The GMC Canyon is a rear-wheel-drive midsize pickup truck with the smooth ride and comfortable cabin of a car. Four-wheel drive is available, with an automatic mode that works like all-wheel drive in cars. Competitors include the Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier, Honda Ridgeline, and the Chevrolet Colorado.
Arguably the best in the class, Canyon and Colorado are built on a traditional truck frame. Structurally and mechanically, the GMC and Chevy are nearly identical but differ in styling, trim and some features.
For 2017, Canyon got a new 3.6-liter V6 with a new 8-speed automatic, to add to the base 2.5-liter four cylinder with a 6-speed. For 2018 there are only a couple of small changes. Leather seats are added to the All Terrain offroad package, and a warning light for the windshield washer fluid level is now standard.
The four-cylinder engine makes 200 horsepower and is remarkably adequate for most needs, while its 6-speed automatic shifts quickly.
Best fuel mileage (an EPA 25 Combined mpg) and towing (up to 7700 pounds) comes from a 2WD 2.8-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel that makes an enormous amount of torque, but it’s expensive.
The base four-cylinder is rated by EPA at 22 Combined mpg with the 6-speed automatic, 1 mpg less with the manual transmission. With the V6 and all-wheel drive, it gets 19 mpg. It uses a cylinder deactivation system that cuts two cylinders when the throttle is light or backed off.
Canyon comes as an extended cab, with rear-hinged rear doors and a small bench seat in the back that can fit groceries or two child seats; or a crew cab, with four full-sized doors and seating for two adults in the rear. The bed lengths are 6-foot, 2-inch and 5-foot, 2-inch.
Standard safety features include six airbags and a rearview camera, oversized sideview mirrors, and trailer sway control. Forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems are available, rare features for a midsize pickup. NHTSA gives the Canyon four stars overall in safety, while the IIHS has only tested it for frontal impact, giving it the top score.
The 2018 GMC Canyon comes in SL, base, SLE, SLT, and Denali, along with many cabin and powertrain configurations. The SL is priced at a bargain-basement $21,085, and the upscale Denali with 4WD tops the line at more than twice that, $43,570. (Prices are MSRP and do not include destination charges.)
Standard equipment on the base includes air conditioning, power windows, power driver’s seat, and USB port. The base and SL are largely the same, except the SL is intended for more primitive work, with vinyl flooring instead of carpeting, and fewer features.
Canyon SLE adds an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system, cruise control, and other features. More options are available for the SLE, including an All Terrain X package for offroad that includes skid plates, hill descent control, and all-terrain tires. Plus leather upholstery, new for 2018.
Canyon SLT, with heated leather seating surfaces and automatic climate control, was bumped out of the top luxury spot by the Denali, with cooled seats and a heated steering wheel.
The Canyon has a strong family resemblance to its big brother the full-size GMC Sierra, and also some resemblance to its close relatives the midsize Chevrolet Colorado and full-size Silverado. Mostly in the front fascia and grille, the tidy tail, and the squarely flared wheel arches. The shoulder line sweeps up at the rear pillar, a nod to the global market, in particular Southeast Asia where it’s popular.
The Denali has its own grille, wheels, and bolt-on bits that we think detract from the cohesion of the design. Fancy seems incompatible, in this case; it is a truck, after all. We like the simplicity of the SLE and SLT.
Canyon’s cabin is rugged and stylish. It fits the image of business truck, but wouldn’t be out of place in a crossover or wagon. The seats, armrests, cupholders, and console shift lever feel almost sedan-like, even more so on the top models with their tasteful aluminum trim and contrasting stitched soft-touch materials.
The quality of the trim should embarrass the pedestrian Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier, although the Honda Ridgeline is up there with the Canyon.
Almost everything about the cabin is convenient. On the instrument panel, a central pod contains the main controls and a display unit, with the gauges behind a beefy steering wheel with controls. There’s ample storage in bins both open and covered, and there’s a storage space under the rear seat of the crew cab. The step-in height is reasonably low, and running boards are available. It’s unfortunate that the second row is bolt upright.
Any Canyon model is far more comfortable than the Tacoma or Frontier. The front seats are shaped well for passengers of all sizes, they have good bolstering, and a higher seating position still with more headroom than the Frontier or Tacoma. There’s great room to stretch in front, although that upright second row wears on passengers after a while. The Canyon would not make the family happy if it were the only family car.
That might be where the Denali comes in, but we doubt it. It is clearly upscale, although the fit and finish is still shy of luxury standards. That same level of fit and finish is acceptable and not even noticed on the other models, but at twice the price, Denali should deliver.
The extended-cab comes only with the longer 6-foot-2 bed that can accept an optional extender to haul items eight feet long, such as plywood or two-by-fours. The crew cab has front-hinged rear doors, and comes with either the longer bed or the 5-foot-2 bed. There’s a step in the rear bumper to make it easy to climb up into either bed, and a tailgate that’s easy to raise and lower. Also available are 17 tie-down points, a choice of a spray-in bedliner or drop-in one, cargo dividers, a system of racks and carriers called GearOn, cargo nets and tonneau covers, a drop-in toolbox, and trailer hitches and harnesses.
The base four-cylinder is adequate, making the Canyon an acceptable second car for the family, with its fuel mileage of 22 miles per gallon; its open bed for cargo gives it an advantage over a compact crossover. Its payload ranges from 1450 to 1620 pounds, enough for a bed full of rocks or sand, not much less than a full-size truck.
With 200 horsepower and 191 pound-feet of torque, the 2.5-liter engine works hard, but it’s smooth and fairly quiet. It feels better driving around town, where it’s perky. And it’s better with just rear-wheel drive, and the 6-speed automatic that shifts well. The manual is only available in the base model with rear-wheel drive, and we’re not sure why you would want one, almost irrelevant because you can’t hardly get one anyhow.
Most popular is a Canyon 4WD with the new 3.6-liter V6, making 308 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque. It comes with an 8-speed automatic we like.
The four-cylinder turbodiesel is a 2.8 liter making 181 horsepower but more importantly 369 pound-feet of torque. It’s a charmer that only sometimes feels rough, and it works well with the 6-speed automatic. It can easily tow 7700 pounds, only 700 more than the rating for the V6, but the turbodiesel shows less stress because it has 94 more foot-pounds of torque to support acceleration.
Applause for GM for the ride that’s almost level to a sedan, on a conventional suspension that’s comfortably tuned. It rounds off bumps nicely, although like any body-on-frame design, the Canyon transmits a fair share of secondary ride motions to the cabin.
The handling is nimble and cornering confident. It’s not all that much smaller than a full-size Sierra but drives like it is. The electric power steering is weighted well and tracks mostly true.
GMC’s AutoTrac allows manual selection of 4WD or an Auto mode that frees the electronics to vary the torque between axles depending on traction needs. This is a good system for wintry conditions when traction is inconsistent. An automatic locking differential is available on some models.
The Canyon is a strong contender in the midsize truck class. It’s got a strong base powertrain, comfortable and efficient cabin, smooth ride and good handing.
Sam Moses contributed to this review, with staff reports.