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2021 GMC Canyon AT4 Review: Not Quite a Colorado ZR2, But...

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Auto123 reviews the 2021 GMC Canyon AT4.

The AT4 is a designation rapidly gaining ground in the GMC lineup organigram. The automaker’s latest model to receive this aesthetic and technical treatment is the 2021 Canyon mid-size pickup. It follows in the large and rugged footsteps of the two Sierras, the Acadia and even the new Yukon vintage, freshly deposited onto the market.

For those unfamiliar with the short backstory of the AT4 designation, the GMC division decided just a few months ago to offer another type of superbly equipped truck model to its clientele. Fitting under the Denali crest in the GMC hierarchy, the Canyon AT4 is aimed at a consumer that doesn't necessarily want to be seen behind the wheel of a vehicle decked in chrome plating.

Off-road fashion
That's exactly what the AT4 formula offers. There are no chrome components on the outside, and instead you get at least a mild dose of off-road-focused design. The off-road rubber from the Goodyear catalog, the Wrangler Duratrac tires, is the first unmistakable element, changing the image of the American pickup truck right off. The 17-inch wheels are also exclusive to this trim designed for off-road driving, although the black plastic apron at the base of the bumper is not designed for difficult obstacles, but rather to make the vehicle more aerodynamic. Finally, the tow hooks on the front bumper are painted red, another visual signature of the AT4 formula.

2021 GMC Canyon AT4, profile
Photo: V.Aubé
2021 GMC Canyon AT4, profile

For 2021, the GMC Canyon also sees the surface area of its front grille enhanced - it now extends further downward. Then there’s the presence of larger LED fog lamps. As for the rest of the body, it remains true to the model introduced on the market in 2014 (as a 2015 model).

I should add that in addition to the tires and appearance, the Canyon AT4 benefits from an additional skid plate on the transfer case, an Eaton G80 limited-slip differential, an off-road suspension and a Hill Descent Control System, a gizmo that's becoming increasingly popular on these versions designed for outdoor enthusiasts.

And what about the interior?
Inside, changes are more subtle. Interior modifications are limited to the van's seats, with "AT4" embroidery on the headrests and unique Kalahari stitching. In short, GMC didn’t go crazy transforming the Canyon for this AT4 variant. And yet the package is conceived to appeal particularly to off-road enthusiasts, especially those more conscious of their budget (the other option in this niche is called the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 and costs about $8,000 extra).

Note that that ZR2 is a completely different machine from the Canyon AT4, if only for its actual increased capabilities when the road gets really does get rough, if not disappear entirely. The Chevrolet pickup's suspension, courtesy of Canadian company Multimatic, is also totally different in its performance.

2021 GMC Canyon AT4, interior
Photo: V.Aubé
2021 GMC Canyon AT4, interior

Helming a superb chassis
This is only the latest in several occasions I’ve had to sit myself down in one or other of General Motors’ midsize pickups. Some of them have been the more basic versions, others king-of-the-hill variants like the Colorado ZR2 enhanced with sophisticated suspensions and widened chassis.

My biggest takeaway after all the kilometres I've driven in these American trucks is that they're built on incredible ladder chassis. When the Colorado ZR2 was presented a few years ago on the eve of the Los Angeles Auto Show, I was struck by how the truck didn't even flinch on the bumpy course set up for the occasion.

Now, in the fall of 2020, a few days behind the wheel of the GMC Canyon's most virile variant once again reminded me of how rigid the truck’s chassis is. No matter how hard I tossed it around in the worst potholes I could imagine, the Canyon didn't make any abnormal body noise. Of course, the Canyon still drives like a truck: the steering is heavy and imprecise, the off-road suspension is stiff and the handling is nothing like that of a sports car. Exactly what you’d expect from a pickup truck, in other words.

2021 GMC Canyon AT4, three-quarters rear
Photo: V.Aubé
2021 GMC Canyon AT4, three-quarters rear

The presence of studded tires also has an influence on the vehicle’s performance. They don’t offer the same grip and are noisier, even on freshly paved surfaces at 100 km/h on the highway. It's not unpleasant, but be aware that the AT4 is not as comfortable as the other Canyons in the lineup. In return, that studded rubber really does the job when the asphalt gives way to mud and rocks.

As for powertrain performance, I have no complaints about it. The naturally-aspirated 3.6L V6 delivers 308 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque, while the 8-speed automatic is also flawless. Although, the manual mode on the left side of the shifter doesn't do add much to the experience, except maybe if you’ll be towing heavy loads on the mountainous roads of our great country.

The last word
GMC’s decision-making in introducing this new model to the lineup is savvy, especially given the success achieved with this AT4 crest on other models, all in a remarkably short period. Trucks giving off an off-road vibe are very much in vogue right now, and as long as consumers continue to clamour for variants like the AT4, GMC and others are sure to keep obliging them.

Of course, the Canyon AT4 isn't for everyone, if only because of mediocre comfort levels on pavement. At least some of the blame for that lies with our rough Canadian roads, but clearly the suspension has a role as well. In the woods, on the other hand, this robustness pays dividends. And if it’s not enough for you, there's always the ZR2 option over at Chevrolet!

2021 GMC Canyon AT4, front grille
Photo: V.Aubé
2021 GMC Canyon AT4, front grille

We like

The off-road look
The rigidity of the chassis
Overall quality

We like less

Difficulty of access to the interior
The stiff suspension
High fuel consumption

The competition

Chevrolet Colorado ZR2
Ford Ranger
Honda Ridgeline
Jeep Gladiator
Nissan Frontier
Toyota Tacoma

2021 GMC Canyon AT4, tailgate
Photo: V.Aubé
2021 GMC Canyon AT4, tailgate

Road Tests and Reviews

2021 GMC Canyon
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