By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Stay smallish — or go bigger?
That was the question GM product planners had to ponder when considering which way to go with the Chevy Colorado and its GMC-badged cousin, the Canyon (subject of this review).
The previous Canyon/Colorado were still nominally almost-compact trucks … smaller than the Dodge Dakota (RIP), but not quite as small as a Ford Ranger (also RIP).
The all-new Canyon/Colorado edges closer to Dakota-sized. That is, it is mid-sized now … officially.
There are no compact trucks on the market anymore.
I wonder whether GM made the right move, upsizing the Canyon/Colorado — me-tooing the also-now-mid-sized Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma pick-ups… rather than go smaller — back to compact — and enjoy the fruits of being the only game in town?
On the other hand, the Canyon and Colorado are not merely larger. They are clearly superior. That’s not the press kit talking. That’s the facts talking. I’m just conveying them to you.
Have a look yourself and see what I mean.
WHAT IT IS
The Canyon — and its Chevy-badged twin, the Colorado — are GM’s mid-sized pick-up trucks. They are available in extended and crew cab bodystyles, with either of two engine choices (a four and a six) and either of two bed lengths (5 feet, 2 inches and 6 feet, 2 inches) and either 2WD or 4WD.
The GMC version is slightly fancier than its Chevy-badged sibling and starts at $20,995 for a 2WD SL with 2.5 liter four cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission. A top-of-the-line SLT Crew Cab (four full size doors) with a 3.6 liter V-6, six-speed automatic and 4WD starts at $37,250.
The ’15 Canyon/Colorado are new designs from the wheels up. They are slightly larger than before, much more powerful — and noticeably more fuel-efficient, too.
More room, more power, more capability (including class-best max tow rating).
4WD is available with the four cylinder engine.
Impressive array of technology (in-truck Wi-Fi, text messaging/Siri Eyes Free)
Modular cargo solutions (tiered/divided storage areas).
Meaty/rugged/oversized controls (easy to operate while wearing gloves; inherently sturdy/harder to break).
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
No regular cab offered.
No eight-foot bed available.
Manual transmission only available with four cylinder engine.
It’s maybe bigger (and longer) than you need.
UNDER THE HOOD
The Canyon (and Colorado) come standard with a 200 hp, 2.5 liter, direct-injected four paired with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic. It’s a much stronger engine than the Nissan Frontier’s standard 2.5 liter, 152 hp four — which is probably why Nissan does not offer that 4WD with its four.
This is a big plus, for buyers who don’t want to pay extra for a V-6, either up front or at the pump.
The Toyota Tacoma — the “twins” other main rival — does offer buyers the option of 4WD with the base four cylinder engine. But arguably shouldn’t have. Like the Nissan four, it’s not packing much in the hp department. Just 159 hp — which, frankly, is marginal in the 2WD version of the Tacoma because this is not a small (nor light) truck — 4,220 lbs. — and the additional weight of a transfer case and heavy-duty 4WD suspension parts is just a touch too much. The four cylinder Tacoma is slow — and thirsty. Zero to 60 takes about 9.3 seconds — and the truck’s gas mileage is just 21 city, 25 highway. That’s the 2WD version. The heavier 4WD equipped version treads close to the 10 second mark — the “bar” for subpar acceleration these days — and its mileage slips to 21 city, 24 highway.
The four cylinder-powered Frontier is sluggish — and thirsty — too. But Nissan — wisely — didn’t make matters worse by tasking the already overmatched four with dragging the extra weight of a 4×4 transfer case around. The downside, of course, is that to get 4WD in the Nissan, you get “upsold” to the V-6.
Interestingly, the Canyon is significantly lighter than the Tacoma — under 4,000 lbs. with 2WD and only 4,140 lbs. with 4WD.
A 2WD Tacoma extended cab has a curb weight of 4,220 lbs.
The Nissan Frontier extended cab/2WD weighs 4,233 lbs.
Also: The Canyon’s four cylinder engine is paired with a six-speed manual transmission (standard) while both the Nissan and the Toyota fours are paired with five-speed manuals. A six-speed automatic is optional in base trim Canyons and Colorados; standard in the higher trims.
Things appear lopsided — in the twins’ favor — when it comes to optional engines, too.
You can step up to a 3.6 liter, 305 hp V-6 in the twins, which sets a new bar for the segment — and not by a little bit. The next-closest (and it’s not even close) is the Frontier’s optional 4.0 liter V-6. Although it’s larger, its hp rating is lower.
A lot lower.
