2013 GMC Acadia Denali Road Test

The Monet painting of luxury crossovers.

What It Is
Just your average $50,000, three-row luxury crossover, or at least that's what it wants to be.
Best Thing
It's a serene, comfortable cruiser, albeit on stilts.
Worst Thing
The finest plastic wood and vinyl-feeling leather interior GM could source on a budget.
Snap Judgment
If you don't touch anything but the steering wheel inside the Acadia Denali, it feels like it's worth it.

I should be smitten with the 2013 GMC Acadia Denali. After all, I wrote a glowing review some months back about its platform companion, the 2013 Buick Enclave. Both, along with the 2013 Chevrolet Traverse, represent a heavy refresh for General Motors' full-size, three-row crossovers, aimed at keeping steady with the competition as new players like the Nissan Pathfinder and Infiniti JX35/QX60 hit the scene and do battle against upscale stalwarts like the Audi Q7 and Land Rover LR4.

I should be smitten with the Acadia Denali, but I'm not. No one on our staff who drove it is.

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GM's full-size crossovers arrived in 2007 as yet another signal that the automaker had changed its ways from its cookie-cutter ways of "badge engineering." That is, changing nothing but the dealership from which you buy them, and a few trim pieces here and there. After a long gestation, all of GM's crossovers got plenty of attention for 2013, with the Acadia Denali and Buick Enclave receiving better-riding shock absorbers on top of a long list of upgrades. Their interiors are almost completely different from one another, save for the carpet, seat frames, and some plastics in the rear of the cabin. With the 2013 refreshes, GM had a chance to fortify the Denali nameplate as a working man's premium alternative for those who dare not get something as ostentatious as a its foreign rivals, much less a Lincoln or Cadillac. And you know what? GMC dropped the ball.

What We Drove

GMC offers the Acadia in base, front-wheel-drive form with cloth seats for the low, low price of $34,945, including $895 for destination and handling. Once you get above the more plebeian SLE and SLT trim levels, the Acadia Denali cabooses the lineup at a starting price of $46,840. That includes a bolder chrome grille, 20-inch wheels, radiant paint, supposedly upgraded leather, plasti-wood trim that replaces faux-luminum on the dashboard, and nearly any piece of technological wizardry you could possibly want outside of active cruise control and an adjustable suspension. Our Acadia also came with $2,240 worth of a rear-seat entertainment and navigation systems, and a $795 White Diamond Tricoat paintjob, totaling $50,075. Alas, GMC already has a $1,500 rebate on the 2013 Acadia, despite not even being halfway through the year.

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Our front-drive Denali (all-wheel drive is another $2,000) featured seven-passenger seating; easy LATCH access for four child seats; front, side, head airbags as well as a centrally mounted airbag; a five-star government safety rating; and an IIHS Top Safety Pick recommendation.

The Commute

With 288 horsepower available from its 3.6-liter V-6, we never had a problem getting out of our own way or anyone else's. The Acadia proved a delight to drive back and forth with its punchy engine routing its power through a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission, upgraded for faster response times in the 2013 model. Perhaps compensating for its nearly 4,700-pound mass, the Acadia Denali would hold its gear, often keeping its engine revving high. Even with a fair amount of highway travel, the Acadia keg-standed gas at a rate of 14 mpg during our time with it, well below its EPA-estimated 17 mpg city/24 mpg highway. Some editors had longer commutes; some shorter. Few went out of their way to see how low mpg numbers could slip; L.A. traffic is good enough at doing that on its own. The worst fuel number we recorded was 12.8 mpg; the best was 14.3. At least it runs on Regular.

On the highway, the Acadia Denali soaked up bumps with control in the most serene manner; its engine was muted, and its ride felt controlled over everything this side of a fault line in the road. We've driven crossovers that have ridden like ox carts and others whose suspensions might as well have been made of marshmallows. The Acadia's struck a perfect compromise. And at least that felt the part of a $50,000 vehicle.

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The Grocery Run

The GM crossovers have always stood out for their ease of maneuverability in spite of their size. The 2013 GMC Acadia Denali is no different. With a small front overhang, well-weighted steering, a rearview camera, and large mirrors, we had few problems getting around in even the busiest parking lots.

