2018 GMC Terrain Test Drive Review: Economies of Scale

Test Drive

The 2018 GMC Terrain tries to gain ground in the hyper-competitive compact crossover market.

The compact CUV segment is a tough place to compete these days. The Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V and Ford Escape have been around forever, and they keep getting better with each generation, dominating the top of the sales chart year after year. However, it's not impossible to jump the established trio. Just ask Nissan. Rogue has shot to the top of the charts with its just right sizing, just powerful enough engine, just affordable enough pricing, and just efficient enough fuel economy. Smelling blood in the water, now General Motors wants to take a bite.

The GMC Terrain and mechanically identical Chevrolet Equinox twin have just had their most significant redesign ever, and they are aiming right for the heart of the compact crossover target. The first generation Terrain was a half size larger on the outside, without much in the way of increased interior space or functionality. This time around, the Terrain is about the same size as Rogue and CR-V in length, width, and wheelbase, all within an inch or two of each other. This right-size strategy is already paying off and combined sales of the Equinox and Terrain through three months of 2018 are outpacing RAV4 and CR-V—right on the Rogue's heels. Or maybe it's the twins fresh new sheet metal...

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With a similar footprint, the Terrain should have about the same amount of interior space as its competitors, right? Yeah, um, nope. The Terrain still manages to fall short on usable interior space, with less cargo space in the trunk. Its 29.6 cubic feet of volume is almost 10 shy of the Rogue’s 39.3 and well off the CR-V’s 37.6. Drop the seats and the Terrain maxes out at 63.3 cu.-ft. to the Rogue’s 70 and the CR-V’s 75. At least the Terrain's rear seats fold flat quickly and easily, with release handles in the side of the cargo area. Even the front passenger seat can be folded down flat for lumber runs.

The Terrain should be more than adequate for the tasks of daily family life, although it lacks clever cargo solutions like the Rogue’s shelf system and may require more careful packing for road trips and camping excursions. The Terrain does have a power tailgate, though, which can be adjusted to open to just 3/4 height so it doesn’t ding low garage ceilings. You might think GM has sacrificed some cargo room for passengers, but it matches rather than exceeds in this area. Combined front and rear legroom is close enough to those two as to be virtually even with those segment leaders.

There is plenty of legroom in both rows and the rear floor is flat for foot space in all three positions. Headroom is good as well, which further confirms that GMC has hit the mark. Rear outboard seats in the Terrain are accommodating, too, nicely contoured for support and comfort, with adjustable recline. Car seat installation is made just a little bit easier thanks to a high third tether anchor, easy-to-reach LATCH anchors, and wide, tall door openings. The Terrain sports comfortable front seats, but I found the driving position awkward, with a skinny, uneven dead pedal that left me nowhere to put my left foot.

The Terrain provided in SLE trim was a blessing for me. It featured cloth seats, which I prefer as they breathe better, but they're tougher to clean, especially any liquid or sticky messes your kids might… bahahahha, who am I kidding, your kids are guaranteed to produce exactly those kinds of messes. Interior quality was utilitarian at best—not because it was cloth and not leather, but because of the overall feel and fit of everything in the cabin. The clearly-not-wood plastic woodgrain trim was creepy rather than stylish, plastics were hard and coarse and some switchgear felt like it was one clumsy fumble away from snapping off.

The steering wheel was an exception, however, as the leather felt nice and featured audio controls on the back of the spokes for completely intuitive volume adjustment and quick track or station changes without taking hands off. One of the downsides to the SLE trim was there wasn’t much in the way of driver aids, especially my two favourites: adaptive cruise control and rear cross traffic alert. While those are available with higher trims, the SLE is still equipped with regular cruise control and a back-up camera. At least visibility is fair in most directions, so parking isn’t much trouble.

Like everything else about the Terrain, the driving experience is a mixed bag, but the star of the show has got to be its efficiency. With Volkswagen abandoning the diesel niche and no other mainstream manufacturer other than Mazda eager to fill the void, GM is taking its chances and going for a straight efficiency play. This engine is not aiming to be a powerful towing machine, just a casual family runabout that sips fuel, especially on the highway. The 1.6-liter turbodiesel musters 137 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque paired to a six-speed automatic transmission. Although the torque sounds generous, the Terrain is one of the heavier options in the class at 3,815 pounds, so it doesn’t go anywhere in a hurry—or quietly.

It made quite a racket on cold morning starts, and my wife through there was a garbage truck on the street when she heard it running one morning. It calmed down a bit after warming up, and faded into the background when settled into its drive. Acceleration was normally quite mild and the transmission wasn't in any rush, but if you ever want a bit of jump, it’s there for the taking. You'd have to go full throttle to coax that performance out of the diesel mill, though, and that is clearly not its intended function.

The Terrain is happiest when just puttering along on the highway, and by puttering I mean cruising at 75+ mph. At that speed it is as efficient as any subcompact, probably more efficient at those speeds, as I recorded 40 mpg on one highway drive compared to a similar drive in a Hyundai Accent that netted me 35 mpg. At the end of my week, even with a lot of suburban shuttling, the Terrain Diesel was showing an impressive 34 mpg. This is entirely plausible for anyone except for those who live and drive only in the city, as the Terrain Diesel AWD is rated by the EPA at 28 city, 38 highway and 32 combined.

If efficiency is not on your priority list, the 252 hp, 260 lb-ft 2.0-liter turbo gasoline engine comes out cheaper than the diesel, but it’s quite thirsty. There is also a 1.5-liter turbo good for 170 hp and 203 lb-ft, though it's still well back of the diesel’s impressive thriftiness. Ride comfort is also a strong point for highway driving if the roads are straight. The Terrain’s suspension is soft to absorb rough roads, but it comes at the expense of handling, which is not the Terrain’s strong suit, leaning generously in turns. The steering is also light, which isn’t a personal preference, but it makes it easier to handle in parking lots and tight streets, and the brakes are quick to bite and feel strong.

The 2018 GMC Terrain is an easy vehicle to live with, so overall it is a good fit for the segment and small families that do a lot of highway miles looking for low running costs. Then again, it would be hard to look ahead to the low fuel costs when the initial price of entry is so high. To get into a diesel AWD Terrain, this low-trim SLE starts at $33,400 with a $995 Destination charge, which is within hundreds of a fully loaded CR-V Touring AWD or Escape Titanium 4WD. The other Terrain powertrain choices are more affordable. The 1.5T in particular is quite a bit cheaper and likely won’t feel significantly less pleasant to drive. It also leaves room in the budget to bump up to the next trim level.