The monster off-road pickup truck genre is well populated these days. Ford has its F-150 Raptor, Ram its TRX, Jeep its Gladiator Mojave and Rubicon, and Chevrolet the Colorado ZR2. But since not everyone is looking to drive straight from the dealer lot to the King of the Hammers starting line, there’s also a subgenre of not-quite-full-send trucks that do without some of the hard-core equipment and offer a more palatable sticker price. The Ram 1500 Rebel, Ford F-150 and Ranger Tremor, and Jeep Wrangler Willys models are all rocking big tires and buff attitudes, minus a locking differential here and a remote-reservoir damper there. Joining that latter class is the 2021 GMC Canyon AT4, which can be thought of as Chevy ZR2 for people who think Multimatic is a 1990s techno group. Didn’t they tour with C+C Music Factory?
Compared to a regular Canyon, the AT4 pumps up the jam with knobby 31-inch Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tires, an electronically controlled locking rear differential, and a transfer-case skid plate. It also gets an off-road-tuned suspension and a few aesthetic fillips, such as red-painted tow hooks and AT4 logos embroidered on the headrests. It’s available with either the standard 308-hp 3.6-liter V-6 or the optional 181-hp 2.8-liter four-cylinder diesel. GMC is to be commended for offering a diesel in a small truck, but the Canyon’s doesn’t have a lot going for it.
Models fitted with the clatterbox turbo-four can tow up to 7700 pounds, 700 more than the V-6, and they earn an extra 4 mpg on the highway, for an EPA-estimated 28 mpg. But the diesel also adds $4670 to the price and subtracts 127 horsepower. What’s more, the diesel is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission versus the V-6’s eight-speed, and you can probably guess where this math is leading: The diesel is way slower. Our V-6-powered AT4 test truck, big tires and all, ran to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds. The last Canyon diesel we tested moseyed to that mark in 9.3 seconds. The diesel surely will be a darling on Bring a Trailer in the 2040s, but if you don’t own a trailer, for now you want the gas engine.
Given the V-6’s considerable output, the AT4’s four-wheel-drive system is a welcome surprise. It’s not uncommon for rugged off-roaders to feature an old-school four-wheel-drive setup that lacks a center differential and should only be engaged on low-traction surfaces, such as dirt or snow, to keep the system from binding up. The problem there is that rugged off-roaders tend to have aggressive off-road tires—you know, like Goodyear Wrangler DuraTracs—with huge open tread blocks that deliver the on-pavement grip of a 1969 Chevelle on bias-ply Wide Ovals. The Canyon AT4 eked out a mere 0.74 g of stick on the skidpad compared to 0.80 g from a 2017 Denali model wearing more street-friendly rubber. And that figure might actually be a high score for these Goodyears. A Colorado ZR2 with DuraTracs that we previously tested managed only 0.69 g.
Combine that meager grip with a punchy V-6, an unladen cargo bed, and a light drizzle, and in two-wheel drive your commute can start to look like a Formula Drift audition. Sure, that’s a blast, but sometimes it’s good to have both ends of your vehicle agree on a direction, which makes four-wheel drive a key feature for a truck like the AT4. For when you do encounter truly rough terrain, this GMC does have a 4Hi mode that locks the center differential, which along with the automatic locking differential in the rear means you have two-thirds of the lockers of a Chevy ZR2.
The Canyon AT4 actually reminds us of the Chevy ZR2—not the current one, but the old S-10 version from the ’90s, which also sported 31-inch tires but not too much else in the way of serious off-road equipment. Of that one, we said, “The ZR2 is like an elevator button. It works best when pressed. And pressing it twice as hard only breaks the button.” We didn’t break anything on the AT4, but then again, we didn’t tackle the Rubicon Trail with it, either. We did climb a moderately steep banking that caused the plastic chin spoiler to make like a road grader and scrape the clay. The panel immediately abaft of that, which looks like a skid plate, is actually plastic unless you opt for the $375 Performance Skid Plate package’s metal pieces.
If you want a better approach angle, the AT4’s Performance Edition package costs $3195 and includes rock-sliding rails beneath the doors, real-deal skid plates, a suspension leveling kit that raises the front end 1.0 inch, and the deletion of the front air dam. And since nothing says “performance” like a bedliner and rubber floor mats, those items are included as well. GMC says that the Performance Edition improves the AT4’s front approach angle by 30 percent, but we’d wager that 29 of those percentage points come from unbolting the chin spoiler. Which you could do yourself, likely for somewhat less than $3195.
Aside from the AT4 stitchwork, this Canyon’s interior is the same as most others: handsome, well laid out, and looking a bit dated. This might be the only new vehicle on sale that features both wireless phone charging and an ignition that requires turning an actual metal key. Even the hoary old 2020 Nissan Frontier had keyless start. The phone charger appears to be built around the exact dimensions of an iPhone 12 Pro Max, so you might have to remove your phone’s case, but kudos to GMC for retrofitting a feature it surely didn’t anticipate during this truck’s development. (This generation of Canyon debuted for the 2015 model year, when only the tech-forward Android freaks had inductive-charging phones.) The interior’s only ergonomic misstep is that the knobs for controlling the headlights and the four-wheel-drive system look and feel identical and are positioned within inches of each other. The Auto mode for both is even in the same position. Someone somewhere has definitely tried to turn on the parking lights and instead locked the center differential.
The AT4’s base price with cloth seats is $39,395, add another $2000 for leather, and opting for either the Performance Edition or the diesel pushes it uncomfortably close to the Colorado ZR2’s $44,395 entry point. Skip those options, we say. The only extra you probably need is the $250 trailering package, which somehow isn’t standard. In the other direction, the Canyon’s Elevation trim level also includes tow hooks—black instead of red—plus the locking rear diff, yet has more street-oriented tires. That model costs $1100 less than the AT4.
Logic would tell you to get an Elevation and enjoy the salutary on-pavement behavior of tires that don’t look as if they were borrowed from an MRAP. But there’s something endearing about a small truck with big off-road tires. The Canyon AT4 may not have exotic suspension bits or triple locking diffs, but it is a relatively quick and honest off-roader. It’s a rugged truck for those who don’t plan to jump their trucks. Which is to say, most of us.
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