2018 GMC Acadia Denali AWD: The 3 Row SUV Minivan Alternative

Gmc Acadia 3 Row Suv

You need a minivan. But you just can’t do it.

I get it. As the saying goes, half your brain goes out with the placenta when you have a baby. But do I have to let my style go, too? After giving up my wardrobe, my body, switching my handbag for a diaper bag and even replacing my favorite shoes with sensible ones, I just couldn’t give up that one last piece of my identity. I went for a sleek and capable SUV.

It was fine for many of the things I needed, but I soon became tired of the cramped space, compromised cargo room and lack of family-friendly features. I was starting to envy the minivan moms who drove around smiling all the time.

So hopping into the 2018 GMC Acadia Denali was an eye opener. Why didn’t they make SUVs like this when my kids were babies? New mommy-hood would have been so different!

What does Denali mean, anyway? 

Blond Woman With Black And White Dog In A Suv With Tan Interior

My dog Eli loved the Acadia too. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Who This Car is For

  • Families or drivers who frequently need second and third row seating
  • Buyers with kids in car seats who don’t want a minivan
  • Buyers who need room for 6 or 7 passengers
  • Buyers who want a nice selection of top features for under $50K
  • Drivers who need all wheel drive
  • Drivers who appreciate a beautifully appointed interior
  • Buyers who need flexible cargo space for both cargo and people
  • Drivers who appreciate top safety technology
  • Drivers who want the space but not the lumbering drive feel of a larger car
Inner Console Of A Acadia 3 Row Suv- Light Interior

The front cabin of the GMC Acadia. Photo: Scotty Reiss

What this Car Costs

Denali denotes the top trim level of GMC’s models. The Acadia is available in a range of trim levels, however, with features added to each level:

  • SL which includes 4-cylinder engine with 193 horsepower, seating for 7, keyless remote with push button start, 7-inch infotainment screen, rear seat reminder: $29,999
  • SLE-1 adds LED lights and Sirius XM radio, $33,595
  • SLE-2 adds option of 3.6 L V6 engine, heated front seats, roof rails and second row captains chairs, $36,195
  • SLT-1adds household plug outlet, power front passenger seat and leather first and second row seats: $36,940
  • SLT-2 adds 3.6 L V6 engine, heated second row seats and 20 inch wheels, $42,895
  • Denali adds configurable driver information center, hands free power lift gate, upgraded infotainment system, power telescoping and tilting steering wheel, signature Denali details: $46,095
  • All wheel drive system adds $2,000
  • Technology package with adaptive cruise control, forward emergency braking and surround view camera adds $1,395
  • Convenience package adds roof rack cross rails and a step-assist rails, $860
  • Price of the model we tested: $49,790

Think a bigger SUV is in order? Here’s why Connie Peters bought the GMC Yukon Denali

Set The Height The Rear Lift Gate

This button on the driver’s side door allows you to set the height the rear lift gate will open. Photo: Scotty Reiss

They Tried to Think of Everything, and Got Most of it Right

So here’s the thing about the people who work at GMC. They are people. Moms, dads, sisters, brothers, granddads and grandmas. Even the chief of design, Helen Emsley, is a mom who thinks not just about what she wants in car, but what you want, too.

The Center Console Of The Arcadia

The center console has a storage cubby with 2 USB ports buttons to choose heated or cooled seats and cup holders. Photo: Scotty Reiss

An Interior Design That Preserves Your Adult Sense of Style

You can see this when you get into the GMC Acadia Denali. The cabin is calm and airy. The trim around the dashboard is a modern mix of wood and chrome—real wood streaked with blonde and brown that subtly compliments the cream and taupe leather upholstery. The surfaces that are likely to be the recipient of coffee spills or ground pretzel shmear are dark to hide the mess. The panoramic sun roof adds even more beautiful light to the interior. And the surfaces that frame our faces and conversation are light, as are the pillars and ceiling, while the flooring and carpets are dark. All of it, brilliant.

For those who don’t want the heft of a 3 row SUV, the GMC Terrain has you covered

Split Third Row Seats

Split third row seats allow for more cargo options. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Functional Design That Lets Everyone Be Independent

Options allow you to pick between center row captains chairs and a bench to accommodate 6 or 7 total passengers. Either way, center row seats have a smart slide and tilt function that allow, with the lift of a tab on the seat’s shoulder, the seats to move and tilt forward for access to the third row. You can even do this with a child car seat in place as long as it’s secured with the LATCH system; seats attached with a seatbelt embedded in the pillar wall next to the door won’t do this, so families with older kids who are too heavy for LATCH may find center row captains chairs the best option for accessing the third row.

Second and third row seats can fold flat— some or all of them— for additional cargo space. So you can put one passenger in the third row and still have extra cargo space.

There’s also an adjustable lift gate feature that allows you to set the height you want the gate to open. ‘Why in the world would you want this?’ ask legions of men who have no trouble reaching the gate’s handle when it’s extended 7 feet up in the air. ‘This is brilliant’ respond legions of drivers like me who have cringed more than once when the kids open the lift gate inside the garage only to have it smack the garage door rails and leave a huge ding.

And those of us struggling to hurry the kids out of the car in the morning car pool line love that the kids can close the lift gate after they’ve retrieved their backpacks and flutes so I don’t have to.

