GMC’s best-seller has been tearing up the sales rulebooks since its launch in 2009. We’ve admired its huge back seat and very affordable $24k base price from afar, but never from behind the wheel.
The GMC Terrain welcomes a light refresh for 2016: new styling outside and new tech in the cabin helps the family favorite be even more competitive in the mid-size SUV class. And while the upgrades outside are fairly light for most trims, the new LED DRLs up front do wonders for the truck’s appeal on the road.
The biggest news for the 2016 Terrain is the addition of a top Denali trimline. Exclusive mechanical, design and cabin elements make the Terrain into a faithful mini Yukon — extending the appeal of this SUV well into the future.
How does the Terrain Denali fare on the roads?
Surprisingly well! The loaded V6 AWD tester is legitimately fast in a straight line, yet also pretty agile and right-sized for easy parking in tight cities.
The right-sized theme influences almost every thought about the Terrain. Superbly practical with a HUGE back seat, the Terrain is as close to a do-it-all vehicle as any crossover around.
That being said, there are places where even the new cabin and safety tech — not to mention the exterior design — are starting to feel a bit dated versus the latest competition.
Two HD drive reviews here plus 60 photos of the 2016 Terrain Denali to accompany the headings of Exterior, Interior, Performance, Pricing and Summary.
HD Road Test Review – 2016 GMC Terrain DENALI V6 AWD
The GMC Terrain makes a very good first impression for 2016. This design refresh is exceptionally light: all trims bring new bumpers with a swirling mustache of brightwork lining both ends. New grilles and wheels for the cheaper trims are welcome tweaks on the theme, while LED blades now serve as the main DRLs and night-time foglights up front.
The lighting is a half-step forward, but not a slam dunk. The projector lowbeams are halogen and not HID, and look cheesy next to the pure white of the lower LEDs. We drove around with the parking-light setting engaged most of the time: this turns on the LEDs but not the yellow-ish main lights. A helpful YouTube viewer lets us know that HIDs are not offered as an option on any Terrain, which bites. But retrofitting an HID kit really is quite simple and costs less than $50 from Amazon, etc.
The Denali pack brings a slew of improvements from its $35k base price: huge 18-inch wheels, body-color lower trims all around, and even side sill extensions. The test truck wore optional 19-inch Denali-specific alloys as a $400 option, plus $500 Crimson Red tintcoat paint. These painted wheels replace the standard chrome rims for the Denali.
Terrain SLT left, Terrain Denali right
The tweaks and trim make the most of the Terrain’s butch and blocky styling. There is a real cohesion in its bluff angles, all slightly rounded around the sharp points. The Terrain Denali looks low and even concept-car-like from some angles — especially with the Denali bodykit. Lean overhangs and a low-looking roof help make the pure profile the best angle of the Terrain, even after its nose and tail alterations for the 2016 model year.
The Denali design is most obvious from the front thanks to a unique, and extra toothy, grille versus the somewhat darker look of the center intake on cheaper trims. This is subjective, but seems too shouty for our tastes. Even with the Denali-specific standard satin chrome for all the exterior brightwork (that is normally blinding chrome), the Denali Terrain is still traditional in its giant slathering of brightwork from all sides. This does work on dark colors: the Denali details really pop next to the painted lower bumpers and big wheels.
Around back, yet more brightwork forms the core of the Terrain Denali look. The taillights are still bulb-based units and not LEDs, regretfully, but do have an elegant matching satin pewter-look finish for their upper beveled edge.
Twin integrated exhaust tips are a nice finishing touch on this V6-equipped test truck, which also included a $365 trailer prep package.
All in all, the Terrain impresses. A few quick chats about the car in the gym parking lot proves it: when asked what they thought the car costs, one man guessed $55k and a lady $50k. Both well above the actual retail price…. Always a resounding endorsement when Price Is Right rules are applied.
Inside the Terrain and its Chevrolet Equinox sibling, the old models might have made you guess the dreaded ‘$1’ to Bob Barker on the classic pricing gameshow.
It was huge, yes. But is also looked and felt resoundingly downmarket in materials and tech execution.
