Mid-Sized Truck Review: Where Does The 2021 GMC Canyon AT4 Fit Into The Off-Road 4x4 Pickup World?
The mid-size pickup renaissance shows no signs of slowing down, especially for fans of off-road fun. With Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota, and Nissan all offering toughened up editions of their entry-level trucks, it was only natural that GMC would drop a more aggressive model of its own mid-sizer in showrooms to keep from being left behind.
Enter the 2021 GMC Canyon AT4, a truck that replaces the previous All Terrain X trim. GMC has upped the ante for the new model year by wrapping most of its predecessors optional gear into a single, do-everything package, making the AT4 a one-stop shop for those seeking a well-equipped trail truck.
At the same time, however, the Canyon AT4 stops short of its innovative sibling, the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, in terms of what it brings to the table. It's natural for General Motors to want to protect the aura of Chevy's halo truck, but it begs the question of where, exactly, the AT4 fits in with the rest of the sub-full-size 4x4 pickup crowd? We spent a week behind the wheel of this latest GMC Canyon model to find out.
Enough Truck For Almost Anyone
The Canyon is already one of the better options out there for those who don't need or want the monster footprint of a full-size truck. It offers a decent interior, solid passenger room when found in crew cab form, and at the very least a usable cargo area when ordered with its six-foot, two-inch bed.
Another nice aspect of the GMC is how comfortable it is to drive, as it features a more crossover-like personality than many other mid-size pickups. It's also one of only three trucks in its class to come with a turbodiesel engine option (another being the Colorado, and the third the Gladiator EcoDiesel which should be arriving in dealerships in late fall of this year).
Although the 2.8-liter Duramax is available with the Canyon AT4, our tester was outfitted with the AT4's standard 3.6-liter V6 (the four-cylinder isn't found with this trim level). It's a familiar motor providing 308hp and 275 lb-ft of torque, numbers that do a good job of motivating the pickup in almost every driving scenario.
Touching The Basic Bases
What does the Canyon AT4 bring to the table? Like the previous All Terrain, it offers a host of upgrades intended to prepare the pickup for dealing with the realities of the road less traveled. These include a skid plate for the transfer case, standard four-wheel drive, a locking rear differential, and 31-inch tires. It also provides hill descent control and a number of small visual tweaks (red tow hooks, badging, and seat stitching) to set it apart from the standard Canyon.
While the suspension of the AT4 has been tuned to better handle rocks, mud, and wash, you'll notice that there's no lift baked-in to the package, which separates the Canyon AT4 from the larger Sierra AT4 (which features a two-inch lift). In fact, the overall package is fairly standard when compared against a number of its rivals.
A Crowded Field
It wouldn’t be fair to contrast the GMC Canyon AT4 against hardcore options like the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 (with its DSSV suspension), the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro (which features internal bypass Fox shocks), or the Jeep Gladiator Rubicon (which comes with rock-crawl four-wheel drive). The Ford Ranger's recent slate of Ford Performance off-road packages also don't qualify for similar reasons.
Moving down the list, the next logical stop is the Tacoma TRD Off-Road. Toyota makes this package available with both four-wheel and two-wheel drive trucks, and it delivers Bilstein shocks, a locking rear differential, a low-speed cruise control feature the company calls 'Crawl Control,' the 'Multi-Terrain Select' system that dials in throttle response and traction control based on the ground being covered, and a pair of skid plates.
From a gear standpoint the TRD Off-Road is more advanced than the AT4 in terms of electronic systems, as the GMC lacks the Off-Road Mode found in the larger Sierra, but it is penalized by less-than-capable all-terrain tires from the factory. It's also not nearly as comfortable or compliant when driven day-to-day, with the age of its platform apparent in its rough around the edges personality.
Looking at the Ford Ranger's FX4 package reveals a similar story. Monotube shocks, a locking rear differential, and a terrain management system are highlights (along with skid plating), and knobbier tiers are included, making it roughly the equivalent of the AT4. Its on-road personality is also a fairly close match (although its balky 10-speed automatic transmission occasionally spoils its EcoBoost 4-cylinder party).
The last two trucks facing off against the Canyon AT4 are in some ways outliers. The Nissan Frontier, despite the recent gift of a new engine, is awaiting a redesigned platform after nearly two decades of soldiering forward in its current configuration. Its Pro-4X trim level does the job with a locking rear differential, Bilstein shock absorbers, skid plates, and decent all-terrain tires, but the truck falls down nearly everywhere else when it comes to keeping up with modern options.
The Jeep Gladiator, on the other hand, is larger than any of its mid-size competitors, rides on solid axles front and rear, and provides Lego-like upgrade potential in terms of addressing any perceived off-road foibles. It's a fairly capable truck in nearly every trim if your primary goal is to leave the pavement behind, but it can't match the Tacoma nor its domestic rivals in terms of handling or comfort.
It's worth mentioning that the Colorado's Z71 package provides much of the same equipment as the Canyon, minus the 31-inch tires and the flashier styling upgrades.
Room To Grow
Seen from 30,000 feet, the 2021 GMC Canyon AT4 firmly occupies the middle of the road when it comes to off-road potential. This says far more about the state of the mid-size truck segment than it does the Canyon itself, where the prevalence of high end, highly-capable 4x4 trucks has significantly raised the bar.
As a competent daily driver that can also tag in for the occasional bout with slippery mud-soaked trails or uneven terrain the AT4 is a very good option. In comparison with the competition it doesn't do much to distinguish itself aside from delivering on the promise of 31-inch tires right out of the box. That being said, unless you plan on leaning hard on a terrain management system, it's not missing anything that one would absolutely need to handle off-road driving. The Canyon AT4's all-arounder status makes it a logical replacement for last year's All Terrain, even if it doesn't move the needle all that much.
More From Driving Line
- Curious about how the Canyon's Colorado ZR2 stable mate stacks up against the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro? We've got you covered with this comparison review.