The GMC Canyon is a mid-size pickup designed to do what mid-size pickups do most. It's built primarily for carrying people and occasionally hauling heavy loads in the bed.
Three cab styles are available, Regular Cab, Extended Cab, and Crew Cab. We found all offer plenty of room for the driver and front-seat passenger. The Crew Cab has a back seat suitable for adult human beings.
On the highway, the Canyon feels solid and stable, with a smooth, comfortable ride. Yet the GMC Canyon is a serious truck capable of serious duty. Properly equipped, the Canyon is rated to tow 4,000 pounds, enough for transporting ATVs, dirt bikes, personal watercraft, light boats or small camping trailers. If you tow more than that, then you need a full-size truck.
The standard engine is a 2.9-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 185 horsepower and 190 pound-feet of torque. The optional 3.7-liter five-cylinder engine produces 242 horsepower and 242 pound-feet of torque. These engines were introduced during the 2007 model year along with other improvements that included a smoother-shifting automatic transmission, a more powerful 125-amp alternator, a standard tire-pressure monitor, and more bright interior trim.
The Z71 is the off-road model, but it's remarkably civilized. The ZQ8 suspension package emphasizes sporty handling on paved roads.
GMC Canyon 2WD Regular Cab WT ($14,885); 2WD Regular Cab SL ($15,420); 2WD Extended Cab SL ($17,675); 2WD Extended Cab SLE ($18,420); 2WD Crew Cab SLT ($24,870); 4WD Regular Cab SL ($18,880); 4WD Regular Cab SLE ($19,460); 4WD Extended Cab SL ($21,005); 4WD Extended Cab SLE ($21,520); 4WD Crew Cab SLT ($27,470); 4WD Crew Cab SLT Z71 ($28,550)
The 2008 GMC Canyon looks very much like it did last year, and the year before. Some new paint colors and standard fog lights (on all but WT) are about the only visible changes for 2008.
The Canyon is aggressively styled with angular wheel arches. Its front end is bright and bold in the GMC tradition and looks mean and menacing, albeit in a classy GMC manner. The black center grille with its floating GMC logo is surrounded by brightwork that extends to either side of the truck. It separates a complex looking array of lights composed of daytime running lamps, turn indicators, and high and low beams. A slight dihedral at the front outer edge of the hood enhances Canyon's aggressive appearance. From the side, Canyon looks sharp and edgy, with boldly angular fender flares that rise toward the rear of the truck.
Overall, however, Canyon looks balanced, whether in Regular Cab, Extended Cab, or Crew Cab body styles. All Crew Cab and Extended Cab models share a 126-inch wheelbase, while Regular Cab models ride on a 111-inch wheelbase. Overall length is 207 inches for all but Regular Cabs, which are 192 inches.
Regular and Extended Cabs have 6-foot, 1-inch beds. The Crew Cab has a 5-foot, 1-inch bed in exchange for its larger cabin. Regular and Extended Cab models have steps in the rear fender ahead of the rear wheels, making it easier to reach and load things in the front of the bed. The tailgate can be opened fully (89 degrees) or dropped 55 degrees to provide support (level with the tops of the wheel wells) for a 4x8-foot sheet of plywood. Extended Cabs use rear-hinged back doors with door handles inside the door jam. Crew Cabs have conventional front-hinged rear doors with door handles that are easy to grip and pull open.
Ride height varies by model. The ZQ8 sport models look slammed with their lower ride height. In fact, they ride about an inch lower in front than the standard 2WD Canyon, with a minimum ground clearance of just 6.2-6.5 inches at the front axle. The standard Canyon has 7.3-7.9 inches of ground clearance, depending on cab style and the number of driven wheels. The Z71 off-road suspension raises the ground clearance to 8.7-9.0 inches, depending on model.
Inside, the GMC Canyon feels generously wide, especially in the rear seat of the Crew Cab, which accommodates three adults far easier than would be possible in the previous generation of compact pickups.
The front seats are chair height, which gives the driver excellent visibility over the hood. Still, our biggest gripe with the Canyon is directed at its seats: The seat bottoms are flat and lack sufficient lateral support, so we always felt like we were sinking to one side or the other.
The Extended Cab is large enough to orient the back seats facing forward, so no one will have to endure the pain of sideways-mounted seats. The rear seats are raised, which improves leg room for rear-seat passengers. Don't expect them to be comfortable, though. The back seat in the Extended Cab is too cramped for anyone but Munchkins on relatively short jaunts. Better to flip the rear seats down, which opens up space for cargo. With modifications (like a fleece mat), it would work passably for a medium-size dog. (None of the midsize pickups are particularly good for canines.) This area works best as interior cargo space, and the front-hinged doors on both sides of the Extended Cab offer good access.
