Driving a Canyon in Colorado?
GET YOURSELF TO TACOMA
Tooling around in a $50,000 GMC Canyon AT4 recently, I was struck by how much more sophisticated midsize pickups have become, as well as by how far they need to go to justify today’s prices.
America’s love affair with big, trucky vehicles is expanding this segment. Evolving from spartan work trucks, midsize pickups have nearly tripled in market share, from less than 2% of U.S. vehicle sales a decade ago to nearly 5% today – or about 610,000 units a year – according to data from Edmonds.com.
Ten years ago, the Toyota Tacoma dominated this niche with a nearly 60 percent market share, or about 160,000 trucks a year. Now Toyota sells close to 240,000 Tacomas annually, but that’s roughly 40 % of the segment. General Motors’ twins, the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon account for another 120,000, three-fourths of those Chevies. The Jeep Gladiator, Ford Ranger, Honda Ridgeline, and Nissan Frontier all sell somewhere between 30,000 and 80,000 units a year,
Midsize pickups used to be targeted at buyers on a budget, offering lower note payments and better fuel economy. In the past few years, however, manufacturers found ways to lure upscale buyers attracted to the trucks’ macho looks. More features, more amenities, and closer attention to design all help create the same sort of massive profit margins seen in full-size trucks.
In the past decade the mean price of a midsize pickup ballooned 43%, from about $28,100 to more than $42,000. That’s nearly 10% more price growth than the overall price growth in an industry that found more profit in attending to top-tier buyers while leaving the working class to fend for itself.
From sand to glass
Speaking to investors recently, for example, Ford CEO Jim Farley said that special variants, like a Ranger Raptor soon to roll out, share 80% of their parts with base models but have 30% greater profit margins. An entry-level Ranger starts at $34,000. The Raptor version will start at $57,000. If Ford sells 10,000 of those, that drops almost a quarter-billion dollars to the bottom line.
Nothing wrong with that; it is the essence of capitalism. The transformation of inexpensive materials into valuable products is a testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of humankind. It is a process that has been refined over centuries and one that continues to drive innovation and economic growth. Think of the massive economic activity, the explosive growth in goods and services, and the very expansion of our ability to understand the universe that evolves from our ability to turn simple sand into fiber optic cable.
I was reminded of such a transformation in the week I spent in the company of a Canyon AT4. One step above (and more than a little counterintuitive!) the Canyon Elevation, which starts at $38,395, the AT4 starts at $45,395. Our tester added $1,840 for an AT4 package that included goodies like memory settings, a heated steering wheel, leather-trimmed seats, blind-zone steering assist, wireless charging. A power moonroof added another $1,000, and head-turning volcanic red paint $640 more. Delivery was $1,495,
That gives one a truck with a luxury feel for a hair under $50,000.
Does that seem like a lot? Consider this: A Denali version adds $7,000, an off-road AT4X starts at $57,000 and a top-of-line AT4X stickers at more than $65,000.
About that sand
For that kind of money, one ought to expect a lot of truck, and in many ways the GMC Canyon delivers. Listening to and reading other reviewers, a phrase I heard often was that this truck checks a lot of boxes.
It looks nice and feels sophisticated, yet one wonders if auto designers are not taking advantage of people whose experience is with what they have been driving, not what is available.
We couldn’t help but notice, for example, that many of the Canyon’s interior panels were hard plastic, like those found in economy trucks. When one is building something that costs the same as a BMW or Lexus, one should expect the same attention to detail.
We noted, for example, that the sliding rear window was manual. In a $50,000 truck? Similarly, the rear seat does not fold, so potential storage space is lost. The tire jack fills the under-seat storage gear, so no space to safely store a hunting rifle.
These are areas Toyota noticed when redesigning the Tacoma, on its way now to showrooms. It has three times more storage space under the rear seat compared to the current-gen truck, and the rear seatback can also fold down flat.
We also noticed that the Canyon’s rear suspension is leaf springs, the same engineering found in the first F-150 when I first drove a pickup some 57 years ago. The setup maximizes payload at the expense of comfort and control. With the added lift of the AT4 package, the truck feels clumsy and top-heavy.
It has been a decade since Ram turned the pickup world on its head and put in rear coil springs, giving its trucks a car-like ride. That same rear end is found in the Jeep Gladiator.
These trucks are primarily used for passengers and comfort should be king. Toyota gets that. The 2024 Tacoma has rear coil springs.
The Canyon also falls short of modern standards in driver-assist technology. Because it still has old-fashioned rack-and-pinion steering instead of modern electric steering, the lane-keep function does not work well at all. Though our tester had a button to set following distance – something cars costing half as much do with ease – a note on the window sticker said it needed a software update that would come at some uncertain date.
These are not small things; rather, they are technologies proven to reduce serious accidents by a third. One reason we are shopping for a new car at our house is that we have driven too many vehicles in which these technologies function perfectly, and we feel unsafe without them.
The new Tacoma comes with a full suite of driver-assist technology. Standard. On all models. One does not need to climb the model tree and check option boxes to have modern safety technology.
Fuel economy matters
All Canyons come with a turbocharged 2.7L I-4, which puts out 310 hp and a mind-boggling 430 lb-ft of torque, the force needed for towing and hauling. GM has tried the small-displacement, high-output engine in larger applications with no noticeable benefits. In the 4,670 lb. AT4 it seems in its element.
Acceleration is quick. Shifts through the eight-speed Hydra-Matic are crisp. The truck will tow a respectable 7,700 lbs.
Still, the power train has its limitations. A niggling one is it doesn’t sound like American muscle. It has more of a generic Asiatic buzz. By the way, it’s always a bad idea to run from the police, but especially so in this case. This truck runs out of breath well short of 100 mph.
More concerning is fuel economy. The EPA estimates that the Canyon will average 19 mpg, 17 in town, and 21 on the highway. Watching a YouTuber review his AT4 the other day, I heard him quote those figures, yet when he turned on the truck, the gauge said it was averaging 15.8 mpg, which was exactly what we achieved while driving one for a week with a light foot on the pedal.
Current generation Tacomas are gas hogs, too, but that looks to change with the new generation. Base models will get a turbocharged 2.4L putting out 278 hp and 317 lb.-ft. of torque. Everything else will get the same engine in a hybrid powertrain that produces 326 horsepower, 465 lb.-ft. of torque.
Fuel economy estimates are not yet available, but Toyota uses that setup in several models that get 25-30 mpg. Ford last week said it will offer a hybrid in its new Ranger, but only in Europe.
For right now, then, Tacoma will again call the tune in midsize pickups. And everyone else will just dance around it.