Pickup buyers have never been luckier.
Trucks are simultaneously more capable and more luxurious than ever, while also delivering greater efficiency than before, meaning shoppers should be able to find a machine that suits their wants and needs, regardless of what those may be.
It also means many of the offerings are now wildly complex, and come loaded with technology and lightweight materials, all of which add up on the price sheet. But there are still a few good options that are simpler – and more affordable – and can haul a load and take a pounding off-road, and one of those is the 2021 GMC Canyon AT4.
For those with truck tastes that lean more toward rugged than chrome-covered, the Canyon AT4 fits the bill. The shiny stuff is blacked-out here, save for the larger grille that’s new for 2021 and makes the front of the Canyon more closely resemble its Sierra big brother. The AT4 gets a set of bright red tow hooks up front like all AT4 models in the GMC lineup, and large AT4 badges on each front door and the tailgate.
Aside from that, the Canyon’s styling is very familiar, with the truck having been around since late 2014. It’s a handsome pickup overall without being as over-the-top as the Jeep Gladiator.
Inside, the Canyon’s age is showing as well, and there are plenty of places where shiny, cheap-feeling plastic is used. Beyond the bright red AT4 logos stitched into the headrests, and the taupe-coloured stitching on the seats and dashboard, the abundance of black and dark grey trim is about as inviting as a coal mine. It is, however, a mostly functional design, and those shiny plastic pieces appear to be durable and easy to wipe down should the truck be used for proper utilitarian tasks.
My Canyon test truck was a basic AT4 model, meaning the features list was a short one. While a heated steering wheel, for instance, might’ve been appreciated on chilly mornings, even a base AT4 is decently equipped with heated seats, a back-up camera with a trailer-connect reference line, and on-board Wi-Fi connectivity. More importantly for a truck, the AT4 comes standard with heavier-duty shocks and proper off-road tires, plus a V6 engine.
GMC does a good job of letting buyers build the trucks they want with different box lengths available, plus the opportunity to option their pickups with different packages and standalone options, including leather seating, high-end audio systems, and more safety options.
User Friendliness: 8.5/10
The Canyon is just old enough now that its interior predates push-button engine start and the movement to all-glass dashboards that can turn a modern cockpit into a series of big screens. This means the use of traditional knobs for climate controls, volume and tuning knobs that are simple for a driver to find on-the-fly, and physical buttons for secondary controls like seat heaters and the cargo area lamp that mean a driver doesn’t need to search through a mess of digital menus for what should be a quick and simple command.
The standard eight-inch infotainment touchscreen has satellite radio and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integrated. Its layout is simple, though its graphics and resolution are a bit low-rent. For the most part it worked well enough, although on one occasion the system refused to shut down or allow the driver any volume or screen control for several minutes despite shutting down the vehicle, exiting it, and locking the doors.
The AT4’s tougher suspension compared to other Canyon models results in a stiffer ride. While the complex suspension systems found in other modern off-road-inspired trucks like the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 can produce a remarkably compliant ride, the AT4 is reminiscent of old-school trucks that feel robust but relatively unyielding. Still, the Canyon’s cabin is a comfier place than the comparatively noisy, harsh Jeep Gladiator.
The seats offer decent comfort, being neither too firm nor too soft, though they offer minimal bolstering or support that would be welcome when bouncing around off-road. The seat heaters can be adjusted to offer warmth through the back and buns, or just the back, which is a rare choice.
Rear-seat passengers are given adequate space in the crew cab, the only cab length offering for Canadian AT4s. Rear legroom is better than in comparable Toyota Tacoma and Ford Ranger models, but falls short of the Gladiator.
Wind and engine noise is suitably subdued, but the aggressive tires create a lot of noise and their chunky tread block can be felt through the steering wheel at slow speeds, but buyers wanting off-road capability are likely willing to overlook these minor faults.
The AT4’s standard engine is the venerable 3.6L V6 from General Motors (GM) that puts out 275 lb-ft of torque and a class-leading 308 hp. Despite being down on torque compared to Ford’s turbocharged four-cylinder Ranger, the Canyon’s V6 feels ideally suited to the midsize truck and is one of its best attributes. Its power delivery is smooth and it moves the Canyon around without breaking a sweat, unlike the Jeep’s V6 that feels like it’s carrying around a few hundred more kilograms than it should (and it is).
