2018 GMC Terrain Review: In a Blizzard of Small SUVs, GM’s Fancy Baby Looks to Stand Out

Plusher and more powerful than the typical small SUV—but will Honda, Nissan or Chevy buyers give this outlier a shot?

byLawrence Ulrich|

When a classic Nor’easter dumps nearly a foot of snow on New York, what should you do? Well, first, an ix-nay on the whole “bomb cyclone” thing: Most New Yorkers are squeamish enough about winter driving without bomb references to freak them out even more. Since I can claim some hard-earned winter-driving cred—from formative years of plowing into garbage cans in Michigan, to rally schools and ice driving academies later in life—I headed into the white teeth of January's storm in the 2018 GMC Terrain Denali to see how it handled the weather. (Well, that, and the GMC was due back the following day, making this my only shot at logging some serious miles.)

Whiteout: Terrain scoffs at snow in New York's Harriman State Park, Lawrence Ulrich

With the sky upchucking snow at more than two inches per hour, snuffing the Manhattan skyline view from the Brooklyn Bridge, I guided the Terrain north, up the Hudson River and away from drivers who fell back on New York’s inexplicable winter technique: bunching up in dangerously tight packs, turning on emergency flashers, and then hitting the brakes or spinning out, all for no apparent reason. And, naturally, driving at 20 or 25 miles per hour on roads where Europeans—blessed with winter tires and a modicum of driving skill—would be doing 55, easy.

The Terrain definitely managed 55 mph, especially thanks to its muscular optional calling card: A 2.0-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder with 252 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. Both figures are substantially higher than typical compact SUVs, whose engines—nearly all huddled between 170-190 horses and pound-feet—hew to the “good enough” school of engineering and marketing. Just as importantly, every gasoline-powered Terrain comes with GM’s decisive new nine-speed transmission, which does a great job of finding or holding the proper gear with no obnoxious cog-hunting. The Chevy Equinox, the Terrain’s platform mate, is saddled with GM’s ancient, stubborn six-speed in base-engine versions. The Terrain also offers that surprisingly peppy 1.5-liter turbo, with 170 horsepower and 203 pound-feet of torque, for a starting price of $25,970 for a Terrain SL with front-wheel-drive. 

The Terrain’s powertrains stand out from the suburban herd in another way: As in the Equinox, frugal types can choose a 1.8-liter turbodiesel, with the six-speed transmission, 130 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque. I tested that diesel engine in a time-to-distance rally in Alaska in the Chevy Cruze Hatchback, where it showed me between 52 and 57 miles per gallon on the highway. In the larger, heavier Terrain, the front-drive diesel still manages a thrifty EPA rating of 28/39 mpg in city and highway, or 28/38 mpg with AWD. GM is already putting $1,000 on the diesel’s hood in a cash-back incentive, with the Terrain SLE Diesel starting from $31,595. (More on potential Terrain discounts later).

Terrain in spiffier conditions, here in SLT trim with handsome three-bar grille, GMC

On to design: Released for 2010, the previous Terrain has aged as badly as Mickey Rourke, a proverbial brick shithouse from malaise-era GM. The new Terrain’s footprint is downsized to match popular compacts, with 5.2 inches sliced from the wheelbase, 3.2 inches from the length, and one inch from the height. Yet thanks to the miracles of modern packaging, it’s barely smaller inside, including 39.7 inches of rear legroom—not far off the Honda CR-V’s benchmark of 40.4 inches. Built on the stiffer Delta II global platform developed in Germany by GM’s Opel, the Terrain also sheds up to 425 pounds versus the previous model. (And the lighter weight and nimbler approach is apparent the instant you take the wheel.)

Now, I’m not sure what’s got into the meatloaf at the GM cafeteria—or the Technical Center designed by the great Finnish-born, Detroit-based architect Eero Saarinen—but GM designers have finally latched onto a compelling, coherent design language for their trucks and SUVs. (Cars like the Chevy Corvette, Impala, and Cadillac CT6 are looking good, too, it’s just that no one is buying them). The new Chevy Traverse is contemporary and genuinely handsome, not an easy feat for a three-row family bus. I won’t see the all-new Silverado pickup in person until the Detroit Auto Show next week, but a surprise peek of the Z71 model in Texas suggested the best-looking GM pickup in years. 

