Pros: A good in-town truck for light-duty hauling and towing; still looks contemporary
Cons: Packaging and content long overdue for an overhaul
As GMC enters its second century, the marketer of GM trucks, SUVs and crossovers seems to be running on all cylinders; if GMC was a stand-alone manufacturer, its sales would put it in the top 10 in total vehicle sales for the U.S. marketplace. That's heady stuff, and it speaks not only to the ongoing attractiveness of Yukons and Sierras, but also to GMC's ability to adapt to the changing reality of the SUV market with both the Acadia and Terrain. Amid GMC's ongoing renewal, however, is the GMC Canyon, a vehicle barely on the radar at the time of its last redesign and woefully in need of greater investment from GM's engineering and marketing teams as well as more interest from the consuming public.
With its marginal status in the GMC showroom and the future status of the mid-size nameplate unknown, the Canyon remains a viable option for those who don't need full-size capability. The Canyon's range of powertrains, which includes a modest 2.9-liter 4, a 3.7-liter inline-5 and a 5.3-liter V8, is the widest in the category, while its regular, extended and crew cab variants match Toyota (and exceed Nissan) in breadth. What today's Canyon doesn't offer is the ongoing development enjoyed by Toyota's Tacoma and, to a lesser extent, Nissan's Frontier. Toyota is the King Kong of mid-size sales, and Nissan does a credible job of staying in the hunt. In contrast, GMC's team seems surprised that there remains a mid-size marketplace to compete in.
Comfort & Utility
Within the context of an aging platform built in a soon-to-close plant, the Canyon offers reasonable comfort and more than adequate utility. Available in three trim levels, including the very basic Work Truck, the Canyon is priced from a consumer-friendly $18,000; options, however, can easily elevate the window sticker by another $10,000. Don't expect, however, that a higher window sticker provides much in additional features or comfort. The cloth-covered buckets are unsupportive, headroom is marginal at best and rear-seat legroom in the crew cab suggests the area is best left to bags of groceries rather than the long legs of grown adults. To GMC's credit, the interior doesn't offend; it's simply innocuous.
You can enjoy the Canyon's gauge package, extensive list of standard equipment (including A/C, AM/FM stereo and SiriusXM) and expansive visibility. Despite the raised ride height and improved ground clearance of the Z71 off-road package, getting in and out was surprisingly easy. And with that Z71 package, you won't feel beaten to death on marginal pavement.
It's doubtful that GMC has ever displayed the Canyon at a Consumer Electronics Show; the design inspiration for the instrument panel is more Big Mac than iMac. GM, however, has maintained some mojo on the technology front. Both Bluetooth wireless and SiriusXM are offered on most trim levels, as is OnStar, GM's telematics and navigation feature with what is described as the Directions and Connections plan. Whether it's a direction you need now or a suggested movie location you need later, OnStar remains a great blend of big help and small distraction.
Performance and Fuel Economy
The mid-size-pickup category is dominated by large-displacement fours or the mid-size V6. That said, the product team at GMC apparently didn't get the memo, opting instead for an underperforming 2.9-liter inline-4, a healthier inline-5-a numerical spec that still doesn't resonate with the public-and a 5.3-liter V8. GMC deserves credit for its wide range of offerings, but none seem to hit the sweet spot for a mid-size pickup. If you're looking for nothing more than a stop-and-go (after a fashion) shuttle, the 2.9-liter 4 does provide credible economy with an 18 mpg city/25 city mpg highway EPA rating. And there's little penalty to be paid in opting for the 3.7-liter 5, which offers 17/23 mpg in most configurations. Even the overachieving V8 is respectable at 14/19 mpg (2WD or 4WD), until you look at what this drivetrain delivers in the full-size Sierra; the Sierra, benefiting from a six-speed automatic transmission, delivers 15/21 mpg.
In contrast, both Nissan and Toyota provide 4-cylinders with respectable economy and 6s with respectable performance. GM's small-displacement V8 is wonderful, but ultimately it's overkill for the Canyon platform. Were it our product line, we'd build it with an Ecotec 4, GM's 3.6-liter V6 and a Euro-sourced light-duty diesel. In the next generation of the Canyon's cousin Chevrolet Colorado, now scheduled for a 2014 launch, we suspect Chevy might do that. Only time and GMC's management know if GMC can do the same.
There's a reason Volvo doesn't build a mid-size pickup. Whether it's the design constraints of a body-on-frame vehicle or the budget constraints of the market itself, the 2012 Canyon offers safety appropriate to a mid-size pickup introduced some eight years ago but doesn't provide a menu of safety commensurate with today's competition. The Canyon's head curtain side impact air bags might mitigate injury in a side impact collision, but your better option is to avoid an accident in the first place. Thankfully, active safety does play a role in the Canyon's specification, with excellent visibility, StabiliTrak electronic stability control, four-wheel ABS and three suspension choices appropriate to your intended use: Z85, the off-road-ready Z71 and the sporty ZQ8.
In crash testing conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Canyon performed only adequately. However, in the event of an accident the standard OnStar system will perform superbly, automatically notifying area safety personnel if the airbags have deployed in a collision.
If you were buying a vehicle to drive enthusiastically, you wouldn't be buying a mid-size truck. Given the Canyon's relatively light weight and compact dimensions, however, the platform is more nimble and, by extension, entertaining than you might expect. With the Z71 off-road suspension, you could go rock hunting, while the ZQ8 sport suspension not only increases control but quickens the steering ratio and, with its 18-inch low-profile rubber, heightens the grip.
Over the road, the Canyon with inline-5 settles into a comfortable gait. We'd reserve the 185-horsepower 2.9-liter four only for short errands. GM's 5.3-liter V8, with 300 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque, will leap tall buildings in a single bound or send you directly to jail. We wish all available powertrains had an automatic transmission with more than four speeds, and we also wish there was wider availability of a manual transmission with the inline-5.
Other Cars to Consider
Your investment of $20,000 to $30,000 will buy you a lot of full-size pickup. If, however, you prefer the smaller footprint of a mid-size pickup, those choices still available, now that both Ford's Ranger and Dodge's Dakota have left the building, provide an excellent combination of nimble size and capability.
If we were shopping for the maximum amount of truck among mid-size offerings, we'd opt for the Nissan Frontier; its fully-boxed frame has more in common with the full-size Titan than those of other mid-size pickups have with their larger stablemates. For aggressive off-roading, it's hard to argue with the Toyota Tacoma, given its credible drivetrain and numerous enhancements available from TRD, Toyota's in-house tuner. And if we were shopping for little more than something to haul home the fertilizer and mulch, a late-model Ford Ranger would serve that role (albeit little else) capably. Finally, if you need utility but don't require an open bed, the Ford Transit Connect provides that utility for an MSRP under $25,000.
Despite its age and low-tech spec, the 2012 GMC Canyon remains a viable candidate for your consideration, but only if you appreciate the packaging and the sheetmetal and are satisfied with the way it drives. We would be inclined to opt for the Z71 off-roader version with 4WD, perhaps with an extended cab. Or go low, in both price and stance, with a regular cab equipped with the ZQ8 sport suspension and little else. If you plan to spend over $30,000 on a Canyon, however, Toyota and Nissan offer more content, along with appreciably better resale.