Riding above its budget
THE GOOD
  • Adaptive suspension
  • Comfortable seats
  • Features for the price
THE BAD
  • Chunky controls
  • Fuel consumption
  • Soft brakes
2020 GMC Acadia Denali Review

The 2020 GMC Acadia Denali might at first glance look like yet another midsize SUV in a market filled with them. But beneath that unassuming sheet metal lie the makings of one of the segment’s very best, with a ride quality so supple it renders obsolete virtually anything like it this side of $60,000 – and even a few that cost considerably more.

Value: 8.5/10

That price tag looms large for at least a couple of reasons. For starters, it’s a princely sum of money – especially for something with a GMC badge on the grille. Not that this version of the Acadia doesn’t punch well above its weight in a few different ways; more on that later. But considering what $60,000 will get you in an SUV these days, the Acadia Denali occupies something of a precarious corner of the mainstream market. That’s long been an issue for GMC as it has expanded its luxurious Denali lineup beyond pickups and into more SUVs.

Make no mistake, the Acadia Denali is more than capable of holding its own against those premium competitors. But at the end of the day, it’s still a GMC Acadia dressed up in a designer suit, only it’s one without a prestigious label stitched inside. If you’re shelling out that kind of money, you probably want people to know it. Just ask yourself: Would you rather drive this or a Lexus RX L? How about a Mercedes-Benz GLB-Class?

This Denali version starts at $53,998, but that’s for one without the available adaptive dampers; budget an extra $1,750 for those on their own, or $3,995 to add them as part of a package. My tester included the latter – along with a premium paint job – for a pre-tax price of $60,778. That’s a lot of money for a mainstream midsize SUV, but it’s priced competitively compared to rivals like the Dodge Durango Citadel or Hyundai Palisade Ultimate, both of which land within spitting distance of the loaded Acadia. And then there are those similarly sized premium competitors from Lexus and Mercedes, as well as the Acura MDX, all of which can be had for about as much – though the Lexus and Acura can both cost more depending on how they’re specced.

Comfort: 10/10

To buy an Acadia Denali without the adaptive dampers is akin to ordering a pancake breakfast without the maple syrup – sure, you can do it, but that doesn’t mean you should. If the Acadia Denali is a hot stack of the finest buttermilk flapjacks around, the electronically controlled suspension is the top-shelf syrup that would make Mrs. Butterworth bow her head in shame.

Simply put, if you aren’t planning to add them to your Acadia, then save yourself even more dough and go with a cheaper trim; yes, they’re that good. Exclusive to the Denali version, the adaptive dampers take an already impressive ride and transform it into an outstanding one. The system uses sensors at all four corners to adjust compression and rebound rates in response to body roll and road conditions. It’s not the only system of its kind on the market but it’s certainly among the best, dispatching anything and everything that could disrupt the serenity of the ride. That the Acadia Denali rides on 20-inch wheels makes the adaptive dampers that much more impressive. While the profile of the tires isn’t particularly low – usually the main amplifier of rough roads – upsized wheels themselves tend to exacerbate road-quality concerns, yet they’re hardly noticed here.

Not much is noticed audibly either, with excellent sound deadening and active noise cancelling keeping unwanted noises at bay. It helps crank up the premium environment inside, as does the stellar tri-zone automatic climate control system that includes switches in the second row.

The seats, too, are sublime, with supportive cushioning cloaked in buttery leather upholstery. They also feature heat and ventilation functions up front, as well as heat in the second row. Both front seats also have eight-way power adjustability, while the second row is made up of comfy captain’s chairs (a folding bench can be optioned instead for seven-passenger seating). There should be no surprises that sitting in the third row isn’t especially rewarding, the chairs themselves thin and the space that surrounds them limited.

Practicality: 9/10

Fight it if you must, but those in need of three rows of seating with any frequency should really be shopping for a minivan. Not even the super-sized GMC Yukon XL delivers the space of something like the Honda Odyssey when it’s time to move more than four or five people, let alone the same kind of ease with which to climb inside.

With that out of the way, if you plan to keep the third row tucked into the floor most of the time, the Acadia offers lots of space to carry stuff. The paltry 362 L behind the furthest row jumps to 1,181 L with it folded out of the way. While the wheel tubs cut into usable space ever so slightly, it’s a large enough cargo hold to stash oversized items inside. While the second-row seats aren’t removable without the help of an impact wrench and some elbow grease, they fold flat enough to make the trip home from the lumber yard without the need for a trailer. Towing capacity could be better – it tops out at 1,814 kg (4,000 lb) – but it’s enough to pull a fishing boat or pop-up camper.

Aside from outright utility, there’s room enough inside the Acadia for a family of four – and space for a couple extra passengers in a pinch. Cabin width is generous, with a large console between the front seats and plenty of space between the second-row captain’s chairs to keep the kids out of each other’s reaches. While some additional interior storage would be welcome, there are at least a few handy areas inside to stash stuff. There’s a large passthrough beneath the centre console, as well as a drawer that slides out of the back of it to provide extra storage and cupholders.

User Friendliness: 9/10

Handy though the passthrough between driver and passenger may be, it’s afforded at the cost of the switch to a push-button gear selector system that’s new for 2020. Located beneath the HVAC controls on the dash, the setup isn’t exactly intuitive – nor does it look especially upmarket.

That’s true of the rest of the cabin controls, too, though what the switchgear lacks in style it makes up for with simplicity. Most controls are concentrated to the centre stack and console area – the parking brake and height-adjustable power tailgate are the exceptions – and are boldly labelled and easily identified. The steering wheel buttons are equally easy to master without the need to crack the pages of the owner’s manual, while most prompt corresponding messages in the gauge cluster.

