Rental Car Review: 2022 GMC Terrain SLT AWD – Brand Dilution?

Based on their marketing, I interpret GMC as having one job in this world: to give Chevrolet truck buyers an attainable aspirational upgrade without leaving the family. Invest a little more in your GM truck purchase and enjoy the dividends of a slightly more prestigious emblem on the grill and the Denali halo effect even if you didn’t order that trim.  It’s a stealth wealth maneuver for those who cannot or will not move up to Cadillac. You don’t drive a Chevy, you drive a GMC, and that means something.  

Even if it’s a rebadged Astro van.  

I don’t understand how this division survived so long doing so little, but the marketing worked even on me because I’d much rather say I drive a Sierra than a Silverado and I can’t actually explain why. It is the utility vans and anonymous unibody crossovers where this hazy formula unravels, and that’s a good time to introduce this rental GMC Terrain. Meet the Professional Grade premium/economy, 4×4/soft-roader, compact/2-ton, affordable/$38K rugged station wagon. Yes, this vehicle is many contradictions welded into one unibody, including this one: it’s a dilution of a brand and possibly a very good vehicle at the same time.

When I see GMC I think trucks, but this is a transverse-engined FWD compact car platform shared with the Equinox and Cruze.  I’m not sure what Professional Grade tasks this mighty workhorse was engineered to tackle, but I’m using it to hunt down roadside pineapple stands and local cacao roasters near Kona and that seems to fall right in the meat of its capabilities.  This is a vacation shuttlepod handed over by the rental counter after I booked a “RAV4 or similar”.  I was kind of hoping for the genuine article but knew an off-brand was more likely and indeed my only two options were this Terrain or a low-spec Santa Fe with stomach-turning fabric seats stained by sunscreen, sweat and salt water. The Terrain had impermeable leather that didn’t show residue from countless sunburned thighs, so I hopped behind the wheel of my first GMC in 15 years. 

I was initially unsure of my choice.  The prior renter had jacked both front seats into confounding positions that no humanoid should have been capable of occupying, and I think I nearly burned out the seat motors getting it back into an acceptable configuration.  More importantly, the Terrain’s styling makes it appear small and cramped, so I was nervous that it would be too tight for the four of us and our luggage.  I headed to the terminal to pick up the family and our small hill of baggage, hoping to the heavens that I didn’t just condemn them to 12 days in a cramped penalty box. 

My concerns were unfounded and the Terrain quickly began redeeming itself.  Alien seating position now rectified, I found I had plenty of space up front and in the backseat.  The hill of luggage all fit neatly below headrest level. This included a large roller duffel, four carry-on suitcases, and four small daypacks. The power tailgate shut with a tidy click. The Terrain is larger than it looks and is packaged reasonably well. 

The interior is a pretty nice place if you consider the segment this is competing in.  The dashboard architecture is dignified and understated.  This midrange SLT had leather seating that looked and felt like a genuine upgrade even after 33,000 rental miles, real aluminum trim, a steering wheel appropriate for a vehicle considerably more pricey, dash buttons and window switches that felt expensive (even if the dials and stalks did not), competitive dashboard and door padding, and none of the overwrought design and trendy digital chintz of so many modern cars.   There are a few cheap aspects, namely the high-gloss gritty hard plastic which GM inexplicably refuses to stop using.  It’s on the side of the center console and encroaches too high upon the doors where it clashes badly with the nicely padded panels.  

The Terrain has surprisingly good road manners, with only a few caveats. It’s probably not worth getting very granular on the dynamics of a crossover, but the steering and handling are responsive and stable, road noise is reasonable, the structure feels solid, and braking response is excellent. The ride gets a bit stiff-legged on choppy pavement but the chassis otherwise feels well suited to a wide range of road conditions. 

I came to like driving it. It was a fuss-free, comfortable, convenient, and spacious way to move a family of four.  It felt like a quality vehicle in most ways anyone would interact with it.  It averaged 29 miles per gallon and I doubt our Camry would have done much better than that.  I understand and accept why this class of car is so popular.

“Nay, heretic,” I can hear you say, “aren’t you rooting around for a sports sedan back home and getting all high-and-mighty about driver engagement? How darest thou promote this homogenized slice of normcore when a nice sedan could do all that this Terrain did while ripping its face off on both straightaway and twisting two lanes? Must we burn thee at the stake?”

Perhaps.  Perhaps I must burn.  Perhaps a midsize sedan would have swallowed that cargo (a big perhaps) and provided 10% less fuel use. But here is the clincher that has sunk the midsize sedan segment for the majority of consumers: this vehicle made it all easy while imposing no compromise that anyone cares about.  The seating height was perfect for frequently exiting and entering the vehicle.  It’s shorter than a midsize sedan and fits more places.  There was no strain of hauling heavy suitcases in and out of a low trunk well and Tetris-ing everything around trunk hinges. The additional few inches of ground clearance and AWD enabled us to get down a rough dirt road to a quiet beach without leaving the undercarriage gouges of rental Altimas forced beyond their design envelope and Hertz contracts. The only trade-offs are a bit less go, a bit less agility, and a fuel economy hit that means nothing to a country which commutes in F-150s and Silverados.  

I understand this review is a bit overtly fawning, and that is likely due to vacation afterglow rather than the GMC itself, so I’ll bring up the problems.  The big one is the powertrain. The only engine is a 1.5 liter turbo four.  It is just one of many variants of GM’s itty-bitty 1.0-1.5 liter direct-injected all-aluminum engine family debuting about a decade ago in European Opels and then moving into US market Cruzes, Buick Encores, and the Equinox/Terrain.  The version in our rental is the big block monster of the family, containing a whopping 4 cylinders rather than 3, and rated at 175 horsepower and 203 lb-ft of torque.  

The Terrain weighs about 3600 pounds, so if you think this power output results in some underwhelming performance, you’d be correct.  It provides a pleasant kick low in the rev range where most drivers will be using it.  That’s the plump 203 lb-ft talking.  However, there isn’t much beyond that initial torquey promise so the freeway merge and pass are quite disappointing.  That’s the modest 175 horsepower talking.  Since it is a small turbo, it was difficult to predict whether you’d receive that nice responsive tug or seconds of bog-and-lag in any given situation.  It’s fine if your expectations are low and you’re shopping in a vacuum.  Or getting handed the keys at a rental counter.  If you’re cross-shopping, you’ll find better engines out there.  

The 9-speed transmission is smooth and refined, producing slick but laggardly shifts.  Drive conservatively and it all melds together quietly in the background.  Push it, and you activate the busy little hive of bees behind the firewall, who aren’t very loud but who do vibrate the gas pedal.  It all works well enough on the low-speed island roads (what doesn’t?), but back in my land of perennially pissed off and posturing suburbanites roaring between lights, this Professional Grade micromotor is outmatched. You’re going to hear a lot of vrrm-shift, vrrm-shift, vrrm-shift! as the engine busily works through the eternal progression of close transmission ratios just to keep up with traffic.  There is no engine upgrade available, even in top Denali trim. That’s a big mistake.

The lateral transmission button array controlling this is also a mixed bag. The PRND buttons have a quality feel and their operation is fairly intuitive. No problem there.  However, the manual gear toggle requires a long reach to the right and a concentrated look away from the road. You must stab at two small +/- buttons after first pressing the L button between them to activate manual control.  There are no paddle shifters to circumvent this, which is idiotic. The island has a lot of long steep grades and I ended up needing manual control for engine braking quite frequently.  I hated using these each and every time.  An amused passenger asked me “So how do you like push-button driving?”  That’s a question the GM engineers apparently never thought to ask.

A few other things annoyed me. The dead pedal is an inch too tall and therefore out of plane with the gas pedal, which is a fundamental ergonomic no-no.  I could flex the center of the door cards in and out a full inch using only the power of my pinkie finger, which kind of hurts the upscale vibe they’re going for.  The rear side windows are pillbox slits for no other reason than style. And shutting the vehicle down is a surprising pain: first, turn your head to the right and look for the Park button. Press it. Then, turn your head to the left and squint to find the small parking brake button buried nearly out of sight low on the dash. Press it. No, not a normal press, that won’t work. Keep your foot on the brakes and hold the button for a full one-one-thousand or it won’t engage. Listen for the mechanical whine of the motor setting the brake or you won’t know if it actually happened.  Next, turn your head back to the right and give the ignition button a good deliberate press.  It’s far more tedious than in my Toyotas with manual parking brakes and ignitions. Those can be shut down with your eyes closed in half the time and there’s no reason that shouldn’t be the case in any vehicle. 

The current list price for this midrange SLT is $37,500, a sum I would categorically refuse to spend. Granted, I’m 42 now and old enough to regale the young ‘uns with tales of inflation so I still see thirty-eight grand as nearly luxury car money.  It isn’t anymore, but it’s still too much for a buzz box 1.5-liter crossover.  A thousand dollars more will buy a top-trim RAV4 Limited with torque-vectoring AWD or a hybrid XSE, both of which have equally nice interiors as this GMC, even better interior packaging, a non-idiotic transmission interface, and better drivetrains. It’s the best-seller for a reason.  Or consider the CX-5 if you want another richly appointed interior.  Or the CR-V and Forester if you want a proven all-rounder.  Try the Sportage, Tucson, or Rogue if you want another way to roll dice on powertrain longevity.  Even Mitsubishi still sells in this class.   

This leads us to perhaps the biggest problem of all: standing out in a very crowded segment. The Terrain is quite competent and doesn’t embarrass the brand as a rental, which is a risk automakers should consider when selling to fleets.  But what sets the Terrain apart from the other competent offerings, beyond brand preference and a few subjectives like personal affinity for the interior?  Nothing.  And maybe there doesn’t need to be.  A vehicle can still be excellent at fulfilling a mission without being a class leader.  For lessees and short-term owners, the Terrain may have already achieved excellence: they want a GM product, this is a fairly nice one, and if it doesn’t break they’re not missing out on much by eschewing a CR-V.  The Terrain is executed well enough that all it needs to be an excellent vehicle is to run inexpensively and reliably to high mileage.  The jury’s out on that one.  

But we may still have the brand dilution problem.  A decent compact crossover isn’t a very prestigious commodity even if done expertly. To live up to the GMC slogans and the badge worn by $80,000 Yukon Denalis, I’d need to see quite a bit more Professional Grade in the engine room.  By that measure, the Terrain isn’t a very good GMC.  Or maybe it is a decent GMC because as the cheapest thing on the menu, it still isn’t an embarrassment like, say, the Lexus UX.  Or maybe it’s a perfect GMC because they’ve long been a muddled brand with no firm identity and nothing exemplifies this more than the ancient Savana passenger van with industrial plastic interior and burlap tweed seats fresh out of 2003 which they are still selling at a $45K minimum alongside their Denalis.  Hell, I don’t know what the conclusion is here.

What I do know is that the pineapples, bananas, and mangoes sold in the continental US are underripe flavorless pulp while those on the island are truly Professional Grade and our GMC Terrain helped us discover this Like a Pro.  So go buy one!  Or don’t!