Downsized Terrain brings a potent, optional turbo four with 252 horsepower, GMC

The Terrain may be a tad more controversial—God help me, I won’t call it “polarizing”—but I’m quite smitten with it. The GMC can’t match the Italianate curves of the Mazda CX-5, but it makes a stronger design statement than, say, the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, or Nissan Rogue. Like the Traverse, the Terrain also looks like an oasis—a man cave, if you will—for guys who want something more masculine than the suburban squishies that populate the class.

The Terrain adopts a “floating roof” look (an effect created by blacked-out rear roof pillars), popularized by Range Rover and Mini Cooper and now adopted by everything from the Nissan Maxima to the Lexus RX. But where the Lexus just looks weird with its Predator mouth and loopy sheetmetal, the Terrain looks sharp. The front end is bold and truck-like, especially with the three-bar grille of the SLT or the chrome mesh of the top-shelf Denali. There’s a bit of Volvo XC in the rear end and geometric taillamps and headlamps, and that’s not a bad thing. But mail slot side hatch windows and a smallish rear glass—whose awning-like roof spoiler made it hard to reach with my snow scraper—create over-the-shoulder blind spots.

That's more like it, GM: New, optional infotainment system is attractive and functional, GMC

From that driver’s perch, the Terrain mostly satisfies, despite some lingering GM-ness in its design ethos. (Think a tailored suit, but brought to you by The Gap). For one, the GMC is quieter than the Chevy version, with standard active noise cancellation and extra sound deadening. There’s some hard plastic, but also plenty of soft-touch surfaces, and genuine aluminum trim, even in starter models. A new, optional infotainment system with an 8.0-inch, smartphone-style touchscreen brings a welcome leap ahead in aesthetics and utility. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come aboard, along with a 4G LTE Wifi hotspot. 

The Terrain Denali is luxury-loaded, including standard LED headlamps, 19-inch alloy wheels, navigation, Bose premium audio, ventilated seats, a heated steering wheel and hands-free power lift gate. And while much of it is optional, the Terrain’s safety suite encompasses surround-view cameras, automated low-speed braking, lane keeping and lane departure warning, and GM’s clever vibrating driver’s seat for alerts that include rear cross-traffic and blind zones.

Front passenger seat folds flat to carry extra-long items, GMC

The Terrain is class-average in terms of cargo space, swallowing a reasonable 29.6 cubic feet of gear behind the second row and 63.3 overall. The second row seats recline, but they no longer slide fore-and-aft on tracks, and that’s a loss. But you can fold the front passenger seat flat to store longer items, like a ladder for work or a surfboard for vacation days. There's tons of useful storage, from a deep center console (and a pass-through beneath it) to deep door pockets and hidden stowage under the hatch floor. 

Something I really liked: Where most SUVs in this class operate in front-drive mode and only engage rear wheels when the fronts slip, the Terrain lets you manually choose between front-wheel-drive and full-time AWD, via a Land Rover-like rotary console knob. I appreciated locking in four-wheel traction both in the blizzard and on dry roads, where AWD helped the Terrain launch smartly with no torque steer from the front wheels. You can also dial up off-road or trailering modes, with a maximum 3,500-pound tow capacity from 2.0-liter models. (Disappointingly, the diesel version is rated to tow just 1,500 pounds). That controller itself might be moved a bit forward for easier reach, but the console’s consolation is a rubberized slot that firmly grips a cell phone.

Interior design a touch busy, but materials are solid, the features lavish, GMC

The Terrain saves more console space by ditching the Equinox’ traditional transmission lever for a somewhat kludgy set of dashboard pushbuttons (for Park, Neutral and Low) and trigger-like toggle switches for Drive and Reverse. I got used to them soon enough, including when I briefly bogged down in an off-road snowdrift: Compared to the rotary-knob shifters on Jaguars, Rovers and others, it was actually easier to hook an index finger on Reverse, and a middle finger on Drive, and bounce back-and-forth between the two gears. The idea behind toggles is to keep people from accidentally engaging a motion gear, but I think vague pushbutton Park switches (as in new Mercedes models) are the bigger worry. More than once, I thought I had engaged Park, only to find the GMC wanting to roll in Drive or Reverse. 

