Small SUVs may not look like much from just looking at the exterior, but anyone who has ever driven one of high quality knows that there is much more than meets the eye. A good small SUV has the ferocity and notable cabin size the segment is known for, along with the compactness of a sedan and even sometimes the adventurous spirit of an off-road truck. If you find that three-way combination, you’re in for a thrilling driving experience. Another feature often sought in a small SUV is luxury design; you may want to use it for adventures, but chances are you’ll have to take it to work Monday morning, so you’ll want something that fits the role.
So, considering this desire for a well-rounded vehicle experience, let’s look at two powerhouse small SUVs: the 2023 GMC Terrain vs 2023 Nissan Rogue. You may immediately think that GMC and Nissan are not comparable since GMC focuses on heavy-duty performance, while Nissan focuses on practicality with a side of innovative comfort features. But remember, GMC is also the brand that has given us the Denali, and Nissan is the brand that has given us the Titan. Don’t put these brands in boxes; if they can handle luxury, high-performance trucks, let’s see what they can do with a small SUV.
What Are Your Options?
One of the things that the Terrain (and any GMC vehicle) has going for it right off the bat is GMC’s distinct, consistent, and memorable trim levels. You’ve got the SLE and SLT as your base-level trims (keeping in mind that GMC’s base level is probably most other brand’s upper mid-level), you’ve got the Denali as your luxury trim (more to come), and you’ve got the AT4 as your high-performance off-roading trim. That’s it, and that holds true for any GMC vehicle.
It’s not that the Rogue doesn’t have different trim levels; it certainly does. Its trim levels are a bit harder to navigate. Where GMC’s trim levels all serve a distinct purpose (luxury, off-roading, etc.), Nissan’s trim levels feel more like adding or removing a few features per trim level. It’s confusing to keep track of what’s offered over the five trim levels (S, SV, Midnight Edition, SL, and Platinum). Overall, Nissan’s trims are less about performance and more about working up the ladder of convenience and comfort features. Not to say that that’s a bad thing, either; if comfort is your thing, that’s something Nissan does very well.
Remember that the Denali trim is also a long-acclaimed luxury-focused vehicle. The Terrain Denali is less of a trim and more of a vehicle in its own class. While some luxury trims add a few bells and whistles to make the car seem nicer, the Denali really transforms the vehicle into something more refined than the other trims. Whether you’re sitting in its French-stitched leather-appointed front seats or enjoying the Bose premium 7-speaker audio system, the Terrain exudes luxury from head to toe. Now, all of those luxury details are fine and great. But what about performance?
A Closer Look at Performance
For some people, there is a certain level of cognitive dissonance between a small SUV and high performance. Isn’t performance usually for speedy racecars or cargo-hauling trucks? Yes, but it’s also for uniquely-designed compact SUVs that provide their very own aerodynamic and off-roading advantages.
If you’re looking for performance, the GMC Terrain AT4 is, hands down, the place you’ll want to look. Most small SUVs are not specifically designed for off-roading, which sets the Terrain AT4 apart from its competitors. Some small SUVs might have some off-roading trim, but nothing that really transforms the vehicle in the way that the AT4 does. With a 1.5-liter turbocharged engine paired with 9-speed transmission, drivers of the Terrain AT4 have 175 hp and 203 lb-ft of torque. These are great numbers for a compact SUV, but when it comes to off-roading, the real capability features lie not in engine specs but in tactile capability; that’s where the Traction Select System comes into play.
Unlike traditional AWD, this flexible system allows drivers to select the best traction handling in any situation. With FWD, AWD, and Off-Road, drivers are ready for anything. FWD is best when you’re trying to get the most out of your fuel economy, while AWD is best when you’re driving in slippery or hazardous conditions, and Off-Road, possibly the most exciting of the three, optimizes the vehicle’s handling on natural terrains such as dirt, gravel, and sand. Most small SUV drivers seek a commuter vehicle well-suited to family life. The Terrain AT4 certainly fits that mold, but it also opens up great opportunities for those with an adventurous flair who may want to avoid being bound by suburban driving all the time.
Now, the Nissan Rogue also has a driver-selectable off-road driving mode. Its engine specs even top the Terrain AT4 by a little, with 201 hp and 225 pounds-feet of torque; this gives drivers more raw engine power and has the potential to lead to more thrilling acceleration rates. However, the Terrain excels because it has a whole trim dedicated to off-roading and performance in the AT4. The Rogue has the driver-selectable mode and certain trim features, such as slightly larger wheels, which can be modified to increase off-roading capability, but there is no specific off-roading trim like the AT4.
The Rogue is not an incapable vehicle; Nissan may just surprise you with how capable their vehicles are. However, the Terrain has the benefit of GMC’s renowned AT4 trim, and the AT4 does not mess around when it comes to performance and off-roading.
Each Offer a Unique Design
Both of these compact SUVs are known for their luxury features. While many compact SUVs lean into refined design to appeal to commuters, the Terrain and the Rogue have the special advantage of their brands’ specialization in luxury. GMC is the proprietor of the infamous Denali trim, one of the most sought-after luxury vehicle packages, and is, of course, available on the Terrain. On the other hand, while Nissan is not a luxury brand by definition, it still offers an array of features that will enhance your daily drive.
The Terrain Denali offers sophisticated features like French-stitched leather-appointed front seats for a level of opulence that is simply unmatched. In terms of decorative stitching, however, the Rogue does offer Nissan’s infamous lattice stitching design. Overall, the Rogue offers richer color schemes than the Terrain Denali with its dark complexion; however, the real design hero of the Terrain is the AT4 trim! Aside from providing exciting off-roading prowess, the AT4 offers darkened color schemes with edgy red seat stitching and an exclusive AT4 logo stitched into the seats.
Luxury design features take on different forms; just because a trim is known as the “luxury” trim doesn’t mean it’s the only place to go for great design features. The Denali is certainly no afterthought; it’s got great features. The Rogue, too, provides an aesthetic that anybody with a refined palate will enjoy. But, if you’ve got an adventurous spirit and a taste for something bold, the AT4 provides more than just the thrill of the drive; it’s the overall experience behind the wheel that makes it special.
The Fine Line
Sometimes it can feel like luxury design and off-roading adventure are polar opposites of the spectrum; you may have a distinct vision of a sports car customer and a very different vision of an off-roading customer, but people aren’t black and white, and often vehicles are used for an array of driving situations. Both the GMC Terrain and the Nissan Rogue can accommodate such variety, but the Terrain has the distinct advantage of its well-distinguished trims, and the AT4 provides versatility that anybody with an adventurous yet refined personality will surely enjoy.