Preview Drive: 2010 GMC Terrain

GMC's new midsize crossover SUV reveals refined upscale feel, compared to its Chevrolet Equinox cousin

by James M. Flammang

2010 GMC Terrain

OAKBROOK TERRACE, Illinois - When Chevrolet unveiled its redesigned Equinox for the 2010 model year, it was no secret that a GMC version was coming soon. Now, the GMC Terrain is ready for the marketplace - at a time when General Motors has gone through financial turmoil, axed several of its brands (Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer, Saab), and dramatically shrunk its dealership base.

GMC is "one of GM's healthiest brands," said general manager Susan Docherty - a nameplate long known for such attributes as "power, strength, and capability." To compete in today's midsize crossover segment, however, a company must offer a "credible four-cylinder engine" as an alternative to V-6 power.

Ready to compete against such SUV-type wagons as the Land Rover LR2, which starts around $36,000, the Terrain starts at a more tolerable $24,995. With the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, a front-wheel-drive Terrain promises 32 mpg (estimated) fuel economy on the highway, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Pick the V-6 and the estimate drops to 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway (All-wheel drive reduces each estimate).

Although GMC's new Terrain crossover wagon was the main attraction at GM's regional presentation, the principal speaker focused mainly on General Motors as a whole. "All of that is behind us," Docherty said, referring to the company's 40-day bankruptcy proceeding. Now, there's a "new General Motors." To make that one work, the corporation's executives "not only needed to make sure we changed our approach. [They] needed to create GM from our strongest assets."

Docherty calls the dealership reduction "pretty impressive," though individual dealers might be considerably less enthused. "They're better capitalized, they're profitable," she advised. As a result, "our balance sheet is clean."

At one time, some 10,00 dealers sold General Motors products. Prior to bankruptcy, that total had dipped by more than one-third, to 6,200. Now, only 3,800 dealerships remain active.

In Docherty's estimation, a lot of people feel that Buick provides a "lot of high quality and craftsmanship, but not for me." She believes those folks are thinking of old Buicks. Models like the latest LaCrosse sedan aim to compete with the likes of Lexus, not against other domestic automakers. Available with an economical four-cylinder engine or a choice of two small V-6s, the LaCrosse targets Lexus's ES 350 sedan.

In its fresh corporate form, General Motors and its remaining divisions also will "need to understand the mindset of the import customer," Docherty said. That's been one of the great failings of all three domestic automakers, dating back to the "import invation" that began in the mid-1970s, in the wake of the first fuel crisis. "You can cut your way to break even," Docherty explained. "But we've got to sell" the vehicles in today's "new culture, which is focused on customers and products.... All consumers are going through this age of reconsideration." They all want to "make sure they're getting great value for the money."

A lot of equipment that's optional on Chevrolet's Equinox is standard on the Terrain, which also promises more standard horsepower than the competition. The Multiflex second-row seat travels fore/aft by 8 inches. Under the hood, the 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine produces 182 horsepower, versus 264 horsepower and 222 pound-feet of torque for the direct-injected 3.0-liter V-6. Dual exhaust outlets are standard with V-6 power. Towing capacity is 1,500 pounds with the four-cylinder, escalating to 3,500 pounds with the V-6. Active Noise Cancellation is included on four-cylinder Terrains.

Depending on the model, 17-, 18-, or 19-inch tires might be mounted. Standard safety features include StabiliTrak stability enhancement, antilock braking, traction control, and GM's OnStar emergency/communications system. All-wheel drive is available with either engine.

Markedly more refined than General Motors products of both the distant and recent past, the Terrain doesn't even feel like a cousin to Chevrolet's Equinox - unless it's the more gentlemanly relative. Equinox has improved in its second generation, but that Chevrolet model doesn't match GMC's caliber, even though the specifications are similar

Not only is performance satisfying with V-6 power, it's delivered in a pleasantly civilized manner. Terrain might not be quite ready for record-setting acceleration trials, but it produces all the energy an ordinary driver is likely to need. Comfortable seats hold five occupants in an appealing cockpit, with plenty of room for each.

Performance is fully adequate with the four-cylinder engine, which was driven later; but it's considerably less refined and noisier than the V-6. Response is significantly slower, too, though not troubling in everyday driving. Except when trying to accelerate hard, the least-costly Terrain is a pleasantly sensible vehicle - though the test four-cylinder model suffered imperfect brake-pedal feel.

This fall, GM expects to have a new midsize sedan on the market, priced as low as $24,000 and holding a turbocharged engine that promises sporty performance. Next up: a $20,000 compact sedan. Within three years, a new, small five-passenger crossover wagon is expected to debut. "We know how to do small," Docherty advised.

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang