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Test Drive: 2013 GMC Acadia

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     (GMC)

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     (GMC)

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     (GMC)

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     (GMC)

Trying to replace a minivan and an SUV with one vehicle sounds like a fool’s errand, or even a flat-out dumb idea, but General Motors pulled it off, and created a fleet of money-printing machines in the process.

The 8-passenger GMC Acadia and its Chevrolet Traverse, Buick Enclave and dearly departed Saturn Outlook crossover cousins have been among the automaker’s strongest sellers since they started hitting the road in the 2007 model year.

The vehicles took the place of various minivans and three-row SUVs sold by the brands, and GM has moved well over a million of them, including more than 220,000 in 2012, which was a down year.

That dip was caused in part by the announcement that updated models were the way for 2013, including the GMC Acadia tested here.

As the monkey in the middle of the remaining near-triplets, the $35,440 Acadia comes higher priced and better trimmed than the $31,370 Traverse, but not quite as plush as the $39,340 Enclave.

The exterior has been redesigned with a more square-jawed look than the softly-styled outgoing car, and now features a big, boxy grille, lots of chrome and LED lighting accents. In back the Spirit of Saturn lives on as the Acadia dips into the company parts bin and borrows the fenders, tailgate and wraparound glass from the fallen one like a remorseless bargain hunter fresh from an estate sale. The result is a more truck-like vehicle that better fits GMC’s “Professional Grade” mantra than the jumbo jellybean before it.

Mechanical upgrades are minor, but include a retuned suspension for improved ride quality. The 288 hp V6 and six-speed automatic transmission essentially carry over from the old model, as do its fuel economy ratings of 17 mpg city, 24 mpg highway for front-wheel-drive models and 16 city/23 hwy for all-wheel-drive Acadia.

The big innovation inside the Acadia is the industry’s first front, center-mounted airbag, which is intended to keep you from slamming into the person sitting next to you in the event of a side impact or rollover. It deploys from the driver’s seat backrest and fills the space between the two front passengers, at least it’s supposed to. I was lucky enough not to have to test it during my time with the vehicle, nor do I have any plans to do so in the immediate future, so we’ll all have to take their word for it and hope that it works as advertised.

Other than that, the changes are mostly cosmetic, but welcome, with new stitched, soft-touch material on the dashboard, rich wood trim and lots of silver accents with a satin-finish that together offer more of a man cave environment than the Chevy or Buick can provide.

And a deep cave it is. Minivans aside, this is pretty much the largest “car” you can buy before you have to move up to a truck-based SUV, like the GMC Yukon. The smaller, less capable Honda Pilot is its closest competition. Seven passenger seating with second row captain’s chairs is the basic layout, but a three-passenger bench is a no-cost option. In either case, they slide fore and aft to dole out leg and cargo room as needed.

There are plenty of both, four-foot wide sheets of plywood will fit inside, and the Acadia has a tow rating of 5,200 pounds, so just strap on a trailer if you need room for more. Boaters will appreciate this ability, as well.

And they’ll probably feel right at home in the Acadia. Even with its standard back up camera, directing its ample proportions into tight parking spaces isn’t unlike piloting a boat into a slip, and on the road it pitches and rolls quite a bit, but in a mostly controlled and very comfortable fashion. It's no sports sedan, and doesn't pretend to be, but for road trips, this craft is an old-school pleasure cruiser.

However -- to continue on this nautical tangent -- you might want to think about bringing a navigator along for the ride. The IntelliLink touch screen-based infotainment system found on top-level Acadias is feature-laden, but dreadful to use. It’s surrounded by touch-sensitive pads instead of buttons, and all of the inputs exhibit the reaction time of an overloaded cruise ship. Multiple taps were often required in my experience, and the navigation function completely crashed once, leaving me adrift somewhere on the roads of Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Thankfully the Acadia isn't a half-bad place to get stranded. As a minivan alternative with the chops to do some heavy duty hauling, and none of that icky mom-mobile aura to go with it, it is nearly in a class by itself.

And if it weren’t for those pesky relatives at Chevy and Buick, it would be.

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2013 GMC Acadia

Base Price: $35,440

As Tested: $45,165

Type: 7 or 8-passenger, five-door crossover

Engine: 3.6L V6

Power: 288 hp, 270 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

MPG: 16-17 city/23-24 hwy