The compact pickup trucks of a few decades ago- — Chevy Luvs, Ford Couriers, Datsuns and Toyotas — were markedly smaller than their full-size pickup siblings. The majority were single-cab models, many were two-wheel-drive only, and they all had diminutive four-cylinder powerplants.
Today’s “small” pickups are actually four-fifths versions of their full-size counterparts. Like too much that we now consume, sizing has become larger than necessary.
Yet the buyer preference is apparently strong for the current generation of midsize pickups. Stocked with a similar portfolio of amenities and safety gear as their larger brethren, today’s small trucks are reasonable workhorses that weigh less, cost less and take up less space than the big pickup trucks.
Our 2021 GMC Canyon, in new AT4 off-roading trim, illustrates the maturation of the segment. GMC no longer makes a regular cab model of the Canyon; sales were too low. Yet, there are now three “premium” trim levels, including AT4, Elevation and top-of-the-line Denali. And like the big boy pick-’em-ups, the Canyon comes with three powertrains: 2.5-liter, 200-hp four-cylinder for price and economy (19/25 mpg), 3.6-liter, 308-hp V-6 for efficient power, plus the new Duramax 2.8-liter turbodiesel with 369 pound/feet of peak torque for maximum small truck towing — at 7,600 pounds. The latter two are backed by a new eight-speed automatic transmission, while the base engine soldiers on with a six-speed.
Built in Wentzville, Mo., the Canyon competes with its sibling the Chevy Colorado, as well as Ford’s Ranger, Nissan’s Frontier, Honda’s Ridgeline, Jeep’s Gladiator, plus Toyota’s Tacoma — by far the best seller in this class.
After seven days in the saddle, the Canyon demonstrated how much different it is from the Tacoma, and other rivals. The “likes” list included subtle pieces as well as VIP items such as ride and responsiveness, solitude in the cabin, ease of access and exit without running boards, comfort of the cabin and the overall ergonomics, plus the nuances of a heated steering wheel, selectable mode heated leather seating, a sliding rear window, a roof-mounted antenna instead of a vulnerable fender-mount and redundant steering wheel buttons on the back of the steering wheel, where your fingertips can easily access them.
Controls and push-buttons are larger than some rivals, too, making the center dash easier to see and use. The Canyon still requires a key, no push-button start or access, and the wheel/seat heaters don’t retain settings from start to start, but few buyers will consider these deal breakers.
AT4 trim brings a beefier suspension, underbody skid plates, plus 31-inch Goodyear DuraTrac tires with a big lug pattern for real off-roading. Silent on the road, these tires afforded good grip in the snow, aided by GM’s AutoTrac 4WD system. Click the dash dial to AWD mode and the truck remains in rear-drive mode until the limited-slip rear differential starts spinning, and then power gets shared with the front wheels automatically. If the going gets really tough, you still have 4WD high- and low-range selections. While GM has featured this engineering for almost 25-years, the Tacoma still lacks this flexible choice.
While the Canyon lacks a standard bedliner, all models do feature steps in the rear bumper. Tow packages also place the electrical connections above the bumper. With V-6 power (17/24 EPA mpg, 19.5 wintry mpg realized), the Canyon can pull up to 7,000 pounds with the short (61 inches) box, or slightly less with the long (74 inches) box.
Pricing starts at $26,400 for a base 2WD extended cab, rising to $29,495 for a crew cab. V-6 engine adds $1,500. A Canyon Crew Cab in Elevation trim starts at $37,645, AT4 begins at $38,200, while the Denali lists for $40,900 before ladling on the features. AT4 trim includes auto-locking rear diff, descent control, remote starting, wireless charging, six-way power driver’s seat, four-way power passenger seat, heated leather, heated wheel, auto-climate, 17-inch Argent wheels with the big Goodyears, LED lamps, EZ-lift/lower locking tailgate, red recovery hooks, HD rear-view mirror, teen driver controls, rear park assist and rear seat reminder system. Lane departure and rear cross-traffic are a $395 option, while an upgraded 8-inch touchscreen with navigation, Apple/Android and Bose audio is $995.
The driving dynamics and the cabin comfort of the Canyon surpass that unnamed top-seller truck. If these are virtues high on your shopping list in a small truck, then overlooking the GMC is done at your own peril. That said, I think many consumers might still want smaller pickups — urban trucks for specific tasks. Given the latest safety and emissions regs, it may never happen in this market again, leaving consumers with nice choices in this segment but nothing like the small pickups seen decades ago.
Next week: Cadillac CT5 AWD Sedan