Part of the reason Pontiac and Oldsmobile disappeared is because General Motors ate into its own sales by offering up so many of the same vehicles across its brands with only slight adjustments. GMC still does this to a large degree, but for some reason, it has such staying power that it didn't just survive the culling, it thrived.
GMC's whole hang is that it offers slightly more luxurious vehicles than its Chevrolet counterparts. The 2018 Terrain, GMC's smallest crossover, is analogous to the Equinox. They ride on the same platform and buyers have the same three engines available in both vehicles. Thankfully, the Terrain has a few tricks up its sleeve to swing buyers in its direction, including a substantially different look.
GMC's new baby helps rope in buyers with a beefier look than the Equinox, a suppler ride, decent fuel economy and some unique tech. But with the Equinox so darn close in starting price and basic equipment, there's no harm in making the leap upward.
If you're the kind of person who slides into a vehicle and promptly empties every pocket into some corner of the car, you'll dig the Terrain. There's space for a purse under the center console and space for a tablet in the center console. There's even a pocket in the dashboard perfectly sized for your passenger's phone. Pockets, pockets, pockets.
Even with all that space for stuff, there's still ample space for humans. There's legroom for days in the back, even for a 6-foot-tall writer behind another 6-footer. Headroom is ample, but shoulders will get tight with three abreast.
The seating position for the driver is the only dark mark on the Terrain's interior. At least for longer-legged types, the steering wheel doesn't telescope out as far as it should, so you're either way too close to the dashboard or too far away to reliably reach the pedals and wheel.
The rest of the interior is pretty swell for the price. Sure, there are some cost-cutting measures if you look hard enough -- hard plastic abounds in trim surrounds, the top Denali trim still has a manually adjusted passenger seat, and there's only one auto-up window -- but the interior's fit and finish feels worth the cost of admission. I'm especially a fan of the real aluminum trim, which is always cool to the touch and feels a cut above the Terrain's price point.
Let's get this out of the way: The Terrain's new pushbutton transmission is weird. Mounted low in the center stack, it takes very little time to devote to muscle memory, thanks to the combination of pulling and pushing for various gears. Even so, I want a bit more space behind the Reverse and Drive buttons, so my not-at-all-fat fingers can stop slipping off.
The base engine, expected to command the lion's share of Terrain sales, is a 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, good for 170 horsepower and 203 pound-feet of torque. A nine-speed automatic is standard, and all-wheel drive is optional on every trim except base.
The new Terrain is some 350 pounds lighter than the old one, and it needs to be with this engine. Acceleration takes its darn sweet time, and if you opt for AWD, the drivetrain scrubs speed so quickly that you'll be constantly downshifting to try and make some of it back. Driving this way will undoubtedly drop your fuel economy below the model's EPA estimates of 26 miles per gallon city and 30 mpg highway (that's with FWD; it's 24 and 28, respectively, with AWD).
You can solve that by opting for the 2.0-liter I4, which brings the output up to 252 hp and 260 pound-feet. Regardless of how many wheels are driven, this engine moves with authority and holds speed well. I much prefer it to the 1.5-liter, but it stinks that it's hidden away behind the Terrain's most expensive Denali trim (which is also the only place you'll find LED headlights). Fuel economy here is 22 mpg city and 28 mpg highway with FWD -- AWD drops it to 21 and 26.
The final engine is a 1.6-liter diesel I4 that puts out 137 hp and 240 torques. Outside of its Bowtie counterpart, it's the only oil burner you'll find in its segment. This model feels slow, too, but noise is minimal unless you're standing within two feet of the vehicle, plus it's nice and quiet inside under light load. It's the top option for drivers who want the best fuel economy and longest refill intervals -- the EPA rates it at 28 mpg city and 39 mpg highway with FWD, losing just 1 mpg highway by adding AWD. Its transmission has only six speeds, but with all that torque, there's rarely a need to hunt for gears.
Part of the reason for the Terrain's weight loss comes from a new, smaller platform, which brings both the Equinox and Terrain from the midsize category to compact. It doesn't feel tighter on the inside, but it does feel a bit more connected to the road than its forebears. The steering and suspension are both fine, riding over rougher roads with confidence.
It's not all perfect, though. The A-pillars are thick, eating into forward visibility. The rear glass is hilariously small and mounted high, so vehicles on your rear bumper will disappear until you engage the backup camera and parking sensors. There's also a fair bit of road noise on the highway.
The biggest differentiator between the Equinox and the Terrain is GMC's new infotainment system, available on SLT trims and up. I experienced it first on the 2017.5 Cadillac CTS. Known as IntelliLink in GMC parlance, it's snappy, visually impressive and offers shared personalized settings between vehicles thanks to the cloud. In fact, I was able to log into my OnStar account (you can make one for free) that I started on the CTS, and it handily brought my stored navigation settings over to the Terrain. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are both included, as is GM's always-good OnStar 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot. Denali models also get wireless phone charging.
The Terrain is available with additional active safety systems, but they're tucked away in a $500 package. You get low-speed autonomous emergency braking, lane-keep assist and lane-departure warning, but due to the lack of a radar system, there's no adaptive cruise control. GMC officials tell me the company wanted to keep prices down for consumers (radar can bump the price of these systems significantly), and it's not averse to bringing it out later if the market asks for it, or if every other competitor decides it's worth having, as well.
Here's the rub: The Terrain and Equinox aren't priced terribly far apart. The Equinox starts at $24,525, while the Terrain starts at $25,970. The least expensive diesel Equinox starts at $31,435 -- Terrain, $32,565. The most expensive Equinox is $34,530, with the upscale Terrain Denali finally separating itself at $38,495. You can't even get the 2.0-liter engine until that point with the Terrain, whereas you can get a 2.0-liter Equinox for a hair over $30,000.
If you want to save a few bucks, you might want to cross-shop under GM's own umbrella. That said, if you prefer the Terrain's styling, are a diehard Denali fan, or you simply really want that new infotainment system (you might, as it's that good), don't feel too bad about splurging. After all, it shouldn't change your monthly payments by much.
GMC has thrived because it found a place for itself in GM's ecosystem. Similarly, I feel like the 2018 Terrain will do well because it too has a place. It drives nicely, it looks attractive, it has (most of) the features people want, and it's not going to slice your checking account in two.
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