Written by: Calvin Chan
Photography by: Calvin Chan
With the disappearance of American mid-size pickup trucks like the Ford Ranger and the Dodge Dakota, prudent buyers have slowly flocked over to different vehicles for their occasional towing and hauling needs. Intimidated by the size and commitment of full-size pickups like the Chevrolet Silverado, they turned their attention to crossovers, SUVs, and minivans, but there are now two new mid-size contenders to give those buyers a change of heart. Seizing the narrow opportunity to give the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier a run for their money, GM has sprouted the middleweight twins back into the North American market, the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon.
GM understands that the Colorado and Canyon won't win over full-size truck buyers. Those going the big road aren't likely to downgrade for a smaller footprint. Rather, GM has their crosshairs aimed at those crossover, SUV, and minivan defectors and to attract new truck buyers as well. They say that the Colorado and Canyon offer pickup functionality, interior comfort, luxury, and fuel efficiency, all without the gargantuan proportions. To test out these highly anticipated trucks, GM was kind enough to invite us out for a drive in Ajax, Ontario. It was a rainy, foggy, and muddy Tuesday morning, and while some journalists grumbled at the miserable weather, we thought it to be the perfect testing ground to evaluate each truck's versatility and off-roading prowess.
As expected, the Colorado and Canyon are configurable in all different shapes and sizes. You can have an extended cab or crew cab, short bed or long bed, two or four-wheel-drive, there are two engines to choose from, and even a choice between an automatic or manual transmission. Yet, despite harbouring the same DNA, we're happy to see that the GM twins offer enough exterior differences and internal gear to keep them distinct and cater towards different audiences.
The Colorado, the sportier of the two trucks, looks like an enlarged Camaro with clean lines and an inspiring exterior design - the young worker with blue jeans - while the Canyon looks like a mini Sierra - the suit and tie. The latter retains the same styling cues as GMC's full-size trucks with fluffy grilles and boxy LED headlights, making it look more mature and professional than the Colorado. There is a unique vibe and character to the Canyon, and it somehow feels different without appearing as a rebadged duplicate with a premium price-tag.
There are two engines available for each truck: a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder delivering 200 hp and 191 lb-ft, and a more impressive 3.6-liter V6 that generates 305 hp and 269 lb-ft of torque. Unfortunately, GM didn't offer any 4-cylinder models at the test drive so we were stuck with the V6 engine. Not that we were complaining, the V6 was a potent engine with direct injection, variable valve timing, and enough horsepower to get the ball rolling, but it's definitely no V8 substitute. The engine rowed energetically through each of its six gears, but it lacked the oomph and whoosh that we have all come to love from a cylinder set of eight. Don't get your hopes down though. GM has announced a new 2.8-liter 4-cylinder turbo diesel engine that will make its way into both trucks by 2016, one that will offer even more torque and better fuel efficiency.
One of our favourite qualities of these new trucks was the ride quality. The fully boxed steel frame chassis was incredibly rigid and the suspension absorbed bumps and potholes better than my 2015 Infiniti Q70 test vehicle on the same unpaved roads. Another delightful surprise was how quiet the cabin was. Thanks to inlaid door designs, the use of sound deadening materials and thickened windshields and glass, the Colorado and Canyon were both silent as a church. I also loved the seating position - not too high but with good visibility all around.
As the rain kept pouring, the trails got browner and muddier. My co-driver and I decided to veer onto some inclined trails off the main road to explore the trucks' off-roading capabilities. As expected, traction and grip was plentiful and there was no terrain the trucks couldn't conquer. The Canyon distinctly stood out with AutoTrac, an automated four-wheel-drive system that let the computers figure out how much grip we needed and adjusted the transfer case accordingly. The Colorado didn't have that, and required shifting into Neutral before changing the transfer case from 2WD to 4WD. It only took a few seconds, but the "set it and forget it" nature of the AutoTrac system gave the GMC a noticeable advantage.
As standard, the GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado have a tow rating of 1588 kg, but with the much-recommended Trailering Package ($275) that essentially adds on a trailer hitch and 7-pin connector, the figure doubles to 3175 kg. Another nifty option is the Tow/Haul mode. Available only on the V6 models, this feature minimizes upshifts and downshifts while towing to keep the torque flowing in the right gears and at the optimal rpms. During our test drive, we had the opportunity to tow a trailer loaded with a Polaris 800 60th Anniversary snowmobile. Though it doesn't come close to the maximum towing capacity, my co-driver and I were both surprised by the lack of harsh noises and vibrations coming through the cabin, and applauded the incredibly smooth ride despite the added wheels and weight.
It takes nothing but some seat time with the Colorado and Canyon to realize how much more refined and luxurious they have become, something that couldn't be said about the Tacoma and Frontier. The new interiors are spacious, airy, and feel more like sitting in a sedan rather than a pickup. GM has really stepped up their game with the fit and finish, delivering comfortable, heated, and leather-appointed seats in the top trims. I also liked being able to choose which area of the seat I wanted to be heated - back, or back and bottom.
The steering wheel has been refreshed and has a nice weight to it, yet GMC insists on keeping the audio controls mounted behind the wheel, buttons that I kept mistaking for paddle shifters. The center stack is far from minimalistic, but provides well-sized dials and hard buttons for easy pushing with winter gloves on. The 8-inch touchscreen display, available on the higher trims (4.2-inch is standard), is easy to use and intuitive, though we're sad to the see the departure of the hidden compartment behind it to store your valuables. The navigation is quick and embraces a clean design, and the optional 7-speaker BOSE audio system ($685) delivers a crisp audio note to cancel any wind noise that managed to creep into the cabin.
GM offers a lot of new tech to take advantage of what the Tacoma and Frontier are currently lacking. Segment-firsts, including camera-dependent forward collision alert and lane departure warning systems make their way as attractive options, while a standard rear view camera is undoubtedly a welcome sight for new truck buyers transitioning from a smaller vehicle. Another advantage of these Murican' pickups is the OnStar 4G LTE availability with Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities. It was incredibly easy to connect and use with our smartphones and poses as a huge selling point over the competition. Road-tripping from Canada to the US won't have any roaming fees either, and data plans are available for purchase through monthly, daily, or hourly packages.
The goals for these mid-size pickups were simple: to combine tow and haul capabilities, a quiet and luxurious cabin, competitive performance numbers, and exceptional fuel economy all into one compact package. Though we weren't able to test the truck's fuel efficiency due to a lack of driving time, GM has the rest down to a science. The Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon are equipped with all the benefits of a full-size pickup truck, but without the impracticality and difficulty of navigating through parking lots, even when they're empty. With the Chevrolet Colorado delivering so much promise at a lower price, my only worry is that buyers won't fork over the premium for the GMC. Chrome, LED headlights, an AutoTrac system, and a more upscale design might win the hearts of a few, but I think an optional Denali package might change the balance and tip the favours to the more expensive twin. Regardless, with a promising diesel engine arriving in 2016 and a distinct technological advantage over its mid-size pickup competitors, the Colorado and Canyon have arrived at right place, at just the right time.