GMC's blingy sub-brand named for North America's tallest mountain will extend to its smallest model in the third quarter of 2012 with the introduction of the Terrain Denali. If you've seen any of GMC's other Denali models, you can imagine most of the upgrading involved, though the chrome on the Terrain wears a muted satin finish. Of greater interest to the MT enthusiast audience is what's nestled behind that "palladium" grille: A modified version of the Cadillac CTS' 3.6-liter, direct-injection V-6. As installed in this GMC, it's tuned to make 301 hp at 6500 rpm and 272 lb-ft at 4800 rpm. That's down 17 horses and 3 lb-ft from the Caddy, but up 37 hp and 50 lb-ft from the 2012 Terrain's 3.0-liter V-6. Prefer to keep a lower profile? The big motor will also be available in SLE and SLT trim levels. GMC reckons its entrant could be the segment's hottest performer (OK, tied with its Chevy sistership Equinox), especially when fitted to the lightest front-drive SLE. To find out, the PR team invited Motor Trend to bring a competitor and put them to the test at the Milford Proving Ground.
Our first instinct was to bring a 305-horse Ford Edge Sport, but at more than 4400 pounds, it outweighs Kia's next-most-powerful 276-hp Sorento by some 200 pounds, which blunts its performance noticeably. So we brought along a Sorento SX. Our two test cars were exceptionally well-matched in specification, each representing the very top of the line, with dark-stained wood trim accents on the dash, doors, and steering wheel, plus sunroofs (two in the Kia), top-line stereos, the fattest possible tires, etc. Of course, the Sorento SX gets a smallish third-row seat, while the Terrain offers a second row that slides back and forth 8 inches to apportion available space to legroom or cargo space as dictated by the duty cycle.
Another interesting feature these two crossovers share is their Mando Dual Flow Damper (DFD) struts and shocks. These little marvels, hailing from Korea, route the damping fluid through different paths depending on the type of bump -- soft damping for the little stuff, stiffer for the big excursions. The advertised result is the body motion control of a stiff-shock setup with the ride suppleness of soft dampers, without the expense of an active variable damping system. Two weeks spent in the Kia suggest that maybe its spring rates are still a tad stiff. Riding to and from lunch for 30 minutes on real-world Michigan roads in a Denali revealed no severe impact harshness or float, but it's too soon to pass judgment on that one's ride quality. (The rest of the drive time on the proving grounds was on perfectly smooth new asphalt.) As for handling, at least on our telling figure-eight course, the Kia turned in quicker, but required a bit more sawing at the wheel while it settled into its steady-state corner, and then a bit more again as it transitioned to the straight. The Terrain drove around the course with greater ease, and its stronger acceleration shortened its lap time to 28.4 seconds from Kia's 28.7, though the Kia's lateral grip was stronger at 0.78g versus 0.76g (average).
So how did the drag race work out? Our two worst-case, heaviest AWD contestants lined up for a brake-torque launch, lit off with just the tiniest chirp of front wheelslip, and zoomed to a best quarter-mile run of 15.2 seconds at 92.2 mph in the 4270-pound Terrain. The 4169-pound Kia trailed by 0.6 seconds and 2 mph. Slightly shorter gearing surely offsets some of the GMC's weight-to-power deficit (11.5 pounds/hp versus Kia's 10.6), but we suspect GMC's SAE-certified horses might be a tad lustier than Kia's. GMC claims its lighter front-drive Terrain 3.6s easily break into the 14s, and our sprightliest Sorento EX front-wheeler tripped the lights in 15.1 at 93.8.
Package-wise, these 'utes suit different needs. For those with enough small kids to occasionally need a third-row seat, the Kia is a compelling choice. Those schlepping a pair of daddy-long-legs teenagers will love the Terrain's sliding middle row seat. The interior trim and exterior ornamentation is noticeably fancier in the Denali; the Sorento cuts a lower profile but subjects the fingers to harder plastic on the dash and door panels. If economy is of any concern, the lighter Kia is EPA rated at 18/24 mpg, while the GMC manages just 16/23 (same as with last year's wimpier 3.0-liter). Those numbers improve to 20/26 and 17/24 for FWD, and if you're in no particular hurry to get anywhere, the advantage disappears with the DI four-cylinders; each brand earns 22/32. If you prefer to take your petro-parsimony with bling, you'll be relieved to learn that Denali trim can be ordered with 2.4-liter power. Kia only sells its top SX trim with a six.
Based on a mere four hours spent comparing the GMC and Kia, we're not in a position to call a definite winner, but we horsepower junkies are fully prepared to praise GMC's decision to offer more power at no cost to fuel efficiency. Stay tuned for a more thorough matchup of these SUVs, plus the Edge Sport, Nissan Murano, and maybe a few more in the months to come. Denalis go on sale this fall priced at about $36,000 to start, $37,750 with AWD, and $39,000 with the V-6. The Kia tops out at $38,465.