Just 261 hp. Which was top-of-the-pile last year, but a distant second this year. And coming in third — way back there — is the Tacoma’s optional (and also larger) 4.0 V-6, which produces a watery 236 hp. In case your counting, that’s 69 hp down from what you can order in the GM trucks.
A big difference.
The V-6 Canyon/Colorado can really haul the mail; 0-60 in 7.3 seconds for the 2WD version — quicker (by about half a second) than the Tacoma V-6 and the Frontier V-6. And the GM trucks boast a class-best max tow rating of 7,000 lbs. (vs. 6.500 for the Frontier and Tacoma).
You might guess — reasonably — that there’d be a price to pay at the pump for the additional hp, performance and capability. But it turns out, the penalty at the pump comes standard with the competitions’ slower trucks equipped with their less powerful engines.
A V-6/2WD Canyon rates 18 city, 26 highway; with 4WD, it’s 17 city, 24 highway.
The V-6 Tacoma with 2WD rates 16 city, 21 highway and a suck-a-licious 15 city, 19 highway with 4WD. The Nissan rates 16 city, 22 highway with 2WD and 16 city, 21 highway with 4WD.
The pot goes to GM… again.
Some mention-worthies about the 3.6 liter V-6 (and also the four): Both engines are direct-injected and have relatively high compressions ratios (11.3:1 for the four and 11.5:1 for the V-6) which is one of the reasons why they out-power their rivals, which are older designs and not direct-injected and which have lower compressions ratios.
But despite their very high compression ratios, both the four and the six are optimized to burn regular — not high octane premium — unleaded.
So, you get the higher-performing engines — and better economy.
And lower per-gallon fuel costs, too.
ON THE ROAD
I own two compact pick-ups (older Nissan Frontiers) and — in comparison — the Canyon/Colorado is a handful. It is much stronger, with either engine — and with the V-6, it’s a missile. A 300-plus hp V-6 in a medium-size truck is not all that far removed from a 400 hp V-8 in a full-sized truck. And even the base four has a nearly 50 hp advantage (and the advantage of being lighter) than its four cylinder-powered rivals.
If it’s acceleration you crave, this truck will satisfy.
There is simply no comparison — for the moment — in this segment. The other same-sized trucks are simply outclassed by the GM truck’s much bigger guns.
But they are all sizable trucks — and that’s why I used “handful” a few sentences above.
My Frontiers are one-step parkers (and backer-uppers). Easy to slot into — and out of — car-crowded places such as busy shopping center parking lots. The Canyon/Colorado — especially my test truck, which was the crew cab model with four full-size doors and the longest-available ( 6 foot, 2 inch) bed stretched 224.9 inches, end to end.
And that is a handful.
How big a handful?
Well, a Ford Ranger (RIP) was 189.4 inches, bumper to bumper. So my test truck was about three feet longer overall than the recently-retired Ranger, the last compact-sized truck sold on these shores.
The most “compact” version of the GM trucks — the extended cab with short (5 ft. 2 inch) bed is 212.7 inches end to end. Still about two feet longer than a true compact truck like the old Ranger (or my early 2000s Frontiers).
This has its advantages, of course — including a “big truck” feel (and ride) as well as a much more spacious interior (which I’ll get into more below). Driving around in the Canyon, you feel like a road king — literally above it all (and secure in the knowledge you could go through it all). Having 305 hp underfoot (or even 200) is a treat, too. I love my little Frontiers dearly, but they are lacking in the get-up-and-go department, which would be ok if they were a lot easier on gas — but the truth is, they’re not. The truth is, they’re worse — even with the four cylinder engine — than the GMs are with their sixes.
Ok, but how about the disadvantages?
I’ve mentioned the close-quarters maneuvering issue. The truck is long — and has a big rig turning circle in consequence of this: 41.3 feet. About three feet more than a regular cab Ranger (37.7 feet).
It also has a long wheelbase: 128.3 inches for the extended cab with the short bed (the crew cab with long bed — which is really a medium-sized bed — rides on a 140.5 inch wheelbase). The Previous (2012) Canyon/Colorado’s wheelbase was several inches shorter (126 inches) and that truck felt nimbler in the curves — if less planted on straights. It’s also wider than the other trucks it competes against: 74.3 inches vs. 72.8 for the Nissan and 72.2 for the Toyota.
Being slimmer and smaller and shorter, the Frontier and Tacoma feel closer to compact-sized in terms of the way they steer and respond — but the flip side of that (which redounds to the GM truck’s benefit) is that they also feel less substantial. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine you’re driving a 1500-sized truck when you’re driving a Canyon or Colorado Crew Cab.
