Review: Into Appalachia with GMC's 2017 Acadia

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Things we liked: the smooth powertrain, turn-by-turn directions, styling, interior and highway handling(Credit: C.C. Weiss/New Atlas)

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At the 2016 North American International Auto Show, General Motors introduced the all-new 2017 GMC Acadia. Coming off record sales in 2015, the Acadia has gotten a rather extensive reworking in a bid to become more the mid-size crossover that the crowds are clamoring for. It's dropped about 700 pounds (318 kg) and 7 inches (17.8 cm) of size and comes loaded with technology you might not expect from a square, rugged SUV. New Atlas recently got behind the wheel of the 2017 Acadia AWD SLT-1 and took it on a long weekend through Western North Carolina.

As a truck-oriented brand, GMC tends to be somewhat off the radar for us. We stop by during auto shows, snap a few photos of anything cool and then move on. So, needless to say, we were working from a clean sheet when we got the opportunity to test the 2017 Acadia. We didn't review past iterations of the model, and we did not put the 2017 model head-to-head against its predecessor, save for a few spec comparisons to illustrate the modifications made on the new model.

First Impression

Exterior Styling

Even when we were tired and travel-worn arriving at the airport, the 2017 Acadia commanded our attention with a memorable first impression. It's a nice-looking SUV that finds the right balance between its strong-bodied utility vehicle heritage and its softer crossover present and future.

In addition to a more comfortable mid-size SUV length of 193.6 in (4,917 mm), from the 2016's 200.8 in (5,100 mm), the new Acadia has received a nicer set of clothes. The big bulging eyes have been replaced with a narrower, more shapely pair of headlamps matched with more sculpted taillights. The grille has gone from a large block to a soft, stretched octagon with metallic ribs. The sculpting around those components is softer and smoother.

Though it looks updated, GMC hasn't turned the second-gen Acadia into an over-curved crossover hatchback or wagon. It maintains a strong, near-vertical front-end and a straight roofline. The wheel arches have been thinned out a bit, but they still give off a tough, confident look.

Our model included GMC's All Terrain treatment, which brings a few signature styling cues, including a body color grille surround, black chrome accents, and interior and exterior badging. This package is a five-seater and replaces the available third row with cargo storage and organization.

The styling should get the Acadia's foot in the door of buyers who like a masculine, truck-like mid-size SUV look but want more refined, highway-friendly construction below. The "Ebony Twilight Metallic" (black) paint of our test model, a paint option that was added for the 2016 model year, provided a touch of class, making our Acadia feel quite at home amongst the black SUVs and sedans of airport car services.

Interior

Our first look at the interior came from behind, the trunk area swallowing our middle-of-the-road sized roller suitcase like an appetizer. The truck offers a total of 79 cu ft (2,237 L) of cargo space, with 41.7 cu ft (1,181 L) of that located behind the second row. Ours only had the two rows, but models equipped with a third row have 12.8 cu ft (362 L) behind the last row.

Our model included cargo management options like the cargo shade and floor rails with tie-down points. We were traveling lightly, so we had no need to use them.

The orangish-brown "Jet Black and Kalahari" seat upholstery reminded us of a fake tan and wouldn't have been our first choice if we were flipping through the options book, but beyond that, we found the cabin well-appointed. Supple surfaces; eight-way power adjustable driver and front passenger seats, standard on the SLT trim; and a crisp digital instrument screen with analog-gauge flanks combined to make the Acadia cabin a gracious host for our two+ hour stays behind the wheel.

Unlike some other SUVs we've rolled out of airports in, the black Acadia with tinted windows felt rather luxurious. The Acadia's base price is competitive with mid-size SUV staples like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota Highlander and Ford Edge, but like those models, it is what you make of it (and pay for). The higher spec AWD SLT-1 model bases in at US$41,450, and the All Terrain package and sundry options of our test model push pricing to $47,465, after $925 destination charge. For that price, we'd expect a little luxury and comfort (or boosted performance) out of a mid-size SUV, and we weren't disappointed.

The Drive

Open Highway

Under the hood, the AWD SLT-1 trim comes with a 3.6-liter V6 engine that makes 310 hp at 6,600 rpm, also the standard on the SLT-2 and Denali trims and available optionally on some of the lower-spec Acadias. This engine teams with a six-speed automatic transmission, and the two did excellent work on the road, delivering smooth, steady acceleration right through highway speeds and beyond, operating quietly and reliably. We didn't climb any major mountains, but the engine continued smoothly and quietly over the hilly stretches we did encounter approaching North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains.