The infotainment system – in this case, running through an eight-inch touchscreen – is the latest from General Motors (GM), and it’s underrated for its combination of style and simplicity. The graphics are crisp and colourful, while the screen itself is responsive to inputs. There’s also Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for simple smartphone mirroring, and a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot.

It’s been a few years since GMC shrunk the Acadia, resulting in right-sized dimensions that make it just a bit easier to drive while maintaining the good sightlines and outward visibility it’s long been known for. The height-adjustable driver’s seat helps here, too, providing users of varying stature with the same view of what’s happening around the 4,912-mm (193-in) SUV.

Styling: 8/10

While the previous iteration of the Acadia was a bit bloated, the styling of the slightly shrunken version plays perfectly to its dimensions – and the facelift it received for 2020 is sure to garner some extra attention. That’s especially true of this Denali version, its massive chrome grille far more in-your-face than before. Otherwise, it’s mostly unchanged outside, with something of an ordinary-yet-attractive aesthetic.

Much of the interior is the same with the exception of the reorganized centre console, and it’s filled with clever shapes and styling cues that match the exterior. The Denali’s open-pore wood and fake brushed aluminum trim look good, too, though the ivory and blue motif on the dash and doors aren’t especially stylish. Thankfully, a black interior scheme is offered, too. Choosing that more conventional cabin would also help hide the downmarket and downright cheap look of some of the controls inside.

Features: 9/10

Despite being dogged by the cheap plastic switchgear that looks and feels a step below the premium SUVs with which it competes, the Acadia Denali comes packed with most of the features you’d expect in an SUV like this. There’s that supple leather upholstery, heated and ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, and tri-zone automatic climate control. Then there’s the outstanding infotainment system with built-in navigation, a Wi-Fi hotspot, and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. The stereo, too, is an upgraded Bose unit, though it features a rather average eight speakers.

Basically, if you want it, the Acadia Denali’s got it – right down to advanced safety features like lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, and automatic emergency braking up front. Stuff that isn’t included in the price can be added through packages – like the dual sunroof setup featured on this tester, as well as adaptive cruise control, a rearview camera mirror, a camera-based surround view system, and the fantastic adaptive dampers – or standalone options like a trailer hitch and rear seat entertainment system.

Safety: 8/10

Despite being ineligible for one of its safety ratings, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) lists most of the Acadia’s crash-test results as “good,” with only one “average” mark for driver leg injury during moderate front overlap testing.

Credit where it’s due, the loaded version of the Acadia comes decked out with all kinds of advanced safety features – something GM isn’t known for. Even the top-of-the-line version of the similarly sized Chevrolet Blazer does without the stuff that comes standard in this Acadia model despite being introduced just last year.

Power: 9/10

Just like the Blazer RS, the Acadia Denali comes powered by a 3.6L V6 engine, and it proves that refinement is scalable. Not that the Chevy is rough by any means, but the loaded Acadia is on another level. Output from the naturally aspirated engine is rated at 310 hp and 271 lb-ft of torque, and it’s served in a progressive way that modern turbo motors simply can’t match.

Shifts from the nine-speed automatic transmission are hardly felt, with the engine’s rising and falling revs the only clues as to what’s happening under the hood. The smoothness of the powertrain can’t be understated, with the kind of mechanical polish that’s not even found in some premium SUVs. It’s not especially quick, but the V6-powered Acadia’s acceleration is pleasantly progressive.

Driving Feel: 9/10

So too is the way the powertrain and ride quality combine to make for one of the most pleasing SUVs like it to drive. The adaptive dampers work with the multi-link rear suspension and magnificent front struts to deliver a planted feel, while the steering is among the best electrically assisted systems in the segment. Body roll is negated by the adaptive dampers as soon as the Acadia starts to lean, while the steering remains surprisingly responsive for an SUV that tips the scales at about 2,000 kg (4,409 lb).

It’s only the brakes that betray the Acadia’s nimbleness, lacking sufficient bite at times and leaving the three-row feeling as heavy as its curb weight would suggest. While it does with a more conventional all-wheel-drive system rather than the twin-clutch version that’s fitted to the Acadia AT4, there are a few different modes selectable via the console-mounted dial that shuffle output to different wheels as conditions call for it.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

Leaving it in front-wheel drive is the best way to overachieve when it comes to fuel consumption – an area that isn’t especially favourable for the Acadia in the first place. Ratings stand at 13.1 L/100 km in the city, 9.4 on the highway, and 11.4 combined, according to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), none of which are particularly impressive. A weeklong test covering 540 km resulted in combined consumption of 10.8 L/100 km.

The Verdict

Midsize SUVs are offered in abundance these days, and there are plenty worth considering – especially in the $60,000 range. However, none of them can compete with this GMC Acadia Denali when it comes to ride quality, and that’s a feature worth paying for.

Riding above its budget 6/26/2020 9:00:00 AM

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 3.6L   Model Tested 2020 GMC Acadia Denali
Engine Cylinders V6   Base Price $53,998
Peak Horsepower 310 hp @ 6,600 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 271 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm   Destination Fee $1,900
Fuel Economy 13.1 / 9.4 / 11.4 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $60,778
Cargo Space 362 / 1,181 / 2,237 L behind 3rd/2nd/1st row  
Optional Equipment
$4,780 – Denali Pro Grade Package, $3,995; Carbon Black Metallic Paint, $495; Engine Block Heater, $195; Wheel Locks, $95