2011 GMC Acadia AWD Denali

Last Updated: Jul 14, 2011

What’s in the driveway? A fine basic crossover SUV gilded to within an inch of good taste. GM’s truck division evokes Alaska’s magnificent national park for top-line versions of its models and for 2011, Acadia gets the Denali treatment. That means most regular-Acadia options are standard and conjures up some features lesser Acadias can’t hope to get, like two-tone chrome-clad wheels, special fender flares, and a steering wheel rim of real wood.

Going Denali on the Acadia breathes some life into a crossover beginning to show its age. The model-year 2007 introduction of the Denali, accompanied by the Outlook from GM’s now-shuttered Saturn division, signaled a fresh corporate focus on efficient design and quality interior materials. Followed a year later by the Buick Enclave and then the Chevrolet Traverse, these big wagons replaced GM’s archaic Chevy TrailBlazer/GMC Envoy family of body-on-frame SUVs. They employ unibody engineering that furnished far more interior space and much better road manners. Their modern V-6 powertrains used less gas. And their cabins were put together with a level of care unusual for GM vehicles of the day.   

At 17 feet long, with room for adults in all three rows or 116 cubic feet of cargo with the rear two rows folded, Acadia, Traverse, and Enclave are true full-size SUVs. They follow a different path than the similarly large – but less space-efficient -- Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon/Cadillac Escalade. Unlike those truck-based SUVs, Acadia and its ilk are crossovers. About the only off-roading they’re designed for is a washboard gravel driveway, the only trailers their meant to tow need to weigh under 5,200 pounds. They come with passenger-sedan-like front-wheel drive, and offer no-fuss all-wheel drive (AWD) as a messy-weather hedge. They sacrifice bolder-hopping ground clearance for manageable step-in height and brawny suspensions with solid axles for soft-riding all-independent setups.   

The 2011 GMC Acadia Denali in the driveway this week has AWD and the only engine offered in these crossovers. The all-aluminum 3.6-liter V-6 with variable valve timing and direct fuel injection makes 288 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. It mates with a six-speed automatic transmission that provides manual-type gear control via a rocker switch on the shift lever.

Denali’s two-tone 20-inch alloys – their six chrome spokes inset with charcoal accents – stand out against the Quicksilver Metallic exterior of our test example. They go nicely with the silvery honeycomb grille also exclusive to Denalis. Our model’s a seven-passenger Denali, its Ebony leather cabin hosting two second-row buckets rather than the three-place bench that would increase capacity to eight.   

How much does it cost? Base price for the 2011 GMC Acadia Denali AWD is $45,995, including GMC’s mandatory $775 destination fee. Before reaching the Denali, you can march through four Acadia trim levels with prices that start at $32,615 for the base front-drive model and touch $41,865 for the previous line topper, the AWD Acadia SLT-2.

The Denali’s base price gets you a passel of features that are either standard or optional on the SLT-2, including heated and cooled power front seats, xenon headlamps, perforated leather upholstery, heated mirrors, and a power liftgate. Bonus standard features that cost extra on other Acadias include GMC’s Dual SkyScape sunroof that occupies much of ceiling and has opening glass over the front seats and nifty power-sliding shades for both panes. In the same category is a head-up display that projects the speedometer and other key readings on the windshield in the driver’s line of sight. The Denali’s audio system is Acadia’s premium unit, a 10-speaker Bose job with a USB iPod interface and XM satellite reception; Bluetooth mobile phone connectivity is included, too.

From there, Denali takes off on its own, starting with a full body kit of special flares and fascias, that cool billet grille, those showy wheels, and dual chrome exhaust tips. All Acadias have a tilt-telescope steering wheel and some have leather-wrapped rims, but only Denali lets you grip a section that’s real mahogany; matching woodgrain accents elsewhere in the interior are, alas, plastic. Enhanced footwell lighting and additional sound insulation round out the Denali perks.

The example in our driveway came with the only two notable options available on a Denali; a $1,890 touch-screen navigation system with rearview camera, and a $1,455 rear DVD entertainment unit with a 7-inch ceiling screen and a pair of wireless headphones. Total manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the 2011 GMC Acadia Denali AWD in the driveway is $49,330.

