least include navigation. But it’s a $1,890 option as found on our test vehicle. Rear entertainment, a must these days for families with youngsters, adds another $1,445 to the bottom line.
Second-row captain’s chairs are standard, and are well designed. Opt for the bench seat only if seating for more than six is a necessity.

For those who don’t want to or can't go over 32 grand, the base Acadia is well equipped with front and rear air conditioning, full power accessories, cruise control, a six-speaker audio system with satellite radio, and OnStar telematics which provides turn-by-turn navigation.

The Acadia is built on General Motors’ Lambda platform along with the Chevrolet Traverse and the Buick Enclave. The car-like unibody architecture on a near-full-sized crossover SUV is one of GM’s better ideas of recent times. The Acadia and its cousins are lighter and more space efficient than a full-sized body-on-frame sport utility.

While the Acadia may not be as rugged as the truck-based vehicles, it should serve for most people, even those with weekend toys to haul. Towing capacity is a robust 5,200 pounds.

And here is perhaps the best thing — all Acadia models regardless of price are outfitted with 288-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6 mated to a six-speed automatic with manual shift control. The engine displayed satisfying if somewhat noisy performance in our test vehicle that measured a 0-to-60 run at about 8 seconds.

Gas mileage is decent, certainly better than truck-based counterparts, at 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway with all-wheel drive, and 17/24 with front wheel drive. Regular gas is recommended.

Steering is responsive and well balanced and the suspension setup gives the big crossover a confident demeanor through the twists and turns of back-road America. The suspension is tuned a bit toward the stiff side, but we think few people will be offended.

Perhaps the biggest single thing that stood out with the Denali edition was its cabin solitude. Aside from the engine noise the that filtered its way in we found a quiet environment does more than anything to spell luxury.

Our test vehicle with black leather and chrome-ringed gauges was pleasing to the eye. The gauge package and the controls are well laid out and easy to use. The GM navigation screen satellite radio readout is still among the best in the business.
We did find fault with the use of too much hard plastic in a vehicle topping 40 grand.

Considering the large size of the gussied up Acadia ingress was really easy, better than most crossovers we’ve experienced. We never tired of the driver's seat on our longer test drives. It offered good back support and a nice place to rest the rear end. The seat heater, and the seat ventilation system worked just right to suit us.

Storage space is ample, especially if you don’t need the third row seat. Luggage capacity behind the seats is a useable 24 cubic feet, 68.7 cubic feet with the third row folded flat, and 115.9 cubic feet with all seats folded.

The Acadia is also passenger friendly. For instance, the second row seats slide fore and aft several inches and the seat tips forward creating a big opening in which to enter the third row. And unlike most of the competing entries, adults can actually ride far back in relative comfort without their knees pressing on their chin.

Standard safety covers the bases with traction and stability control, antilock disc brakes, front-seat side-impact airbags and side-curtain airbags for all three rows. The Acadia earned a top five-start rating for overall performance in government crash tests.

Now in its fifth year, the Acadia continues to be a top pick for a large crossover offering a large cargo and passenger area, good performance, and decent gas mileage — a lot of bang for the family buck. And if you can afford to take it to the next level, the new Denali might just be your ticket.

Base price: $32,615; as driven, $50,125
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6
Horsepower: 288 @ 6,300 rpm
Torque: 270 foot-pounds @ 3,400 pounds
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/2/3
Wheelbase: 118.9 inches
Length: 200.7 inches
Curb weight: 4,857 pounds
Turning circle: 40.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 24.1 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 116 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 22 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 23 mpg highway, 16 mpg city
0-60: 8.0 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Mazda CX-9, Ford Flex, Honda Pilot

The Good;
• Very quiet interior in top trim Denali
• Adult-friendly seating configuration
• Large cargo area

The Bad:
• Price of entry to the Denali trim rather steep

The Ugly:
• Some low-quality interior materials