Review of the GMC Canyon

2005 GMC Canyon
By:John Matras
(c)New Car Test Drive, Inc.

Base Price:$16,025.00
As Tested:$31,045.00

2005 GMC Canyon

Representing a new breed of pickup.

The GMC Canyon belongs to a new breed of pickups. Though designed for buyers who don't need or don't want a full-size truck such as the GMC Sierra, this newest generation of pickups is bigger than past models. Called compact pickups in the past, the latest models have arguably outgrown that label. Automakers are beginning to call them mid-size pickups, though the government holds on to the old label. Call them what you want, they boast roomier cabins than the old compact pickups. The latest crew cab models offer back seats that are actually suitable for human beings.

The Canyon last year was launched as an all-new truck with an all-new nameplate. Canyon is longer and taller than the Sonoma pickup it replaced, and it looks tougher and more truck-like, with aggressive styling that represents a major departure from the smooth-sided Sonoma. And although the Sonoma's long-bed option is gone, Canyon's standard beds are deeper, for more volume; and Canyon's chassis is rated for higher payloads.

As the first all-new GMC truck in its class for more than a decade, the Canyon is significantly improved over the Sonoma, with a stronger frame and a suspension that's friendlier to the fanny. Canyon is roomy and comfortable inside and has a nice, quiet ride. Even the Z71, the serious off-road model, seems remarkably civilized. On the highway, the Canyon feels solid and stable. Yet this a true pickup, with a unique frame not shared with any SUV (although it is shared by Chevrolet's mid-size pickup, the Colorado).

Canyon's towing capacity is considerably less than the old Sonoma's because GM designed it to do what mid-size pickups do most: Carry people and, occasionally, haul heavy loads in the bed. So Canyon is tuned for ride comfort rather than brute trailer-slogging strength. If you and your buddy Ben need to schlep four Arabians to the chariot races, then GMC can sell you a full-size Sierra pickup instead.

Canyon is available with a choice of two engines, both all-new last year and more powerful than the corresponding offerings in the Sonoma. Both have an inline configuration, one with four cylinders and the other with five. The five-cylinder delivers good performance, better than some competing V6 engines.

Model Lineup

GMC Canyon is available in two trim levels: SL, which is essentially work-truck trim, and SLE. The five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions are available for the four-cylinder and five-cylinder engines; exceptions are 4WD and Z71 Crew Cabs, which come only with the five-cylinder and automatic. Rear-wheel drive (2WD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) models are available with regular, extended, or crew cab bodies.

The Canyon SL Z85 is the base model with the base suspension (retailing at $16,025 MSRP for Regular Cab 2WD Z85). It comes standard with air conditioning, AM/FM radio, and 15-inch aluminum wheels. The front seats are a split-folding cloth bench, the floor covering is vinyl, and rear jump seats for extended cabs cost extra ($45). The SLE ($17,140) adds or substitutes front bucket seats, a floor console and armrest, color-keyed carpeting, CD player with MP3 capability, a standard rear seat on extended cabs ($20,260), and a leather-wrapped tilt wheel and cruise control on extended cab and crew cab ($21,290) models.

The Z71 High Stance off-road package increases the ground clearance by more than three inches. Z71 also adds larger color-keyed fender flares, P265/75R15 on/off-road tires, a locking rear differential, and, on 2WD models, traction control. Z71s with 4WD get skid plates and tow hooks. Ordering Z71 boosts the price of an SL Canyon $1,700-$1,800, but the package includes SLE goodies such as the bucket seats and CD player. Adding Z71 to an SLE ups the price anywhere from $2,000-$4,100, depending on cab style and how many wheels are driven. A 4WD SLE Crew Cab with Z71 retails for $28,020.

Side-curtain air bags are optional ($195-$235, depending on the cab style). A power convenience group (windows, locks and mirrors) is standard on Crew Cabs and optional ($500) on other SLEs. New Gen 6 OnStar ($695), with improved hands-free operation, is offered on SLE only. Leather-upholstered, heated, and power adjustable driver and front passenger seats ($1,495) are available as a package on crew cab and extended cab models during the 2005 model year, and a sunroof will be available.

Commercial fleet models are also available with steel wheels and skinny tires (starting at $15,045).


When it appeared last year, the Canyon put a new face on GMC's mid-size pickup. No more Mr. Nice Guy: The black center grille with its floating GMC logo is surrounded by brightwork that extends to either side of the truck. It separates a complex looking array of lights composed of daytime running lamps, turn indicators, and high and low beams. Unlike the old Sonoma with its rounded lines, the Canyon has an edge. A slight dihedral at the front outer edge of the hood enhances its aggressive appearance.

Whether regular cab, extended cab, or crew cab, the Canyon has a balanced look. The regular and extended cab have 6-foot, 1-inch beds. The crew cab has a 5-foot, 1-inch bed in exchange for its larger cabin. Regular and extended cab models have steps in the rear fender ahead of the rear wheels, making it easier to reach and load things in the front of the bed. Extended cabs have door handles inside the door jam, at the front edge of the rear-hinged doors. Crew cabs have front-hinged rear doors with reach-through door handles that are easy to grip and pull open.

The tailgate can be opened fully (89 degrees) or dropped 57 degrees to provide support (level with the tops of the wheel wells) for a 4x8-foot sheet of plywood.


The base Canyon has a no-fault interior right down to its rubber floor mats, so you can get in with muddy work boots and not feel guilty. The SLE, however, is more oriented toward comfort with carpeting and more luxurious fabric on its seats.

