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First drive: 2015 GMC Canyon [Review]

by Kirk Bell

With the 2015 GMC Canyon, America reclaims its spot at the head of the midsize pickup class.

The automotive market is constantly evolving. Each generation of a vehicle is better than the last thanks to new technologies, more efficient engines, and safety advances. With product cycles that typically last four to seven years, change moves quickly. In this world of constant change, the midsize pickup segment has been stuck in neutral since 2005. That's the last time any automaker has updated its pickups.

Enter the 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. The first new midsize pickups in a decade, these trucks benefit from the latest technology while the competition continues to dwindle and stagnate. After years of attrition, the GM trucks face only two competitors, the Nissan Frontier, and the long-time sales leader, the Toyota Tacoma.

While both of the GM pickups are all-new for 2015, we are focusing on the GMC here because it is the better of the two trucks, and quite simply, it's the best midsize pickup on the market.

Class-Leading Power and Efficiency

The 2015 Canyon represents GMC's return to the midsize pickup market after a couple years off. It has nothing to do with the last Canyon, and is in fact bigger and more efficient. The longest wheelbase grows two inches to 128, length is up almost six inches, and width increases 5.6. It's a much more substantial truck.

The last model's 2.9-liter four-cylinder, 3.7-liter five-cylinder, and 5.3-liter V8 engines have given way to a simpler and more efficient engine lineup. The base engine is now a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that makes 200 horsepower and 191 pound-feet of torque, and buyers can also opt for a 3.6-liter V6 that cranks out 305 horses and 262 pound-feet of torque. The horsepower numbers are the best in the class, and so are the fuel economy figures. With rear-wheel drive, the 2.5 is rated at 20 mpg city/27 highway and the V6 gets an 18/26 rating. By comparison, the best ratings for the Toyota are 21/25 for the four-cylinder and 17/21 for the V6.

The Canyon's 2.5 makes a fine base engine. It's fairly subdued during cruising, though it buzzes somewhat intrusively under full throttle. It has good thrust off the line, feeling a bit quicker than the 9.5-second 0-to-60 mph time that GMC quotes. However, it will struggle during towing, and passing power is just adequate. We drove a four-cylinder Toyota Tacoma at the media drive program in Del Mar, California, and it felt much weaker than the GMC.

GMC's 3.6-liter V6 is smaller than the V6s from the competition, but it's more powerful. It cuts the 0-to-60 mph time to just 6.5 seconds (7.3 with AWD) at the cost of just a couple of mpg overall and a $1,235 price premium. It's more refined than the four-cylinder, too, though it also roars under full throttle. We recommend it.

Capability and Drivability

While the GMC certainly ups the ante for overall refinement, it still drives like a truck. It is, after all, a body-on-frame pickup with a tall ride height and rear leaf springs. That translates to noticeable body lean in turns, bounce over bumps, and jiggle over small road imperfections. Thanks to a sturdy frame, though, there is less jiggle than you'll find in the Toyota and Nissan. Like those trucks, it's also much smaller than today's full-size pickups and that makes it much more maneuverable in tight quarters and easier to live with every day.

Big or small, buyers choose trucks for their capability, and the new GM pickups are the most capable of the midsize trucks. With the V6 the Canyon can tow up to 7,000 pounds, which is 500 more than the Toyota and Nissan. The four-cylinder can tow an impressive 6,000 pounds, but we would recommend the V6 if towing is a major concern. Payload tops out at 1,620 pounds, which beats the Toyota by 120 pounds and the Nissan by 88.

Two bed lengths are offered. The four-door Crew Cab comes only with a 5-foot, 2-inch bed, while the extended cab offers that bed and a 6-foot, 2-inch bed. The extended cab also has four doors, but the rear doors are hinged at the rear and can't open independently of the fronts. Those who need to carry passengers will want the Crew Cab, as it has a very livable rear seat. The extended cab's rear seat is best suited for small children or interior storage.

Either bed has some useful features. The tailgate is damped, so it won't slam down when you open it. GMC provides a bed light for loading/unloading at night, and the rear bumper has steps on each side to make it easier to get in and out. Buyers can also get a rubber bed mat or spray-in or drop-in bedliners from the factory to protect their investment.

One of the Canyon's greatest strengths is its available four-wheel-drive system. While all other midsize pickups offer a part-time system that should be disengaged on dry pavement, the Canyon has a full-time on-demand system that requires owners to simply set it and forget it. For this reason alone we would choose the Canyon over the competition. The system also comes with low-range gearing that gives the Canyon off-road ability like any other midsize truck.

Inviting Interior with Class-leading Features

America's tastes have changed since any automaker last put significant development dollars into a midsize pickup. That gives GMC a chance to appeal to today's audience with the latest features and modern refinement.

The Canyon benefits from some of the lessons learned from GM's full-size pickups. The cab features the same type of construction, with triple-sealed doors set into the cab sides instead of extending into the roof. This aids interior quietness, as does additional sound deadener. As a result, the Canyon's interior is the quietest in the class.

The materials are also a reflection of the times, with padded armrests and, for the midrange SLE and top-line SLT models, a soft-touch dash. The SLE and SLT also get real aluminum trim. In total, the look and feel are several steps ahead of the Japanese competitors.

The same goes for the GMC's connectivity. All Canyons are offered with 4G LTE connectivity through GM's OnStar system. It allows up to seven devices to be connected to the internet. The SLE and SLT also get an eight-inch center touchscreen with GMC's IntelliLink infotainment system. The screen has large icons that drivers tap to choose the navigation, audio, and communication functions. It also provides access to apps, such as Pandora internet radio, through owner's smartphones. IntelliLink is much more modern than the systems offered by Toyota and Nissan, and the large icons make it fairly easy to use.

Leftlane's bottom line

The midsize pickup segment has been ignored for so long that GMC says many buyers defected to go to cars and compact crossovers. GMC believes the Canyon can do more than just grab sales from the competition, but also bring back those customers.

Buyers returning to the segment will find the cost for all the modern technology in the Canyon is a significant price increase. While the base truck starts at $22,650, we recommend the V6, 4WD, and the SLE trim. That brings the total to $33,305. That's not cheap, and it is almost $4000 more than the comparable Toyota pickup. However, the GMC not only has more equipment, but it benefits from the latest technology, which translates to more refinement, additional safety, higher fuel economy, and a better overall vehicle. That should be enough to bring buyers back to the midsize pickup segment.

2015 GMC Canyon base price, $22,650. Destination, $925.

Photos by Kirk Bell and courtesy of General Motors.

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