Boxy, rugged family hauler. If anyone knows a thing or two about building boxy SUVs, it's GMC. They sell three sizes of square: the full-size GMC Yukon, the compact GMC Terrain (admittedly not so square as it used to be), and the midsize, three-row GMC Acadia.

Last year, GMC doubled down on hard edges with the Acadia, fitting it with a new, more upright front end and fluffing up a few other details as well. Going along with the more brawny styling was a new off-road AT4 model, which is the yin to the luxurious Denali's yang.

Introducing the new AT4 and styling helps differentiate the Acadia among a hotly contested segment, but it still didn't address some of the other shortcomings we noted, including the lack of standard active safety features. That's been partially redressed in the 2021 GMC Acadia, as the SLT, AT4, and Denali trims now all come with standard automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane keeping assist.

AT4, or perceived off-road readiness. Let's circle back to the AT4 for a moment. Such trail-themed packages are in vogue these days; even Toyota now offers their suburbia-bound RAV4 in full-bore TRD trim. Other automakers are cashing in on the fad with entirely new vehicles, like the recently-introduced Honda Passport and the new Ford Bronco Sport. These days, capability – even if it's merely perceived capability – sells.

The Acadia AT4 plays right into that. Among its standard equipment are beefy-looking all-terrain tires, standard all-wheel drive (all other Acadias get front-wheel drive as standard), V6 power, and some exterior styling bits to play up the off-road vibe. What it doesn't get? Any sort of suspension upgrades, skid plates, or additional drive modes.

What's missing is more telling than what's included. What gives a vehicle the fortitude to suffer backcountry terrain isn't just chunky tires, but a suspension that can absorb the undulating, unforgiving trail surfaces. The Acadia AT4 forgoes the equipment that makes that possible in order to provide a lower price point. What the upgrade does buy is street cred in the form of trendy style.

Some might take issue with this, but those buyers will likely be shopping at the Jeep store anyway. The rest of us will be impressed with the AT4's handsome looks, which is the best interpretation of the Acadia's styling. And besides, the AT4's standard all-wheel drive and chunky tires make getting to trailheads more uneventful than lesser Acadias. For most buyers, that's all that really matters.

GMC Acadia

Three powertrains, one Goldilocks choice. GMC offers the Acadia three different powertrains, all equipped with a competent nine-speed automatic transmission. Like the old porridge story, one of these engines is too cold and another too hot. Only one is just right.

The one to avoid is the base 193-horsepower, 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine. It doesn't get a turbocharger, and it clearly doesn't benefit from the same efforts to mitigate noise, vibration, and harshness the pricier powertrains are privy to. Even though this is strictly limited to lower-spec, front-wheel-drive models, it still doesn't have the chutzpah to motivate the Acadia with any authority.

The top of the range features a 3.6-liter V6. This engine couldn't be more different than the punishment-grade 2.5-liter. With a confident 310 hp and 271 pound-feet of torque, it's refined and muscular. It builds power in an effortlessly linear fashion. Even loading up the Acadia with passengers and cargo doesn't dampen this engine's strength. It's available on the lower trims save the base model and comes standard on the AT4 and Denali.

The Goldilocks option is the 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that slots in between the base four and the big six. Though down about 80 hp from the V6, its torque deficit is an immaterial 13 lb-ft. And in proper turbo fashion, all its torque is also available before 2,000 rpm. Out on the road, that translates to acceleration that feels nearly identical to the bigger engine. At lower speeds the turbo-four might even feel quicker.

Fuel economy bears out our preference for the turbo-four. The EPA rates it at 22 miles per gallon city, 29 mpg highway, and 25 combined with FWD, or 22/27/24 mpg (city/highway/combined) with AWD. That's the best showing here. The breathless 2.5-liter returns 21/27/23 mpg; the V6 is good for 19/27/22 mpg or 19/26/21 mpg for front-wheel or all-wheel drive, respectively.

Interior rants and raves. GM knows how to build a good car, but they still struggle when it comes to putting together a decent interior. The Acadia nicely captures the company's pitfalls and successes in this regard.

At the low end of the range, the material quality and feature count is about on par with what to expect. We would suggest most buyers skip the base SL anyway, as it offers few options and a sparse list of standard equipment. It's really catered to fleet buyers rather than private customers. The $35,000 SLT is a better starting point for most buyers.

At that price point, there's standard power seats with nice bolstering and leather upholstery, as well as other standard or available niceties like a power liftgate, Bose audio, heated and ventilated seats, and additional active safety features. Denali models pull out all the stops by making nearly every available option standard.

Regardless of trim, a plentiful collection of cubbies and cupholders are scattered throughout the interior. Little ergonomic touches also abound; it doesn't take more than 15 minutes to become innately familiar with the location of controls and storage nooks. The Acadia's cabin is nothing if not practical.

Our disappointment stems from the quality of the materials, which seems to plateau well before the price does. At around $40,000, the SLT uses materials in line with its price, but things don't improve much from there.

The $50,000 Denali is especially egregious, considering its upmarket aspirations; a fully-loaded Kia Telluride does a much better interpretation of luxury at a price point much closer to the SLT. If GMC wants to convince buyers that an Acadia Denali is worth they coin they're asking, they need to revisit the interior and deck it out with more price-appropriate materials.

Final thoughts. The 2021 GMC Acadia is an interesting, competitive choice in a segment that is proving increasingly difficult to stand out. The AT4, even if its light on off-road hardware, should help entice buyers, and the ample selection of standard and available features is another selling point. At this point, we're only waiting for GMC to infuse the Denali with more luxurious interior materials.

Check prices for the 2021 GMC Acadia »