Although GM's interior measurements don't show it, the Canyon feels wider inside than the Sonoma, especially in the rear seat of the crew cab, which more easily accommodates three adults. Front and rear seats are chair height; that allows the driver excellent visibility over the hood and improves leg room and comfort for rear-seat passengers. The front seats are still the first-class section of the cabin, but those in coach won't have to endure the pain of the old sideways-mounted seats in old extended-cab pickups. Our biggest gripe with the Canyon is directed at its seats. The seat bottoms are flat and lack sufficient lateral support, so we always felt like we were sinking to one side or the other.

Even the Canyon's extended cab is large enough to orient its occasional passengers facing forward. Don't expect them to be comfortable, though. The back seat in the extended cab is cramped for anything but short trips to the store for Munchkins. Better to flip the rear seats down, which opens up space for cargo. With modifications (like a fleece mat), it would work passably for a medium-size dog. The front-hinged doors on both sides of the extended cab offer good access to this area.

The instrument panel has large white numerals on a black background, with the orange needles that GM loves. They're easy to read at a glance. Lighting functions are clustered on the dash to the left of the steering wheel; there are no switches in any remote location. Turning on the dome light requires spinning the small wheel used to dim the instrument lights and we found this a bit challenging in the dark. We recommend opting for the electrochromic ($175) mirror, which features a pair of map lights, compass and outside temperature display, and dims automatically.

The center stack, outlined with silver-colored plastic, neatly groups together 4x4, audio, and HVAC functions. The emergency flasher button is high in the center where it's easily seen. The cruise control switches, however, are the same turn-signal-stalk system GM has used since the 1970s, albeit refined. Some people hate it; others are familiar with it and don't seem to mind.

The Canyon features triple seals around the doors, another example of its refinement relative to the old Sonoma. The seals not only reduce water and dust intrusion; they also reduce wind noise for a quieter cab.

Driving Impressions

Your experience with the Canyon will vary by model. The four-cylinder engine delivers adequate performance, costs less, and is a bit more frugal. The five-cylinder offers brisk acceleration performance, feels like an inline-6, and works well with an automatic.

The 3.5-liter five-cylinder Vortec 3500 is a dual-overhead cam engine with variable cam timing rated at 220 horsepower. It develops 225 pound-feet of torque at 2800 rpm. Its torque, that twisting force that propels the truck from a stop and helps it tow heavy loads up long grades, is spread over a broad rpm range. The all-aluminum engine construction aids in cooling and, because of its lower weight, saves fuel and permits quicker acceleration. The five-cylinder is essentially the newly developed six-cylinder from the GMC Envoy with one cylinder lopped off. The five-cylinder engine idles and cruises quietly, but the uncommon number of cylinders makes a peculiar siren-like sound when accelerating. It doesn't sound bad, just different. Recommended fuel is unleaded regular, another plus for economical operation. A 2WD five-cylinder with manual transmission gets an EPA-rated 19/25 mpg City/Highway.

The 175-horsepower four-cylinder engine is essentially the five-cylinder minus one cylinder. It's rated 20/27 mpg with manual transmission and 2WD. We found it worked well with the manual transmission, perfectly adequate for drivers who favor economy over power.

The Z71 suspension package provides maximum ground clearance, with tires designed for off-roading and springs and shocks calibrated for off-road performance without sacrificing too much on-road comfort. We found its ride quality remarkably civilized on the road. The Z71 suspension certainly adds heft to the Canyon, and there's noticeable jiggle from the extra weight of the off-road tires, but not anything like off-road compact pickups of the past. We were able to test the four-wheel-drive system in deep, sucking mud; and we climbed a greasy, rocky hillside that, in the winter months, becomes Pennsylvania's Jack Frost ski resort.

We were pleased with the operation of the four-wheel-drive system. There's no doubt when it engages: There's a small clunk when it shifts into four-wheel high (which can be done on the fly) and a bigger clunk when it shifts into four-wheel low (requiring the vehicle be stopped and in neutral). No full-time all-wheel drive is available; this is a truck-style part-time four-wheel-drive system and should not be used on dry pavement.

The Canyon feels solid. Its frame is far more rigid than the Sonoma's. This means no rattles or squeaks, and the pickup bed doesn't boom or make any other noise. The suspension is able to work more precisely, without interference from chassis flex, resulting in a better, more controlled ride.

Maximum towing for a properly equipped Canyon is 4,000 pounds, much less than the Sonoma's 5,900. This compromise was done to improve ride comfort and we think it was a good tradeoff. The improvement in ride, particularly at the rear of the vehicle, is remarkable. A washboard dirt road in Virginia didn't make the Canyon jiggle like a go-go dancer in overdrive, as many 4x4s would. GM says most people who tow more than 4,000 pounds do so with a full-size pickup.

We found the Canyon to be stable and predictable around the curves, and a solid stopper when the binders were applied, aided by ABS on loose surfaces. The Canyon is a truck, however, so it doesn't corner and brake like a car. We found it generally tended toward strong understeer, meaning that when cornered hard it's more likely to plow straight ahead than spin out.


The GMC Canyon is way ahead of older designs such as the Ford Ranger. Canyon's technology and its new chassis brings refinement to this class. GMC's packaging and styling are distinct from those of the mechanically identical Chevrolet Colorado.

The Canyon is ideal for folks who need a real pickup but don't need or want the size and cost of a full-size truck. The Canyon is easy to park and is driver-friendly. The crew cab can haul home a load of horse manure for the garden, then take the family out for dinner and a movie (after hosing out the bed, that is). In short, the Canyon is an all-around performer, putting GMC in the groove for mid-size pickup performance.

Mitch McCullough contributed to this report from Los Angeles.