Review: 2012 GMC Acadia Denali AWD

By Chris Haak

Perhaps you’ve heard the Japanese word kaizen, which means ‘improvement.’  In the context of the auto industry, has been understood to represent Japanese automakers’ tendency to relentlessly and continuously improve their products so that over time, they go from the bottom of their class to best-in-class.  Toyota and Honda in particular rode that wave to great success from the 1970s through the early part of the last decade.

Whatever the antonym is for kaizen is what GM has unfortunately practiced for much of its recent history.  Products improve dramatically from one generation to the next, but little is done during the half-decade or more between new generations to improve the product.  GM would like us to believe that it’s a different company now that it has emerged from bankruptcy, but a few case studies might suggest that some of the company’s old ways continue to survive.

For instance, take the vehicle on which we’re focusing today.  The Denali was launched in 2007 – roughly five years ago – as a 2008 model.  At the time of its launch, competition was not particularly strong in its space, and GM intended for its family of crossovers (of which there were four basically identical models – the Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, and the discontinued Saturn Outlook) to capture the style of an SUV and the utility of a minivan.

Yet, there’s little sign of kaizen in the Acadia.  How exactly has this vehicle changed since its introduction?  They added the Denali trim level, and years before that, replaced the original Acadia’s port-injected 3.6 liter V6 with a direct-injection one that offered slightly better power and efficiency. The top-spec Denali trim level means a questionably-tasteful body kit, standard head-up display, panoramic sunroof, heated and cooled front seats, and high-intensity discharge headlights.  That’s five model years with barely any changes.

The Acadia will finally receive a much-needed refresh for the 2013 model year, where it gets an all-new interior, front end, and recycled Saturn Outlook rear sheetmetal (hey, Saturn doesn’t need it anymore!).  Meanwhile, fans of 2007-vintage (or worse) in-car technology should really enjoy the Acadia.

Actually, my main gripe about the Acadia is that for its price – nearly $51000 – the interior is just not up to snuff.  There is too much hard plastic, too much fake chrome, and the navigation system is the second-worst on the market.  (In case you’re wondering, the worst is the Subaru Tribeca’s).  For a vehicle that’s so large, the packaging is better than a body-0n-frame SUV like the Yukon, but worse than a similarly-sized minivan.

Most of the time, I use press cars as I would my own car – commuting to the office, shuttling my family around on weekends – but don’t have the regular opportunity for long trips.  However, we used this Acadia to travel from the Philadelphia suburbs to Detroit for the auto show this year, and it was a great long-distance cruiser.  Nearly all of the miles we accumulated on this Acadia were highway miles and there was little (or no) chance to drive it on my favorite curvy back roads.  Nonetheless, the annual pilgrimage from Philadelphia to Detroit – about 550 miles each way – proved a great test for highway fuel economy and hours-long seat comfort.  The Acadia proved to be just as comfortable as the larger Yukon, handled better, and got about 19 MPG on the highway against roughly 14 in the 6.2 liter Yukon.  Did I mention that the Yukon Denali XL costs about $13,500 more than an Acadia Denali?

Arguably, the Acadia’s interior is better than the more expensive Denali’s.  There is hard plastic everywhere in both, and they both have the same mini Chiclet-sized HVAC buttons and old-tech navigation systems, but the Acadia has a more modern design and its unibody construction allows it to ride closer to the ground, making it easier to get into and out of that he Yukon.  Also, the Acadia Denali comes with a large panoramic sunroof that’s not available for any price in the Yukon – or even the much more expensive Cadillac Escalade.

As you move from the front row to the second row, and then to the third row, seating quality diminishes dramatically.  The second row seats are low to the floor and give up several inches of legroom to the Ford Flex.  The second row seats can slide forward like the seats in a coupe might, and also fold flat into the floor.  When child seats are installed on them, the only way to get kids into the third row is to encourage them to slip between the captain’s chairs, or if you don’t have captain’s chairs, have them amble over the second row seat.