Lower-spec Acadia models come standard with a 193-hp direct-injected 2.5-liter I-4. That smaller plant actually offers the same EPA-estimated highway fuel economy of 25 mpg on AWD models, with the difference coming in city mileage, 21 mpg for the I-4-powered AWD, 18 for the V6 AWD model. If we lived in an area with frequent traffic and stop/go driving, the I-4's superior city fuel economy would probably be worth it, but for more highway-oriented, open-road driving, we'd be hard-pressed to pass up the smooth performance of the V6.

The new V6 Acadia AWD's 18 city/25 highway/20 combined EPA-estimated mpg figures stand above the 2016 V6 AWD model's 15/22/17-mpg line, so all that size- and weight-cutting does pay off at the pump. This fact should put the Acadia on the shortlist of some buyers who would have left the 2016 model off because of fuel economy. The Acadia's 18/25/20 line is also comparable to the 2017 2.3-liter turbo four Ford Explorer AWD and the 2017 3.6 V6 Jeep Grand Cherokee 4WD, both of which wear 18/25/21-mpg EPA stickers.

We averaged roughly 19 mpg on our highway-biased trip, which was a little lower than expected given that the lion's share of our 300 miles (483 km) were on the highway ... but we might have been exceeding the speed limit for some (most) of that time.

Despite threats of a hurricane running through parts of North Carolina, our weekend proved quite dry and sunny. We stayed on the asphalt, so we didn't have any need to put the AWD system to use. In addition to the cosmetic and cargo enhancements mentioned earlier, the All Terrain package brings an advanced AWD system with active twin clutch designed to optimize traction in all kinds of conditions, particularly on wet, snowy and icy roadways. The drive mode selector features a number of different powertrain/chassis configurations, including 2x4 (AWD disconnect), 4x4, sport, all terrain and trailer/tow modes. GMC also offers the Acadia in FWD and a separate non-All Terrain package AWD option with a slightly different drive mode selector.

The 2017 Acadia relies on a MacPherson strut front suspension, five-link rear suspension, electric variable-effort power steering, and four-wheel disc variable braking with power assist. Driving a route we've never driven before, we hit a couple of sharper-than-expected highway curves with more-than-recommended speed and the Acadia held a line superbly with no noticeable drift or body roll.

All in all, it was a solid, stable highway ride.

City Commuting

In addition to losing overall length, the 2017 Acadia has had its wheelbase drop to 112.5 in (2,857 mm) from 118.9 (3,021 mm), its width cut by 3.5 in (89 mm) to 75.4 in (1,915 mm), and its turning circle dip to 38.7 feet (11.8 m) from 40.4 feet (12.3 m).

Still, the 2017 Acadia's size and boxy construction made themselves known in the city, the large body feeling somewhat plodding when maneuvering tight downtown streets and turning through crowded intersections. The fact we were driving to and from a far corner of private land in an unfamiliar city exacerbated things with regular U-turns, pullovers and K-turns, but we were definitely yearning for something a little more CUV and less SUV for some of the tighter city stretches of our trip.

We were able to parallel park the Acadia between car and curb with relative ease in the downtown spot pictured just above - admittedly a little bit of an overeager, tailgatey parking job, but it worked for a quick in/out stop.

Technology

The 2017 Acadia comes with a variety of technologies, both inside and outside the cabin, and drivers won't go a minute without interacting with those features in some form. In fact, they won't even have to get into the driver's seat since it starts with a keyless remote entry system. The remote works smoothly enough, but we weren't sold on storing it in the center console - we used the cupholder but apparently there's a nook in the console box specifically for this purpose, which we didn't know about until later. We'd forget the key when leaving the car pretty regularly. It does have a warning, and of course you won't be able to lock up without the fob in hand, but if new technology is going to replace something as simple as a hard key, it'd be nice if it didn't introduce new inconveniences, even ones as little as having to duck back into the car and find the fob.

Instruments

Our Acadia AWD SLT-1 driver's area featured a pair of analog gauges with a small digital screen in between. We liked the instrument layout and especially appreciated the central digital display that put a numeric speed readout and some navigation instructions front and center. It proved faster for speed checks than looking at the needle, and it also showed speed limit information when available, which beat looking for speed signs. This digital information center also shows vehicle system alerts and can be programmed to show a variety of other information, including remaining fuel range and off-road data.

Infotainment control

The optional 8-in touchscreen infotainment system in the console is equipped with GM's Intellilink, Apple Carplay and Android Auto. Call me old fashioned, but I still prefer buttons and knobs over touchscreens and touch panels. Touch technology looks and sounds intriguing, but I find using a smooth, textureless near-vertical screen while driving entirely unintuitive and distracting. I get the navigation on track before leaving and try to touch the screen as little as possible during the ride.