Is it worth it?  No. Acadia and Traverse are laudably sound full-size crossovers (Enclave’s a premium-class pretender). The Denali embellishments don’t materially improve this GMC’s basic virtues. A midrange Acadia SLE AWD is a far better value at just over $37,000. Forty-nine large will put you in a bona fide elite SUV, like the BMW X5 or Mercedes-Benz ML350. They can’t compete with Denali’s interior space, but they don’t dress beyond their station.

What’s to like? OK, there’s some appeal to Denali’s special look. The body cladding gives it a hunkered-down huskiness. Those wheels turn heads. And the combination of the mesh grille and intense little headlamps lends a reasonably stylish custom flavor.

Lesser Acadias are lighter and therefore a little livelier, but this powertrain is well-matched to the mission. Much credit is due the alert six-speed automatic, which helps get the most from a V-6 just strong enough to provide responsive power without guzzling too much gas. The extra acoustic damping keeps Denali quiet on the road, where its generous wheelbase and smart suspension tuning shrug off bumps and maintain an even keel in turns and on wavy surfaces.

There’s no substitute for cubic feet, and this big body shell delivers lots of room. Corn-fed Midwesterners won’t balk at a couple of hours in the third row, something they would mind in the comfort-challenged Chevy Suburban and GMC Yukon XL. As in any Acadia, the Denali has a usable 24 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row (augmented by a handy underfloor bin) and almost 70 cubic feet behind the second row. That’s world-class space for a vehicle like this. And there’s no denying the sybaritic pleasures of heated and cooled front seats, the kid-diverting value of the DVD system, or the tailgate-party convenience of audio controls on the rear cargo wall.

What does it need? Better-still cabin materials. Tight panel gaps and low-gloss graining were a revelation in 2007 and still do well by more modestly priced Acadias. But repeated in the Denali, with just a rib of real wood to distinguish them, this assemblage of mostly hard-touch panels, workaday plastics, and even some rough-edge flashing, is an embarrassment at $49,330.

A power tilt/telescope steering wheel instead of a levered manual adjuster would lend an upscale air. So would power folding third-row seats. Newer rivals have bigger, brighter navigation screens. Most have cushier second-row buckets with far more thigh support.

Second-row seats that slide fore and aft are common in this class, but the best have smooth-acting releases, not the ratchety plastic finger-pinchers present here. And for all its people and large-items storage space, the Acadia Denali needs more bins and pockets to hold the million little things that seem to attach themselves to a family on the move.   

A slight recalibration of the powertrain control system might be in order, too. This test example’s transmission seemed a bit too eager to hunt between fifth and sixth gear to maintain a steady speed in 70-mph Interstate driving and in hilly terrain. 

What’s GMC say? “The GMC Denali models have come to stand for luxury and exclusivity, and that’s just what customers will get in the new Acadia Denali.”

What do you say? If Crockett and Tubbs – the Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas Crockett and Tubbs – were of a mind to prowl Miami’s pastel boulevards a crossover SUV, this could be their ride. 

What’s next? GM’s preparing to freshen this family of crossovers, beginning with the 2012 Acadia and 2012 Enclave. This won’t be a full redesign, so they’ll not change in size or basic mechanical layout. But a subtly restyled nose and tail are in order; probably revamped cabin surfaces, shapes, and materials, too. Powertrain revisions to improve fuel economy could also be on tap. 

Reports suggest the Enclave could be in for a full reskin, perhaps to take it further upscale as part of GM’s plan to elevate the stature of the Buick brand. One possibility for the GMC version is that some of the styling cues seen on the 2011 Denali preview appearance changes in store for all 2012 Acadias.  

Vital statistics
2011 GMC Acadia AWD Denali

  • Base price, including manufacturer’s $775 destination fee: $45,995
  • Price of test car including options: $49,330.
  • Size: 201.1 inches long, 118.9-inch wheelbase, 5,050-pound base curb weight
  • Engine: 288-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6; 6-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy: 16/23 mpg (EPA ratings)
  • Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, 5/100,000 powertrain

Automotive journalist Chuck Giametta has covered the auto industry for more than 20 years as a newspaper reporter, Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide books and magazines, and as Managing Editor of Iguida.com. This test vehicle was provided by the manufacturer.