GM’s eight-speed automatic is the only transmission offered in the Canyon and it’s a perfect match to the V6, offering smooth shifts and never seeming to be caught in the wrong gear the way the sometimes-confused 10-speed is in the Ranger.
GMC offers the choice of a six-foot box or, like my test truck, a five-footer. While a box length this short seems almost pointless, the shorter truck length and wheelbase does help for off-roading, but when cleaning out the garage, it didn’t take long to fill the box. What’s more, trips to the lumber yard end up with one third of the load hanging off the back end of the truck.
But, even a short-box truck offers a lot of usability compared to most other vehicles, and the Canyon’s five-foot box length does offer several precious centimetres of greater length than either the Ranger or the Gladiator, though it is slightly narrower than either of those trucks.
This Canyon was fitted with the tow package that adds a two-inch receiver and a trailer brake controller. Equipped as it is, the AT4 is rated to tow up to 3,447 kg (7,600 lb), a figure that’s highly competitive within the class.
Driving Feel: 8/10
The combination of a responsive drivetrain, decent suspension setup, and precise steering has made the Canyon (and its Colorado twin) a stand-out in the class, even six years after its introduction. While still feeling like a solid rig, the Canyon is more nimble on-road than any Gladiator or full-size truck, and is properly fun to sling around in the dirt. My press truck seemed to be possessed by a small, angry goose stuck inside the steering column that squawked whenever cranking the steering wheel at parking lot speeds, however.
GMC did not skimp on the AT4’s rubber, with a set of 265/65R17 Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tires offering excellent all-round off-road competence, and the added benefit of true four-season use with proper mountain-and-snowflake rating. The Canyon’s decent on-road manners are not overly compromised by the aggressive rubber.
The Canyon’s brakes offer decent bite and smooth, linear pedal feel. Despite the AT4 being GMC’s gnarliest off-road Canyon offering, it doesn’t have the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2’s front and rear locking differential, instead offering only an automated rear locker. Likewise, the AT4 doesn’t have the ZR2’s impressive Multimatic suspension, so while the GMC can take a pounding off-road, it has neither the elevated ground clearance, nor the sophisticated body control of the Chevy. Plus, the under-mounted spare tire hangs quite low, making it prone for a good whacking when going over uneven terrain.
Fuel Economy: 6/10
As much as I love the Canyon’s V6 drivetrain, it falls short in fuel efficiency to the Ranger’s turbocharged four-cylinder, and certainly well behind GM’s own diesel offering. Rated at 14.0 L/100 km city and 9.9 L/100 km highway, I saw an indicated average of 12.1 L/100 km over a week of mixed driving.
The AT4 surely suffers in efficiency compared to other Canyon models due to the big, all-terrain tires that create more rolling drag than less-aggressive rubber. The deep air dam found on other Canyons had been removed from my tester for greater off-road clearance (and aesthetics), which also contributed to a reduction in aerodynamic efficiency.
While GMC does offer an optional forward collision alert, parking assist feature, and lane-departure warning, none were fitted to this base AT4. Other active safety features like automated braking and lane-departure mitigation found on some competitive models are not available on the Canyon.
The Canyon does have a rear-seat reminder and a Teen Driver mode that prevents some safety systems from being switched off, also enabling parents to review a report card of the driver’s habits behind the wheel.
With a starting price of $41,898, the AT4 is more affordable than most other off-road package pickups. Aside from the missing active safety features, having Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, plus Wi-Fi, heated seats, and the off-road-ready skid plates and tires, the Canyon AT4 represents a decent value.
However, a Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 has the better Multimatic suspension, plus the Canyon’s optional trailering package and spray-in bed liner are both standard on the Chevy, which is also offering nearly $3,000 in rebates on leftover 2020 models, bringing the prices pretty close.
The GMC Canyon AT4 possesses the essentials for a successful, midsize truck. It looks cool, it can handle rugged terrain, and has competitive hauling capability. Its simplicity and relative lack of high-tech features keep the pricing low, but its biggest competitor is its own cousin from Chevrolet, which isn’t that much costlier for a truck with more features and a better suspension, especially for those who plan to take their truck off-road.
|Peak Horsepower||308 hp @ 6,800 rpm|
|Peak Torque||275 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||14.0 / 9.9 / 12.2 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Cargo Space||5-foot box|
|Model Tested||2021 GMC Canyon AT4|
|Price as Tested||$44,743|
$845 – Spray-on bedliner, $550; Trailering Package, $295