On Autos: GMC, Toyota three-row crossovers minimize extra bulk

The 2017 Toyota Highlander isn't as bulky as a Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer or Nissan Pathfinder. (Brady Holt/The Current)

As cars are redesigned over the years, it’s typical for them to grow in size — giving the automaker a roomier interior to boast about, and keeping up with competing vehicles that have already done the same. When the 1991 Ford Explorer popularized the SUV as a family car, it was roughly the size of today’s compact Honda CR-V — yet today’s Explorer is full-size model that’s more than a foot longer and and nearly 9 inches wider.

But the District’s streets and alleys haven’t kept up with this automotive inflation. Accordingly, the city’s buyers of three-row crossovers may be pleased to hear about one vehicle that’s reversed this trend: the redesigned 2017 GMC Acadia, which drops 7 inches of length, 3.5 inches of width and 1.5 feet of turning diameter compared to last year’s model.

The redesigned 2017 GMC Acadia midsize crossover is smaller than its predecessor. (Brady Holt/The Current)

The strategy was intended to better distinguish General Motors’ three big crossovers, as the old Acadia had been mechanically identical to the Buick Enclave and Chevrolet Traverse. Now, the Acadia has been split off to win over buyers seeking a slightly smaller and more maneuverable crossover, whereas the upcoming 2018 redesigns of the Traverse and Enclave will continue to offer the experience of a huge comfortable bus. Those two models will also continue to seat up to eight passengers, while the new Acadia stops at seven seats.

In addition to smaller dimensions, the redesigned Acadia also boasts improved agility and fuel economy, more comfortable seats, a more modern interior and additional tech features. Moreover, the Acadia’s new look is more like an SUV and less like a purely family-focused crossover — potentially winning over shoppers who might have considered the slightly smaller Jeep Grand Cherokee or Toyota 4Runner.

The redesigned Acadia starts at $29,995, which is competitive among three-row crossovers, but the price rises more quickly than its competitors. In one telling example, any color but white costs $395 to $995 extra. The tested top-of-the-line Denali model had a sticker price of $52,285, including $495 worth of “Crimson Red Tintcoat.” That price is more than most roomier competitors, and not far off the fancier Acura MDX. Some interior build quality lapses also detract from the Acadia’s luxury ambiance, and even its improved gas mileage — 20 mpg in mixed driving on the tested model — trails some roomier crossovers.

The 2017 Toyota Highlander doesn’t stand out from behind the wheel, but it’s a safe and practical family car. (Brady Holt/The Current)

Perhaps GMC’s closest competitor is a long-popular model that has resisted growing as much the Explorer or the Honda Pilot. That’s the Toyota Highlander — last redesigned for 2014, newly updated for 2017 and similarly sized to the new Acadia.

The Highlander is nothing fancy, trailing the Acadia and other leading crossovers for ride, handling, interior ambiance and in-cabin technology. It’s dull to drive, even for a big crossover, and lacks the slickly polished feel of a Pilot or the stylish verve of a Mazda CX-9.

Even so, the Highlander is a safe and functional family car. It has excellent crash-test performance and — like most other Toyotas but few competitors — comes standard with a valuable automatic emergency braking system. This feature is available only on high-end versions of the Acadia. And while the Highlander’s relatively tidy dimensions reduce its interior room compared to a Pilot or Explorer, it can still seat up to eight passengers in a pinch.

The Highlander is also more fuel-efficient than the Acadia — rated for 22 mpg instead of 20 — and is available as an outstandingly economical hybrid model, which hits 28 mpg. And it’s easier to get a well-equipped Highlander for less money than the Acadia, even though the Toyota has the more expensive base price of $31,590.

While both of these vehicles have their flaws compared to the outstanding CX-9 and Pilot — including, but not limited to, less interior space — both the Highlander and Acadia are potentially compelling crossovers, especially in cases when a bulkier vehicle would be a liability.