After nearly 200 miles in the driver’s seat of the GMC Canyon Crew Cab pickup truck, I couldn’t stop thinking about how badly Volkswagen has messed up the market for diesel automobiles.
All the fun driving this General Motors midsize pickup from General Motors comes from its tight, steady handling and a fuel-efficient 2.8-liter, four-cylinder Duramax turbo-diesel engine.
Turbo-diesel engines, you might remember, made Volkswagen the biggest seller of diesel passenger vehicles in the U.S. just a few years ago. Although VW’s diesels were a joy to drive, they were also the source of the biggest consumer fraud in U.S. automotive history. VW packed the electronics running its engines with software that detected when the vehicle was undergoing emissions testing so that it could cheat federal and state regulations.
Federal and California environmental regulators caught on last year. VW no longer sells the vehicles. The costs for U.S. penalties and reparations – including buying back about 500,000 cars – are at about $16 billion and climbing. The scandal tarnished the entire light-duty diesel vehicle market. So every time I turned the ignition of the four-wheel-drive GMC Canyon and heard the growl of the turbo diesel, I thought of the extra sales and marketing work General Motors and other automakers will now have to conduct to keep this technology alive in the U.S. market.
It’s a shame. Diesel technology has advanced far beyond the smoky, noisy powertrains of a generation ago. The engines make for an immensely satisfying drive. The Duramax produces 181 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. The combination of a cooled exhaust gas recirculation system and urea-based selective catalytic reduction system allows the engine to meet U.S. emissions standards. GM said the Duramax is the cleanest diesel truck engine it has ever produced.
GM launched the Canyon and its sibling Chevrolet Colorado in late 2014. The pair put the automaker back in the midsize pickup truck market that it had abandoned in 2012. The Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier, Japanese brands, dominated the segment in the intervening years, as GM and the other domestic nameplates focused on the more lucrative full-size pickup market. [vox id=”5587″]
GM got back into the game at the right time.
Sales of midsize pickups have soared more than 24 percent in the U.S. through the first nine months of this year compared with the same period a year earlier, according to industry research firm Autodata Corp. Sales of full-size pickups grew by a modest 3 percent during the same period. The overall auto market has grown by less than 1 percent at the same time.
GM has proved an able competitor. It now sells nearly one out of three midsize pickup trucks.
The sales data demonstrate how much Americans like trucks, especially during extended periods of low gas prices when there’s a smaller financial penalty for driving a big, less-efficient vehicle. But there’s another trend fueling sales of the Colorado and its competitors – the rise of the urban truck.
In a congested city, the Colorado is so much easier to maneuver and park than a full-size pickup. Yet it also provides much of the functionality of a larger pickup. The diesel model can haul 1,433 pounds of dirt, furniture, building materials and landscape equipment in the bed. It can tow 7,600 pounds. It worked well shuttling bicycles and other cargo around congested Southern California. Los Angeles is the top market for the GMC Canyon and its Chevrolet Colorado sibling. New York is second. Chicago is third for the Colorado and sixth for the Canyon.
The crew cab configuration can sit four adults, making it practical for a family. I logged just under 25 mpg in a mix of city and highway driving, slightly better than the Environmental Protection Agency rating of 23 mpg in combined driving conditions.
GMC hasn’t ignored basic amenities that you would expect in a passenger vehicle. There are little things, such as a total of four USB ports, including two in the rear seating area. There’s an 8-inch display in the dash, the cornerstone of a smart interface that includes a combination of dials and touch-screen buttons that are intuitive and not distracting.
The truck comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The features allow you to plug an Apple or Android phone in with a USB cord, and with one button on the screen you can make phone calls, have text messages read to you, tap into a navigation program, and get your music and podcasts. All automakers should be going in this direction. Plug and play is what consumers want.
You can see that in the results of the J.D. Power 2016 U.S. Tech Experience Index Study released earlier this week.
“For any technology in a vehicle, it’s critical that the owners want it, are aware they have it and know how to use it,” said Kristin Kolodge, executive director of driver interaction who conducts human-machine interaction research at J.D. Power. “It is alarming how many technologies consumers have in their vehicle but aren’t using because they don’t know they have them or don’t know how to use them.”
General Motors is one of the industry’s leaders in packing its vehicles with easy-to-use technology.
The GMC, for example, has a low-cost safety feature option, a $395 driver-alert package that includes forward-collision alert and lane-departure warning. It would be even better if it included a blind-spot alert.
These types of collision-avoidance technologies are reducing the frequency of crashes, according to insurance industry data. They also represent the technology consumers most want, according to J.D. Power research. In contrast, owners are least satisfied with their navigation systems, the industry research firm said. When you can bring your phone — with a choice of free navigation apps that include real-time traffic into the car — why spend the extra money on an embedded navigation system?
Despite my adoration of the Duramax engine, there’s a legitimate question as to whether the diesel is worth the $3,730 upcharge. You gain only 600 pounds of towing capacity over the same vehicle equipped with a gasoline-powered 3.6-liter V-6 engine.
And it will take a long time, if ever, to make up that extra expense through savings at the pump. Based on prices in Southern California this week, you would save $250 a year on fuel for the diesel truck over its gasoline V-6 counterpart, according to the EPA’s fuel economy calculator and AAA’s fuel price survey. If you live in metropolitan New York, the diesel engine saves about $50 annually. That’s because diesel in New York is about 30 cents per gallon more than gasoline.
Already this is an expensive vehicle. The crew cab truck has a base price of $38,735, including a $995 destination charge. The diesel engine, an upgraded audio system and other options in the vehicle we tested pushed that well above $45,000.
GM still sees a future for diesel engines in the light-duty vehicle market. The automaker announced that it is expanding its portfolio by making a 1.6-liter turbo-diesel available a year from now in the 2018 Chevrolet Equinox crossover. It already offers a four-cylinder diesel in the Chevrolet Cruze. Besides the Duramax used in the Colorado pickup and Chevrolet Express van, the automaker just unveiled a newly designed Duramax 6.6-liter, V-8 turbo-diesel engine for the 2017 Chevrolet Silverado HD pickup truck.
“GM is moving ahead with more diesel choices because we continue to have a favorable outlook for diesel technology as it remains the most efficient internal combustion engine option,” said GM spokesman Tom Read.
The automaker sees the technology as an important tool in meeting carbon dioxide emission reduction goals. And it makes for a really nice drive.