Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2017 GMC Acadia Denali

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This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car
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A few neat-o notables are worthy of mention in regards to the all-new GMC Acadia’s all-new platform.

Here’s a machine that seeks to wow shoppers in the intense premium crossover segment in numerous ways

The first? Thanks to the adoption of today’s segment-mandatory “stronger and lighter” ideology, said platform is lighter, which enables synergistic weight savings in other areas, and clocks this big family hauler in some 317 kg lighter than its predecessor. The result? It’s faster, easier on fuel, better handling, and livelier to drive.

The second? You can hear the new platform’s strength, in the sense that actually, you can’t. On an off-road test drive over trail segments where the 2017 GMC Acadia crawled slowly over moguls with one wheel some two feet in the air, you don’t hear a peep from the body. No creaking panels. No groaning sunroof openings. No popping as the weight of the vehicle is awkwardly redistributed diagonally across it. She’s stiff, fellas. Stiff and inflexible and torsionally rigid as a big ol’ cinder block.

This all underpins the latest iteration of a popular high-end family crossover. The Denali range started as a trim grade for the GMC Yukon nearly 20 years ago. Today, it’s expanded into a successful GMC sub-brand with numerous models up for grabs. In recent years, GMC Denali sales alone have surpassed the entire sales output of the Land Rover brand. The sticky? The take rate on Denali models is huge, which means shoppers considering an Acadia are likely considering the Denali, and might want to know how it drives, which is why I’m here.

Here’s a machine that seeks to wow shoppers in the intense premium crossover segment in numerous ways, and technology deployed towards connectivity and comfort are front and centre in those efforts.

The tester offered up Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, both accessed via the fast-booting and highly responsive central command touchscreen that’s up and running and connected to all devices in seconds. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay both upscale their respective handset interfaces into the central screen, for one-touch or voice-command manipulation of a multitude of functions using the same commands, interfaces, menu structures and graphics as the phone from which they originate.

Need to schedule an appointment? Send a hands-free text? Track down the nearest wing joint? Just click a button, and Siri, or Talk to Google pop into action. Want to know what the score is? If it will snow soon? Whether or not you can braise a pork tenderloin? Just click, and ask, and the system responds. You can even have it remind you to pick up milk tomorrow at 5:45, or to get socks next time you’re at Sears.

Then, there’s the exclusive stuff you won’t find elsewhere. In-car Wi-Fi streams data to half a dozen or more devices. You can even stream TV in high-definition at the campsite, if you like. OnStar, which enables one-touch access to real-life help at the touch of a button, is a confidence builder for families, as it’s available 24/7 to anyone driving the vehicle, too.

And you can remote start the Acadia from your phone. Or check its tire pressures while you’re waiting for ham at the deli. In fact, if you’ve ever wanted to check your crossover’s remaining fuel range while you sip a latte in Spain, Acadia Denali proves that it’s a fantastic time to be alive.

Comfort is covered in spades by a few high-tech notables, too. Active Noise Cancellation uses the same technology as the fancy headphones people wear on airplanes to neutralize low, dull and droning sounds – like, say, a jet engine. Or, in this case, wind and tire noise.

Adaptive dampers use a special electronic valve that fine-tunes shock absorber properties in real time for more consistent comfort and compliance on more surfaces, too.

The ride, then? Quiet enough to have a conversation at highway speeds and beyond with no voice raising, and demonstrating body motion control that sees the Acadia glide gently over bigger bumps and dips, with most of the bounding and lurching motions common in such situations nuked in real time. Hit a serious lump in the road, and you just get a slight squirm from beneath, little else. Note that sharper bumps, potholes, washboards and the like can degrade comfort levels quickly, thanks to the up-sized wheels. But usually, she feels like she’s quietly hovering down the highway.

There are other gadgets, too: climate-controlled seats, push-button start, a motorized tailgate, a punchy Bose stereo, a mostly-digital instrument cluster that can be configured with various info panels and themes, just like your iPad. There’s even an alarm that reminds you if you may be forgetting a bag, briefcase, package, whatever, on the back seat.

