First Drive: 2020 GMC Acadia AT4

GMC’s AT4 brand hasn’t been around long but boy is it ever expanding quickly. And the latest (for now) is the Acadia version. The third nameplate to get it after the Sierra and Sierra HD (with a Canyon soon to follow). What is AT4 all about? A few different things, GMC’s marketing people say. It’s about off-road capability, for a start. But, more importantly, it’s for buyers who maybe aren’t ready for, or who just aren’t wanting, the chrome and glitz of the top-spec Denali. Because the AT4 trim is one of the big changes to the Acadia as part of the refresh for 2020, that’s the one that GMC brought out for us to drive first.

Let’s start with a look at the changes to all trims of GMC’s 2020 Acadia. First up is a new nose on every trim. There are a few grilles available, but they’re all bolder. And more square. With GMC’s C-shape LED running lights, though the square edges maybe don’t always work with the Acadia’s soft side angles, depending on your viewing angle.

There’s a new 2.0-liter turbo that’ll be available later in the year. It’s the same one used in the Terrain and Cadillac XT4. With that comes a new nine-speed transmission that’ll be the standard gearbox on the new 230 hp 2.0 but also the carryover 2.5-liter four and 3.6-liter V6. It replaces the six-speed ‘box that was behind the old engines last year. That niner gets GMC’s Electronic Precision Shift, better known as the pull-switches that the Terrain got a few years back.

There are some other small changes as well, including slight suspension revisions, upgraded wireless charging, a better camera on top trims, and the addition of personal profiles that lets users have the infotainment change to their preferences, based on which key fob is in the car. So if up to four drivers share the car (and have their own set of keys) each one can have their own radio and climate presets. Handy for the family ride.

AT4 is the second from the top trim. It comes standard with the 310 hp 3.6L V6, and GMC’s marketing materials highlight the twin-clutch AWD system, but all Acadias get that. And while it doesn’t get a lift like the pickups, it does get 17-inch all-terrain tires. Except that GMC knows that buyers of this one probably aren’t actually taking it off-road and so they’ve added 20s with more conventional tires to the options list.

The AT4 gets a special grille. Black and chrome, with lots more black trim around the window openings. It gets black mirrors too.

On the road, the first thing you’re going to notice is the 17-inch wheels. If you’re living in the ever-growing part of the country that’s seeing roads crumble and disappear into a lunar landscape of potholes, you’ll love them. If you’re somewhere the pavement is smooth, then there’s a pretty good chance you’ll want the optional 20s. That’s because while their short sidewalls don’t do the ride any favors–the 17s definitely ride better–the 20s are definitely easier on the ears.

The thing that moves the wheels, meanwhile, is the same V6 that is in a whole host of GM vehicles, and it’s a good engine in all of them. The V6 delivers its power appropriately, quietly, and with more verve than you’d ever expect if your memories of GM V6s ended with the 3.4 or 3.8-liter versions that are thankfully now a distant burbly memory. GM’s powertrain programmers let this one rev, and it’s more than happy to hit the 7,000 rpm redline. Even if you’re not trying for it.

The nine-speed, though, doesn’t offer the same pleasant experience. At low speeds, especially urban heavy traffic speeds, the Acadia’s nine was jerky. Taking just a bit too long to pick a gear, then jolting you with the selection. We’ve experienced this gearbox in other GM models without this issue, so it may be specific to these particular early-production models.

Outside of that, this is the same Acadia that’s been around for a while. The ride was near-silent and composed on our test routes, but the pavement around Jackson Hole Wyoming wasn’t exactly challenging to spring or damper. The nine-speed, though, means lower rpm at highway speeds and a quieter ride overall. Like last year, the steering isn’t going to offer you road feel and communication, but that’s not the point here. The point here is that the weighting feels good, and it does what you tell it to do with body roll reasonable for the class.

The precision shift gear selector is a bit of a love it or hate it thing. I love the extra center console space that not having a big knob gives you, and find it more intuitive than many of the other electronic shifters like button-only or rotary-dial gear changers. The HD rear camera is definitely an improvement for visibility out the back, especially at night.

In the cabin, the AT4 is loaded with some neat details. Our testers had leather seats with some contrast piping that helps add to the rugged look GMC is chasing. There are some additions like a new technical-look trim for the cup holder surround that looks pretty cool and decidedly premium. At the bottom of that trim piece is the controller for the AWD system that lets you pick two or four-wheel drive modes. Plus off-road, trailer tow, and the always puzzling on a crossover sport mode.

What GMC should have added for this year are some door storage cubbies. There’s nothing in this door that’ll hold your phone or anything else with much size to it.

The Acadia was already a relatively solid model for GMC, and these small changes haven’t really moved it one way or the other. More engine choices are always good, but that makes this a bit crowded lineup-wise. The AT4 trim, though, is sure to be a hit. Because every crossover these days wants to look tough, and the AT4’s trim and tires manage to do that better than any other effort in the segment.

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