Upgraded and standard MyLink display audio gives almost all Terrains a giant touchscreen for the new year, while a revamped button and center stack improve usability and perceived quality. The silver-sheen buttons are pretty classy with a nice damped feel, and helpful layout. The NAV button to return to the map view of this $500 Intellilink Navi-equipped model is twice as big as the other buttons. A quick jab finds the right buttons and controls quickly. Standard 4G LTE wifi is incredibly helpful — just set it once and you are hooked up and logged in automatically next time. The Terrain’s tech integration is a piece of cake. It played friendly with my iPhone 6 immediately, and even loads up Pandora (or other service) right when you plug it in via USB. An aux input is a nice failsafe too. Bluetooth calls and audio streaming are also standard, even without the Nav upgrade.
New safety tech for 2016 includes collision warning and lane departure warning, but not the full active cruise of the Toyota Highlander. Or the Lane-Keep assist of the Lincoln MKC. Also joining the Saf-T dance: blind spot alerts and rear cross-traffic assist. A standard backup camera rounds out the active safety gear. All is nice to have, if slightly irritating to keep engaged at all times.
Key tweaks for the ‘everything’ Denali Terrain? A custom steering wheel with super-soft leathers, Denali branding and a wood-rimmed top element. It feels good and adjusts massively via its manual rake/reach adjustments. We do not like the wood wheel trend much any more, but it does feel more special than expected for the price.
Bright red illuminated DENALI sills also announce the truck on entry, as do 8-way power controls for both front seats. Power lumbar and and memory settings on the drivers side make getting comfortable a snap. Drive position is good for nearly every size person — the seat travel is incredibly broad in up/down and back/forth tracks.
A premium eight-speaker stereo with subwoofer sounds deep and rich from all seats — especially the back one.
If not quite first class in its accommodation, the Terrain Denali’s back seat is definitely business class. The 60/40 split-fold seat slides fore and aft to tailor legroom or cargo space, and also has three notches of recline and a big central armrest. It is cross-your-legs big back there. The flat floor and HUGE square doors mean you could Dukes of Hazzard in there with just the window open. With both doors open, it feels big enough to cartwheel through. Versus the tight footwells and bendy body you need in the back of the Ford Escape, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, the Terrain is a dream come true.
If a big back seat is your main criteria, you have found your next crossover in the Terrain.
We really like the usefully square and flat load floor of the very-large trunk area. A nice detail keeps the load floor level regardless of whether the second row is slid upward or rearward. Honestly, the trunk is huge and you will rarely, if ever, slide the second row forward for more cargo room.
The tester included two trunk options:
— cargo pack: with stretchy net, cargo cover and roof-rack cross bars. ($280)
— cargo area close-out panel: Not 100-percent sure what this $135 option is, but again, being standard seems more appropriate than nickel/diming.
These feel like they should be standard on a Denali. The tonneau cover also needs some felt or rubber in its mounting points — we silenced a few bump squeaks by taking this down from its spring-loaded mount.
Backseaters would be happier with some dedicated vents and climate controls, a larger moonroof than just the front-seat that is a $1k option. They will be spoiler for power ports, though: we counted at least four cigarette-lighter power sources in the cabin of the Terrain Denali. These charge *much* quicker than the USB plug, but need their own plug thingy, of course.
The Denali Terrain drives far, far better than we ever expected. It is unclear how much of the impressive pace and solid cornering is thanks to the many desirable options of the tester versus the standard four-cylinder, front-drive models — but we’d wager they are all pretty similar.
At least in terms of rolling refinement: the Terrain is very good. Near the top of its class, and certainly as quiet inside as the Hyundai Sante Fe Sport.
The 3.6-liter V6 makes a class-best 301-horsepower through a six-speed automatic, heading to the front wheels as standard or all four as an option. With the V6, the Terrain Denali goes from a town car to a cross-country star. Especially with AWD — the Terrain hooks up instantly on hard throttle and charges toward the horizon like a stampede. With AWD, the Terrain V6 delivers an estimated 6.5-second sprint to 60-mph — which is legitimately fast. Perhaps quickest in its segment since the RAV4 V6 retired.
Great body control fore/aft keeps the truck level even in hard starts/stops, while the Denali felt responsive on twisty roads too. It really hangs on around corners. The AWD is fully automatic and seamless in operation. We had a hard time unsticking the wheels whatsoever — no matter how sharp the inputs.
We do not love the manu-matic toggle on the top of the shift knob. It is pretty easy to use but not as handy for engine-braking as shift paddles would be.
Also not a fan of some transmission programming in general. The autobox is normally unobtrusive, but does get flummoxed sometimes by jabby throttle in traffic. Our biggest gripe is that sometimes it delays an upshift, like when you floor it up to 45-mph and then back off the throttle. The automatic gets confused, holds the lower gear, and leads to a strange purgatory of light throttle/high-revs. Just upshift, please, Denali!
Second to that detail gripe — which might be operator error from my driving style — only wishlist items remain on the performance notes. A ‘Sport’ drive mode would be incredibly nice to have: quickening the slow steering turn-in for all Terrains is another option. It feels accurate and secure with its current rack, but takes much arm twisting to get around tight corners.
The Denali-specific suspension would definitely make the most of a sportier drive setting: it packs dual-flow dampers with an ultra soft cruising cushiness, but taut corner control when their second, tighter stage is engaged. It keeps the Denali level in hard cornering, and smooths any bump chop that the 19-inch alloys would otherwise cause inside.
A solid drive, then, for this Terrain Denali. With FWD, the V6 would likely be very prone to accidental peel-outs around corners. While for the standard four-cylinder engine, get ready to really boot the gas pedal into the mat when you are hauling people/dogs/trailers and cargo. In this regard, the V6 makes a LOT of sense to upgrade from crossover to real SUV capabilities.
From the FWD, four-cylinder base of around $24k, the Terrain AWD Denali stickered at $35,725 (+$925 delivery).
With the $1500 V6 , $1k moonroof and various other goodies (see spec sheet), the as-delivered bottom line is $41,315.
Check out the colors and pricing over GMC.com
The Terrain Denali is a very welcome addition to the GMC lineup. A dash of the chic and cool Yukon and Acadia style for the Terrain really enhances the visual and dynamic appeal of the machine in this loaded trim.
Is it mandatory to get the best of the Terrain, though? Definitely not. The SLT and SLE trims below the Denali are actually a bit cooler-looking up front than the big D and its shiny face, but not as chic from the sides, where they lack the deep Denali sills and painted lower elements.
In all, the Terrain’s success is easy to understand. It is HUGE versus its price-match competition for four-cylinder models, and feels it inside. A great sense of width and airiness makes the Terrain seem enormous versus a Mazda CX-5 or Jeep Cherokee — greatly aided by the Terrain’s near-square dimensions. It is very, very wide for the class, with a super-long wheelbase. Yet not much longer than those rivals.
The combination is pure genius packaging for most buyers. It creates an easily-maneuverable SUV with decent economy, yet no sense of pinched hips inside. As big as a Grand Cherokee inside, but priced like the regular Cherokee? Good deal.
Among speedy and sporty drivers, though, the real surprise is that the Terrain Denali is a solid handler with Euro-solid chassis strength. Just the mild-mannered steering and relaxed transmission programming keep the Terrain Denali from keeping up with the Audi Q5 in a race to the ski slopes. This V6 AWD GMC is a people-pleaser extraordinaire.
For the quickest mid-size crossover out there, the most segment-busting, and now with semi-premium brand appeal? The 2016 Terrain Denali is up to it.
Up to — and up for — any adventure. Rain, snow, sleet or shine!
2016 GMC Terrain DENALI Review
Tom Burkart is the founder and managing editor of Car-Revs-Daily.com, an innovative and rapidly-expanding automotive news magazine.
He holds a Journalism JBA degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Tom currently resides in Charleston, South Carolina with his two amazing dogs, Drake and Tank.
Mr. Burkart is available for all questions and concerns by email Tom(at)car-revs-daily.com.