If you're shopping for a utility vehicle with a bit of off-road gumption, there are numerous options on the market. One of the most capable is Jeep's popular Grand Cherokee. The Subaru Ascent, Honda Passport and Land Rover Discovery Sport are a few other worthwhile options, too. But have you considered a GMC Acadia?
It's OK if the answer is no. This large SUV has never really been built to tackle anything more than a muddy road or snowy driveway. But for 2020 the Acadia is now available in AT4 trim, which, at least in theory, is intended to help you venture off the beaten path and get home again once you're finished playing in the dirt. Enabling some modest off-road capability, this model features a twin-clutch all-wheel drive system and all-terrain tires for extra traction in adverse conditions. Visual changes include the addition of black-chrome exterior accents, unique wheels and special badging.
As with high-end Denali models, GMC is treating its AT4 trim like a sub-brand. By the end of this calendar year, AT4 versions of every GMC vehicle will be available, with the Terrain, Canyon and all-new Yukon arriving for the 2021 model year.
But let's focus on the Acadia. The current generation of this SUV has been around for about three years. Since nothing remains static in the automotive business, GMC has mildly refreshed this vehicle for 2020 to ensure it's competitive with newer rivals like the Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade and Ford Explorer.
Some of the Acadia's most significant changes were made under the hood. A 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is now offered, delivering 230 horsepower with 258 pound-feet of torque. As in previous model years, two naturally aspirated dynamos are still available. This includes a base 2.5-liter unit that's good for a middling 193 ponies, and a 3.6-liter V6 churning out 310 horses.
Maximizing performance and efficiency is a new nine-speed automatic transmission. It's standard across the Acadia range and replaces a six-speed gearbox that was used in past model years.
Controlling the transmission is an equally new gear selector. Gone is a traditional shift lever, replaced by a series of buttons and rocker switches. Located at the bottom of the center stack, this collection of controls takes some getting used to. I fumbled around with it for a day or three, but once muscle memory came into play it wasn't a problem.
Other enhancements for 2020 include an upgraded infotainment system with a higher-resolution touchscreen spanning 8 inches and a more intuitive user interface. This system is indeed speedy and straightforward. Pinch-to-zoom performance on the map is as good as you'll find on any phone, which is the standard all automakers should aim for. The Acadia can also be fitted with a 15-Watt wireless charging pad, while LED headlamps are standard across the range. In addition to a smattering of traditional USB ports, two USB type-C outlets are included on the center console.
Like rival vehicles, the Acadia can accommodate up to seven people, but you can also get it with just six or even five seats. This makes it a good fit for both larger and smaller families. My AT4 test model is not fitted with the available third-row bench, which means it only has room for a driver and four passengers.
Travelers in the second row have plenty of space to stretch out, plus the floor is flat, which means whoever is relegated to the middle spot does not have to straddle a hump with his or her feet. The Acadia's front buckets are cut for broad-shouldered folks, meaning they're plenty wide. However, for smaller individuals like me, they're not particularly comfortable, being too firm and bereft of bolstering.
This GMC is adept at hauling around a family's worth of stuff, from strollers and hockey bags to a veritable mountain of groceries. Behind that second-row seat, you get just shy of 42 cubic feet of room, though that number swells to 79 when the split backrest is folded down. These figures are largely comparable to what the Acadia's major rivals provide, though Toyota's new Highlander, the Palisade and Explorer are all slightly more capacious in both measures.
Beyond the cargo hold, there's plenty of other storage space. Not only is the center console generously sized, thanks in part to the switch from a traditional mechanical shifter to an electronic one, there's plenty of room in the glovebox and door panel pockets for other tchotchkes.
The rest of this Acadia's interior is mostly pleasant. No, it's not the most opulent cabin in the segment, that title likely goes to the Palisade, but neither does it feel slipshod like the Explorer's. My AT4's clearly legible instrumentation, intuitive infotainment system and logically placed controls make driving a mostly stress-free affair.
Adding a dash of style, my tester's interior also features perforated leather trim rendered in jet black and Kalahari, sort of a peanut-butter hue. These cow hides are attractively colored if not particularly rich, feeling more like vinyl than anything peeled off an animal's body. At least this option looks nice and only adds $1,000 to the Acadia's price tag.
