GMC Terrain: No bark, no bite, but plenty of fleas


The word “terrain” comes from the Latin “terranum,” meaning “of the Earth.” It’s the same root for the word “terrier,” which is a kind of dog. And that brings us to the GMC Terrain.

A glitzed-up version of the AKC-registered Chevy Equinox, the GMC Terrain confronts all the bad old ways of GM -- the badge engineering where vehicle clones are sold under several brands, the redundant product planning, the weird fascination with shiny objects, the wheedling of customers -- and embraces them with open paws.

Honestly, after a week in this thing, I feel like I should be tested for parvo.


Let’s begin with the fact that the Terrain sports a GMC badge. Last year, General Motors successfully argued to the fed’s Auto Task Force that it needed to retain the GMC Division because per-vehicle profits on GMCs were higher -- a reasonable argument. Among a certain segment of the population, GMC is a powerful brand, associated with the upscale, managerial class of pickup/SUV buyer, and worth the price premium.

But don’t mom-mobile products like the Terrain, the Acadia crossover and the now-defunct Envoy undermine the strength of the “Professional Grade” brand, the very root of per-vehicle profitability?

I get it: GMC dealers wanted to have a small to mid-sized SUV in the showroom. But at what cost? Doesn’t this continuing strategy threaten to make GMC just another backwater of badge-engineered products (cf., Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick), distinguished only by their higher prices? Shouldn’t the remaining GM divisions, you know, stand for something?

What if GM product planners had devoted the resources used for developing the Terrain’s unique bodywork -- all that money for beer and chain saws -- toward improving the Chevy Equinox?

And why can’t I stop writing in rhetorical sentences?

The styling is -- no other way to put it -- damn peculiar. In an effort to gene-splice some GMC pickup character on what is essentially a soft, fluffy dumpling of a crossover, the designers grafted on square-flare wheel surrounds and a wildly oversized, chrome-y trapezoidal grille. The effect is less than heroic. The Terrain looks like it has a window air-conditioning unit attached to the nose.

Actually, and surprisingly, the Terrain visually coheres better in person than it does in pictures. Still, the boxy wheel cutouts make even the 19-inch mirror-chrome wheels our tester came with look like elf skates. The whole thing looks like it wants to fall over in a heap.

The Terrain’s interior comprises a perfectly sensible and attractive layout, with handsome geometry around the center-stack control panel and -- in our fully loaded test car -- an excellent audio/navigation touch-screen system.

But start looking around and you find so many -- too many -- small, unrefined elements: Too many seams where interior components get fitted together (generally, the fewer the seams in the interior, the quieter and better constructed the vehicle); panel gaps around the ignition key lock (one of those aluminum-faced key locks that get scratched up in the first week); a ghastly, cheap-looking clear plastic lens over the instrument panel, like a $2 swim mask; and a little nothing of a button on the gearshift that is supposed to be the manual-shift control.

The car seems screwed together well enough, but, of course, our test car had only a couple thousand miles on it. Meanwhile, encounters with things like door handles and shift levers leave you with an unsatisfied feeling, a longing for heft and substance.

In other words, a lot in this car feels kind of flimsy. You might not notice it if you haven’t recently driven a Honda or a VW. But if you have, the lack of substance hits you like a micrometeoroid.

What the Terrain does have, in abundance, is amenities: remote start, automatic projector beam headlamps, power liftgate, heated outside mirrors, rearview camera, heated leather seats. Our test vehicle ($35,135) was equipped with optional 40-gig audio/navi with voice recognition ($2,145). Whether this higher level of equipment is worth the price premium over the Equinox, I’m not sure.

The Terrain’s standard mill is a 2.4-liter, 183-hp inline four (which itself isn’t very GMC-like, is it?). Our tester got the optional 3.0-liter, direct-injection, 264 V-6 with the six-speed automatic. This was yet another source of disappointment.

With peak torque of 222 pound-feet coming in at 5,100 rpm, the engine is pitifully slow to rouse, with good wishes where mid-range torque ought to be. The six-speed transmission’s computer logic desperately wants the car to be in the tallest gear possible to save fuel. Most of the time, at part throttle, you spend your time wondering who tied the anchors to the back of your vehicle.

If you need to accelerate hard, you can -- the Terrain motors to 60 mph in about eight seconds -- but the engine moans and roars as you do, like a gout victim who has just stubbed his toe.

It’s not all bad. The Terrain’s ride is composed and comfortable. The seats are comfy. The sound system is excellent. The huge blind spot in the rear quarters allows you to forget other motorists are even there.

But the Terrain is just not competitive with other entries in the segment: Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Ford Edge, Nissan Murano. The only vehicle it competes well with is, alas, the Equinox, which is not what GM had in mind. Woof.