The base Canyon work truck has a no-fault interior right down to its rubber floor mats, so you can get in with muddy work boots and not feel guilty. The SLE models are more comfortable, with carpeting, more luxurious seat fabrics, and chrome accents on the interior door handles, air outlet control knobs, small speaker bezels, instrument cluster rings, and front door sills. Additionally, the center stack and HVAC trim are painted Nova Silver on SLE and SLT.
Operating the Canyon is easy. The instruments are easy to read at a glance, with big white numerals and orange needles on a black background. Lighting functions are clustered on the dash to the left of the steering wheel; there are no switches in any remote location. Turning on the dome light requires spinning the small wheel used to dim the instrument lights, and we found this a bit challenging in the dark. Particularly for this reason we liked the map lights integrated into the rear-view mirror on higher-line models.
The center stack neatly groups together 4WD, audio, and HVAC functions. The emergency flasher button is high in the center where it's easily seen. The cruise control switches, however, are the same turn-signal-stalk system GM has used since the 1970s, albeit refined. Some people hate it; others are familiar with it and don't seem to mind.
The Canyon features triple seals around the doors, another example of its refinement. The seals not only reduce water and dust intrusion; they also reduce wind noise for a quieter cab.
The 2.9-liter engine offers 185 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 190 pound-feet of torque at 2800. It gets an EPA-rated 18/24 mpg City/Highway with either the four-speed automatic or five-speed manual. This engine favors economy over power.
The 3.7-liter inline-5 develops 242 horsepower and 242 pound-feet of torque. That's less than the optional 4.0-liter V6 engines in the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier, both of which rate north of 260 pound-feet of torque. Dodge Dakota's top V8 boasts 329 pound-feet, but then Dakota is a bigger, heavier truck. In Canyon's defense, we should point out that the inline-5 sustains its peak torque over 90 percent of its rev range, which is important when hauling heavy loads or towing trailers. The 3.7-liter engine is EPA-rated 16/22 mpg City/Highway.
The maximum towing load for Canyon with the five-cylinder engine and automatic transmission is 4,000 pounds, compared with 6,500 for the V6 Tacoma or Frontier, and 7,050 for the max-V8 Dakota. On the other hand, Canyon runs happily on 87 octane Regular; while Toyota recommends Premium gas for its V6.
Both Canyon engines were derived from the Vortec 4200 inline-6 used in the Chevy TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy. GM lopped cylinders off the six to get the five and four. These are modern engines featuring all-aluminum construction, dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, electronic (drive-by-wire) throttle control, and a healthy 10:1 compression ratio.
On the road, the Canyon feels solid, with no rattles or squeaks, and the bed doesn't boom or make any other noise. The standard suspension (Z85) is able to work precisely, without interference from chassis flex, resulting in a controlled ride. Canyon is stable and predictable around curves, and a solid stopper when the binders are applied, aided by ABS on loose surfaces. The Canyon is a truck, however, so it doesn't corner and brake like a car. We found it generally tended toward understeer. We found it handled well on washboard roads and didn't bounce around like smaller pickups often do.
We were pleased with the operation of the four-wheel-drive system. There's no doubt when it engages: There's a small clunk when it shifts into four-wheel high (which can be done on the fly) and a bigger clunk when it shifts into four-wheel low (requiring the vehicle be stopped and in neutral). No full-time all-wheel drive is available; this is a truck-style part-time four-wheel-drive system and should not be used on dry pavement. We found it worked well in deep mud.
The Z71 suspension package provides maximum ground clearance, with tires designed for rugged terrain and springs and shocks calibrated for off-road performance without sacrificing too much on-road comfort. We found its ride quality remarkably civilized on the road. The Z71 suspension certainly adds heft to the Canyon, and there's noticeable jiggle from the extra weight of the off-road tires, but not anything like off-road compact pickups of the past. We found it handled rocky hill climbs and rugged terrain well.
We haven't tried the ZQ8 sport suspension in a Canyon, but it rode well in 2007 Chevrolet Colorado. It comes with low-profile, 50-series 18-inch tires, but they don't look particularly sticky. We didn't drive the Colorado ZQ8 in anger, but our impression was that it didn't offer the sports-car handling of the incredible Toyota Tacoma X-Runner. And the low ground clearance means it'll occasionally bottom out.
The GMC Canyon is ideal for people who need a real pickup but don't need or want the size and cost of a full-size truck. The Canyon is easy to park and is driver-friendly. The Crew Cab can haul home a load of horse manure for the garden, then take the family out for dinner and a movie (after hosing out the bed, that is). In short, the Canyon is an all-around performer, putting GMC in the groove for mid-size pickup performance. GMC's packaging and styling are distinct from those of the mechanically identical Chevrolet Colorado.
John Matras filed the original report from rural Pennsylvania; with NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough reporting from Southern California; and John Katz reporting from Pennsylvania.