Remember how proud of yourself you were that summer after college, where you ate right, worked out and lost 20 pounds? I imagine that's just a fraction of how pleased the 2017 GMC Acadia's engineers must be with themselves at the moment, because their newly trimmed-down crossover SUV has dropped a whopping 700 pounds.
That's a whole lot of crunches and kale chips.
Tucked and toned, this midsize GMC isn't just lighter on the scales than its predecessor, it's rocking a much svelter waistband, too. The second-generation Acadia has jettisoned the Lambda platform it shared with the Buick Enclave and Chevrolet Traverse, and is now a remarkable 7.2 inches shorter, riding atop a wheelbase that's shrunk by 6.4 inches. It's narrower, too, by 3.5 inches. In a day and age when most new vehicles grow every generation, this is a remarkable course correction. The new model now shares its chassis with Cadillac's excellent XT5, and GMC believes the Acadia's "right sizing" will allow it to strike at the heart of the market, namely models like the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, which have always been smaller than the original Acadia.
This extreme diet has permitted GMC's near-luxury bruiser to slip into a more tailored suit, with crisp lines and the brand's trademark squared-off wheel arches featuring prominently. In truth, the Acadia doesn't strike a particularly original pose, but it's still quite attractive, and besides, in this family-values-minded segment, bold design isn't often prized.
All that downsizing has had a cascading effect in terms of real-world benefits, including improved fuel economy, the ability to offer a downsized four-cylinder engine, sharper handling and a lower price -- the 2017 Acadia starts at $29,995 including delivery, and like for like, it's about $2,000 cheaper than its precursor. Most importantly, it's just a better driving companion, full stop.
Driving out of Our Nation's Capital and into Northern Virginia's rolling horse country, it didn't take long for the Acadia to feel not just nimbler, but also more refined in terms of ride quality and NVH -- Noise, Vibration and Harshness. Smaller dimensions combined with increased use of high-strength steel and more structural adhesives has yielded a chassis that's notably stiffer, a development that contributes to everything from better steering feel and cornering stability to an utter lack of squeaks and rattles, even in the preproduction testers I sampled. The outgoing Acadia could feel ponderous and frankly too big on narrow country roads or tightly gridded urban streets, but the new model comes across as significantly easier to manage and friendlier to drive.
The Acadia's lighter footsteps also mean that a smaller 2.5-liter Ecotec four-cylinder is now possible as the base engine, and on my test loop in a front-wheel-drive model, the 194-horsepower, 190-pound-feet of torque power plant moved the 3,956-pound SUV at a respectable clip. A bit surprisingly, it's a naturally aspirated engine -- no turbos here -- which means that you have to rev it a bit to achieve peak motivation (peak torque kicks in at 4,400 rpm and horsepower arrives at 6,300 revs). Fortunately, the experience is not unpleasant, and the time-tested Hydra-Matic 6T50 shifts smoothly and obsequiously en route to EPA fuel economy estimates of 21 miles per gallon city and 26 highway (21/25 with optional all-wheel drive). There's a generally unobtrusive stop/start system to help efficiency, but regrettably, it lacks a basic shut-off button, something nearly every other system in the auto industry includes.
Admittedly, I test-drove the inline-four with only two people aboard and no luggage -- those who regularly schlep lots of kin and clutter (or those who live at higher altitudes) may want to consider stepping up to the larger 3.6-liter V-6, which yields 310 horsepower and 271 pound-feet of torque. It uses a different, but similarly well-behaved 6T70 Hydra-Matic six-speed transmission, and it offers a bit more urgency underfoot without taking a big fuel economy hit. While it doesn't offer stop/start, it does have Active Fuel Management -- GM-speak for variable cylinder management, meaning the engine can run on fewer cylinders under light loads. The improvement in power over the four-cylinder is notable, but not overwhelming -- some rivals offer more sporting power trains.
Whereas there used to be an available eight-passenger model, there are now five-, six- or seven-seat layouts, depending on trim and configuration. While GMC has worked hard to minimize the loss of interior and cabin space, the new Acadia's shrinkage has had a predictably deleterious effect on available space -- most notably for third-row occupants and cargo. These "way back" seats now have significantly less legroom and shoulder room, along with slightly reduced headroom and hip room, though their new dimensions are still class-competitive.