But the Terrain’s lamest bit—and a missed opportunity to highlight its excellent nine-speed—are the Plus-Minus manual shift buttons on the dash. Not only is it a dumb way to shift, but the button is inexplicably the one located furthest from the driver. This zippy SUV is crying out for a proper pair of shift paddles, but GM instead uses the space for buttons behind the steering wheel that control audio volume and radio station/track selection.

Transmission controls awkwardly mix buttons and toggles, but it's not a deal-killer, GMC

Fortunately, the Terrain acquits itself well when simply left to its own devices in Drive. Even in this maelstrom of precipitation, the Terrain stepped out smartly in 4WD mode. On drier roads, it hums from 0-60 mph in a class-leading 6.8 seconds. That represents a crushing 1.5-second edge over the Mazda CX-5 Sport, and that’s with the faster of the two CX-5 powertrains. The Honda CR-V is fleet to 60 mph with its overachieving, 190-hp turbo four, but the Terrain is still 0.7-seconds quicker. It’s even 0.3 seconds faster than the Ford Escape Titanium with its 2.0-liter, 245-hp EcoBoost four, largely due to that efficient nine-speed versus the mere six speeds of the Ford. You’ll need a Jeep Cherokee, with its fuel-slurping, 271-hp V6, to equal the Terrain’s scoot.

The Terrain isn’t aggressively sporty, but it’s a smooth, pleasant companion. The ride gets a touch crusty on rough city pavement, but that's true of many of these small 'utes. Dynamically speaking, the Mazda remains the enthusiast’s choice, despite its tepid powerplants. But the Terrain’s handling—easy, predictable, just shy of playful—should match solidly against the Honda or Ford. Body roll is minimal, as in the larger Chevy Traverse, and brakes feel strong. And the GMC definitely outshines the softer-sprung Rogue, RAV4, or Subaru Forester.

That brings us to the Terrain’s vexatious issue, aside from a GMC brand name that’s not first on the lips of the typical small-SUV shopper. (The Honda most certainly is, as the CR-V found a record 377,895 buyers in 2017, squeaking past the Civic’s 377,286 to become America’s top-selling Honda). That issue is—ta daah—the price. It's a familiar issue for “premium” cars and brands—Buick, the defunct Saab, older VWs, Volvos—that occupy a purgatory between mainstream and luxury cars. The Terrain’s $25,970 starting rate is only $1,400 more than a Chevy Equinox, which seems well worth it. But the plush Terrain Denali starts from $37,990, or $39,690 with AWD. My loaded Denali, including a $1,495 panoramic sunroof, reached a heady $43,975. I might mention that an Audi Q5, albeit in stripper form, starts at $42,475. This GMC is nice, but it’s not that nice.

"Floating roof" design is fast becoming cliche, but it works on the Terrain, GMC

For people who don’t need every bell and whistle, a smart answer is the Terrain SLT with the gotta-have 2.0-liter engine, nicely equipped from $33,240—$34,990 with AWD. That’s smack in the wheelhouse of high-end versions of the Honda, Ford, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Subaru Forester, et al. Notably, those sticker prices also include a current $1,000 cash-back deal, which suggests that GM already feels a need to sweeten the pot to lure buyers, even for this all-new 2018 model.

They’re probably right to do so. At least beyond GMC’s bread-and-butter, high-carb regions like the Midwest or Texas, the odds of people paying more than 40 large for a compact GMC—no matter how smartly equipped—seem slim. My hunch is that savvy consumers will be able to drive a hard bargain, especially on uplevel Terrains...and more so if the Terrain doesn't get off to a strong start in dealerships.

Number-crunching aside, I’ll admit to a personal soft spot for the GMC brand versus its Chevy cousin. Whether it’s shallow aesthetics or just the GMC badge (it’s definitely not the whole “Professional Grade” thing), I’ve long preferred the Sierra pickup over the Chevy Silverado and the Yukon over the Tahoe. I like this sturdy-looking Terrain as well, in part because it breaks the doughy mold of too many crossover SUVs. If the Terrain doesn’t break your personal bank, you might consider taking one for a test drive. Blizzard optional.

Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.