Chevy’s Colorado and GMC‘s Canyon are the Rodney Dangerfields of the mid-size pickup category. During their first five years of existence, they earned all the respect they deserved: nada.
Blame it on birthright. The early twenty-first century liaison between General Motors and Isuzu assigned the Japanese partner to the lead engineering role. Unfortunately, Isuzu’s creativity wasn’t up to GM’s minimum standards, so the design had to be rejiggered, delaying introduction until the 2004 model year and prolonging the lives of the clunky S-10 and Sonoma pickups. To further cripple any chance of success, GM torpedoed the new powertrain roster. While the 2.8-liter DOHC four-cylinder base engine was reasonably competitive, the 3.5-liter in-line five faced enemies armed with six- and eight-cylinder engines.
Power and torque were not the issue. The five, subsequently upped to 3.7 liters, is still available and currently provides a healthy 242 hp and 242 lb-ft of torque. But when bar talk turns to engines, the joke’s on any pickup owner who admits he’s packing a five-shooter.
To make amends, Isuzu has left the engineering building and GM made honest hombres out of the Colorado and the Canyon. For 2009, the brakes are upgraded, a StabiliTrak electronic stability system is standard, and the exterior receives outpatient cosmetic surgery. But the real news is that a desirable engine has finally joined the options list. All hail the arrival of GM’s LH8 Vortec 5.3-liter V-8. This engine not only gives power and performance a major boost, it’s a genuinely smooth operator and reasonably fuel efficient. But most importantly, with a lineage link to Corvette V-8s, Colorado and Canyon bragging rights are now above reproach.The LH8’s aluminum block saves 100 pounds over the cast-iron block found in a few other Vortec V-8s. Its list of special features includes a structural (cast-aluminum) oil pan, six-bolt main bearings, roller hydraulic lifters, roller-tipped rocker arms, full-floating wrist pins, polymer-coated pistons, and no less than four catalytic converters. The iridium-tipped spark plugs have a theoretical service life of 100,000 miles. This same Vortec also powers the Hummer H3 Alpha.
Even though this engine lacks overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, it delivers a potent 300 hp at 5200 rpm and 320 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. It revs to 6000 rpm and tops 20 mpg on the highway in two-wheel-drive trim. A four-speed Hydra-Matic 4L60 is the only available transmission.
Whether you buy it as a stand-alone option or buried deeply within some package, the new V-8 adds $1300 to the price of a Colorado or Canyon equipped with the 3.7-liter in-line five. It’s not offered in the two-door standard-cab models but can be installed in both extended-cab (with jump-seat access provided by rear-hinged half doors) and real four-door crew-cab models. Care checking option boxes can keep the price from breaking through the $30,000 barrier. The tow rating is 6000 pounds for all configurations, a 500-pound gain over kin powered by the five-shooter.
BEHIND THE WHEEL
We test-drove one Colorado and one Canyon equipped with the new V-8. Both were attractive aqua blue crew cabs with snooty leather upholstery and five-foot beds. The Chevy–with Insta-Trac four-wheel drive, Z71 off-road suspension, and 2LT trim–topped out at $33,765. The GMC, in boy-racer guise, brought two-wheel-drive, a ZQ8 sport suspension package, and a $31,230 sticker to the party. We used the Colorado to deliver a face cord of firewood through a foot of snow, an assignment it fulfilled without flinching. The Canyon mainly hauled ass, although it also endured more than a 100 miles of boat towing in the dead of winter without whining.
Our Vbox test gear clocked the ‘s 0-to-60-mph run in seven seconds flat on the way to a 15.4-second, 93-mph quarter mile. The speed limiter kicked in at 125 mph. Hitched to a 5150-pound boat and trailer, the mighty V-8 hustled this pickup to 60 mph in 15.9 seconds and averaged a decent 11 mpg during suburban cruising. These results were achieved with a 3.42:1 axle ratio. For quicker acceleration (at the expense of fuel mileage), you can alternatively specify a 3.73:1 or a 4.10:1 ratio. The $295 locking differential should be considered essential equipment when the opposite end of the truck boasts V-8 vitality.
Thanks to fine-tuning by GM’s Performance Division personnel, the ZQ8 package is well suited to anyone whose preferences lean in the car direction. Quicker steering, a one-inch lower ride height, stiffer spring and antiroll-bar rates, and Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires – size 235/50WR-18 – on eight-inch-wide aluminum wheels do an excellent job obliterating this truck’s sordid past. The steering response is rapid and accurate, yet the ride is supple, even over Michigan’s bombed-out excuse for pavement. The lack of steering feel will surely disappoint BMW worshippers, but a ZQ8-fortified Canyon or Colorado is about as good as trucks get.
Although swagger is in short supply when you’re riding on a slammed suspension, the low step-in height is handy, and kids won’t whine while climbing into the rear seats. The rear cabin of the crew cab is reasonably roomy for two passengers and will carry a third in a pinch. The 60/40 seat backs fold to divvy up the space between people and packages.
The five-foot cargo bed won’t impress anyone used to a full-size pickup truck, but it is at least shrewdly configured. Perches molded into the standard bedliner sidewalls facilitate carrying four-by-eight-foot building materials on the level. The tailgate has a 55-degrees-open position to provide support at the tail end of the load. With the gate fully down, you’ve got an 81-inch-long load surface suitable for hauling motorcycles up to and including a Harley-Davidson Sportster. Sturdy tie-down anchors are provided.
The top-shelf Colorado and Canyon interior trim doesn’t wander far from pure molded plastic. Stuff you touch – such as the leather-wrapped steering wheel, the console top, and the armrests are thoughtfully finished in resilient materials. Spending a bit extra gets you leather seating surfaces, electric bun warmers, and power adjusters. Unfortunately, the front bucket upgrade (a 60/40 split bench is standard) brings seats that feel convex instead of concave. Driving stints longer than two hours will have you speed-dialing your chiropractor for relief.
A column shifter allows the center console to be fruitfully used for open storage areas and two cupholders. Two more beverage receptacles are cleverly integrated into the center area of the rear seat cushion.
It’s a rare event when any car or truck leaps from the bottom to the top of its category six years into its lifespan, but this is precisely what the Colorado and the Canyon have achieved. The new V-8 and a few well-orchestrated upgrades have transformed this duo from lepers into love objects. For $30,000 (or less), it’s hard to find a better combination of car charisma and truck work ethic in one handy package.