HIGHLAND TWP., MI – A few short years ago, the thought of a GMC Terrain based on the Chevrolet Equinox would have made us cringe with low expectations of badge engineering, a now infamous practice allowing the former General Motors Corp. to share vehicle platforms across eight divisions with little or no differentiation.

A result of so many hungry mouths and limited resources, the strategy oftentimes watered down the auto maker’s eight brands, leaving little to distinguish a particular Chevrolet model from a GMC, a Pontiac or a Buick.

In retrospect, it’s hardly surprising such a sea of blandness eventually would play a role in capsizing the old GM.

But with the emergence of General Motors Co. from bankruptcy comes a fresh twist on that same approach, and the reborn auto maker swears it will work this time around.

So far so good. The exterior of the new-for-’10 GMC Terrain 5-passenger cross/utility vehicle bears little resemble to its platform mate, the Chevrolet Equinox, with which it also shares the same assembly plant in Ingersoll, ON, Canada.

The Terrain has just begun arriving at dealers, and the Equinox precedes it by no more than a few weeks.

The chiseled-from-stone horizontal shape of the Terrain stands in stark contrast to the smoother, more family-friendly styling of the Equinox.

That could not have been said of the previous-generation Equinox and its near-twin, the Pontiac Torrent, a vehicle GM chose to discontinue months before its bankruptcy.

The Terrain’s exterior is so boxy and unlike any other GMC product, it looks as if it came out of GM’s Hummer division, one of four brands the auto maker will jettison this year.

The Terrain’s most striking element, however, might be the “cow-catcher” grille, which plunges deeply into the front fascia.

That look will take some getting used to, as will the Terrain’s protruding, boxy fender flares that leave an enormous amount of visible space at the top corners of the wheel wells.

No reservations over the projector headlamps. That’s the sort of premium feature GMC customers expect. Fog lamps also come standard, another rarity in the middle CUV segment.

Taken as a whole, the exterior styling does its job, distancing itself from the Equinox and any number of other rival 5-seat CUVs.

But inside, the Terrain loses its distinction from the Equinox. That’s not altogether bad, as both cockpits are nicely laid out, and the second row includes a nifty adjustable bench seat that travels 8 in. (20 cm) fore and aft.

’10 GMC Terrain
Vehicle type Front-engine, 2WD 5-passenger CUV
Engine 2.4L DOHC direct-injection I-4
Power (SAE net) 182 hp @ 6,700 rpm
Torque 172 lb. ft. (233 Nm) @ 4,900 rpm
Compression ratio 11.4:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic w/manual mode
Wheelbase 112.5 ins. (285.8 cm)
Overall length 185.3 ins. (470.6 cm)
Overall width 72.8 ins. (184.9 cm)
Overall height 66.3 ins. (168.4 cm)
Curb weight 3,798 lbs. (1,722.7 kg)
Base price $24,995
Fuel economy 22/32 mpg (10.7-7.4 L/100 km)
Competition Hyundai Santa Fe, Ford Edge, Nissan Murano, Mazda CX-7
Pros Cons
Unique exterior styling Interior lacks exterior’s punch
Adjustable rear bench No fifth head restraint
Crisp fit and finish Big grille a bit polarizing

The Terrain receives more ambient lighting than its platform mate, although buyers must step up to the top-of-the-line SLT2 equipment groups for lighted cupholders and door pulls.

Also standard is a camera integrated in the liftgate that gives the driver a view of objects behind the vehicle, another premium gadget exclusive to the Terrain as GM tries to capture a wealthier consumer and fatten its margins with rich content.

It’s been a successful strategy, as the brand consistently ranks among GM’s most profitable.

Fit and finish on the Terrain is lock-tight, even at the tricky junction between the door and dashboard. GM engineers say Terrain assemblers achieve the tight gaps by using a special tool that swings in the instrument panel for mounting but doesn’t screw down the four attachment bolts until each is started.

Further proof of the exemplary fit and finish: A stamped character line runs seemingly uninterrupted over the filler cap door along the passenger-side exterior rear panel. Gaps between exterior panels are razor thin.

The Terrain also gets the same noise-damping technology as the Equinox, including a subwoofer in the rear of 4-cyl. models that emits a frequency to offset engine clatter.

We wish the Terrain carried over more of its unique exterior to the interior, but that’s an investment even a healthy auto maker would consider risky, let alone one just three months removed from bankruptcy.

A fifth head restraint for the in-board passenger in the second row also would have been a worthwhile safety addition.

As expected, the 2.4L direct-injection gasoline 4-cyl. performs as well with the Terrain as with the Equinox. Sure, it works noticeably hard when exerted, but the promise of a segment-leading 32-mpg (7.3 L/100 km) on the highway is sure to tame even the heaviest foot.

GM engineers also tell Ward’s during a media drive here they soon will wring additional fuel economy and performance from the all-new engine. Without revealing details, they say one priority is improving combustion efficiency.

A 3.0L DIG V-6 comes optional. It provides more than enough kick for the CUV and makes short work of towing a 1,500-lb. (680-kg) jet-ski and trailer. The V-6 Terrain probably could handle much more.

Independent front and rear suspensions provide an agreeable ride, and the handling of 4-cyl. models is enhanced by an excellent rack-mounted electric power steering system from ZF Friedrichshafen AG. V-6 models receive a conventional hydraulic unit, which also inspires confidence.

In the end, we find the Terrain a fine-performing vehicle that stands on its own merits. But given GM’s checkered past, it is difficult to objectively examine the CUV without one eye on the Equinox.

The Terrain demonstrates GM can succeed at platform-sharing, and we’re looking forward to the day when the auto maker has deeper pockets to do so with even greater differentiation.

jamend@wardsauto.com