Center Console In Backseat

The rear seat center console is great for charging and storage with a household plug, USB ports and a storage drawer. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Connectivity So Everyone Is Always Plugged in and Happy

If I have only one nerve left after a tough day, this is the one that gets me: The fight over the front seat to charge a phone. But really, this should not be a battle. And in fact, the second row has features that make front row passengers jealous. Like a household plug and a storage drawer. Plus, the seats are heated.

And with 2 USB ports up front and 2 in the back, wifi — standard in all GM cars and trucks though a data plan is required— OnStar (5 year plan included), Sirius XM Radio, Bluetooth and Apple Car Play/Android Auto, pretty much everything you need is at your fingertips.

Meet Helen Emsley, the woman behind GMC’s form and function

Gmc Acadia 3 Row SuvSafety Features That Keep Adults and Teens Safe on the Road

Safety features have emerged as a hugely competitive area for auto makers. Cars can regulate your speed, keep you in your lane, stop you before a crash occurs, warn you of oncoming traffic, approaching pedestrians, cars in your blindspot and objects in your path. Most of these features are standard on many cars, including the Acadia Denali. They include:

  • Automatic high beams
  • Following distance indicators
  • Forward collision alert
  • Tear cross traffic alert
  • Lane keep assist with departure warning
  • Low speed forward automatic braking
  • Blind spot alert
  • Pedestrian braking
  • Rear seat reminder— This last one was developed by GM and first seen in the Acadia in response to drivers accidentally leaving small children in closed cars where they can die. The system gives the driver a reminder when they turn the car off that they’d opened a rear door before starting the car.

See the GMC Acadia Denali for yourself in our Facebook Live video part one, part two and part three

Additionally, the Acadia has a teen driver assist package that allows one of the key fobs to be set with certain limitations, including:

  • Radio muted when front seat belts are not buckled
  • Radio volume can be limited
  • Speed can be limited
  • Speed warnings can be set between 40 and 75MPH
  • Report card data reported for each trip
  • Other safety features cannot be turned off
Center Row Captains Chairs

Center row captains chairs allow for access to the Acadia’s third row. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Yes, It’s a Living Room on Wheels, But it Doesn’t Drive Like One

And I loved this. The Acadia is a large SUV but not overly large. So it was easy to drive and park. I would expect that the 4 cylinder (which I didn’t drive) might feel a little stressed with a full load, but the 6 cylinder was ample and gave me plenty of confidence on the road.

I also loved the choice of 2WD or AWD. We use AWD a lot in the winter, and it’s great to switch on when it starts to rain just to be sure the car is performing at it’s best. There is also a sport drive mode, off road mode and tow mode, great for heading to the woods with a camper for vacation or conquering steep, graveling roads. 

All this, paired with the comfortable seats and roomy interior made for a very comfortable feeling, whether driving by myself or filling the car with kids and cargo.

A Storage Bin Under The Rear Cargo Floor In The Gmc Acadia

A storage bin under the rear cargo floor in the 2018 GMC Acadia. Photo: Scotty Reiss

Add These for the Perfect SUV: Adaptive Cruise Control, Step Assist and Bring Your Own Entertainment System

The Acadia does not have a built-in entertainment system. This is a trend with car makers: They give you the plug-ability and wifi but you have to bring your own entertainment system. You can easily plug in a tablet and attach it to the back of the headrests, or just hand the kids your phone and let them entertain themselves. This has long been our family choice; it allowed us to upgrade the entertainment systems—or take them away!— as needed, and also, bring them inside the hotel room or grandma’s house.

Two options that were not on our test model but that I would definitely include are adaptive cruise control and for families with toddlers, step assist rails.

Adaptive cruise control is my favorite active safety/driver assist feature available. Set your speed and let the car adjust with the flow of the traffic. This greatly reduces stress on the highway and also, improves your fuel economy.

Another option, step assist rails, can be added for $860. This is great for little people who might need a bit more help getting into the car. And they are perfectly sized for small feet, tucking neatly into the car’s side rails so you won’t bruise your calves or shins getting in and out.

It looks like GMC’s designers have been on the same road as me: raising kids and thinking about how our cars can help make the journey easier and more fun. I love that they see the possibilities and then incorporate them into their new cars. I just wish this car had been on the market when I was a new mom!

The Acadia'S Center Console

The Acadia’s center console features neatly arranged controls and storage options. Photo: Scotty Reiss

What We Loved

  • Panoramic sun roof
  • Built in WiFi
  • That gorgeous interior. Seriously beautiful
  • Center row captains chairs that slide and tilt for third row access
  • Multiple drive modes in including AWD
  • Cutting edge safety/driver assist features
  • Adjustable lift gate
  • Teen driver assist feature
  • LOTS of plugs including a household plug and 4 USB ports
  • Capless gas tank means easy refilling and no getting gas on your hands

2018 Gmc Acadia SpecsWhat You Need to Know

  • Price starts at about $30,000 but tops out at more than $50,000
  • Seating for 7 with a center row bench seat
  • Seating for 6 with center row captains chairs
  • Cargo capacity behind the third row is ample but not huge
  • 18 MPG city/25 MPG highway; we averaged about 21 MPG
  • Regular gas recommended

What We Listened to in the GMC Acadia Denali

This elegant car accommodates families without compromising style or technology. The Bose sound system was a nice addition to the car and made our playlist sound all the better.

Disclosure: The GMC Acadia Denali AWD was provided for this test drive. All opinions are my own.

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss