The 1970s in America featured two energy crises that shocked the auto industry. News pictures of long lines of cars waiting for gasoline, which had dramatically spiked in price and was often in short supply in large metro areas, caused both consumers and automakers to take a second look at what was available for product for the transportation fleet.
More fuel-efficient became a buzzword and the opportunity to sell smaller, lighter cars led to the rapid expansion of the Asian automakers in this market. A shift took place from heavier, rear-drive cars to more space-efficient and lighter front-drive cars — in all sizes. And surprisingly, even pickup manufacturers looked at offering smaller versions so that drivers wouldn’t leave the various brands. For a while, this strategy worked.
Remember the Chevy Luv? It was a compact-class pickup, only available in regular cab. GM imported the foreign-built truck and slapped a Chevy bow-tie on the hood and casual pickup buyers gravitated to this lighter truck with the slow pace but higher gas mileage. When it became evident that the Luv could actually sell here, against the Toyota and Datsun (now Nissan) small trucks, GM pursued its own, domestically designed small truck.
The result was the Chevy S-10 and GMC S-15 series trucks in 1982. These trucks in turn spawned a compact class SUV called the Blazer and Jimmy, respectively, which helped lead a burgeoning segment, ahead of Ford and Chrysler.
These trucks were decidedly smaller than their full-size brothers; buyers knew these compact offerings were light-duty trucks with smaller capacities, smaller cabs, yet more miles per gallon at the end of the day.
Today, that distinction is less clear, as the current small truck offerings are really midsize pickups. In some corners, you might even say that the brand new GM trucks, Canyon from GMC, Colorado from Chevrolet, are four-fifths scale pickups when compared to their Sierra and Silverado companions in the showroom.
Ford abandoned its F-100/Ranger series small pickup program for America, so it no longer has a ‘small’ pickup for this market. Chrysler also has no smaller truck offering, selling just the RAM series. Each of these automakers could, however, pull off a quick model makeover like during the late 1970s and create a “new” pickup out of products that are built in other markets. That is IF the new GM trucks sell well against the established Toyota Tacoma, Nissan Frontier and the Honda Ridgeline.
Of these rivals, the Ridgeline is the outlier, yet one of the more practical everyday use trucks. It offers a dual-action tailgate — swings and lowers — plus an in-bed lockable trunk. Only available as a four-door crew cab, Honda has a revised Ridgeline in the wings for late this year, or early 2016.
Nissan has focused on redoing its slow-selling Titan full-size truck, with a new version set to hit the American market this summer — including a diesel-powered model with a 5.0-liter Cummins engine. A revised Frontier may be coming, but it is not on the immediate horizon.
So the big dog on the porch remains Toyota’s Tacoma, long the best-selling small truck. Toyota has a revised Tacoma due in showrooms this summer, yet early pictures reveal little visual change — which would mirror the latest Tundra revisions, which were mostly content-oriented.
Under this context, GM looks like it has an edge in a market segment that has been relatively dormant for several years. Full-size truck sales have been raging; why build a small truck with lower margins and lower income?
It only makes sense to build a new small truck then if you can offer the features that are available in larger trucks, in the cabins that buyers want (no more plain-Jane regular cabs, only extended cabs and crew cabs) with the driving attributes that don’t signal that you compromised. After eight days in the latest GMC Canyon, it is clearly evident that GM has succeeded on creating such a vehicle.
Our onyx black extended cab Canyon arrived with AutoTrac electric four-wheel drive, a locking rear differential, and a 4.10 rear axle ratio hooked up to the six-speed automatic transmission and the stout new 2.5-liter direct injection four-cylinder engine making an impressive 200 hp. It wasn’t that long ago that V-6-powered vehicles struggled to deliver 200 hp, so manipulating the Canyon’s throttle proved to be quite satisfying whenever acceleration for passing or merging was summoned. The engine does not drone along or make aural protests either, working efficiently and smoothly with the fluid transmission.
Fuel economy, one of the reasons that you look at a smaller pickup truck, was OK, not great. EPA ratings are 19/25 mpg with a combined 20 mpg for city/highway average. Our fresh off the trailer low mileage sample, in cold weather, returned between 18 and 23.3 mpg during its visit. Your mileage may vary, especially if you get a rear-drive Canyon with the six-speed manual gearbox.
