Half rugged, half suburban. Looking at the 2021 GMC Terrain from the front, you can see echoes of the much larger GMC Yukon – and even the GMC Sierra 1500. Move farther back, however, and you find a wagon-esque taper and a trendy floating roof. This is a compact crossover that wants to have its cake and eat it, too.
The theme continues on the interior, where bold and blocky shapes rule the day. The Terrain manages to make it look handsome, helped by generally quality materials.
Although the Terrain’s exterior (and its name) may talk a big game, this crossover is destined for pavement more than mud. All-wheel drive is optional, but it’s a primitive system that must be switched manually to send power rearward. In a modern crossover, this feels a bit out of date. We’re not big fans of the toggle shifter, either.
Comfortable … for four, anyway. The Terrain puts most of its interior space toward passengers. At nearly 40 inches, rear leg room is good for the class, and the front seats are spacious and supportive.
We wish we could say the same for the second row – the bench is flat and lacks support. Two passengers fit easily in the back, but tight shoulder room means that three is a squeeze.
We appreciate the extra leg room, but it cuts into cargo capacity somewhat. The Terrain starts with less than 30 cubic feet behind the seats, which is significantly less than favorites like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. The seats don’t fold completely flat, either, limiting total space to a little over 63 cubic feet.
Regardless of how many people or suitcases the Terrain is carrying, the ride is a highlight. It’s composed and smooth, even on the Denali’s 19-inch wheels.
Powertrain compromises. The Terrain comes with two engines, and they each come with pros and cons. The base engine, a 1.5-liter four-cylinder, makes only 170 horsepower. Strong torque helps around town, but the engine struggles to move the Terrain’s considerable mass, especially on hills and highways.
The optional 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine is better suited for the vehicle. It makes a more capable 252 horsepower, and when it’s paired with a trailering package, it helps the Terrain tow up to 3,500 pounds. The first downside: it’s only available on SLT and Denali trims, and it costs an extra $3,095 on the SLT.
The other downside is the fuel economy, which wasn’t great to begin with. A base Terrain gets an EPA-estimated 27 miles per gallon combined, but that figure drops to 24 mpg combined with the larger engine, and that’s before all-wheel drive is added. Especially compared to hybrids from Honda and Toyota, the Terrain’s efficiency is only average.
Best in the middle. The starting price of the Terrain sits in the same ballpark as imports like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, or Mazda CX-5. Although the Terrain looks the part, its compromised practicality puts it at a disadvantage on the value front.
On the other end of the spectrum, GMC’s lavish Denali trim brings more than a touch of class. Leather upholstery and premium trim help the Terrain feel special, but it’s still a dubious proposition against numerous competitors from luxury badges.
Our favorite Terrain is in the middle: the SLT trim, with the turbo engine if you can manage it. The SLT has just enough creature comforts to feel luxurious, but stays south of $35,000 if you’re careful.
At the least, we recommend bumping up to the SLE trim. GMC has made some improvements in the safety department, adding standard automatic emergency braking last year and blind-spot monitoring for 2021. But the best options, including adaptive cruise control, are only available on the SLE and above.
Final thoughts. The 2021 GMC Terrain hits enough of the right notes that it’s worth a look, even against the ever-expanding competition among compact crossovers. It looks good, drives well, and has most of the tech and features we look for.
It’s let down by a couple crucial points, notably practicality and efficiency. This means that we don’t think the segment leaders should be too worried.
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