The Grand Canyon, that epic fissure in the earth’s crust, cannot be photographed to the satisfaction of anyone who has seen it in person. At dusk, the Arizona sunset paints the wind- and water-worn rock in gauzy purples and, until the light falters, there’s nothing to be done but stare at its immensity. For one thing, I’m too tired to do much else — I’ve just spent an entire day driving GMC’s new Acadia and yet, the SUV I find myself thinking about is entirely fictional: “12 yards long, two lanes wide, 65 tons of American pride! Canyonero! Canyonero! Top of the line in utility sports, unexplained fires are a matter for the courts! Canyonero!”
Yes, I’m quoting The Simpsons in a car review. But SUVs are such a, er, large bit of the driving culture that their evolution in fiction is a telling mirror of our behaviours and desires. The song is also a reminder that things have actually begun to change. For if ever there was a marque to embrace the long, wide, pride of the rough and ready 4x4 family hauler, GMC is near the top of the list with the Yukon XL. Its chromed-out, rectilinear facades are unmistakable and, while the new Acadia is not an exception, the boffins from GMC were almost sheepish when they explained that, yes, the Acadia represents a softer take on the GMC DNA. It’s an SUV that is a tad happier to blend into the school drop-off traffic, and seemingly less likely to drive off on to the shoulder when congestion backs up on the ring road, although no less capable.
This change in demeanour is down to one thing, and it’s not something GCCers will necessarily recognise: the Toyota Highlander. In the US, Toyota also has the kind of pragmatic gestalt that has helped catapult the Japanese carmaker to the top of the charts. People buy Toyotas everywhere because of their reputation for quality and utility. But a funny thing happened on the way to the upper middle class — not every buyer of means, at least in the US market, the market to rule them all, wants to be perceived as a luxury car buyer. Which is why you have a top trim Highlander with nearly all the creature comforts (and price tag) of a Lexus RX, but none of the prestige. Seems like a weird concept? It is, and we could spend an eternity on the vagaries of the American class system. The point is that the Highlander has been a great success for Toyota, allowing the driver to hide in plain sight, while enjoying the comforts associated with success. GMC has obviously been paying attention, and the new Acadia is quite adept at this same trick.
To reshape the Acadia in this way, GMC did something the American population struggles with, shaving off a considerable amount of weight, 318kg to be exact. The combination of a lighter car and a new 3.6-litre V6 good for 310bhp means that you’ll have no trouble overtaking in the Acadia, although it doesn’t quite feel like that many ponies in the final analysis. Perhaps it’s down to the six-speed automatic transmission, as GM has seen fit to hold back the eight for the Cadillac variant. According to GMC the six is better for towing, which is admittedly a larger segment of buyers for GMC than Caddy. Obviously we didn’t get to test the theory, but the important thing is that the Acadia is an excellent daily driver, it’s just not an emotionally inspirational performer, and that’s not why you buy a whip like this anyway, is it?
Actually, there’s a huge exception to the above. En route to Vegas, on my second day behind the wheel of the Acadia, our route masters have programmed a laudable detour — a 16km stretch of sand- and rock-lined fire road that connects the highway to the interstate, a scenic route that you could do in 2WD, but much slower. I don’t know what’s come over me, but as the lead car it’s my job to set the pace, and I open the throttle and just go for it. There’s so much dust in my wake that, before I know it, the rest of our party are a distant memory, and I’m skittering across rock outcropping and sending up plumes of moon dust. Maybe it’s the fact that this is the first stretch of road that is plausibly law-enforcement free. Maybe it’s the fact that there is no posted speed limit. Maybe I just miss the many opportunities afforded for spirited driving in Dubai, my former adopted home. Whatever the case, I slightly overcook a big right sweeper and, as the rear end breaks loose I simply ease off the petrol. Like magic, the big/little Acadia regains purchase with the gentle grace of a rowboat-changing course on a pond. For a moment we’re swimming, rather than driving across the sand. But the GMC is still supremely manageable, and I take the hint, managing the power more reasonably in the last, wide track section of the road with its compelling embrace of ideal lines.