In case 200 hp is not enough, there is a 3.6-liter V-6 borrowed from Camaro and Cadillac that makes 305 hp. Moreover, GM will offer a 2.8-liter four-cylinder turbo-diesel option later this year that will surely reach for the magical 30 mpg threshold that pickup makers are seeking. Chrysler’s diesel-powered Ram is close at 29 mpg in rear-drive models; it almost seems implausible that GM won’t get to a higher number with the lighter Canyon/Colorado pickups when EPA testing is finished.
For casual Canyon users who wonder why the fuel door is so large, the extra space is for the second nozzle for DEF diesel fluid.
At a foot shorter — in length and wheelbase — than a Sierra, plus 6 inches narrower than the Sierra, the Canyon is smaller for sure. Ground clearance is still 8.5 inches, so there remains a modest stretch in and out of the 4X4 cab. The crew cab Canyon adds 12 inches of length.
Key to the downsize is the performance of this chassis; it works really well. Steering feel is very good while the truck’s handling is notably better than the last Tacoma sampled. The low-speed turning radius is surprisingly tight while over the road manners and composure are ahead of the vaunted Toyota as well. Yes, the rear end still kicks over less than perfect surfaces; as long as there are leaf springs and a solid axle out back, this tendency can be lessened but not eliminated.
The Canyon’s stability was most evident after a 440-mile day in the saddle. The truck drives well over undulating rural roads or slogging along on the super-slab. Cabin noise levels rise, as does the speed, but generally speaking, the cabin noise level was fairly well suppressed. The driver’s seat — power bottom cushion only — was supportive and comfortable, however base model trim only offers a tilt steering column. You have to bump up to SLE trim to get a tilt/telescoping column, or, to get power mirrors. That last omission seems troubling at the tested price point. More on this in a minute.
With a face that drew admiring comments from many viewers, the Canyon closely mimics its larger brethren. LED accent lights surround the projector-style headlamps while the chrome surround gives the Canyon a very similar street presence to the larger Sierra. Base/SL trim, SLE, plus SLT and two option packages called All-Terrain (like Chevy’s Z-71) and blacked-out Nightfall round out the truck’s variance appearance options.
Inside, the cabin is well finished, if not outright premium looking. Most surfaces are soft to the touch and controls generally fall where they should. Simple to use knobs and buttons make climate and audio operation convenient at speed, while an instrument cluster info-panel has a scrollable menu. 4G LTE Wi-Fi is available as is an 8-inch center dash screen with smartphone integration. A rear back-up camera is standard, while safety options such as lane departure warning and forward collision warning system are available.
The floor console layout is convenient and cabin space is very good. The rear jump seats, accessed via the dual-opposing doors, have to be considered child-perches or parcel shelves. Adults will not want to be here.
On the working end, there are tow hooks up front, a receiver hitch and tow package out back, plus GM’s corner pocket step-bumpers. Our sample truck also featured an optional spray-on bedliner as well as the easy-lift/lower tailgate — part of the convenience package that includes a rear window defroster and remote entry, $590.
Pricing starts at $20,995 for a base Canyon with the manual transmission and rear drive. Our base/SL trimmed truck had the AutoTrac 4X4, with an automatic four-wheel drive setting as well as lockable low and high-range 4WD (no rivals offer this), automatic transmission, air conditioning, StabiliTrak and two years of free maintenance, for $27,935 plus destination fee of $925. With options, total sticker was $30,200.
Here are the surprises. A work truck with manual mirrors is OK at $21,000, but a $30,000 sticker requires a greater level of content than manual outside mirrors, a basic AM/FM radio, and only the tilt steering column. The spare tire is a compact spare too. To get these components upgraded, buyers need to spend another $3,200 for SLE trim.
The Canyon’s performance, drivability and comfort all draw positive comments. However, the pricing and features are going to draw contrasts and buyers are going to do comparisons with full-size trucks, or used trucks, and may balk at the pricing structure employed. And that could affect sales right out of the gate and give rivals opportunities to retain their market share.