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HENRY PAYNE

Payne: GMC Canyon/Chevy Colorado: Urban cowboys

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I love my big, full-size pickup. Wide as the Mississippi and three states long, it can tow my race trailer, pull stumps up by their roots, and empty a Home Depot of mulch.

But in town it can be a misfit toy.

Like Ndamukong Suh in a china shop, the big beast always seem one step from trouble. A sudden swerve? Dang, I just squashed a Toyota Corolla. A drive-through lunch? Oops, I took out the menu board. Parallel parking? Fuhgettaboutit.

Today's full-size pickups are modern marvels: Comfortable, quiet, as capable as a Swiss Army knife, as durable as Bill Cosby. But, boy, have they gotten big. Godzilla big. Swing-my-tail-and-I-might-take-out-a-block-of-condos big.

Thus the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon. For the urban cowboy that wants the capabilities of a Chevy Silverado in a Chevy Equinox-sized package, General Motors offers a pair of midsized trucks. Smaller, cheaper, more maneuverable, but with all the sedan-like, 21st century interior amenities that truck customers have come to expect.

You're scratching your head. But didn't GM abandon the midsize market just three years ago as sales stagnated? Haven't consumers made the choice for full-size trucks?

Let me explain. What changed is those limo-riding geniuses in Washington decided to make vehicles better. Buckle up, kids. When the auto industry gets detoured through the Beltway swamp even three-ton 4x4s can get stuck in the regulatory mud.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, our pols are busy shutting down domestic oil production. But on Tuesdays and Thursdays (Fridays they drill for campaign contributions) they are making America less dependent on foreign oil. So in 2009 they mandated that, by 2025, auto fuel economy must increase by, ahem ... 99 percent.

That includes trucks.

Ford answered the call by light-weighting its pickup fleet with aluminum — at about the cost of the annual GDP of Portugal. Less weight = better fuel economy. But for bankrupt GM a multi-billion bet on aluminum was not an option. Plan B: Hang on, Mary, we're doin' a U-turn back to the smaller, midsize truck market. Smaller trucks = better fuel economy.

The result is a fascinating war of strategies between the world's two biggest truck armies. Aluminum F-150s vs. the twin steel tanks of GM full-size and midsize pickups. It's offense vs. defense. Broncos vs. Seahawks. Superman vs. Batman. It should be good.

In fielding its light infantry, GM didn't just remake the tinny, midsize trucks of the last war. The Canyon and Colorado pickups are weapons remade from the ground up.

When life throws you lemons, make lemonade.

Consumer trends may aid GM's choice as well. A funny thing happened to the compact SUV market in the short time GM has been away from compact trucks: It grew. Boy, did it grow. Compact SUV sales jumped 21 percent in 2013 and have continued as the fastest growing sales segment in 2014. Jack's beanstalk didn't grow this fast.

Some ex-Canyon/Colorado customers turned to bigger pickups, but most, says GM, went into small utes like the Equinox and GMC Terrain. Midsize pickup sales have stalled at 250,000 units a year without Detroit trucks. The Toyota Tacoma, the segment leader, hasn't been updated since 2004. It's as if the local deli hadn't updated its menu in eight years. The patrons have turned surly. Surveys finds them the No. 2 most disgruntled customers in the industry. They fled to the SUV buffet across the street.

But what if someone made a compact ute with a box in back?

Not just a box, but seats with the same room as your ute? Quiet interiors insulated with triple-sealed doors? Center consoles engorged with nav screens, Internet radio, and 4G Internet hot spots?

All that and the Colorado brings an Impala-like, more aerodynamic front cab design that might appeal to cross-shopping crossover buyers. But I particularly like the Canyon. The GMC is more old school pickup with its iconic, Sierra-like, bold grill. But for a couple grand more than the Colorado, it comes with stitched, soft dash materials that scores a trifecta: It blows away the foreign competition; matches its bigger, full-size siblings; and mimics the scores of attractive, compact utes that advertise in the Canyon's $25,000-$40,000 neighborhood.

I took a Canyon Super Crew around the neighborhood to my truck buddies. My own, handpicked urban cowboy focus group. They ate it up. Its easy, step-up rear corners. Its strong tailgate. Its roomy interior. Sure, the Canyon — built on the Sierra pickup rail platform and leaf springs — rides like a bronco compared to the car-like unibody of a GMC Terrain. But at nearly the same price as the Terrain, it's more rugged while offering the same interior comforts.

Sold, right?

But here's where the Ford aluminum strategy gets interesting. My urban cowboys loved their first date — but before they got hitched to Canyon, they all wanted to know how its price and fuel mileage compared to a full-size pickup.

I know, I know. Truck guys are brand loyal. A Red Sox fan will never root for the Yankees. And a GM pickup owner will never buy a Ford. But with the new F150, Ford has redefined full-size pickups.

At 4,800 pounds — 780 pounds less than its previous generation — Ford contends that its 2.7-liter, 325 horsepower, 375 pound-feet of torque, V6 Ecoboost, aluminum F150 may rival Ram diesel's class-leading, combined 23 mpg when EPA figures are announced later this year. Heck, Ford's non-turbo, 3.5-liter V6 will probably better 20 mpg in its new aluminum shell.

By comparison, a 4,500-pound, 3.6-liter, 305 horsepower, 269 pound-feet of torque, steel Canyon boasts 20 mpg combined EPA mileage rating (17 city/24 highway). That's better than the mid-size competition, but not F150.

Bigger is better fuel economy? Take a bow, Ford.

But where Colorado-Canyon may not save at the gas pump, it'll save you at purchase. You'll need that bigger F150 truck bed to carry the $8,000 more in dollar bills to buy it. The 2.7L Ecoboost Ford V6 comes in at $46, 615. The Canyon? Just $38,915.

Is a full-size pickup worth eight grand more? Is the Canyon worth four grand more than the aging, V6 Tacoma? Your needs will tell the tale. I need a big pickup that will tow a trailer of race cars while seating five overfed adults. If your needs are more modest — say a family trip with a 5,000-pound bass boat — then the Canyon might be enough.

That and you can park the GMC in a downtown Detroit parking garage without a tugboat.

Next week's Drive review: 2014 BMW i8 vs. 1979 BMW M1

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2015 GMC Canyon/Chevy Colorado

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear or four-wheel-drive, five-passenger pickup

Price: $22,805 base ($38,915 Canyon Crew long box as tested)

Power plant: 2.5-liter dual-overhead-cam inline 4-cylinder; 3.6-liter, dual-overhead-cam V6

Power: 200 horsepower, 191 pound-feet torque (4-cyl); 305 horsepower, 269 pound-feet torque (V6)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: Payload: 1,470 pounds; Trailering: 7,000 pounds (AWD 6'2" box as tested)

Weight: 4,500 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 19 city/25 highway/21 combined (4-cyl); EPA 17 city/24 highway/20 combined (V6)

Report card

Highs: Ute with a box; Quiet interior

Lows: Good ol' rough truck ride; Can get pricey

Overall: ★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★