My first vehicle that I ever bought with my own money and had registered in my name was the direct progenitor of the most recent vehicle I’ve had a chance to drive. Just shy of 30 years ago as I entered the second half of my freshman year at was then GMI Engineering & Management Institute (since renamed to Kettering University) I bought an 18-month-old 1984 GMC S15 pickup. All these years later, the most compact pickup you can buy from GMC is now called the Canyon and frankly it’s not so compact anymore. Does this midsize pickup make sense anymore?
Back in the latter half of the 1980s when I was studying engineering, I used to still get my news off large sheets of newsprint. In those days, papers like the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News earned much of their income from advertising placed by local businesses including car dealers. Every dealer ad featured price leaders in various segments specifically configured to grab customer’s attention and get them into the showroom where the sales reps could start the upsell process. Amongst the most common of these were the Chevy S10/GMC S15 pickups that you could buy brand-new for under $5,000!
Of course for five grand you didn’t get much beyond the truck itself and mine was a perfect example. GM offered these standard cab trucks with a four-cylinder engine backed by a manual gearbox, vinyl bench seats, manual crank windows and that’s about it. Audio system? Air conditioning? Sliding rear windows? Nope, that all costs extra. I added a stereo and some speakers to my S15 to help cover the noise generated by the Isuzu 1.9-liter four-banger. As an engineering co-op student that alternated semesters in the classroom with work terms at GM plants, a pickup that I could just toss my stuff into every three months was ideally suited to my needs at the time. It couldn’t tow much or haul heavy payloads, but it was relatively fuel efficient and reliable.
As in every other segment of the market, pickups have grown significantly in size, capability and price. My 1984 had no airbags or ABS or driver assist features. The cheapest 2015 GMC Canyon you buy today starts at $21,000 for a rear-drive, four-cylinder with a manual transmission and you can’t order one sans radio and air conditioning. Accounting for inflation, that would have been nearly $10,000 in 1985, or twice what my truck cost. As tested, the four-wheel-drive SLT I drove tipped the pricing scales at a relatively hefty $37,370!
The grille and wheel arches of the Canyon are substantially more aggressive looking than the pieces on the Chevrolet-badged Colorado and fit in well with GMC’s “professional grade” tag-line. Unlike my old S15, the new Canyon is not available in a regular cab version so you get a choice of either the extended cab or crew-cab variants. The extended cab gets a six-foot, two-inch box that is available as an option with the crew cab. The standard bed length with the bigger cab is 12-inches shorter.
Like modern full-size pickups, the extended cab Colorado has rear-hinged half doors for access to the rear portion of the cab which has two “seats” and accompanying belts. GMC lists the rear leg room at 28.6-inches, but I suspect this may be measured with the driver’s seat well forward because when I set the driver’s seat to my position and tried to squeeze into the back, it was a non-starter. For all practical purposes, no one over about four-feet tall will be able to sit in the back of the extended-cab Canyon. Child safety seats can be installed in the back and there are small hidden storage compartments under the rear seat cushions. The windows in the rear access portals are also permanently fixed in place. If you need to carry more than one passenger, you’ll definitely want to get the crew cab variant instead.
Interestingly, there are two USB ports and a 12-volt socket installed in the back of the center console in addition to the single port and socket available to front seat riders. The front seats themselves are quite comfortable and supportive and the leather thrones in the premium SLT model are also heated to keep your backside warm on those cold winter mornings. Lower trim levels get a 4.2-inch non-touch color display for the audio system that does include support for Bluetooth audio streaming and Pandora radio. SLE and SLT models get the eight-inch Intellilink touchscreen system. This is the newer-generation system that is also found on the full-size Sierra and based on Cadillac’s CUE system. The screen is fairly responsive and the play/pause/FF/RW buttons on the screen work well for controlling audio streaming from my connected phone.
For a four-wheel-drive truck with a relatively tall ride height, having a rear-view camera is a huge boon when backing to make sure you don’t run over anything. My SLT also had the optional forward-facing camera behind the mirror that provides lane departure warning and forward collision alerts. The $395 driver alert package works reasonably well, but it’s not tied into any of the active vehicle control systems and doesn’t do any automatic emergency braking or steering correction. Instead, you get a ridiculously loud audible alert accompanied by a visual warning in the cluster for the lane departure and a heads up display for the collision warning.
The system which is also available on a wide range of mainstream GM vehicles works by continuously taking a series of photos. Each image is actually composited from four individual exposures at various settings so it can work in the dark while still providing enough resolution to be able to detect targets. Each composite image is analyzed in real time to detect targets including lane markers and other vehicles. The size of targets in successive images is compared to estimate the distance and closing speed. During my driving the system worked reliably but as usual, the lane warning only works at speeds above 35 mph.
While having all these technological goodies is nice, this is above all supposed to be a truck and it needs to work as one. Currently, the Canyon and Colorado are available with two gasoline-fueled, direct-injected engines, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and a 3.6-liter V6. The four-cylinder in the truck I drove is rated at 200-horsepower and 191 lb.-ft. The torque peaks at a relatively high 4,400 rpm which gives this truck adequate juice for driving around, but it certainly doesn’t inspire confidence if you regularly need to haul heavy loads. Payload is limited to 1,470-pounds and towing capacity is 3,500-pounds.
I hauled about 700 pounds of top soil and lumber home from the big box store without any difficulty, but if you need a real work truck, you might want to step up to the V6. If you can wait a few months, an even better option will soon be available in the form of a 2.8-liter four-cylinder diesel. That engine should match or exceed the capabilities of the V6 and provide significantly better fuel economy. The EPA rates the four-cylinder 4×4 Canyon at 19 mpg city, 25 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined but I only managed a bit more than 18 mpg in my time with the truck. In all likelihood, the diesel should be able to manage mid-20s mpg in real world use for the four-wheel-drive and upper-20s for the rear-wheel-driver.
So in 2015, what’s the point of a midsize truck like the Canyon? Presumably customers need some cargo hauling capability in a smaller, more maneuverable package with better fuel economy. While the Canyon is more compact than a Sierra, the current fuel economy is unimpressive and the 41.3-foot turning circle is actually slightly larger than the 40-foot circle for the regular cab Sierra. At 212.4-inches long, the extended cab Canyon splits the difference between the short and long bed Sierra regular cab variants although the smaller truck is six-inches narrower making it easier to find a parking space at the mall or big box store.
So far in 2015, GM has been selling about one Canyon and Colorado for every six Sierras and Silverados. While this is probably the best midsize truck available right now, the segment as a whole seems to have grown too close to their full-size siblings to make a notable difference anymore. When I owned my S15 all those years ago, it was dirt cheap and occupied a very distinct space in the market. With the growth of compact and midsize crossovers in the past 10-15 years, that space for a small pickup probably doesn’t exist anymore. Perhaps when the Canyon diesel arrives it will find a more coherent niche for a smaller truck with capability and fuel efficiency. Until then, it’s probably best to wait or just go for the full-size truck.