Back in the third row, the bottom cushion is almost against the floor.  The Acadia (and its cousins, the Traverse and Enclave) do boast the ability to seat three (small) people abreast in the third row.  Only the Honda Pilot can do that trick among non-GM competitors.

Cargo room looks great on the spec sheet; in practice, there’s not a ton of usable space behind the third row.  Forget minivan-like utility back there, because there’s no minivan-like storage well (I like to call it “the basement” in the Honda, Toyota, and Chrysler minivans).  Fold the third row, however, and there is a class-leading 68.9 cubic feet behind the second row and 116.9 cubic feet behind the first row).  So, aside from the higher driving position, the interior is more minivan-like than its closest competitors from a packaging and space utilization standpoint.

Despite having a fairly strong engine on paper (the Acadia’s 3.6 liter DOHC direct-injection V6 produces 288 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque), it has to haul a pretty hefty package, weighing around 5,000 pounds.  Therefore, performance is not exactly brisk – from a standing start, 60 MPH arrives in about 9 seconds.  An EcoBoost V6-like powertrain or a V8 would be a nice add-on to the Acadia’s option list, but the only choice for the foreseeable future is the 3.6 liter V6.

To get any degree of reasonable performance around town, you have to really use a heavy right foot.  Do that, and you can certainly keep up with traffic, but watch as your average fuel economy drops and drops into the range you’d expect to see a gas guzzling V8 instead of just a large V6.

Suspension tuning is mostly buttoned down in the Acadia Denali, with a good balance between the competing interests of ride and handling.  The suspension felt a bit firmer than what is fitted to the similar Buick Enclave, which is probably by design.  Steering, however, was a bit disappointing; it feels somewhat disconnected and vague.  At least it’s not overboosted, but typically, GM does a better job calibrating its power steering systems than it did in the Acadia Denali.  Curiously, I didn’t notice this phenomenon in the Enclave.

The brake pedal has a bit of a spongy feel, but this is far from a performance car.  Aside from its size (and somewhat-poor rear visibility) which makes parking a challenge, it’s a reasonably easy vehicle to drive.  It’s easy to see why so many suburban families choose the Acadia as their family hauler of choice.

When my wife and I decided to buy a minivan in late 2007, we considered an Enclave and Outlook, in addition to minivans.  Coming from a Nissan Pathfinder, we would have found more than enough space for our growing family in the GM crossovers – our primary concern was finding more second-row legroom so that a rear-facing infant seat would not be jammed against the front seatbacks.  However, we ended up going in a different direction primarily because of pricing.  You just get more vehicle for your money with a minivan, even the waste-of-money “luxury” minivan like we bought.  There are also many features you can’t get in the 2012 Acadia at any price, such as adaptive cruise control, keyless entry/start, and forward obstacle detection – yet those features are available in the Sienna and Odyssey at least in some trim levels.  TrueDelta.com reports that a Sienna Limited AWD is more than $4,000 less expensive than an Acadia Denali when accounting for equipment differences.

The Acadia Denali we tested has an MSRP of $50,820 (which includes an $810 destination charge).  Options are the $1,890 navigation system, $1,445 DVD entertainment system, and $795 white diamond tricoat paint.  There isn’t a huge price difference between a loaded Acadia SLT and an Acadia Denali (roughly $420 per TrueDelta.com), so whether to step up to the Denali trim is really a matter of personal taste.  As you may have guessed from my earlier reference to a “questionably-tasteful body kit,” I’d be saving $420 and going with the more subdued SLT if I were buying one of these big guys.

Once the new 2013 Acadias are at dealers, it will probably pay you to check one of those out, and only buy a leftover 2012 if the deals are really good, because of the criticisms I have about the Acadia, most relate to the interior and in-car technology, and it appears from colleagues who have experienced the 2013 Acadia in person in Chicago that the 2013 addresses those issues almost completely.

GMC provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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