Versus the competiton:
Remember the Chevrolet El Camino — the car that doubled as a truck? It’s been gone from the U.S. market for more than 20 years, and GM’s plan to produce its virtual successor in the Pontiac G8 sport truck died before it was far off the ground.
El Camino aficionados can still rejoice, however, in the fact that GM has something that qualifies as a spiritual ancestor: a special version of the GMC Canyon that features a lowered ZQ8 sport suspension. Powered by a 300-horsepower V-8, you can choose whether you want this Canyon in extended or crew cab form, which is something the Camino never offered.
There’s no question the lowered V-8 Canyon is a peculiar edition of this truck, with its low stance and snorting engine, but it will get the thumbs-up from the street-truck crowd because it drives like a muscle car — fun and fast — and can do a little work when needed.
I tested a two-wheel-drive crew cab version of the Canyon V-8 in SLE trim. The as-tested price was $31,230.
You might be thinking, “How can GMC’s compact pickup feel like a muscle car?” Well, there’s more to it than stuffing a 5.3-liter V-8 under the hood, but that engine goes a long way toward giving the Canyon its burly performance. It can rocket from a stop if you’ve got a lead foot, and the engine doesn’t feel burdened by the truck’s two-ton curb weight. Granted, I didn’t put anything in the cargo bed of my rear-wheel-drive test model, but I really had to be prudent when pressing the gas pedal to avoid wheelspin. The truck has standard traction and stability systems and an optional limited-slip differential to combat this.
The V-8 teams with a four-speed automatic transmission that’s both smooth and quick to downshift when you need a quick burst of power for passing or merging. On the whole, it’s a good drivetrain with a pleasing V-8 sound — it makes a nice rumble without being raucous — but it would have been nice to see GM give the Canyon V-8 the six-speed automatic transmission that’s available with the 5.3-liter V-8 in its full-size trucks; the extra gears have the potential to boost performance and efficiency. As it is, this version of the Canyon gets an EPA-estimated 15/21 mpg city/highway.
The ZQ8 sport suspension is as significant as the V-8 engine in making this version of the Canyon a credible muscle truck. The firmer suspension package lowers the Canyon by an inch compared to the base setup, and the package also includes more responsive steering. ZQ8 trucks come standard with 18-inch aluminum wheels shod with low-profile all-season tires.
What does this mean on the road? Basically that the Canyon is one of the better-handling trucks out there. Fast, responsive steering and a taut suspension create a driving experience that’s decidedly untrucklike, and they give the Canyon a performance-car edge. However, like some muscle cars, this truck performs better in a straight line than it does on curving roads; while the Canyon stays relatively flat through a corner, it doesn’t encourage you to push it harder. Instead, it seems to be asking you to back off.
Even with the firm ZQ8 suspension, the Canyon is a pretty solid-feeling little truck. The only thing that made the cab’s structure shudder a little was when I crossed an expansion joint on the highway or hit a pothole, and even then it wasn’t excessive.
The cabin looks like it’s from another truck era, and that’s because it is. The Canyon first launched for the 2004 model year, and it hasn’t changed a lot on the inside since. Some of the buttons — like the ones for the audio system — look a little crude compared with the newer interiors of GM’s full-size trucks. There are also some shoddy trim pieces, like the panel covering the passenger-side front airbag. For the most part, however, the interior is a functional space that’s easy to get used to, though I do wish the tilt steering wheel had more range than its few predetermined positions.
While you might think a crew cab would offer comfortable seating for people riding in either the front or rear of the cab, it only fulfills on one end of the deal. Leather-covered front bucket seats are optional, and my test truck had them. They’re comfy, if a bit flat — you slide to the side when cornering.
The crew cab’s rear bench seat, however, is anything but comfortable. Legroom isn’t the problem, as it’s manageable for taller people, but the backrest will make your passengers cranky in a hurry — a church pew is more comfortable. The issue is the angle of the backrest, which is nearly vertical and can’t be reclined. The situation isn’t much better in full-size trucks like the Canyon’s big brother, the Sierra, though you can find much more accommodating digs in a model like the Toyota Tundra CrewMax, with its reclining rear bench seat. Now that’s what I call living.
One benefit of the Canyon’s low ride height is that the cargo box is very accessible. Whether you have to lift something over the side of the box or load something with the tailgate down, the low-riding ZQ8 suspension makes it easier than it would otherwise be.
While it may be easier to load cargo in this version than in a full-size truck, the size of the crew cab Canyon’s cargo box limits the kind of work it can be used for. At 61.1 inches long, 57.2 inches wide (42.6 inches between the wheel wells) and 18.6 inches deep, the Canyon isn’t the best choice for hauling a load of drywall — even if you decide to get a regular or extended cab model with the 72.8-inch bed. Still, my test truck’s 1,250-pound payload rating means there are plenty of other, less-bulky loads it can carry.
The Canyon’s maximum towing capacity changes based on its configuration, with two-wheel-drive regular cab models with the base four-cylinder engine rated to tow up to 2,400 pounds. V-8 versions like my test truck are rated to tow 6,000 pounds when properly equipped. I didn’t have a chance to hook up a trailer to my low-riding test truck, but the hitch receiver is quite close to the ground, which might lead to scraping the neck of your trailer — on a steep boat launch, for instance.
There aren’t many factory-spec street trucks available, as manufacturers mostly choose to design sport versions of their trucks for offroad adventures, not blacktop performance. That decision is a sensible one, given higher-riding models with big tires are typically more desirable in today’s truck market.
Even so, it’s good to see GM hasn’t forgotten about compact-street-truck fans (though it did make them wait a few years). The Canyon V-8 is unlikely to attract more than a small following — especially in today’s economic climate — but those who do buy it will likely be a dedicated bunch, just like El Camino loyalists. That’s the kind of customer any automaker would love to have.