2012 GMC Terrain SLT-2 FWD Road Test

A Premium Compact Crossover That Isn't

Who It's For
Rough and tumble urbanites can appreciate this smaller, more maneuverable crossover loaded with lux features and big-truck styling.
Best Thing
It hits the "utility" aspect of an SUV perfectly with ample room and comfort all around.
Worst Thing
Its V-6 engine was neither particularly powerful nor fuel-efficient.
Snap Judgment
All the makings of a winner, but it doesn't quite get the job done.

When you imagine auto journalist folks taking divided stances on vehicles, you might think of a bunch of hacks standing around at an auto show debating why they'd get a Ferrari over a Lamborghini, or vice versa. None of us could afford them, so it's mostly just a matter of twiddling thumbs to pass time. Somehow, though, the 2012 GMC Terrain SLT-2 elicits the same sort of divisiveness. The staffers who liked it really liked it. And those who disliked it couldn't get away from it quickly enough.

Introduced for the 2010 model year, the Terrain allowed the truck maker to add more differentiation between its people movers and get better fuel economy with smaller engines in a lighter vehicle. More than 83,000 GMC Terrains found homes last year, so it had to have plenty of fans in its ranks. With chunky, squared-off, in-your-face styling, it distances itself from most of the rounded-off, softer competitors in its class. After all, GMC proclaims its products "professional grade." So it has to be tougher, right?

Well, not necessarily. The 2012 GMC Terrain is bigger than competitors like the Ford Escape, but smaller than vehicles like the Ford Edge and Nissan Murano. It's slightly longer than the Toyota RAV4, but it doesn't offer a third row of seats. GMC positions the Terrain as a sophisticated, premium crossover for upwardly mobile families. If you buy GMC's mantra, it's possible to see. But if not, it opens up a whole new can of worms, forcing you to search out what it's supposed to be, who it's for, and whether or not it's the vehicle to get in a fiercely competitive crossover segment.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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What We Drove

One of the dividing lines we took on the 2012 GMC Terrain was its price. It starts at $26,370, including $810 for destination and handling, which is a good $2,000 more dear than the Chevrolet Traverse, which is based on the same general underpinnings. Ours was a front-wheel-drive SLT-2 model, though, which adds a powerful 262-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6, a seven-inch color touchscreen with navigation, Bluetooth, leather upholstery, power front seats, a power rear liftgate, and a rear vision backup camera among a long list of features. Our tester topped out at $35,165 without the $1,000 rebate GM is currently offering for moving V-6 crossovers during a time of $4 per gallon gas.

On the safety front, it picked up a Top Safety Pick recommendation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety; offers front, side, and head airbags; has OnStar with crash response; offers stability control; and unique for its class, lane departure and collision avoidance monitoring. Those last two features work via a camera mounted on the dashboard, reading the road and cars around it and alerting the driver of imminent danger with a beeping, dash-mounted display. Compared to the radar-guided systems that do the same thing in expensive German luxury sedans, the Terrain's collision avoidance system is a relatively paltry $295 option.

The Commute

When you have a vehicle as well-optioned as this one, the first thing you notice is the sheer number of distractions you have, followed by just how well your accident-avoidance systems work. The touchscreen stereo system is intuitive, allowing you to scroll through the radio with little hesitation. But when you need to get to the navigation menu, it becomes a little more chaotic, as you have to shuffle through a number of buttons all laid out closely to one another with small font on each of them. It forces you to take your eyes from one operation to another and potentially miss a green light in the process if you're at a standstill...or brake lights if you're not.

As you fumble through the menus to see what the last song that played on the satellite radio was, you notice that there's an instant fuel economy gauge in your instrument panel you can select. No, make that average fuel economy. No, a digital readout of your current speed. Yeah, that's better. Oh yeah, but you need to find a location -- wait, why is the center console beeping now and flashing bright red lights? That's when you finally look back up and slam on your brakes. Fortunately, the GMC Terrain has very good brakes.

It quickly becomes evident that the collision avoidance tech is almost necessary with the number of techno toys in the Terrain. And if you opt for them in your Terrain, it's almost impossible to avoid the distraction. It's a mess of shuffling through menus and submenus to get to the screen you want, with small buttons on the touchscreen for selecting tertiary functions. There's also a dummy scroll wheel in the middle of the dash just in case you don't want fingerprints on your screen, compounding the visual clutter while most of the dash's real estate goes unused. Having OnStar simplifies the process, as it's easy to call up an operator, keep your eyes on the road, and ask for directions, but what if you let your subscription slip after the free trial period? Then you're back using a functional system that's neither particularly ergonomic, nor user-friendly.

