Review: 2011 GMC Acadia Denali

The Denali brand began as a luxury trim package for the 1998 GMC Yukon, whereupon it quickly became apparent that affluent buyers would pony up for big wheels and large quantities of chrome. In fact, the Denali was so successful that GM designers penned a new, bolder front end, rearranged some body panels and the more expensive Cadillac Escalade was born. Over the years, the Denali brand also migrated to the Sierra pickup, yet despite the brand’s popularity, the growth inexplicably stopped there.
2011 GMC Acadia Denali
That’s changed for 2011, as GMC has breathed new life into its Denali franchise with a high-rent Acadia. Does the long-successful brand have the staying power to move away from boxy SUVs and trucks in favor of a kinder, gentler crossover?

With 68,295 U.S. sales in 2010, the Acadia was the second best-selling GMC-branded vehicle behind only the Sierra pickup. Data from AutoPacific shows that the median price for this “Professional Grade” CUV was a substantial $40,000, which suggests this family wagon is a cash cow for General Motors. There was a time when a $40,000 price tag would elicit gasps from car buyers and the media alike, but nowadays, many non-luxury crossovers can crest that mark. The Acadia Denali is obviously no different, as standard features like a head-up display, 20-inch wheels, bi-xenon headlamps, moonroof and a leather steering wheel with wood accents can cost a pretty penny.

Our all-wheel-drive tester came in at $50,125 after options including touchscreen navigation ($1,890) and rear seat entertainment ($1,445) were added to the $45,220 base price. Still experiencing sticker shock? Bear in mind that a similarly equipped Acadia SLT2 with optional 20-inch wheels will set you back $2,000 more than the Denali. And you don’t get the Buick Enclave-inspired sound deadening package and all that attention-seeking chrome.

Many can no doubt live without the shiny stuff, but there are still many American car buyers who continue to place a premium on bling. And the Acadia Denali has plenty of it, with the lion’s share affixed to the trademark honeycomb grille. The Adacia Denali actually has two portions of honeycomb, as the chrome lower fascia is separated by a front bumper that also features a strip of the shiny stuff, just like the Yukon and Sierra Denali models.

In all, GMC’s design staff has done an admirable job of differentiating the front end of the Denali from the run-of-the-mill Acadia, with body-color moldings, a new hood with a convex scoop and a rounded gap above the bumper. The rest of the Acadia Denali is mostly carryover, with few changes besides the moldings and a pair of Denali badges at the base of each front door.

Once inside the Acadia Denali, it’s obvious that loads of standard equipment is the key to differentiating this Denali from its lesser siblings. The real-wood inserts on the dash and steering wheel, along with some tasteful ambient lighting, give this big crossover a more upscale appearance, while luxury amenities like heated and cooled front seats and a standard Dual SkyScape sunroof don’t have to be checked off from the list of options. GMC also opted to add the aforementioned Quiet Tuning technology borrowed from the Buick Enclave, giving the Acadia Denali a pleasantly muted cabin.

But while the standard features list is impressive, the Acadia Denali is stuck with the same hard plastics found in the base model. Also annoying is a USB port that isn’t where the owner’s manual says it should be. Hint: It’s not in the center console. Look in the storage compartment on top of the dash above the center vents. Connecting your phone or iPod in the dash console is a bad idea on two levels. During the summer your MP3 player could well melt in the sun should you forget it up there. And if you decide to keep your MP3 player where you can easily grab it, you’ll be stuck with a USB cable draped down the center of the instrument panel. Feng Shui experts will not be pleased.

Material quality may not be an Acadia strong suit, but spaciousness is. This Denali boasts a class-leading 24.1 cubic feet of storage with all three rows in use, and 116.9 cubes with the second and third rows stowed. That’s a lot of room to haul your stuff, but what if towing is in order? The 288-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 affords you the ability to tow an impressive 5,200 pounds when equipped with the towing package. That’s more than enough grunt to pull jet skis, snowmobiles or many reasonably sized campers.

All that towing and hauling capability falls under the category of “nice to have” for many drivers, and we’re more concerned with how the Acadia Denali handles itself the rest of the time. The 3.6-liter V6 engine handles itself well on the open road, with ample acceleration around town and acceptable pull when passing on the interstate. But with a 4,857-pound curb weight, we expected the Acadia Denali to handle a lot like the large, front-wheel-drive GM crossovers we’ve sampled in the past. Not so with the Denali’s all-wheel-drive system, which engages the rear wheels whenever the need arises. AWD mitigates some body roll while also keeping this 200-inch-long crossover perfectly flat under hard acceleration. Steering is also linear with a bit of weight added, though road feel is predictably absent. Like most other crossovers on the market, the Acadia Denali behaves best when going straight, with a forgiving independent suspension setup that soaks up road imperfections to deliver a smooth ride.
Research says that many Acadia owners previously owned an SUV, with the GMC Envoy and Chevy Trailblazer leading the pack. That tells us a significant portion of those owners were likely looking for improved fuel economy. In most cases, those buyers got what they wanted, though the EPA’s 16 mile per gallon city and 23 mpg highway ratings were out of reach for us. We managed an average of only 17.8 mpg, which isn’t great, but still better than we’d net with most larger SUVs.

After a week with the Acadia Denali, we came away impressed with its vast array of standard equipment, but a bit disappointed by hard-touch plastics that just don’t belong in a $50,000 crossover. Where we feel this premium Acadia succeeds is with distinctive, over-the-top styling that differentiates the Denali model from its lesser siblings. Combine those attributes with the Acadia’s enormous interior and competent powertrain, and the result is a solid combination of style and comfort.

There will always be car buyers who insist on paying extra for the top-of-the-line model. With the Denali, a select few Acadia buyers will receive just that, the best Acadia that money can buy. And it only helps that the Denali actually costs a bit less than a comparably optioned Acadia SLT2, adding a bit of value to an already well-regarded Denali brand.

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