Review and photos by
Grant Yoxon, Autos.ca
Ottawa, Ontario – It was -25 degrees Celsius with a strong wind blowing in Chicago. A walk outside was short lived and I felt housebound at the hotel located in the River North district, a $10 cab ride from McCormick Place where the annual Chicago International Auto Show takes place.
This year, the Chicago show was all about performance as Chevrolet revealed the 2012 supercharged 6.2-litre Camaro ZL1, Dodge displayed its 2012 6.4-litre HEMI Charger and Shelby showed a powerful duo of 2012 Mustangs. Volkswagen took the wraps off the sporty 2012 Jetta GLS, while Hyundai introduced an updated and more powerful Genesis sedan. For an auto show that normally showcases new truck products, there was very little. But Dodge told everyone that it wouldn’t be left behind in the Heavy Duty truck wars, as it rolled out the 2012 Cummins diesel, featuring 800 lb.-ft. of torque, that will power its most powerful 2500 and 3500 HD trucks. Only with Acura’s revamped 2012 TL reveal was the emphasis on style rather than power.
It may have been cold in Chicago, but at least it was not the 100 centimetres of snow that shut the city down the week before and stranded commuters in their cars, buried in huge drifts of snow and waiting hours for rescue by snowmobile equipped firefighters.
Getting there requires a different kind of power than that on display at the Chicago auto show. The risk of severe weather is the chance you take when you drive from Ottawa to Chicago in February. It is 1,300 kilometres from Ottawa, Ontario to the middle of the continent and challenging weather is a guaranteed certainty. For this journey one needs the power to overcome Mother Nature.
That power came in the form of the upscale Denali version of the GMC Acadia, a new trim line for the 2011 model year. The Acadia is available in two cloth trims and two leather trims, with both front- and all-wheel-drive, and the ultimate Denali trim with all-wheel-drive.
The GMC Acadia has a base price of $38,090 before discounts, incentives – GM’s web site lists $3,200 in discounts – and destination charges ($1,450) and taxes. Standard equipment includes a 288 hp 3.6-litre engine, 6-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel-drive, 18-inch alloy wheels, roof rails, cloth interior, cruise control, power windows and doors, driver information centre with service interval warning, manual air conditioning with separate rear controls, manually adjustable seats and eight passenger (2nd row rear bench) seating and six-speaker audio with satellite radio, single CD player and MP3 decoder.
The Denali takes the comfort level to a much higher level with a Bose premium audio system and 10 speakers, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, rear cargo area audio controls and Bluetooth connectivity. Wheels are 20-inch chrome clad aluminum with black chrome inserts. There is a dual sun roof with power tilt and sliding front and fixed rear portions. Headlights are HID projector low beams and halogen high beams, while fog lights are standard. The lift gate is powered and the door handles chrome. A trailer towing package is also included allowing the Denali to tow up to 2,364 kg (5,200 lb).
Specific Denali exterior trim includes unique lower front and rear fascias, body-coloured lower cladding, rocker mouldings, rear fascia and fender flares, unique body side mouldings with chrome accents and Denali badges and dual chrome exhaust tips.
Interior luxury features include a leather-wrapped steering wheel with mahogany inserts, wood grain finish on the instrument panel and centre stack, perforated leather seats with matching leather door panel trim, heated and cooled driver and front passenger seats, enhanced accent lighting, chrome, lighted sill plates with the Denali logo, improved sound deadening materials, head-up display, tri-zone automatic climate control, eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat with memory, rear parking sensors and back-up camera integrated in the rear-view mirror. In the second row there are two captain’s chairs and a third-row bench split 60/40.
Price for the full jam takes it way up to $57,840 and if you choose to upgrade the Bose audio system to include navigation, rear entertainment system and rear-view back-up camera integrated in the display, as our Denali was equipped, the bill comes in at $63,550 (less $3,200 in discounts, plus $1,450 destination charge and taxes).
It’s a lot of extra coin to pay for a vehicle that comes equipped, with the addition of all-wheel-drive ($3,000), with all you need to battle the vagaries of winter – GM’s StabiliTrak electronic stability control with enhanced rollover protection, traction control, OnStar communications and assistance service, tire pressure monitor and a full compliment of front and side impact airbags.
But the value of the additional equipment is best proven on the road and for the 14-hour trip to Chicago, the weatherman predicted clear skys all the way through, following a day of warmer, wetter weather. So we left a day early to take advantage of the inclement weather, after packing a “survival kit” consisting of a sleeping bag, candles, flashlight and a big bag of snacks. It might come in handy.
It was snowing lightly when we left Ottawa with temperatures near zero and the roads were wet and slushy most of the way to Toronto. It was no challenge at all for the Acadia cruising along just above the 100 km/h speed limit. The Acadia is heavy, over 2,200 kg (4,857 lb) with all-wheel-drive. It is a weight that keeps the vehicle planted firmly on the road, albeit without any real idea about what is going on under the tires. The suspension is built for comfort, the cabin eerily quiet and the steering devoid of feedback. The Acadia requires trust, but does not prove your trust misplaced.
The Acadia was equipped with Toyo Open Country G-02 Plus winter tires and these worked well in both slush covered and snowy roads.