We're hopeful GM's voice-command IntelliLink infotainment system, when it's equipped with a navigation system in the not-so-distant future, will be more intuitive.

The Grocery Run

The GMC Terrain may be considered a compact crossover; its cargo space is anything but. Carrying three garbage bags of recyclables, it easily swallowed them in its 33.6-cubic-foot hold without blocking any rearward visibility. Even with the rearmost window obfuscated, the GMC's backup camera with parking sensors makes low-speed maneuverability a snap.

In either case, space is in abundance with the Terrain, whether sitting in the front or back row, accommodating as many as five passengers. If we had our druthers, though, we wouldn't sit someone in the middle. All seats are comfortable, albeit a bit formless, with firmer-feeling foam sitting beneath what felt like high-quality leather. With a compliant, stiffer suspension, we felt the Terrain moved confidently over rutted city roads with plenty of isolation from various obstacles.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Weekend Fun

We drove the Terrain 130 miles roundtrip from Los Angeles to San Clemente to get a feel for it on the highway. With 262 horsepower at its disposal, GMC claims it can get to 60 mph in 7.8 seconds, which would put it midpack in this segment. It didn't feel particularly brisk, however, as it made plenty of noise getting up to speed without nearly as much action.

Some editors also noted issues with blind spots due to the Terrain's massive pillars aft the rear doors and smallish rear window. Others wondered why a vehicle of such bulk -- more than two tons -- and features level would come without a blind spot monitor to warn customers of cars in the next lane. The Terrain's large mirrors proved helpful in seeing traffic, but we weren't without hesitation when switching lanes.

Although we didn't drive the vehicle very aggressively, we were forced to keep up with 75 mph speeds on the 405 south of Los Angeles, sometimes prompting us to get heavy on the gas pedal. That undoubtedly contributed to the disappointing average fuel economy of only 17.8 mpg. While that's still better than the EPA city estimate and within reason, we found it difficult to justify amid $4.30 gallons of gasoline in L.A. when larger, more powerful vehicles have shown better under our stewardship. We enjoyed driving it a highway speeds where it could cruise along smoothly in grand American fashion, but we didn't appreciate the $70 fill-ups every 320 miles with its meager gas mileage returns.


GMC has positioned the Terrain as a premium crossover, replete with more technology than most drivers will ever be able to use. Most staffers loved it for its distinctly American, brash style, more than holding its own on a road full of Toyota Priuses and other me-toos. It's fun to be seen in, and its interior mimics its style with red accent lighting, red stitching in its leather sears, silver accents to offset its boisterousness. Though some cheaper interior materials didn't quite fit the role, they certainly looked it.

But we weren't smitten with 2012 GMC Terrain -- especially with a $35,165 price tag waving in front of us. Controls for items like the navigation, stereo, and climate control were cumbersome to navigate and sometimes difficult to switch between, especially while driving. Collision avoidance warnings were a bit over-eager to sound off, and the engine's lack of grunt and poor combined mileage made us wonder why GM didn't install its more powerful, smoother, and more fuel-efficient 3.6-liter V-6 engine in the Terrain that it uses in other vehicles. As a whole, we found a lot to like about the Terrain, and we think it's a great family mover. But we'd opt for a cheaper, lower-spec Terrain model for greater ease of use and less convolution. More likely, we'd simply opt for something else entirely.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $35,165
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 17 mpg
EPA Highway: 24 mpg
EPA Combined: 20
Observed Fuel Economy: 17.8 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 360 miles
Cost of Ownership: Above Average

Notebook Quotes

"The ride stiffness and spacious interior can tackle anything a family throws its way, whether it's a long road trip or a load of groceries." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor

"It's a nice enough vehicle and all, but wow, this is getting pricey." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director

"Interior materials seem competitive, though not as solid as expected." -Joel Arellano, Associate Editor

"Once you figure out how to turn off the blind-driver nannies, the Terrain is not a bad vehicle to drive. But it is impractical for today's market." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor

"I'd like higher mpg; 16-something is a potential deal-breaker with current gas prices." -Matt Askari, Associate Editor

"Lane departure is a little overzealous. Also, with those features, why no blind spot alert?" -Blake Rong, Associate Editor


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