With that in mind, I found the Acadia's system nicely balanced. Beyond the touchscreen, there are also plenty of physical dials and buttons to control elements like the radio tuner, volume and climate settings, the main operations I look for regularly during the average ride. There's also a steering wheel-integrated audio system control, which provided quick, accessible operation.

Navigation

Our Acadia came equipped with the optional $495 8-in infotainment system with navigation, which performed solidly during our long weekend in unfamiliar territory. All the turn-by-turn directions we took were spot on, and the system provided plenty of warning ahead of turns, including a dropping bar graphic once you get within a few hundred feet of a turn. We never felt like it was making unnecessary announcements (e.g. "keep driving for 85 miles on Highway 1") and it didn't spring things on us too quickly, either. Overall, the experience seemed smoother than some other navigation systems we've used.

If the basic turn-by-turn navigation was day, the voice control system was dark, dark night. In-vehicle voice control continues to be a feature that sounds wonderful on paper but works out as anything but. The vision is that you'll be driving along, asking questions and making commands naturally to find local businesses or make impromptu route changes, all without ever having to wrestle around with the touchscreen. Hungry? Find a restaurant or drive-thru and add it to your route, simply by talking to your car like Michael Knight.

I say "talking," but perhaps I should say "yelling in desperation and frustration," which is how the fantasy of voice control always seems to end. The Acadia's voice-rec system didn't pick up my voice at all numerous times, automatically shutting off and leaving me back at square one. Other times, it spoke back gibberish when trying to verify what I said. And others yet it just kept rambling on with a long explanation of basic information I'd heard multiple times already, without registering my voice as I tried to interrupt and state, again, what I needed. It did come up with a nice list of coffee shops ... 200 miles away. I gave up on the voice recognition on the first leg of the drive and just pulled over to search for POIs and reprogram navigation manually, as needed.

Integrated 4G

We didn't have too much of a need for the integrated OnStar 4G LTE-based in-vehicle Wi-Fi, which comes standard across the 2017 Acadia lineup, but we did find that it offered better coverage than the Wi-Fi at Overland Expo East. We could imagine it coming in handy for many a work trip, where available Wi-Fi can be hard to come by or snail-like. The hotspot works anytime the car is on, and we connected a phone quickly and easily to check a couple of work items we stalled out on in the show's Wi-Fi tent. We only had one phone to connect, but the OnStar hotspot serves up to seven, so even if the Acadia is loaded with passengers, they can all enjoy access.

We could have skipped the Acadia's Wi-Fi and just connected the phone with cellular data, but we were chewing through our mobile data on the trip and using the free (for us) OnStar Wi-Fi provided a reprieve. The Acadia owner, of course, won't have that luxury, at least not after the three-month/three-gigabyte trial ends. The decision to connect or not connect the feature will require a little thought as to how necessary and useful it is. OnStar offers monthly data plans starting at $10 for 1GB and one-day passes starting at $5 for up to 250MB. AT&T subscribers can also roll the vehicle into their shared data plan for $10/month.

Driver-Assist Tech

The 2017 Acadia has been upgraded with a more robust suite of standard and available safety and driver-assistance technologies. The SLT-1 comes standard with a Driver Alert Package, encompassing Lane Change Alert, Rear Cross Traffic and Rear Park Assist. A fuller Driver Alert Package that also includes Low Speed Front Automatic Braking, Lane Keep Assist, a Safety Alert Seat and other features is standard on the higher-trim SLT-2 and Denali models.

We didn't rely too much on driver-assistance systems, but one we couldn't escape was the Side Blind Zone Alert, part of the Lane Change Alert system. The system uses lights in each side-view mirror to warn you when someone's in your blind spot. Sounds good, but it proved more annoying than helpful. On the highway, the large, bright lights were blinking on and off quite often with the regular flow of traffic passing by. Not only was this an unnecessary distraction, given that we weren't trying to change lanes most of the time, but it also got the heart leaping when we mistook those flashing lights as the police blowing us up. Something more subtle would be better. According to the Acadia manual, it is possible to shut the entire Lane Change Alert system off, making the mirror lights go dark.

The Verdict

All in all, our test put the Acadia - and the GMC brand - smack in the middle of our radar. Despite a couple of minor complaints here and there, the overall drive was quite enjoyable. Prior to the test, we wouldn't have even given the model a second thought when shopping for a mid-size SUV, not because of any negative connotation, but simply because we would have been focused more on higher volume mid-size SUV segment staples like the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Now we'd absolutely recommend those shopping for this class of vehicle put the Acadia on their comparison/test drive list. Its combination of good looks, versatile storage, improved fuel economy, solid handling, competitive pricing, and standard and available technologies make it worth a look.

Product page: GMC Acadia

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