Sometimes messing with success can be a risky undertaking. In the case of the 2017 Acadia, it was a calculated risk that GMC was fully prepared to take. Although the current iteration is coming off of its best sales year ever, the division felt this popular 3-row midsize crossover SUV would benefit from a “strategic re-scoping” to further distinguish it from the full-size Yukon and enhance its competitive appeal with an even larger group of potential buyers who wanted something larger than a Terrain. Unveiled earlier this year at the Detroit Auto Show, the 2017 GMC Acadia has been completely remade, retaining three rows of seats but shedding roughly 700 pounds. Beyond scaling down in physical size, the new Acadia now offers a more fuel-efficient 4-cylinder engine as well as its traditional V6. We recently checked out several variations during a brief-but-enlightening test drive around Washington D.C. and out into Virginia horse country, and can confirm GMC’s contention that the Gen II Acadia has gained noticeably with respect to style, refinement and operational sophistication.

A more sophisticated character

While maintaining a strong visual relationship with the brand, GMC says the 2017’s Acadia’s redrawn exterior reflects “extensive customer input.” That translates into swapping a healthy measure of truck-based influence in favor of a more contemporary crossover SUV character manifested in elements like softer contours, a faster windshield angle and more toney front/rear lighting elements – although still no full-LED headlamps. Duly differentiated trim grades run from base SL to two levels of SLE and SLT, plus a new active-lifestyle-oriented All-Terrain variant as well as the extremely popular and still brightwork-rich/range-topping Denali, which currently accounts for over 30 percent of all Acadia sales.

Based on GM’s new C1XX platform that also underpins the 2017 Cadillac XT5, the Acadia cuts a more dashing figure on a slightly less grand scale than the current Lambda-based iteration -- which will continue rolling on for the remainder of the year as the 2017 Acadia Limited. Measuring 193.6-inches from bumper to bumper, this re-envisioned Acadia is 7.2 inches shorter, 3.5 inches narrower and nearly four inches lower to its roofline with a wheelbase dimension that slips from 118.9 to 112.5 inches.

Enhanced dynamics

In the net gains department, that scale-down trims the Acadia’s turning circle from 40.4 feet to 38.7 feet, providing notably superior maneuverability in tighter confines. And whether front- or all-wheel drive, the Acadia’s lighter, stronger unitized core structure, more precise electric-assist power steering and fully independent suspension -- conventional or an available continuously variable damping system that’s standard on Denali models -- endow GMC’s versatile hauler with more confident control under all conditions. A new drive mode selector can modify various chassis and powertrain maps to accommodate changes in surface conditions, while 4x4 models have an econo-enhancing positive AWD disconnect that decouples the rear axle and driveshaft to save fuel. The new Acadia is quieter at all speeds and offers superior ride compliance whether fitted with 18-inch or 20-inch wheel/tire packages. However, we admit our multi-hour excursion was largely confined to traversing a selection of rather well-maintained freeways and rural roads.

ALSO: See more new models heading our way for 2017

Geared towards upgrading off-road competence, the new All-Terrain variant takes things a step beyond. It bolsters the Acadia’s basic AWD setup with a model-exclusive Active Twin Clutch system that can split rear torque left/right as well as provide the standard fore/aft shuffle to ensure power heads to the wheel/wheels with the greatest traction. The vehicle also replaces the Off Road mode that’s standard on Acadia AWDs with a bespoke All-Terrain alternative that helps improve hill-climbing capabilities. Unfortunately, our abbreviated first encounter didn’t allow any opportunities to check out those added competencies.

Greater fuel efficiency

Motivation for the 2017 Acadia comes in two distinct forms. The new naturally aspirated 2.5-liter/4-cylinder in the front-drive Acadia SL and the SLE-1 makes 194 horsepower and 190 lb-ft of torque while the high-tech 3.6-liter V6 that develops 310 horses and 271 lb-ft of peak twist comes standard in the All-Terrain, the SLT-2 on which it’s based, and the Denali, but also is available in the SLE-2. Both engines have direct fuel injection, variable valve timing and are backed by a smooth-shifting 6-speed automatic. The 4-banger, which boasts GMC’s first use of start-stop technology, generates 21/26-mpg best-case EPA city/highway numbers while the V6 has active cylinder management that lets it function as a V4 under light load conditions and merit 18/25-mpg numbers regardless of driven wheels, a 3-mpg gain in both categories compared to the current model. The transition moments in both engines proved virtually seamless, and while the 4-cylinder felt entirely adequate for lighter-duty operations in the SLT-1 we drove, the V6 -- which will be the volume engine -- was clearly more energetic in the AWD All-Terrain and Denali variants. Raising the cylinder count also increases the new Acadia’s max-tow rating from 1,000 to 4,000 pounds, although it does fall short of the present Acadia’s 5,200-lb stat. 

Flexible, functional and even better connected

Like the rest of the package, the Acadia’s cabin makeover embodies a more modern character that complements the familiar GMC visual ethos and high-quality trim elements with enhanced technology and new safety/driver-assist features. The recast dash matches good legibility with user-friendly controls and boasts an 8.0-inch touchscreen, OnStar 4G LTE with Wi-Fi and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto capability, plus a new SHOP feature to the GMC IntelliLink system that allows owners to download approved apps to personalize their vehicles. Also worthy of mention are numerous stow cubbies as well as a selection of USB ports, 12V powerpoints and a 110V outlet.

ALSO: Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Awards of 2016

Despite losing a fair bit of interior volume, the 2017 Acadia remains fully capable of carrying up to seven passengers in a standard 2/3/2 format. That includes a pair of modestly scaled adults in its 50/50 third-row – albeit with a bit of consideration from those occupying the Acadia’s tilt-and-slide 60/40 second-tier bench. Buyers also can opt for a pair of mid-ship Captain’s Chairs. Whatever the choice, both rows easily fold flat when cargo toting takes precedence. However, basic stow space in the new Acadia dips from 19.6 cubic feet to just 12.8, and maximum volume decreases from 91.6 cubic feet to 79.0. The new All-Terrain gets its own variation on the theme with a 5-seat configuration that replaces the third row with covered stow bins plus an adjustable cargo management system.

On the safety front, the 2017 Acadia offers a bounty of new model-dependent features including a Surround Vision Camera, Lane Change Alert, Side Blind Zone Alert, Forward Automatic Braking/Pedestrian Braking, Lane Keep Assist with Lane Departure Warning, Front/Rear Park Assist and a Safety Alert Seat. All variants also add an industry-first rear-seat alert system that reminds drivers about items – and/or children – that may have been inadvertently left behind in the second or third row. The 2017 GMC Acadia arrives in showrooms late this spring. Pricing for the base 4-cylinder front-dive-only Acadia SL will start at $29,995 with the top-line Acadia Denali AWD opening at $47,845.

More Midsize SUVs…

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