What's less forgivable is the weave-pattern trim used liberally throughout the interior. Even by imitation carbon-fiber standards it looks poor. While many of the Acadia's controls are easy to use, some of its knobs feel rubbery and low-rent, particularly the dials operating the climate system.
A host of driver-assistance features is available in the Acadia, though some items cost extra. Standard fare includes rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitoring, a high-definition reversing camera and rear park-assist. Optional tech includes front-and-rear park assist, lane-departure warning and automatic emergency braking, which are bundled in the Driver Alert Package II. It's 2020, shouldn't features like these be standard across the range? Fortunately, this options group is only $695.
What cannot be had at any price on the AT4, however, is adaptive cruise control. GMC only offers this super-useful feature on all-wheel drive Denali models fitted with the Ultimate Package, an extra $5,295. At least regular, old-fashioned cruise control is standard.
Shift into drive with the flick of a finger and this GMC delivers unexpectedly strong performance. AT4 models are fitted exclusively with that 3.6-liter V6, which is good for 310 hp and 271 lb-ft of torque.
I must confess, unless it has a turbocharger bolted to each cylinder head and is mounted under the hood of a Cadillac ATS-V, I've never been terribly impressed by GM's 3.6-liter six-shooter. I last experienced it in a Chevy Colorado midsize truck a few months back and found it disagreeably coarse. Fortunately, its manners are much improved in the Acadia. It remains mostly quiet throughout the rev range and almost no vibration can be felt inside. This engine also makes the Acadia feels far more responsive than you'd ever expect based on its relatively modest output figures, providing loads of high-rpm pull. Bury the accelerator pedal and it sprints to redline with enthusiasm. Making up for a lack of lower-end grunt is the Acadia's resourceful new transmission.
Shockingly, that nine-speed gearbox is one of the best I've ever tested. Most transmissions these days are fine, but sometimes they're slow to respond or get befuddled, but that is not the case here. It swaps ratios seamlessly and swiftly. Upshifts are nearly imperceptible, though it's not afraid to drop gears when get-up-and-go is required -- just roll on the throttle and it responds eagerly. There's no need to stand on the accelerator, either, to summon a downshift like in so many modern vehicles.
With all-wheel drive a prominent part of its powertrain mix, my AT4 stickers at 18 miles per gallon city and 25 mpg highway. Combined, Uncle Sam says it should average 21 mpg.
The AT4's ride is firm, though by no means brutal. Interior noise levels seem slightly higher than in comparable vehicles, likely due to its aggressive, all-terrain tires, a set of Continentals mounted on the standard 17-inch wheels. Machined-face 20s are offered for an additional $900, coming wrapped with less-aggressive all-season rubber.
All that tire talk brings me to another point. Just how capable is the Acadia AT4 off road? Well, I'd be leery of taking this utility vehicle anywhere more challenging than a washed-out dirt road as it only has 7.2 inches of ground clearance, but hey, you do you. That's a full inch less than what some versions of the Explorer provide and still behind both the Highlander and Palisade.
Offsetting this lack of height, the AT4 model is fitted with plenty of other useful kit. For instance, the standard twin-clutch all-wheel drive system offers a range of selectable settings. For greater fuel economy, it can route torque to just the front wheels, though there are also all-wheel drive, sport, off-road and towing modes to choose from.
Aside from its knobby tires, the Acadia AT4 also comes with hill-start assist, which keeps it from rolling backward on grades, and hill-descent control. This helps the SUV go down inclines at a slow, steady pace, so you don't have to manually ride the brakes. This is certainly some useful tech that bolsters the vehicle's off-road cred, but that rather low ground clearance is still going to be an issue if you head too far off the beaten path.
With its excellent drivetrain and versatile interior, the 2020 GMC Acadia AT4 is a solid option for families of varying sizes thanks to its different seating configurations. Not only that, this vehicle drives well and looks rugged, plus its infotainment system is a winner. Too bad adaptive cruise control is nowhere to be found and many popular driver-assistance features cost extra.
An entry-level Acadia SL with front-wheel drive, the base four-cylinder engine and no-extra-charge Summit White paint will set you back just 5 bucks less than $31,000, including $1,195 in delivery fees. My test AT4 model was, naturally, far richer than that, though still not completely unreasonable, checking out at $45,090. Of course, if off-roading is your top concern, a similar outlay will, for instance, get you a Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk, though it's not going to be as spacious inside and a third-row seat is unavailable at any price.