Editor's note: This review was written in June 2015 about the 2015 GMC Canyon. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2016, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
A decked-out 2015 GMC Canyon is by far the most luxurious and mild-mannered midsize truck in its class, and that upscale feeling doesn't come at the expense of payload and towing.
There's no denying the 2015 GMC Canyon is a game changer — mainly because the minimally changed Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier have allowed the midsize truck segment to go stale over the past decade. The Canyon and its Chevrolet Colorado sibling offer modern technology worthy of full-size trucks, with performance and refinement to match — at a fraction of that segment's size and price. Granted, it'll be a smaller fraction of the price once you start optioning a Canyon with its available standout technology and premium features. Compare the Canyon with its competitors here.
Canyons come in SL, base, SLE and SLT trim levels. SLT trims, like the one I tested, are the most feature-laden, while an SLE All-Terrain offers off-road-specific suspension tuning and a notable full-time all-wheel-drive system. A Canyon can tow up to 7,000 pounds when properly equipped and carry a payload of 1,620 pounds.
Two cab styles and two bed lengths are offered. An extended cab comes only with a 6-foot-2-inch box, while a crew cab comes with a 5-foot-2-inch box or a 6-foot-2-inch box riding on a longer, 140.5-inch wheelbase.
Exterior & Styling
The Canyon may slot below the half-ton Sierra in the GMC lineup, but it isn't any less attractive. A tall, upright grille, squared-off front styling and liberal use of chrome on higher trim levels give the Canyon a big-boy look in a much more manageable footprint. The Canyon has a commanding presence on the road for a midsize truck. It's a considerably more traditional look than the Chevrolet Colorado, which has taken on more carlike styling up front.
The GMC's premium approach means there are features on the Canyon you won't find on many other trucks in the segment, like the standard LED daytime running lamps with projector headlights for low and high beams. Top-of-the-line SLT trims include 18-inch polished wheels; heated, chrome, power side mirrors; fog lamps; and a chrome rear bumper.
For $725, the SLT can have dealer-installed chrome tubular side steps to help entry and exit; they're much needed, given it's still a decent jump into the cabin even though the Canyon's footprint is smaller than the Sierra's.
How It Drives
The Canyon's two engines for 2015 include the base 200-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder and an available 305-hp, 3.6-liter V-6. While the four-cylinder's output is impressive for a base engine in the midsize segment, it certainly drives like an entry-level engine in a bare-bones Canyon with the six-speed manual transmission; a six-speed automatic is optional. The novelty of a six-speed-manual, four-cylinder truck wore off rather quickly thanks to a transmission gear ratio spread that didn't seem to match the four-cylinder's powerband very well. And of course, the huge shifter throws from gear to gear aren't exactly satisfying.
An extra two cylinders and 105 hp (and 78 pounds-feet of torque) do wonders for the nearly 4,000-pound truck. The 3.6-liter is a highly refined engine that pairs with an equally sophisticated six-speed automatic transmission to provide crisp, clean shifts and enough grunt for almost any situation in which a midsize truck needs to be used. There aren't any optional rear-end gear ratios; GMC doesn't give you as many choices as the full-size trucks do to tailor gear ratios to specific uses or towing needs. Four-cylinders come with a 4.10 axle, while the six-cylinder axle is 3.42.
Fuel economy shouldn't be a deciding factor between the two engines, as stepping up to the V-6 costs only a 1 mpg ding in EPA combined ratings. The four-cylinder gets an estimated 20/27/22 mpg city/highway/combined with the six-speed automatic and two-wheel-drive models, while the V-6 is rated 18/26/21 mpg. The Canyon's gas mileage is a big leap over the aging Tacoma and Frontier. A similarly equipped V-6 Tacoma is rated 17/21/19 mpg and a Frontier comes in at 16/22/18 mpg. During PickupTrucks.com's real-world fuel economy testing, the GMC's 21.56 mpg easily bested the Nissan's 18.84 mpg and the Tacoma's 17.33 mpg.
The Canyon's ride quality and interior noise levels are downright impressive no matter which engine is under the hood. The Canyon SLT has ride quality that's more comparable to a crossover SUV than any similarly sized truck, boasting the kind of isolation from wind and road noise we've grown to expect in a full-size pickup. GM's midsize twins have an on-road confidence to how they accelerate, brake and ride that's unlike any other midsize truck. Jam the brake pedal in an emergency move at 60 mph, and the Canyon's brakes slow the truck with carlike precision.
The truck I spent the most time in had the base suspension, but the All-Terrain package includes off-road-specific suspension tuning. Canyons with the base suspension and tires are best suited for on-road use. The taut suspension inspires confidence on the road, but once the dirt comes the GMC bounces around and loses composure at moderate speeds (20-30 mph). I drove a Canyon with the base suspension for PickupTrucks.com's 2015 Midsize Challenge, where it was pitted against off-road packages on the Chevrolet Colorado, Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma. As you'd expect, those off-road packages handled the same course with more stability.
When optioned with four-wheel drive, Canyons use a typical four-wheel-drive system with manually selectable two- and four-wheel drive as well as a low-range four-wheel drive; all modes are selectable via an electronic dial controller.