You’ll never feel that way driving a Frontier or Tacoma.
AT THE CURB
This is a good-looking truck with some rakish design aspects — such as what looks like (but actually isn’t) an unusually low — almost “chopped” — roofline, a trick achieved by using comparatively short side glass. The windshield is also slightly recessed at the bottom of the A pillars, which enhances the effect. The GMC version has a solid, blocky face with a huge three-bar grilled while the Chevy version has a Camaro-ish front clip. Both look great, in my opinion.
The rear bumper has foot-holds cut into it at either end, to make it easier to access the bed. The available EZ Lift and Lower tailgate system makes one-handed opening and closing a snap, too.
But what really helps, bed-wise (and what may be the most persuasive argument for buying a mid-sized truck rather than a full-size truck) is that steps built into the bumper are not really necessary for most people whereas in full-size trucks, they are essential. Because the bed walls of full-size trucks have grown to cartoonish heights such that even a guy my size (at 6ft 3, I am taller than 90 percent of the population) feels like a 10-year-old boy when trying to access the bed.
No such issues in the Canyon/Colorado — or (to be fair) its mid-sized rivals.
But, the beds themselves are on the smallish side.
Or rather, the shortish side.
The Canyon offers two possibilities: a 5 foot, 2 inch bed and a “long” 6 foot, 2 inch bed. The latter can be extended — kinda sorta — by dropping the tailgate and so arranged the truck can carry a bundle of 2x4x8s home from Lowes. But the tailgate has to be down — and that’s inherently less secure.
Apparently not enough demand exists for an eight foot bed — which would be feasible with a regular cab body.
For what its worth, Toyota no longer sells a regular cab version of the Tacoma, either. Ditto Nissan. If you want a regular cab, you can either buy a used Tacoma — or a new full-sized truck.
There is — not surprisingly — a lot more interior space in the new, enlarged Canyon/Colorado than in the smaller previously 2012 Canyon/Colorado. Second row legroom in the extended cab version of the new truck is 28.6 inches (vs. a crippling 23.1 in the ’12 Canyon) and 35.8 with the crew cab. With either cab, front seat legroom is up to 45 inches — vs. 42.2 in the old twins.
Headroom is also generous: 41.4 inches (more by about an inch than in the Tacoma and Frontier) but you should be aware that second row room in extended cab versions is considerably less than in crew cab versions (36.7 inches and 38.3 inches, respectively) due to differing rooflines.
The really big news (best Ed Sullivan voice) is the pending availability of a turbo-diesel V-6 sometime in mid-late 2015 (when the 2016s come out). Assuming Uncle doesn’t put the kibosh on that deal. Several manufacturers have had to hold back on diesel engines that had been scheduled for availability by now (e.g., the Sky-D diesel that was supposed to have been available in the 2014 Mazda3) because they couldn’t quite comply with Uncle’s emissions rigmarole. It’s not that these diesels are dirty; far from it. They standards are just insanely strict and very hard to meet without screwing up the things that make a diesel worth buying, like long-haul durability and low maintenance/operating costs.
So, fingers crossed. A diesel engine in the twins would give them another major functional feature that no competitor offers. It’s also exactly what’s needed on the options roster for a truck.
Minor nits and grievances: The optional collision warning system — like every such system I have tested (which is a bunch of them) steps in too soon, hitting you with flashing red lights and accompanying buzzers if you haven’t hit the brakes half a football field before it thinks you ought to. Ok, that’s an exaggeration — but not entirely. Say a car up ahead is turning off. It has slowed down — but you know it’ll be gone by the time you get to where it is. So you don’t brake. The sensors and computers can sense an object up ahead, but — lacking interpretive powers — cannot muse that the object is gonna be gone by the time you get there. It just senses imminent danger!, danger! Will Robinson!… and puts on a similar performance for your amusement.
Coolness: There are two (count ’em!) USB ports for the backseat passengers. Very considerate. In-truck Wi-Fi. Gesture recognition… in addition to voice recognition. Really.
Also: The optional 4WD system is smart enough to disengage 4WD if you’re not smart enough to do it yourself (as when driving on dry pavement). Two-tiered shelving capability for the bed (so you can hide stuff under the first shelf). And, how about “active aero” grille shutters that close (when the radiator doesn’t need the airflow to keep the engine cool) to cut aerodynamic drag and increase MPGs?
The hood’s aluminum, too.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you don’t mind that it’s gotten bigger — and can live without the bigger bed you could get in a 1500/regular cab truck — the twins are not merely worth a look.
They’re the clear choice in this class.