GMC Canyon Crew Cab offers credible performance in the mid-size segment

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The playing field wasn’t level in the fall of 2003 when the all-new mid-sized GMC Canyon and its sibling, the Chevrolet Colorado were introduced, the first new mid-sized General Motors pickup trucks in many years.

In fact the Canyon/Colorado at that time were the first all-new trucks in the mid-sized segment in several years and were competing against more “mature” models from the industry.

But the competition has caught up in a big way this summer and fall. The Dodge Dakota, Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma are all new for 2005.

The Canyon, introduced as a 2004 model, took the place of the Sonoma, first introduced in the early ‘80s. To say the Canyon is a giant leap forward is an understatement. But in the context of the ancient Sonoma, that statement might not be as grandiose as it sounds.

The Canyon is a modern iteration of a mid-sized truck with a handsome stance, well-controlled ride, a large number of trim levels and configurations from which to choose, and acceptable if not overwhelming performance from two engine choices.

With much of the competition still in the early stages of development last year, one would think the Canyon/Colorado twins would have really gotten a leg up.

It didn’t happen. Sales have been good, but certainly not great. For the first nine months of 2004, 18,854 Canyons have been sold compared to 28,721 Sonomas during the same period in 2003. Total Canyon/Colorado sales were 104,047 through the first nine months of 2004 compared to Chevrolet S-10 (the Colorado’s predecessor) and Sonoma which rang up sales of 144,504 for the same period in 2003. Not a happy picture.

Losing volume year over year does not bode well for the new GM twins and now they face newfound competition for the 2005 model year. It’s problematical at best for the GM pair.

One thing that may be off-putting for prospective customers is the Canyon’s inline 5-cylinder engine. The new engine is derived from the inline 6 found in the GMC Envoy/Chevrolet TrailBlazer and other mid-sized GM sport utilities.

Here’s another question? Why didn’t General Motors at least assign the 6-cylinder as the top Canyon/Colorado engine instead of the 5-cylinder? Could they have been searching for additional miles per gallon for their truck fleet?

But now General Motors faces a perception problem. The competition has a wide array of healthy V-6 engines to do battle with GMC’s 5-cylinder. We say perception because the 3.5-liter 5-cylinder does develop 220 horsepower and 225 pound-feet of torque and moves even the heaviest Canyon, the crew cab model, with confidence. It generally stacks up well against the V-6 competition. And it’s certainly more muscular than the V-6 it replaces. A major magazine reported 0 to 60 time of 8.9 seconds through the 4-speed automatic transmission. Not bad, all things considered.

This being said, getting people into the showroom to discover the 5-cylinder’s proficiency may be difficult and in this case perception seems to be reality. General Motors perhaps should offer the inline 6 in years to come.

The other engine choice is a 2.8-liter 4-cylinder developing 175 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque.

We were in possession of a Canyon 2-wheel drive Crew Cab Z71 SEL with off-road suspension for a week of mostly on-pavement driving. We did take it onto a work site to check a construction project, and the Canyon’s high stance and good traction proved more than equal to the task of negotiating some deep ruts and loose sand.

This was our third foray into the world of the Canyon/Colorado, having one of each in extended cab format earlier in the year. For some reason we were more impressed this time around. Perhaps that was due to the fact we were driving a more luxury-tuned vehicle that included leather seating and XM satellite radio.

At any rate, our impression after seven days behind the wheel was favorable. This is a good truck, we concluded, with numerous attributes that make the daily commute comfortable. On weekends, it can help accomplish a myriad of chores around the house and farm.

While performance is just on the left side of excellent, handling is, indeed, excellent. The Canyon exhibited good on-line feel, and necessary course corrections on the interstate were as rare as 99-cent gas.

Our test truck was solid; rattle and squeak free; and reacted to rough railroad tracks with a solid thunk, the kind of rock-solid stance that brings on a smile.

The interior was also as quiet as the competition and much improved over the Sonoma in the sound-deadening department.

The exterior has a rugged, truck look with large wheel arches, a rugged GMC family front end and a slightly slopping hood. It is the personification of what a modern mid-sized truck should look like.

Inside, controls are straight forward and easy to use. The dashboard layout falls on the side of conservative, unlike some of the competition, which has gone for more radical approaches. But this interior rendition should not turn anyone off.

The Canyon comes in three body styles: regular; extended and crew and in two trim levels, SL and SEL. All versions can be purchased in either 2-wheel or 4-wheel drive. Regular and extended cab models come with a 6-foot bed. Those needing the extra seating room the crew cab offers, will have to settle for a 5-foot bed.

One of the unique features of the GMC bed is a tailgate that can be locked at 55 degrees so that 4-by-8 sheets of plywood can be stacked flat on top of the wheel housings.

Crew cabs are growing increasingly popular, especially for families, because they offer second-row seating with the convenience of a truck bed. While we found no problem in putting two adults in the rear, legroom can be tight in the mid-sized format if the front seat occupant needs his seat back on the track. Also, the seatbacks are too upright for comfortable long-distance travel because they are pushed up against the rear wall to gain maximum space.

We found another problem. In exiting the second-row seats we got our foot caught on the door jam due to the narrow opening.

There is a wide array of prices ranging from $16,660 for a 2-wheel drive regular cab 4-cylinder to $28,770 for a 4-wheel drive 5-cylinder crew cab.

The base model comes with air conditioning, a 60/40-cloth bench seat and an AM/FM stereo. Move up to the SEL for a few hundred dollars more and tilt wheel, cruise control and an automatic transmission can be added.

Our crew cab was on the pricey side, with a base of $24,750. A few options such as leather seating with heat and power, brushed aluminum side steps, XM satellite radio, side curtain airbags and off-road suspension raised the price to $28,040.

If you are looking for a mid-sized truck, the Canyon 5-cylinder has the performance credentials.