By Aaron Bragman
Ever since GM announced that the midsize Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon pickup trucks would receive a diesel engine, there's really been only one question on my mind: How well will they tow? I mean, we're not talking big, heavy-duty pickups with enormous V-8 diesel engines, dualie axles and jake brakes here. These are smaller, compact trucks that are used more as lifestyle vehicles than big workhorses. And while diesels are common in this style of truck all over the world, we haven't seen one in a smaller American pickup in decades.
When it arrived in 2015, we heaped praise upon the turbocharged 2.8-liter four-cylinder Duramax diesel, calling a Colorado equipped with the engine "quite possibly the world's perfect pickup truck." The initial press drive of the truck impressed us considerably, but there wasn't much opportunity to test how the diesel truck towed a load — drives with a couple of trailers were brief. So I figured it was time to see just how well the truck handles itself when hauling something from point A to point B over a longer distance.
Most midsize pickup owners don't actually tow with their trucks, according to Honda, which published its own research during the launch of the new 2017 Ridgeline. According to Honda's research, fewer than 3 percent of midsize truck owners tow with their trucks, and of those buyers, fewer than 6 percent tow more than 5,000 pounds. On the other hand, 95 percent of midsize trucks are apparently used for on-road commuting duties. So why not create a truck that can do all of that, even if the market is small?
Enter this hoss, the 2016 GMC Canyon SLT 4x4. It's built to be comfortable, with a luxurious leather interior, fancy multimedia system, all-wheel drive, a forward collision warning system and a Bose stereo. But it's also built to work — my test vehicle was equipped with the turbocharged 2.8-liter Duramax diesel, making just 181 horsepower but a very healthy 369 pounds-feet of torque. That puts it at a horsepower deficit versus the optional 3.6-liter V-6 (181 hp versus 305 hp in the V-6), but it has a big advantage in low-end torque (369 versus 269 pounds-feet for the V-6). That means more grunt off the line, and that means the ability to tow a decent load without sacrificing drivability. With the diesel engine and four-wheel drive, the Canyon can haul 7,600 pounds, easily the weight of a good-sized camper, a racecar on a trailer or a pair of personal watercraft.
Timing smiled upon me, as a friend was celebrating his 40th birthday with a big weekend party at his rural estate in southern Pennsylvania. Guests were invited to stay the weekend in tents on his property. Instead of a tent, I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to tow a camper, and arranged to borrow a Sport 22FB travel trailer from recreational vehicle maker Airstream in Jackson Center, Ohio.
I drove the Canyon from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Airstream's headquarters in Jackson Center for a factory tour and to collect my temporary home away from home (read about that here) before heading east to Pennsylvania for four days on a hilltop. The distance from Ann Arbor to Jackson Center was about 170 miles, and the Canyon diesel exhibited its first remarkable feat on our journey: It registered observed fuel economy of 28.8 mpg combined (the EPA rates the 2016 Canyon 4x4 equipped with the 2.8-liter diesel at 20/29/23 mpg city/highway/combined)). Cruise control and air conditioning were employed, and speed was kept to 75 mph or less, but that's still an extraordinary figure for a pickup of any kind.
Once at the Airstream plant, the technicians at the company's service center hooked the Canyon up to a 22-foot shiny aluminum bullet, the Sport 22FB single-axle "Bambi" style camper. Empty, but equipped with a full load of liquefied petroleum gas, it weighed just more than 3,600 pounds. We added 20 gallons of fresh water and the potential for twice that in gray and black water tanks, plus luggage and provisions for the weekend, and that brought the trailer to nearly 4,000 pounds. The pickup itself probably weighed in just under 5000 pounds, and then adding in my own considerable frame and additional supplies, the combined truck and trailer tipped the scales right around 9000 pounds. It must be said: The techs at Airstream did a phenomenal job hooking the trailer to the Canyon. The truck dropped only 1/8-inch at the front wheels and just a 1/4-inch at the rear, which is just about dead level in my book.
Loaded Up and Truckin'
After a few practice stops to adjust the Canyon's integrated trailer-brake controller, I rolled eastbound across Ohio, down around Columbus and east on Interstate 70 toward Pennsylvania. The terrain in this part of eastern Ohio is dead flat, which gave me the chance to test how well the Canyon cruises with a big, albeit streamlined, load dragging it down. Pushing the switch for the Canyon's Tow/Haul mode and setting the cruise control at 70 mph made the entire episode completely uneventful — the Canyon tracks straight and steady, and the plentiful torque from the diesel engine makes acceleration a breeze.
The Canyon's brakes also made short work of stopping the combination, even given the occasional absent-minded "Pokemon Go" playing driver who cut us off in traffic. The Canyon handled crosswinds without any drama, the only funny business coming when passing or being passed by an 18-wheeler. That caused a bit of suction to draw the pickup and trailer in closer as the semitrucks passed. The only issue that could have been addressed with some aftermarket parts was improving visibility — seeing rearward requires some larger tow mirrors, perhaps the kind that strap onto the existing side mirrors. But flat-land towing is easy, it doesn't take a monster motor or specialized rig to do it. The bigger challenge would be West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Continuing on I-70 past Morristown, Ohio, put us in some hillier terrain as we approached the Ohio River Valley. This is where real testing of a towing rig happens — when you've got a long grade ahead of you, crazy semis blowing past at 80 mph or more to maintain momentum, and drivers gawping at the scenery that's gone from empty to exquisite in what seems like an eye blink.
And here, too, the Duramax engine shines. Powering up long grades was no trouble at all. Only on rare occasions did I need to actually put my foot to the floor, and even on those steeper climbs, flooring the accelerator actually produced acceleration. There always seemed to be some torque in reserve when I needed it, and to my eyes, that is the mark of a good towing rig. The Canyon diesel never felt taxed, never felt stressed, never had any issue with the bulky travel trailer it was dragging. It also helps that the Sport 22 was perfectly sized for a towing rig of this type — anything much larger would likely have been a bit more unwieldy, and anything smaller wouldn't have provided any sort of challenge. One could probably go up another couple thousand pounds to a 26-foot dual-axle travel trailer and still not overwork the Canyon diesel.
Special mention should be made of the Duramax engine's exhaust brake — it's not manually engaged, as on larger diesel engines found in heavy-duty pickups. Instead, it's integrated into the Tow/Haul mode. And it works quite well — automatically engaging and slowing the truck-and-trailer assembly on downward grades and especially when coming to a slower speed stop, such as on highway off-ramps where a long, gradual deceleration can be performed.
After a beer-, barbecue- and music-filled weekend on a breezy hilltop in the heart of the southern Pennsylvania steel country, the trek back to Jackson Center provided confirmation of the Canyon diesel's outstanding suitability as a tow rig. And filling up at the gas station next to the Airstream headquarters revealed another benefit. Over 522 miles of mixed-terrain towing, including flat Ohio plains and the hills of Pennsylvania, the Canyon diesel returned an observed fuel economy of 16.0 mpg combined, confirmed by calculations (the Canyon's trip computer was pretty much spot-on). For a towing performance, that's better than respectable. In fact, it's pretty fantastic; the Canyon diesel got nearly 5 to 6 mpg better when towing than the light-duty V-8 pickups managed in our 2015 Light-Duty V-8 Challenge.
It's a shame that only 3 percent of midsize pickup owners tow with their vehicles. I bet that if more of them opted for a Canyon with a Duramax diesel engine, that number would be higher.
Cars.com photos by Aaron Bragman