Small pickups were once an essential part of the truck mix. A lot of young folks enjoyed them as an inexpensive starter vehicle.
But gradually, automakers phased them out in favor of crossover SUVs while concentrating on the full-size pickups that are their most profitable products.
In the past few years, however, smaller pickups — bigger than the modest Ford Rangers and Chevy S-10s of the past — have staged a comeback.
For US carmakers, Chevy’s Colorado almost single-handedly revived the segment, which had been filled by trucks like the Toyota Tacoma and the Nissan Frontier. Soon, Ford will bring back the Ranger.
Of course, Honda has long had a small pickup in its lineup: the oddball Ridgeline. This wasn’t a truck for truck people. It was more of an SUV with a pickup truck bed.Matthew DeBord/BI
The styling was offbeat. But for the latest generation, perhaps sensing that small pickups are the comeback trail, Honda made the Ridgeline into more of a proper truck. We checked it out last year and were impressed.
So we thought it would be good to compare the new Ridgeline to more of a true pickup.
And then the GMC Canyon Denali landed in our driveway.
The Canyon Denali is the GMC version of the Chevy Colorado, given some further snazziness with the upscale Denali treatment.
On paper, it stacks up well against the Ridgeline, costing about the same and running a similar V6 engine. But there are some crucial differences:
The 2017 Canyon Denali arrived early in the year, during a respite from snow and ice, but before the weather warmed. Truck conditions! Price? $44,255, as tested. The base GMC Canyon, without the upmarket Denali trim features, is about $22,000.
The Canyon Denali is outfitted with a 3.6-liter V6 that makes just north of 300 horsepower and pipes the power to, in the case of our tester, an all-wheel-drive system through an eight speed automatic transmission.
The motor feels robust and quite trucky, which is to say a tad crude (the same engine is found in the Cadillac XT5 and comes off as much more refined). This is powerplant that can roar. The Canyon Denali also has a towing mode that can handle 7,000 pounds, about 2,000 more than what the Ridgeline is rated for.
Our 2017 Ridgeline tester tipped the cost scales at $41,370, and it landed at BI’s suburban New Jersey test center after a light winter snowstorm in late 2016. The base pickup is about $30,000.
Read the review here.
The Ridgeline delivers a peppier, smoother ride than the Canyon Denali — much more car-like, which makes sense give its fully independent suspension. You just don’t feel like you’re in a truck, which for a lot of buyers will be a good thing. A problem with pickups in daily use is that they can beat you up a bit.
The Rideline’s powerplant is a 3.5-liter, 280-horsepower V6. This is one of the world’s great motors, perhaps the best V6 anywhere. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, this engine is more or less perfect and provides 21 mpg in combined city/highway driving. That’s slightly better than the GMC’s 21 mpg combined.
The GMC’s front end is very pickup, aggressive and bold.
The Honda’s front end is much more crossover. The badge is big, but the overall vibe is subdued.
The can really see the pickup-truck DNA when you study the Canyon Denali’s hunky, slablike front three-quarter angle.
There’s no debating it: the General Motors truck buyership, just like Ford’s and Ram’s (Fiat Chrysler’s pickup brand) want their pickups to look like trucks. For them, the aesthetics of the Ridgeline are a non-starter. Honda knows this, and furthermore understands that it isn’t really selling its truck to a true pickup loyalist.
Then again, GMC also understands that a customer wanting a work truck might avoid the more upscale Canyon Denali. So to a certain extent, both automakers are going after a slice of the total pickup-truck market.
What are pickups for? Putting stuff in the back! We took the Canyon Denali on a run to Home Depot and loaded up on rocks. No sweat for this truck, which was built for work.
We used the Ridgeline to fetch a Christmas tree and a wreath last year. Again, no sweat. You’ll notice, however, that the Ridgeline’s box is a bit shallower than the Canyon Denali’s.
The “box” matters to pickup-truck buyers. Honda’s more than gets the job done, but the GMC truck has a bed design that’s more like what you’d see in a full-size pickup. The Ridgeline offers tremendous versatility, but the GMC is designed more for large loads.
The Ridgeline does have a cool side-swinging gate, however.
The Canyon Denali just has the old-school gate.
The rear seats of the Canyon Denali are comfy, leather, and a bench design.
The Ridgeline’s back seats are similar.
Back seats in pickups in this segment are more functional than comfortable. That said, they’re much better than the crew cabs of old. I didn’t hear any complaints from my passengers with either truck.
From the driver’s seat, in the Canyon Denali you see all the usual gauges and have controls on the steering wheel as well as …
… GMC’s excellent infotainment system.
The same with the Ridgeline.
In our tests, we’ve found Honda’s infotainment system to be sort of behind the times. This isn’t a drawback that’s limited to the Ridgeline, and in truth the Honda pickup is more a victim of the problem than anything else.
Honda vehicles have a sterling reputation for quality and reliability, so the brand hasn’t been under that much pressure to up its infotainment game. GM vehicles, of course, aren’t as highly regarded as Honda’s, although the automaker has greatly improved quality. GM’s move to develop a premier infotainment and connectivity setup is starting to pay dividends, however.
Do we have a winner?
While the Ridgeline is the closest thing you can get to a modern-day El Camino and is basically a perfect and versatile truck-car for people who don’t need to engage in rancher- or contractor-grade work, the Canyon Denali combines a hardcore pickup frame with lots of upscale features.
It feels more like a pickup truck because … it’s more of a pickup truck. I personally liked the Ridgeline better for everyday driving and basic weekend home-improvement-type tasks, but if I really had to push it with my pickup, I’d likely go with the Canyon Denali. Not surprising, as I was quite impressed by the Canyon-sibling Chevy Colorado a few years back and I have always enjoyed the small-to-midsize pickup idea (I owned one for a while). Also, I think GMC is doing an especially good job these days as a GM brand.
What truly tips the balance, beyond the sheer truckiness of the Canyon Denali, is the combination of GMC’s superb infotainment system, OnStar, and 4GLTE wifi connectivity. The engines are quite similar, although the GMC gets the edge in power and better towing capacity (and is equipped to adjust its drivetrain to tow), while the Ridgeline’s bed is more versatile thanks to that large trunk.
GM vehicles, however, are beating out a lot of the competition these days simply because they have among the best infotainment systems on the market.
The truth is, for this comparison, it was almost too close to call. GMC’s victory came by a narrow margin. And besides, anyone who just has to have a “real” pickup isn’t going to go for the Ridgeline, not matter how much better the current generation is from its predecessor. It’s all a question of personality type, and I guess whether you have a boat to tow. That hasn’t stopped the automotive media from generally lauding the Ridgeline, however. It’s a dandy vehicle.
For now, the Canyon Denali is a great choice if you’re looking for a premium small pickup. And if you aren’t hung up on your truck being trucky, then the Ridgeline is worth a test drive.