TRAVERSE CITY, MI – A funny thing happened at General Motors’ GMC truck brand when it began applying luxurious touches to its rough-and-tumble line of trucks back in 1999: It worked.

GMC says it has sold about 500,000 Denali-branded vehicles – the Sierra, Acadia, Yukon, Yukon XL and the discontinued Envoy – in the U.S. since that time, inadvertently creating a market of loyal GM buyers seeking upscale features.

Unlike Chevrolet’s sporty SS sub-branding, which has became muddied in recent years as it was added to models such as the Malibu Maxx, GMC has taken a more consistent approach with the Denali label.

GM has no plans for a stand-alone Denali-branded vehicle, but this fall, the auto maker rolls out the ’13 Terrain Denali cross/utility vehicle.

The Terrain Denali enters a crowded CUV segment where its GM cousins are near the top of the heap in sales. The Chevrolet Equinox is the third-best-selling vehicle in the middle CUV segment, behind the Honda CRV and Ford Escape, while the Cadillac SRX is second only to the Lexus RX in the middle-luxury SUV segment, according to WardsAuto data.

But the 5-passenger Terrain has been a valuable addition to GMC’s lineup, rivaling the larger Acadia in sales since its 2009 debut.

Bolder, straightedge exterior design distinguishes the Terrain from the Equinox and attracts a different buyer. This is a change from the badge-engineering strategy between Chevy and GMC trucks in the past. Adding a Denali edition made sense, executives say, as the brand looks to target buyers of the Ford Edge, Mazda CX-7, Nissan Murano and Hyundai Santa Fe.

However, exterior differences between a standard Terrain and a Terrain Denali are fairly subtle. The Terrain Denali, like all Denali models, features a bright chrome honeycomb grille, chrome exhausts and new-for-’13 rear headlamps and taillamps.

Inside, the differences are more pronounced. “Denali” is embossed on the steering wheel where the GMC logo normally would be, stitched into leather seating and engraved on chrome door sills. Larger 18- and 19-in. 6-spoke chrome wheels are available.

There also is a big difference under the hood. The top engine option now is GM’s potent 301-hp direct-injection 3.6L V-6. It makes 272 lb.-ft. (369 Nm) of torque. The current standard engine on Terrain models is a 2.4L I-4 engine making just 182 hp. It will remain available on the Denali edition for buyers focused on fuel economy rather than power.

The new V-6 is rated at 17/24 mpg (13.8-9.8 L/100 km) city/highway with front-wheel drive, dropping to 16/23 mpg (14.7-10.2 L/100 km) with all-wheel drive.

The I-4 delivers 22/32 mpg (10.7-7.4 L/100 km) with FWD and 20/29 mpg (11.8/8.1 L/100 km) with AWD.

GMC executives say they are not worried about the disparity in fuel-economy numbers because Denali customers primarily are concerned with luxury features. Plus, the V-6 tow rating is 3,500 lbs. (1,588 kg), a big improvement from the I-4 at 1,500 lbs. (680 kg).

Journalists here were treated to a vineyard-lined route along Lake Michigan, featuring narrow, hilly back roads and tight curves, heading to picturesque Sleeping Bear Dunes.

A little on the heavy side at just over 4,000 lbs., (1,814 kg), the Terrain Denali still feels nimble and balanced on the twisties. Braking is adequate, even down steep hills.

However, it is disappointing that during the Terrain Denali trip drivers are not given much opportunity to test actual terrain. There is no off-road portion of the test route.

But the 6-speed automatic transmission provides smooth, trouble-free shifting as we rack up the pavement miles.

GM’s IntelliLink telematics system, available in Buick and GMC models and standard for the Denali Terrain, proves helpful on this outing.

The system is woven seamlessly into the vehicle’s other technologies and connects easily to smartphones.

IntelliLink picks up a driver’s favorite Pandora streaming radio station already programmed into his phone with minimal man-to-machine interaction, and voice recognition can pick up everyday speech quirks (think along the lines of Apple’s Siri), instead of forcing drivers to use commands dreamed up by engineers.

The Terrain Denali has an audible lane-departure warning that is not new for the brand. Its constant alerts do get a bit annoying while navigating narrow roads. The technology can be turned off, but is obviously more useful on a busy highway. Blind-spot alerts that flash in the side mirrors are new for the vehicle and a more helpful feature, as well as audible forward-collision alerts.

But the lane-departure warnings coupled with audible forward-collision alerts in the Terrain Denali are loud enough to disturb sleeping children in the backseat, not a good thing in a family vehicle, although they could be drowned out by the standard rear-seat entertainment system that includes screens in the headrests, a DVD player and wireless headphones.

While the V-6 packs a lot of power, the downside is hard acceleration gets a bit noisy at times, perhaps too much so for those who equate luxury with quiet.

And while GMC still is cultivating the Denali brand, it’s missing the mark with the interior styling of the Terrain model. Smoky mahogany accents and a leather-wrapped steering wheel give it a nice touch for sure, and the 8-way power seating allows for maximum comfort behind the wheel.

But the red stitching combined with black leather make the Terrain look almost exactly like a higher-trim Equinox, not to mention both models share similar instrument panels and other interior design features.

On the positive side, the CUV’s programmable power liftgate works well and stops moving when it senses obstacles.

Base price of the Terrain Denali is $35,350. Adding AWD brings it to $37,100. Throw in another $1,500 for the V-6 engine on either drivetrain. That prices it above most competitors, but that’s due partially to the high levels of standard equipment.

GMC isn’t predicting sales of the Terrain Denali when it arrives in dealers this fall, but the V-6 powertrain and increased tow rate should add to the Terrain’s overall tally. And as the Denali sub-brand continues to grow, so will GMC’s distinction from other trucks in the market.

afoley@wardsauto.com

’13 GMC Terrain Denali
Vehicle type Front-engine, AWD CUV
Engine 3.6L direct-injection DOHC 6-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 301 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 272 lb.-ft. (369 Nm) @ 4,800 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 94 x 85.6  
Compression ratio 11.5:1  
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 112.5 ins. (285.7)
Overall length 187.8 ins. (477.1)
Overall width 72.5 ins. (184.1)
Overall height  
Curb weight 4,046 lbs. (1,835 kg)
Base price $35,350
Fuel economy 17/24 mpg (13.8-9.8 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Ford Edge, Mazda CX-7, Hyundai Santa Fe, Nissan Murano
Pros Cons
High-tech features Equinox-like interior
Tows 3,500 lbs. Noisy cabin
Good power, torque Annoying safety alerts