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2021 GMC Canyon AT4 is both better and worse than expected

2021 GMC Canyon AT4

New grille, red tow hooks, larger 31-inch tires lead off the list of new features on the 2021 GMC Canyon AT4. (Photo by Tim Esterdahl)

Joining other similarly named AT4 vehicles, the 2021 GMC Canyon AT4 combines better off-road equipment with the more refined interior of the GMC lineup of vehicles.

However, is it really that much better? I hop behind the wheel for a week to see for myself.

Months ago, in the BCT (before COVID-19 times), I got a sneak peak of the GMC Canyon AT4 — through the camera system of the GMC Sierra. The GMC team mounted a camera inside a cargo trailer with the Canyon AT4 inside and “suggested” we hit the button to see the special surprise.

While this first look was on the 8-inch screen, it was good enough to get a journalist’s attention.

2021 GMC Canyon AT4

The subtle badge is just one of the hints this isn’t a base level Canyon. (Photo by Tim Esterdahl)

I was certainly intrigued by the idea of an AT4 version of the Canyon. I’ve driven the larger brother, the GMC Sierra AT4, and thought bringing luxury and off-roading together made a lot of sense.

Why? Well, after spending days on the trail, I’ve learned the most important things turn out to be less about how big your tires are or how many cool graphics you have on the truck. Instead, it’s all about cooled seats, comfortable materials and how well the cabin keeps out the sunlight.

These things matter more after the first few hours of excitement wear off.

For the 2021 Canyon AT4, these things really do make an impression over the fact the interior is now looking seriously dated. However, like I said, looks don’t matter after a while, and you are more inclined to weigh function and comfort over form.

This is precisely what the Canyon AT4 does well.

What is a GMC Canyon AT4?

2021 GMC Canyon AT4

Those red tow hooks really do stand out. (Photo by Tim Esterdahl)

Starting with the exterior, the Canyon AT4 has more dark chrome finishes along with bright red tow hooks. It also looks bigger with a much larger grille design.

Inside, GM designers added Kalahari stitching with the AT4 lettering on headrest making it blend in as well as stand out compared to other Canyon models.

Then, GM engineers added capability through changing the tires to 31-inch Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac tires fitted to 17-inch aluminum wheels.

They also tuned the suspension to handle off-road better added an advanced hill descent control system and added a transfer case skid plate.

Finally, you can get the AT4 in the 2.8-liter Duramax diesel or, for our test model, a 3.6-liter V-6 engine mated to an 8-speed transmission. The pickup comes only as 4×4 and with the Eaton G80 automatic locking rear differential. This combination has an EPA estimated 17/24 city/hwy MPG while the diesel (a $4,420 upcharge) mated to a 6-speed automatic transmission, raises the fuel economy to 19/28 mpg.

The Canyon can tow up to 7,000 pounds and has between 1,347 and 1,531 pounds of payload when properly equipped. In our case, it wasn’t properly equipped and, while I neglected to bust a hole in the bumper to attach a ball, it can tow up to 3,500 pounds this way.

Jeep Gladiator Rubicon vs. GMC Canyon AT4?

This seems like a lot of changes over a regular Canyon, yet it isn’t as ridiculous as, say, the Jeep Gladiator Rubicon.

A Gladiator Rubicon versus a Canyon AT4? Yup. And the results were a lot closer than people might assume.

The Gladiator might have that wow off-road look to it, but the Canyon does 90% of the job with a lot less noise and a slightly cheaper price (base-to-base pricing is $44K to $38K).

The reality is the GMC Canyon AT4 really does hold its own for most off-road users needs. Plus, the pickup rides really smoothly and has a quiet interior.

2021 GMC Canyon AT4

The Canyon AT4 scores high for getting in and out as well as comfort and quietness. (Photo by Tim Esterdahl)

For my week driving to local hardware stores, on the dirt roads and highways, I really enjoyed the Canyon AT4. It’s easy to get in and out of, the seat position is far superior to the top-dog Toyota Tacoma, the seat comfort was much better than most GM vehicles I spend time with, and the cabin is really nice. Plus, the suspension handles the dirt just as well as it handles the paved road, muting some of the big road imperfections such as pot holes and washboards.

Where the Canyon AT4 missed the mark

That’s all well and good, but this Canyon AT4 has some big misses, too.

For starters, the 3.6-liter V-6 engine produces its power way too late off the line with 308 horsepower — but not until 6800 RPMs. The 8-speed automatic does nothing to help give it a sense of power, and I kept waiting for the truck to move along.

I don’t expect Ferrari off-the-line speeds, nor would I want it from a pickup, but the fact I noticed the power lag is a bad thing and likely a byproduct of the larger off-road Wrangler Duratrac tires being added well past the launch of this pickup — aka they weren’t part of what I think the original vision was for this pickup.

2021 GMC Canyon AT4

I”m a big fan of the bumper step on the GM trucks. This is a great feature for everyone, making it easier to get in and out of the bed. (Photo by Tim Esterdahl)

Next, GM loves putting large plastic air dams hanging below the front bumper and while they may save some fuel, they are pretty useless off-road. It is worth noting, if you have the same concern, GMC does offer an off-road performance package eliminating the air dam, giving it a 1-foot lift and a spray-in bed liner among other things.

Finally, the truck is a bit technologically confused.

It has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto wireless capability off the 8-inch touch screen as well as Bluetooth connectivity. Yet there is neither passive entry nor push button start. You have to either manually lock or use the key fob to open the doors then insert the key to start it.

I’m not complaining, mind you, since I know many people who like a keyed ignition, it just seems weird with the amount of tech on the pickup — heck it even has Wi-Fi — yet you have a keyed ignition.

The bottom line on the Canyon AT4

At the end of the day, the 2021 GMC Canyon AT4 is an upscale, mildly off-road capable pickup which should really find a home for a rancher or farmer who wants a smaller pickup to run to town while also needing to check on their cows. The auto 4×4 feature is a nice thing for this buyer as is the G80 locker. For a younger buyer looking for more control over the vehicle’s off-road equipment and more bells and whistles, this isn’t the rig for them.

For me, I’m in the latter company and at $42k for our test model, it is a much easier payment to handle as well.

Related posts:

GMC Canyon Debuts All New AT4 Trim

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Tim Esterdahl

Automotive Journalist Tim Esterdahl has been a lover of trucks and SUVs for years. He has covered the industry since 2011 and has pieces in many national magazines and newspapers. In his spare time, he is often found tinkering on his '62 C10 pickup, playing golf, going hunting and hanging out with his wife and kids in Nebraska.

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