Four- and six-cylinder Canyons can be equipped with four-wheel drive, though only with automatic transmissions. All-Terrain trims take four-wheel-drive capability to the next level with full-time all-wheel drive and the ability to split torque automatically when situations demand more traction. All-Terrain Canyons have 2WD, Auto, 4WD High and 4WD Low settings. They use an Autotrac transfer case similar to what's in the Sierra; it's a feature you won't find in a comparable Colorado; that truck comes only with part-time four-wheel drive, which must be activated and deactivated manually to suit conditions.
The distinction between Chevrolet and GMC interiors hasn't been much to get excited about in the past, but there's a definite lean toward an upscale interior in the Canyon versus the Colorado. The GMC's more uniform interior color combinations and accent stitching go a long way toward making the Canyon the more luxurious truck of the two. Both are light years ahead of the 2015 Tacoma ($21,880) and Frontier ($18,875), though they come with a higher starting price of $21,880 for a SL GMC truck. With that price comes a decent set of standard features, though: power windows with one-touch down/up, a backup camera and a four-way power driver's seat with manual recline.
The larger crew-cab Canyon has more backseat room and a rear bench seat for three passengers, versus two flip-up rear seats in the base extended-cab version. In the crew-cab model I tested, backseat room is spacious and comfortable compared with the rest of the segment. There are more similarities between the Canyon and full-size trucks than between the Canyon and anything else in the midsize segment.
Ergonomics & Electronics
If you're starting to observe a theme here — that the Canyon is a step above the segment in many ways — the following won't come as a surprise: The Canyon is available with an 8-inch touch-screen and featuring 4G LTE with wireless hot-spot capabilities, multiple USB ports, and Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity and streaming audio, plus an app for Pandora internet radio. Called IntelliLink, the system shares features and usability with other GM products, including its full-size trucks and the Chevrolet Impala. IntelliLink is standard on the midrange SLE trim and the higher-end SLT, and it's optional on base trucks. Standard features for the base model include a 4.2-inch color display, a USB port and an MP3 jack.
Cargo & Towing
Now to the meat and potatoes of any truck: cargo and towing. GMC says the longer bed of the crew-cab Canyon can support 8-foot-long items when the tailgate is lowered.
Maximum payload for a V-6 Canyon is 1,620 pounds with two-wheel drive, 1,590 pounds for four-wheel drive and an extended cab, and 1,550 with four-wheel drive and a crew cab. The V-6 handles a full payload like a champ, with the same responsiveness and smart transmission operation that makes driving the unloaded truck a joy. Payload capability is at the top of the segment, and when fully loaded the Canyon's rear end doesn't sag or give much indication it's hauling over 1,500 pounds. Max out the payload on a Frontier or Tacoma and there's a noticeable degradation in braking and acceleration.
The four-cylinder Canyon's payload is an equally impressive 1,490 pounds with two-wheel drive and automatic transmission, though the 200-hp engine is much less adept at hauling that weight. If you have to max out the payload, get the V-6 or leave yourself plenty of room on the road.
Stepping into the Canyon's bed to retrieve your cargo is easy thanks to a standard footstep built into the bumper. The bed also features a locking tailgate with a soft-open function, so you can let the tailgate lower without slamming off its hinges. GMC says this is a first for the segment. It's standard on SLE and SLT models and optional on the base Canyon.
A trailering package is required to max out the Canyon's towing capabilities of 7,000 pounds with the 3.6-liter; otherwise, standard towing capacity is half of that, at 3,500 pounds. The Canyon's trailering package includes a 2-inch receiver hitch and four- and seven-pin connectors for $250, and it requires the 3.6-liter model to be equipped with an automatic locking rear differential. That feature is standard on the SLT and available on other trims for $325. Four-cylinder Canyons are rated to tow only 3,500 pounds.
The crew-cab Canyon earned a rating of good (out of a possible good, acceptable, marginal or poor) in one of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's two frontal crash tests, but the full complement of tests hadn't been conducted as of publication.
An extended-cab Canyon scored an overall four out of five stars in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests, but the crew cab remains untested.
The Canyon offers optional advanced safety features, including a forward collision warning system with audible and visual alerts when a potential collision is detected. Paired with a lane departure warning system in the Driver Alert Package for $395, the two features are impressive safety offerings in the class, along with the Canyon's standard backup camera.
See the Canyon's available safety features here.
Value in Its Class
The high-end SLT crew cab I drove, with four-wheel drive and a number of options, totaled $40,465. That included a $925 destination charge, navigation, an upgraded Bose stereo, a spray-on bedliner, the Driver Alert Package and more.
Forking over $40,000 for a midsize truck sounds outrageous, but the Canyon's level of driving refinement and high-tech feature content put it leaps ahead of anything else in the segment — as verified by Pickuptrucks.com's Midsize Challenge, where the Canyon beat out the Colorado, Tacoma and Frontier.
A feature-loaded midsize Canyon approaches full-size pricing, at $40,000, but there's still a big gap considering a similarly equipped GMC Sierra SLT retails for $50,500. The Canyon mirrors many of the Sierra's notable driving characteristics, but with a much more manageable price and size for those who don't need full-size truck capabilities.