Bold take: The GMC Canyon is the most well-rounded midsize truck. Admittedly, “well-rounded” is a lukewarm compliment, but the Canyon does nearly everything well. It is not the flashiest, which is undeniably the Jeep Gladiator. Or the most comfortable, which is the Honda Ridgeline. But for those seeking a midsize truck that looks like a truck, drives like a truck and has a solid interior, the Canyon is the right formula.
We would test the 2021 GMC Canyon AT4 for a week and find that it’s pleasant, capable and sturdy off-road. We would haul a bookshelf in the bed, get dirty during a woodsy soft-road jaunt and pile up the miles running around town. In short, it’s exactly what most need in a midsize truck.
The AT4 model is new for 2021, and it replaces the All-Terrain model, a move GMC is rolling out across its lineup. The AT4 adds an off-road-tuned suspension with hill-descent control, beefy 31-inch Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tires wrapped around 17-inch aluminum wheels, standard four-wheel drive with locking rear differential and a transfer case skid plate. The AT4 punches up the Canyon’s appearance with red tow hooks, dark chrome elements and a bigger grille that’s similar to the Sierra’s. The Canyon Denali, which was also refreshed for ‘21, is showier, but the AT4 trim feels cooler with its understated off-road vibes.
Considering this, we head out for an afternoon drive along a familiar route through Detroit’s northern suburbs. The Canyon is a solid daily driver. The 3.6-liter V6 rated at 308 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque is widely used in General Motors vehicles. It’s powerful and actually sounds pretty good — even throaty — in GMC’s midsize truck. Our passengers are surprised to be pulled back in their seats during hard acceleration, and the eight-speed automatic transmission is well-calibrated for the many jobs the Canyon is called upon to perform. This powertrain, standard in the AT4 and Denali trims, is a step up from the 2.5-liter inline-four and six-speed auto offered on the lower models. It’s worth it. The 2.8-liter Duramax diesel is an option on higher-spec Canyons, and its 369 lb-ft of torque is tantalizing. For everyday use, take the V6. Our tester with the gasoline V6 and four-wheel drive can tow as much as 7,000 pounds, has a maximum payload of 1,609 pounds and has respectable fuel economy of 17 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway. The numbers reinforce a basic premise: the Canyon can do what you need.
At this moment that means a little mischief in the dirt. With the big, knobby tires and a respectable amount of off-road equipment, the AT4 is a smart play for buyers looking for adventure in the hinterlands. It’s the most capable Canyon available, and it’s also worth considering for those who live in snowy areas simply for the added performance and looks. The Canyon’s Chevrolet Colorado sibling has a ZR2 model that is more capable off-road and expensive. Most weekend warriors won’t need that level of off-road prowess.
Back on surface streets, we notice the Canyon’s agreeable nature. Though the AT4 is ready for the wilderness, it’s just as comfortable around town as other Canyon models (and the Colorado). It’s more civilized on road than a Ford Ranger outfitted with the FX4 off-road pack. The Gladiator rides like the Wrangler, and the ancient Toyota Tacoma is even more abusive. The Canyon and Colorado are among the best drivers in the midsize truck segment, second only to the Honda Ridgeline, which is based on the Pilot’s crossover underpinnings. The Canyon, however, has better steering with more feedback, and naturally more of a truck vibe behind the wheel. It will be interesting to see if Honda changes the formula for the 2021 Ridgeline, which in a tacit nod to critics and market trends, has updated its truck with tougher styling.
Inside, the Canyon is a bit nicer than the Colorado, which is the natural GMC-Chevy dynamic. The leather-appointed seats have gray bezel trim with orange stitching. Our tester has a black interior with aluminum trim, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and “AT4” embroidered in the headrests. It’s one of the better settings in the midsize segment, where anything less than $40,000 usually has a cabin that’s boring or cheap. For $42,585, the Canyon AT4’s interior is pretty nice. If Canyon is a step up from Colorado, AT4 is the GMC as the best version of itself.
Aside from the AT4 dressings, the Canyon is perhaps one of the more generic midsize trucks. Like we noted, it looks like a GMC straight out of central casting. Others in the segment have more aggressive looks. To our eyes, the Canyon is about even with the Ranger in terms of appearance; ahead of the Nissan Frontier and Ridgeline (current and redesigned) and behind the Jeep, Chevy and Toyota offerings. Our one complaint: the Acadia, Yukon, and Sierra wear their AT4 enhancements more noticeably than the Canyon. It feels like GMC could have gone a little farther with its midsize truck’s execution.
In our midsize truck comparo, the Ranger won by a razor-thin margin over the Gladiator, and the Chevy was only slightly behind. We stand by those results 18 months later, but the Canyon wasn’t there and the AT4 wasn’t available back then. Perhaps its better interior and off-roading extras would’ve made a difference. In any event, it would certainly be even more competitive than the Colorado was.
As you can see, there’s a lot of options in this segment. GM reinvigorated midsize trucks in 2014 and deserves credit for putting two relatively similar offerings in the space and then differentiating them appropriately. The Colorado has a bit more attitude, while the Canyon is more generic. But strap on AT4 trim and the Canyon strikes the right balance of capability and style.