Of course, third rows are often infrequently used "just in case" propositions, so perhaps current Acadia owners looking to trade up will be willing to overlook the tighter confines. Unfortunately, the big hit to cargo space is likely going to be a lot harder to swallow: Maximum cargo space (with second- and third-row seats folded flat) is now 79 cubic feet -- a pittance compared with the original model's cavernous 116 cubes, and less space than offered by rivals Ford, Honda and Toyota.
At least the cabin itself is a far, far nicer place to be than before. The original model was a long-serving beast, having been around since 2007 (an eternity in product cycle years) with only one significant face-lift. The Acadia actually held up reasonably well in a number of areas, but the cabin was where its age was most apparent, in everything from available technology to material finishes.
The redesigned dashboard and center console are highlights, with soft-touch materials throughout and an uncluttered, intuitive layout. There's nothing groundbreaking here, but GMC has resisted the urge to add unnecessary flash like a secret-handshake electronic gearshift selector or a complex infotainment multicontroller. The result is practical and easy to live with, exactly what you want in a family-minded SUV.
All models come with a central infotainment touchscreen, with lower-end models getting a 7-inch unit and upgraded models receiving an inch-larger display with optional navigation. The latter includes a suite of downloadable apps, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, and a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot is also nice to see on the options list.
The range-topping $45,845 Denali model (which has accounted for about 30 percent of all Acadia sales in past years) adds a predictable amount of cabin frosting, including perforated leather seats (heated and cooled up front) in trim-specific pigments, heated steering wheel, accent lighting and a smattering of Denali callouts. The model also receives aluminum and wood trim, but to my eyes, the latter looks as much like plastic as it does like dead tree. More welcome are the Denali's additional acoustic sound-absorption materials, which make an already-quiet interior even more hushed.
Also welcome is the Denali's more sophisticated computer-controlled damping, which copes with secondary impact harshness nicely while also doing a noticeably better job of recovering more quickly from dips and crests.
Make what you will of the Denali's unique "dimensional" grille treatment and slathers of chrome on door handles, rear fascia and side trim, but the high-intensity discharge headlamps are a welcome upgrade from the halogen units on lesser models, and the larger 20-inch six-spoke wheels manage to look handsome without fracturing ride quality.
New for 2017 is the $40,040 Acadia All Terrain model, and it's unique for a couple of reasons. First off, it's the only five-seat trim (its rear seats are replaced by floor storage bins). Secondly, the All Terrain gets a more sophisticated twin-clutch all-wheel drive system for improved off-road traction. The new setup replaces a conventional differential and single clutch in favor of a system that can route torque between both the front and rear axles as well as side to side. It's also slightly differentiated visually, with a specific wheels, a body-color grille frame and black chrome trim.
Sadly, a planned off-road excursion in the All Terrain was scuttled by GM officials at the last minute due to rain slicking the clay-heavy course. This development, combined with the fact that ground clearance and tire choice is unchanged from other trims, suggests that the All Terrain will be no threat to the hegemony of Jeep's Grand Cherokee -- the model's primary target -- in the rough stuff, but it clearly has advantages in other areas.
Given that this is a family-minded vehicle, GMC has been smart enough to step up to the Advanced Drive Assist Systems (ADAS) plate, offering everything from a 360-degree camera system and automatic high beams to blind-spot assist, lane-keep assist with lane-departure warning and forward collision alert with auto brake.
GM's excellent Safety Alert Seat is also on offer -- it vibrates the driver's seat bottom to indicate an impending threat, be it when backing out of a parking space into crossing traffic or drifting out of one's lane. There's even an available hitch-alignment mode on the backup camera (the Acadia can tow up to 4,000 pounds when properly equipped -- 1,000 pounds less than before).
The new Acadia has been trimmed down to fighting weight to take on the heart of the growing midsize crossover CUV market, a transformation that will doubtlessly serve it well on the sales front. Its new, smaller frame may sacrifice the patronage of a few load-lugging loyalists in the process, but it's also possible they'll remain in the fold, lured in by this GMC's slick new looks, features and much-improved dynamics. The 2017 GMC Acadia may have lost one of its key differentiators -- size -- but it just goes to show, sometimes the best things really do come in small(er) packages.
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