We found the Acadia's power liftgate to be helpful when loading groceries. With the rearmost seat up, we were able to throw in four upright bags, which is more than most three-row crossovers. Behind the rearmost bench, the GMC Acadia Denali has 24.1 cubic feet. The Nissan Pathfinder, by comparison has just 16 cubic feet with the seat up. Fold down the rearmost bench in the Acadia, and an expansive 71.1 cubic feet becomes available in a flat cargo space, bringing minivan-like practicality in a far more stylish wrapper.

Standard in the Acadia Denali are two captain chairs in the middle row that fold forward--but don't fold flat into the floor. The third row can seat three in a pinch, but it's narrow and sits too low to the ground for anyone but kids. A second-row bench is available to expand seating to eight.

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The Weekend Fun

We've established that the GMC Acadia Denali rides well, as plush and refined as you'd expect from a premium family hauler. GM put plenty of development time and dollars into its suspension and powertrain, and it shows. We wish the same could be said of its interior.

Not one inch of the Acadia's cabin went without criticism. Its dashboard looked and felt befitting of a cheaper vehicle. Its head-up display's blocky aqua-font display seemed like more of a hindrance than a help, with a noticeable glare on the windshield whether or not it was being used. Some felt IntelliLink's display was too small, considering you can get an 8-inch screen in a low-$20,000s Dodge Dart these days; others said it was laggy. Interiors with contrasting French stitching are in fashion these days, so GMC lazily threaded a single plastic interior panel to try to replicate the look. We were recently in a cheaper Acura that had two real pieces of simulated leather--vinyl--stitched together. At least Acura put some effort into it. Below the places you're bound to touch on a regular basis, all the plastics are industrial-grade, which is to say sub-par for the price (just fine for a cheaper standard Acadia, though).

Perhaps the biggest offenses were the Acadia's stiff leather seating surfaces and copious amounts of plastic wood that would squeak every so often. It's bad enough that General Motors still uses the stuff despite the heyday of "plood" having long since passed in the early 1990s; it's a little belittling that they try to pass it off in a vehicle that sits comfortably at a "Why, yes, I live in a gated community" price point.

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Blindfold us and have us drive the Acadia around an empty parking lot, and we'd give a good guess that what we were driving would be a Chevrolet Traverse or GMC Acadia SLT at a price somewhere around $40,000. That should come as a compliment to the folks at Chevrolet for making their full-size family vehicle feel sufficiently deserving of more money the median yearly income of your average American.

But that's still $10,000 shy of what GMC wants for its decked out version, a vehicle which we don't believe feels as premium as its price would have you believe. Think about it this way: Would you take an Acadia Denali over a similarly priced Audi Q7? We wouldn't.

General Motors had a half-decade to perfect the GMC Acadia Denali and make it into an over-the-top luxury crossover with rich materials and a top-notch aesthetic. And we know GM can make a real winner. We've seen cars in its portfolio that have wowed us. Whatever stopped GMC from reaching its potential, whether it was the 2009 bankruptcy that delayed the refresh or some cost-cutting, we'll never know. But we do know this: You'd be better-served going with a cheaper Traverse--a fine vehicle in its own right for family hauling--or a real luxury vehicle instead this working-class crossover that splurged on a nice suit.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $50,075
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 17 mpg
EPA Highway: 24 mpg
EPA Combined: 19 mpg
Cargo Space (behind third row): 4 grocery bags
Child Seat Fitment, Second Row: Excellent
Child Seat Fitment, Third Row: Fair
Estimated Combined Range: 418 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Above Average

Notebook Quotes "This vehicle makes me question GMC's existence. The Acadia Denali looks great from the outside, which is all well and good, except you spend almost all of your time seeing the car from the inside. Here's the problem: $50,000 for some cheap, hard plastic and faux wood trim. I'm genuinely disappointed in the Acadia's interior, especially considering this is supposed to be an exclusive trim-level." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor
"I wish I could let myself like this vehicle. But it's so damn chintzy inside. The thing that gets me is that this is a redo. GM had a chance to really improve the interior on this vehicle, and it failed." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director

Marshall Brown60
Marshall Brown60

Wjhen you spend that kind of money you expect quality throughout. This vehicle doesn't measure up to its competitors.  Good objective article well explained.