Off the tarmac, I’m having an unreasonable amount of fun in GMC’s dignified family hauler. Inadvisable? Perhaps. But very doable. And here’s another thing: I’m not even driving the Acadia All Terrain with an advanced AWD system with Active Twin Clutch. I actually can’t tell you how it compares as I never got the chance, nor felt the need to switch. Our car, a Denali edition, was equipped with Continuously Variable ride control. I can’t say the ride quality is the Acadia’s finest point, but for daily family duties it would be suitably comfy and when you’re thundering across the more outdoorsy bits as I was, that connection to the road is actually fairly welcome, if a bit jarring in the extremes.
Naturally, the car is equipped with electronic power steering and, while the typical complaints suffice (no feel) I found the car quite compliant and easy to pilot, even in extremis. It has none of that floaty, disconnection you might expect from an old school GM (or Toyota for that matter) brute. Instead, while slightly vanilla in its modernity, this is a very driver-friendly SUV, and one that is careful to never offend. Perhaps those two things go together?
Alongside its many contemporary flourishes, the Acadia has a raft of new available and add-on safety features including Front Pedestrian Braking, Low Speed Forward Automatic Braking, Following Distance Indicator, IntelliBeam automatic headlamp high-beam control, Surround Vision camera system, and Safety Alert Seat. The camera is excellent for parking the beast, and I loved being able to flick on the rear camera while barrelling down the aforementioned off-road section, even if all I could typically see were clouds of dust in my wake. The safety seats are hit or miss, on occasion I wasn’t sure what the seat was trying to tell me except perhaps that I wasn’t keeping my lane well (we were stuck in traffic on a winding stretch of two-lane highway and I was coming over to try and glance at the obstruction ahead).
Speaking of looks of a different sort, GMC’s take is that Acadia offers a greater emphasis on refinement, that the car demands respect with its chrome-trimmed grille, squared off and flared wheelarches, and wraparound rear-side windows with dark D-pillars. HID lamps bedeck the Denali while halogen projectors light the way for the lesser trim levels. Signature LEDs let oncoming traffic know you’re rocking a GMC. (Which reminds me, has anyone else noticed a high percentage of late-model Audis with LED failure on one side?)
I think that the Acadia’s toned-down appearance is actually a strength, as evidenced by the massive customer feedback campaign that led to its design. Matt Noone, director of GMC Exterior Design, says, “The new design does a great job of projecting the message that Acadia has new levels of refinement, capability and performance in store for our customers.” And refined is a good way of putting it, even if it doesn’t nominally sound like a trait you’d associate with a brand built on trucks. The good news here is that while the Acadia is, in truth, not exactly a head-turning beauty, it does not look like a car designed by committee. Kudos to GMC for asking what its buyers say they want, but delivering something they actually should.
Inside the Acadia celebrates GM’s overall move toward better and better interiors. The All Terrain comes in particularly striking leather, complimented by deep black accents. Our Denali had all the creature comforts, and provides road-trip-worthy levels of comfort and technology. I’ve recently switched to Android, so it was slightly annoying the way the infotainment system kept deferring to my passenger’s iPhone for music etc. That said it may just be because he plugged his in first and it therefore occupied some primary position in the car’s phone hierarchy.
Before descending on the neon bacchanal of Las Vegas (I fell asleep in my room around 11, thank you very much) we make a stop at the Hoover Dam. This expanse of concrete is something like the antithesis of the Grand Canyon, an appendage of our attempt to control nature, rather than succumb to it. But the theme GMC has drawn is not lost on me; the Acadia, despite its lovely aura of humility, is also something quite monumental in its own way. A hulk of steel, aluminium, plastic, rubber and leather, cutting its way through the air with little or no effort, riding smoothly down the highway of your daily life, hassle free or close to it. It might be easy to take the Acadia for granted, like the dams that collect our drinking water, or the great scars of erosion that mark the earth. But this is an SUV that does just about everything you could want it to, and does it well — and that’s worth appreciating.