Auto review: GMC Canyon is good, dirty fun

ASHEVILLE, North Carolina — GMC just wants to have fun.

Like Hollywood beefcake, General Motors Co.’s premium truck brand is handsome, chiseled and irresistible in a black-and-chrome suit. Look for the Denali label inside the lapel. But the big fella also wants to get dirty like the Chevrolet boys. You know the Chevy hell-raisers — ripped, tattooed, riding around in their awesome spool-valve shock-stuffed ZR2 performance trim slingin’ mud and huntin’ bear.

GMC wants a piece of that, so say hello to the 2023 Canyon AT4X pickup. Hot dang!

Miles from anywhere in North Carolina (“Find your nowhere!” is the new team tag), I pounded up a steep, rutted slope like Kong flattening a forest. Menacing grille, fenders out to here and outboard MultiMatic spool-valve shocks enabling absurd wheel articulation over rain-ravaged trails.

The AT4X is Canyon’s all-new off-road model, sharing performance tools with Chevy’s ZR2 off-road bruiser. In addition to the Multimatic assault weapons that allow Canyon to play hard in everything from low-speed rock crawling to high-speed trail runs, the AT4X gains tough underbody skid plates, 10.5-inch suspension lift, 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain knobbies and front flamethrower (just kidding about that last one).

The grille is menacing enough without the flamethrower as the design team has warmed to the trend that pickups are replacing sports cars as the new hormone vehicles. Camaro is exiting the lineup, but not its design inspiration. Canyon’s grille is properly upright — GMC stamped in the middle — but it then flares around the mid-mounted headlights in a cool X-wing design.

Those mid-mounted headlights allow more center sculpting as the “eyebrow” LED running lights bend ‘round the corner into big swollen fenders. Designer Rob Hunwick says the resulting “Coke bottle” shape was inspired by the Camaro. Told ya’ these GMC guys are having fun.

I had so much fun off-road in the Blue Ridge Mountain that I painted my Canyon with mud — the universal color of truckers everywhere. Though most of our media testing was at low speed through narrow trails and trees (don’t try this in a full-size Sierra pickup), I can attest to the Canyon’s high-speed capabilities, having tested its twin Colorado ZR2 on a dirt race track a few years back.

That truck attacked the Outback with a growling 3.6-liter, 308-horsepower 275-torque V-6, which has been replaced this generation with a 4-banger to meet government nanny emissions requirements. Fear not, however; despite losing nearly a liter of displacement, engineers have managed to squeeze even more grunt from the four-holer by cramming hot turbocharged air down its throat. The result is a gobsmacking 430 pound-feet of torque — more than 50% over the six-holer. Crazy, yes?

I only ask that the turbo-4 would deliver a crazier bellow to match its formidable performance. To further encourage bad behavior, engineers have mounted the long-travel Multimatic shocks (crafted by the same Toronto-based Multimatic race shop that supplies Formula One, for goodness’ sake) on the outboard side of the ladder frame, clearing out the underbody (save the differential pig) for more confident mud-slinging.

Open the cabin door and owners may have second thoughts about mud-slinging, though. While GMC has weaponized its exterior, it spared nothing to provide passengers with a typically premium GMC interior experience. The ‘23 Canyon is a major upgrade over the last-gen pickup.

Interior designers call the dash the “hamburger,” and this pickup has a lot of meat between the lower and upper plastic dash buns. My tester featured handsome, crafted red air ports at the corners that bookended white leather dash inserts with red stitching. What if, after a day of slinging mud at the AT4’s exterior canvas, my muddy paws smeared these lovely materials? No problem, answered interior designer Brian Geiszler, running his own paw along the red stitching. Just wash it off.

Atop the hamburger is the garnish — a delicious state-of-the-art monoscreen that houses twin digital displays for driver instrumentation and infotainment. It is stuffed with off-road performance data and 10 cameras views to complement the rotary dial on the console (nicely packaged on the driver’s side of the shifter) with which you can select multiple modes — including low-speed 4WD for when the going gets really soupy.

The $56,995 AT4X’s capability sets the standard for the Canyon lineup, which starts at $38,395 with the superb Elevation model.

Elevation isn’t armed to the teeth with the AT4X’s off-road weaponry, but it has everything else, including the refined cabin, four-inch-wider stance for better handling and the whisper-quiet all-terrain tires.

Wait, what?

Yes, Canyon comes standard with the AT Wranglers, which would seem a recipe for noise, noise, noise. Hustling up the (paved) Blue Ridge highway, I had to jump out of the truck to remind myself these were all-terrains. The pickup is remarkably poised on its knobby 32-inch tires thanks to extensive sound-deadening around the wheel wells (in addition to its gym-toned chassis).

The front cabin is a nice place to be, but I was disappointed GMC didn’t do more with overall interior room — especially as the longitudinally-mounted V-6 engine is gone, which might have allowed for more space. Alas, rear-seat passengers will find legroom as tight as a subcompact SUV.

GMC found its customers prefer crew cabs and 5.5-foot beds, so those are the only options for 2023. I would’ve liked a truck at this price to offer more standard features like adaptive cruise control and blind-spot assist (standard items on many $30K compact SUVs), but customers will have to add packages to find them. A must is a bed convenience package that brings a soft-drop tailgate and a clever in-tailgate storage cubby for those who use their gate as a workbench.

Standard is GMC’s corner-step bumpers (why don’t all brands have these?) for easy bed access. The exception is a special rear bumper for AT4X to enable a better departure angle.

AT4X is for hardcore off-roaders, but if you prefer your off-road fun aboard a dirt bike or ATV, you might be better served by the Elevation model. It boasts best-in-class 7,700-pounds towing so you can take lotsa’ toys up north to your favorite hunting ground — or just up I-75 to Holly Oaks ORV Park.

The Canyon AT4X follows the insane crab-walking Hummer pickup in signaling a new era of GMC fun. But at half the price of Hummer, Canyon’s capabilities are much more accessible. Why let the Chevy boys have all the fun?

2023 GMC Canyon

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear- or four-wheel-drive four-door pickup

Price: $38,395, including $1,495 destination charge ($46,500 Elevation and $59,850 AT4X as tested)

Powerplant: 2.7-liter turbocharged inline-4 cylinder

Power: 310 horsepower, 430 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.0 seconds (Car and Driver est.); towing, 7,700 pounds; 1,640-pound payload

Weight: 4,630 pounds (Elevation)

Fuel economy: EPA est. 17 mpg city/20 mpg highway/18 mpg combined (4WD); 18 mpg city/23 mpg highway/20 mpg combined (2WD); range: 387 miles (4WD)

Report card

Highs: Tough outside, high-tech inside; torque-tastic four

Lows: GMC premium over similar Chevy specs; more standard safety features, please

Overall: 4 stars