2016 GMC Canyon Diesel Tows, Camps Like a Champ

Airstream Canyon 3 II

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.

The Voyage

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.

Airstream Canyon 9 II

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.

Springsteen Country

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.

Airstream Canyon 5 II

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


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I have the Canyon w/Duramax diesel. Really like. Live in mountains of western Colorado and am a ranch real estate broker. Pulled a 28' Haulmark enclosed trailer with 2 polaris RZRs in it from Mesa, Colorado to top of Grand Mesa (about a 6,000' vertical rise over about 12 miles) at posted highway speed. It shifted down 2 gears and never slowed up. It didn't even heat up. I find it very quiet. Rides very nice. It is surprisingly quick. I am 6' tall and 270 lbs and fit easily in the front. And can ride in the back seat too.

As a practical matter, I like it. and it serves my needs very well.

With the new Duramax it will be much better.

Classleading hp with a 12 % rise to 445 hp and a good torque up 12 % to 910 lb/ft produced at 200 lower rpm than the Ford PS.
RAW power. Built tougher


Thinking a better comparison would be for towing against someone who would otherwise have a SUV like an Explorer or gmc Terrain. A loaded ford edge is close to 40k and only rated for 3500 with the tow package, and the canyon willi still fit in the garage

Have to tell you folks, I bought the canyon last sept and I couldn't be happier with it. The main reason I bought it was in preparation of the purchase of a new boat which is a 24ft Yamaha. I just purchased the boat this weekend and have yet to tow it but I am happy to see the results of the this test. The boat weighs in at about 6200 lbs with trailer and equipment so it will be a little heavier then the test so I am still a little skeptical of what the outcome will be. I will be towing it long distances over the summer, like IL to NY so it will get some serious testing. I will post the results after the trip. I been getting 30 mph on the highway and about 23 around town, what a great feeling that is.

Somebody wrote “I have rode in the new GMC mid-size truck and there is absolutely no room in back seat.”

Either you have some serious weight to lose or you’re nearly 7 ft tall. I own a crew cab and there’s lots of room in the back seats. I’ve had adults ride in the back seats and there were no complaints regarding lack of room. The truck runs great with the diesel and the engine is surprisingly quiet. Others have commented on how quiet the engine is.

Best midsize truck on the market right now. Hands down. Great job GM with building this truck. I see tons of them on interstate heading to my lake house

Competition for sales in the mid size bracket is fixin' to heat up! With Ford re-entering the US market, RAM or Jeep is sure to join in (or will partner with someone like VW who already wants to). Nissan keeps promising to update the Frontier, and don't be surprised if Toyota shocks everybody with an all-new compact or midsize model as well.

Controlling MSRP prices will be the key to success because buyers will be either young or old. College age folks and geezers alike seem to enjoy the durability and versatility of compact pickups. Watch for Honda to drop out.

Not sure about everyone else’s experiences with full size versus half size. But my 2016 Colorado z71 diesel gets couple mpg better on HWY/City versus my 2008 Honda Accord oh and it can the w my ranger fish and ski every other weekend to bass tournaments or just take the family out for a weekend of fun. And I still fit in the parking garages downtown.
My only disappointment was desiring, believing I might get 20+mpg towing versus 17mpg reality

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