Twinning. There is perhaps no brand that pulls off badge-engineering better than GMC. For years, the differences amounted to a few interior features and badging; nowadays the differences are far more substantial, but they remain only skin-deep. Underneath, these trucks are no different than their Chevy counterparts.
GMC has followed this formula with the GMC Canyon, a mid-size pickup that does battle with a motley crew of smallish trucks from brands like Ford, Toyota, and Jeep. On the outside, the Canyon wears its own exclusive sheet metal not shared with its corporate twin, the Chevrolet Colorado. But look past the aesthetics and these two are essentially the same truck.
How GM differentiates the trucks boils down to mission: while the Chevrolet skews towards backcountry adventure, GMC aims for practical luxury. The Colorado doesn't have a Denali alternative, and likewise, the Canyon doesn't offer its own ZR2. The two trucks diverge from a common thread to appeal to their specific clientele.
Trail-ready or luxury-lined. This year, however, GMC seems to take a friendly lob at Chevy with their AT4 trim. Essentially, it's the GMC equivalent of the Colorado Z71: all-terrain tires, mandatory four-wheel drive, a skid plate or two. Bullish styling details like the red tow hooks that jut out under the front bumper and the black 17-inch wheels give the AT4 a sinister attitude not shared with any other Canyon.
Upping the ante is the Off-Road Performance Edition. Spring for it and you get a slightly lifted suspension, a deleted front air dam, and more skid plates. The effect is a more capable truck that looks the part. We wonder how Chevy let GM greenlight this model, considering the Z71 and ZR2 have come to be major players in the off-road mid-size truck space. On the other hand, this is a second GM competitor that the Toyota Tacoma TRD and Jeep Gladiator need to watch out for.
The Denali, on the other hand, doesn't have to worry much about the competition. Most other midsize trucks don't reach for the same levels of luxury offered by the Denali; in fact, pretty much the entire competitive set cannot go head to head with the chrome-laden Denali.
That isn't only in terms of features, but also in perception. GMC has built up the Denali name considerably since its inception; the exclusive exterior touches and the notably nicer interiors have earned it real respect in the truck market. The Denali isn't just all hat and no cattle, either; in the case of the Canyon, it backs up the looks with ventilated seats, navigation, real wood trim, and other fine touches. It genuinely blurs the line between luxury and entry-level.
Three engines, one better than the rest. The Canyon comes with no shortage of available engines. The base 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is probably the least popular among private buyers, as it only makes 200 horsepower and can only tow about 3,500 pounds. Crossovers can tow more than that while getting better gas mileage and properly pampering their occupants.
The far more popular engine is the 3.6-liter V-6. This engine is a very familiar sight among the GM ranks, having powered everything from these pickups to old Impalas to the current crop of Cadillacs. The versatile V-6 has never found an ill match among any of the cars it has powered over the years, but the Canyon is a particularly good home for this engine. In this truck, the V-6 is fast, capable, and refined. Gas mileage, though? Not so hot. Don't expect to break 20 mpg combined.
A turbodiesel is also on the books. Its high price of entry - about $4,000 - ensures trucks so equipped will be obscure finds down the road. For now, the high price is a tough pill to swallow when the V-6 is such a standout engine in this truck. However, it gets much better gas mileage - up to 30 mpg on the highway and 23 mpg combined - and will tow 7,700 pounds. That is right at the top of the class for towing supremacy, beating the Ford Ranger (7,500 pounds) and Jeep Gladiator (7,650 pounds).
Interior woes and safety concerns. The downfall of the Canyon - and its twin, the Colorado - is an interior that more and more feels behind the times. The cabin is functional and pleasant, yes, but fails to feel contemporary; the last time the truck was redesigned was 2015, and the interior is a constant reminder of that.
This isn't so much the case with the upper trims like the Denali and AT4 as it is with the bottom two trims. Despite the trim reshuffling for 2021 - which saw six trims reduced to four - the base model trucks continue to feel underequipped. The contractor-spec model makes sense for Chevy, but the GMC? We think the market would let the Canyon drop the bare-bones base model for a ritzier and pricier starting trim. And we'd love to see GM spruce things up with a modernized look and a few more modern features.
Speaking of modern features, the Canyon woefully needs some updates when it comes to keeping its occupants safe. Right now, this truck paints a dire picture: no automatic emergency braking available for any price and concerning crash-test data. The IIHS gave it a "marginal" rating for one of their tests, and the NHTSA awarded it just four stars overall out of five.
None of this is good news in 2021; frankly, it is downright disappointing, even for pickup trucks, which are routinely last in line for embracing the latest technology. We know GMC can bring the Canyon to where it needs to be in this regard.
Final Word. The Canyon is a good truck that's let down by a mediocre interior and abysmal safety data. It's a shame those are the two attributes where GMC dropped the ball, as otherwise there's plenty to love about this truck, from its feature count on the upper trims to the trio of available powertrains. We also think the new AT4 will be a winner as well. If GM just added some safety features the Canyon would be more competitive in the hot midsize truck market.
Check prices for the 2021 GMC Canyon »