The Acadia Denali is a wonderful place to spend 14 hours of nearly non-stop driving. The front seats are wide and comfortable and will adjust to any physical shape behind the wheel. They warm up quickly and heat can be set at three different levels. You sit high with great visibility in all directions. The audio system is robust. And with your favorite tunes playing and the phone Bluetooth connected, the miles disappear rapidly. Rest stops are infrequent and determined by calls of nature or the need for fuel rather than a sore butt or tired back.
We ran into more snow along highway 402 between London and Sarnia as the wind picked up over Lake Huron, dumping snow along this notorious corridor. At times conditions neared white out and necessarily we reduced our speed accordingly. But the squalls were short lived and we arrived at the border seven hours after leaving Ottawa.
Here we encountered the only delay on the entire trip as I was given the first degree by a surely twenty-something border guard who insisted on using my first name.
Sorry, but I must digress.
I give the young border guard my Canadian passport and he asks me my citizenship.
“Canadian,” I reply, wondering why he doesn’t know that considering he’s holding my Canadian passport.
“Now, Grant, where would you be going today.”
“Chicago,” I reply.
“Why would you want to go to Chicago, Grant?”
“I’m attending the press preview day at the Chicago auto show.”
“Why, Chicago, Grant? Why not the Michigan auto show?”
“If you mean, Detroit, I attended that show last month.”
“What’s the difference? Why do you need to go to both?”
I explain my job, the importance of international auto shows for the industry and for the media. But the questions continue…
“Who do you know there?” (No one).
“Who do you work for?” (CanadianDriver).
“Where is it located? (Canada).
“When are you coming back?” And on and on and on.
After 15 minutes and with a half a mile of cars behind me I began to think he wasn’t going to let me into his country, which at that point would have suited me just fine. Why should I go to Chicago, spend more than a $1,000 on food, gas and hotels, gifts and other things and be treated like a criminal for the privilege?
Surprisingly, he never asked me where I lived or why I was driving a car that was clearly not my own (Ontario address, Quebec license plate).
Back on the road and with my fuel consumption up three tenths from the 11.7 L/100 km that I had recorded from Ottawa to Sarnia I set the cruise control at the posted speed limit of 70 mph (115 km/hour). Switching from metric to English is easy in the Acadia by pressing a button and selecting the units. The gauges don’t change, but the heads up display, exterior and internal temperature, and fuel consumption readings change.
While the temperature dropped we ran into some more lake generated snow squalls in western Michigan before crossing into Indiana and then into Illinois, but while annoying, it did not impede our progress and it looked like we would make it to the hotel in less than 13 hours.
One nice feature on the Acadia’s navigation system is the ability to spot traffic jams up ahead and to instruct the navigation system to avoid the problem areas. Nearing the outskirts of Chicago, the navigation system beeped and displayed the message, “Traffic Jam Ahead.” I chose to ignore, but the system beeped again. Again I chose “ignore”, only to have it beep again a few seconds later.
This time, I scrolled through the ten or so trouble spots identified by the system, all on Interstate 94, my route into Chicago. Nothing looked serious, only traffic moving at slower speeds. But I did notice that the system had an alert to notify me that my planned exit was closed due to construction. I selected this item and at the prompt instructed the navigation system to find another way off the freeway. The navigation system recalculated the route, before beginning again to beep and alert me constantly about upcoming traffic jams. Finally annoyed by the constant beeping and warning messages, I scrolled through the menu system and found a way to shut the warnings off – a major distraction while driving in heavy traffic.
Whether this action reversed my instruction for the system to find a way around the closed exit, I can’t be sure, because I was directed to exit where I couldn’t, but after missing the exit, the system quickly recalculated an alternate route to the hotel.
With the addition of some severely slow moving traffic on I-94 into Chicago, total travel time was close to 14 hours. On the return, I left early the day after the press preview in -25 degree temperatures, encountered no severe weather along the way and arrived in Toronto at 2:30 in the afternoon and Ottawa some four and a half hours later.
The border crossing was actually quite pleasant. The cheerful Canadian border guard asked just the essential questions and asked me about the Chicago reveals only after returning my passport. He both welcomed me home and wished me a good day.
And yes, he did notice that I was driving a car that was not my own.
What a difference.
The GMC Acadia Denali turned out to be a very pleasant vehicle for a long road trip. And with the optional rear entertainment system, would be a good holiday vehicle for a small family. With the rear bench folded, there is room for plenty of luggage. Cup holders and storage cubbies are plentiful as well, with two consoles and seat back pockets available for additional storage space.
It was not perfect. I would have appreciated a better feel for changing road conditions. And GM’s habit of placing the rear window wiper and washer deep on the centre stack is a distraction I could have done without. As well, overall highway fuel consumption of 11.7 L/100 km came nowhere near the Energuide estimate of 8.8 so traveling is expensive, although the Acadia uses regular fuel.
But unlike many vehicles, the Acadia will allow one to remain behind the wheel for extended periods with no need to stop other than to fuel up and eat lunch.
Pricing: 2011 GMC Acadia Denali
Base price: $57,840
Base price (Acadia SLE1 FWD): $38,090
Options: $ 5,610 (audio system, rear DVD, navigation system, integrated rear back-up camera, second row console, carbon flash metallic)
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $65,000
Crash test results