The gadgetry mostly takes a back seat in the Acadia Denali’s driving environment, though. You cruise in quiet, connected comfort, but the cabin hits hardest for a sense of calm and space first, and techy gadgets second. There’s limited button clutter. Big, bold and chiseled panels give the cabin a distinctive visual character. Controls within sight are all intuitive, simple and logically arranged.

The effect, despite all of the features, is a cabin that puts the emphasis more heavily on a warm, inviting and spacious feel, than on the tech. Wood, metal and attention to detail throughout help deliver a sophisticated atmosphere, though I did wish for some more contrast and colour to break up the tester’s mostly black on-board scenery.

Ah, but that glorious sense of space. Wide door openings make first- or second-row access easy, even for the hefty. Once seated comfortably, after a shift sideways and ever so slightly upward, even the driving position delivers an effective invitation to sit back and relax – not up too high, not down too low, and just right.

The tester packed three seating rows, with two comfy, sliding and folding captain’s chairs comprising the second row. Each of these tips and slides forward for relatively easy access to the third-row bench, which should be saved for the kids. Adults of average size can fit, provided second-row passengers give up some legroom and keep their seats positioned further forward. If not, average-sized adults in the third row will be quickly acquainted with their knees (and the ceiling liner, if they’re taller than about 5'10").

With the rear seats folded flat, Acadia Denali makes a bitchin’ road-trip hauler for four adults, and plenty of their gear, thanks to the four individual seats and a wide, square cargo area.

Power comes from a 3.6 L, 310 hp V6, with direct injection, and the ability to shut down unneeded cylinders to save fuel in certain situations. It pulls strongly to max revs when called upon, with a loud but pleasing howl. Most drivers will find the performance to be more than adequate: the Acadia is snappy off the line when prodded, and rarely feels strained when worked hard. It feels as comfortable to dawdle gently through traffic as it does to fire, full-throttle, to the end of a merge lane. She fires up at 30 below, sans plugging in, with little more than an extra second of cranking and a brief moan, as ignition is achieved.

You get all-wheel drive as standard with the Denali, too. During a fall trail test, even on slippery mud, and with one wheel hanging in the air, it rarely slips a wheel more than a half-turn before seeking traction elsewhere. Slipping a single wheel like a sucker? Forget about it: this is one of the smartest AWD systems I’ve used on a crossover in heavily uneven terrain, and it consistently demonstrates intelligence when challenged.

In the snow? That’s trickier to explain: the tester rolled on all-season rubber, during my mid-January test drive in Northern Ontario. With improper footwear, I can report that the AWD system often feels held back because of the lack of traction, and that the ABS system provides a nice foot massage as you try to stop, and skid past your intended driveway or stop sign. Get your winter tires on folks: with them, this machine should be pretty much unstoppable.

Note that Acadia Denali packs a wide-reaching array of outward-looking hazard detection systems to warn you if you’re about to back into something, sideswipe someone in your blind spot, rear end someone, or even if there’s a car approaching in the laneway you’re backing into. This is confidence-inspiring stuff, for the owner, or anyone else who might be driving. System alerts are issued as directionally appropriate bum-buzzes through your seat. You get used to this before long, and appreciate that it’s a discreet and quiet warning system, compared to similar systems that beep alarmingly.

Other notes? On cold days, I appreciated the remote start system’s ability to turn on the heated seats and steering wheel for me, so I wouldn’t freeze. The headlights could be a touch brighter overall, but the colour, spread and saturation of their lighting output is bang-on for early warning of hazards, even a good ways up a dark roadway.

Ultimately, when space, comfort, and a generous helping of highly relevant and modern technology you’ll appreciate on the daily are priorities, consider this one a top test drive candidate.

Engine Displacement 3.6L
Engine Cylinders V6
Peak Horsepower 310 hp @ 6,600 rpm
Peak Torque 271 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm
Fuel Economy 13.3/9.5/11.6 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space 362/1180 L, rear seats folded
Model Tested 2017 GMC Acadia Denali
Base Price $54,695
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,700
Price as Tested $62,745
Optional Equipment
$6,250 –Technology Package $1,975; Skyscape Sunroof $1,685; Continuously Controlled Dampers $1,395; White Frost Tricoat Paint $1,195