2023 GMC Canyon AT4X First Drive: Tough Right Out Of The Box

Off-roading for GMC is spelled "AT4." As if the truck builder's "Professional Grade" lineup wasn't already rugged, the AT4 line takes things up a few notches. All-terrain tires, skid plates to protect the powertrain, a buffed-up four-wheel drive system, those are some of the things the AT4 badge gets you when you check off the option at the dealership.

First introduced in 2019 with the Sierra 1500, the AT4 line as of 2023 includes the aforementioned Sierra 1500, as well as the Acadia, Sierra HD, Terrain, Yukon, and Canyon, which joined the family in 2021. In that instance, it was a rebrand of the Canyon All Terrain, which included some different trim bits (like a blacked-out new grille) compared to the older trim level, but was otherwise still the same off-road capable midsize pickup as always.

But what if you want something more off-road capable? Perhaps something that you can take to Moab, the Rubicon Trail, or an off-road park like Turtle Ridge in Northern Michigan. For those dreams of conquering mountains and beating muddy paths to a pulp, you need but only add one more letter: X. The AT4X — which will appear on the order books for the 2024 Sierra HD — takes in the Canyon for the 2023 model year for some major off-road training. What better way to experience the results of this hard work, then, than by driving down to "Camp Canyon" in North Carolina to spend a morning with the toughest midsize professional around?

How to build a professional-grade midsize brute

The 2023 Canyon on its own is already quite the brute of a midsize pickup; it better be with a name like that. Out of the box, owners can expect a wide track with a 2-inch lift straight from the factory, large all-terrains wrapped around some fine wheels, plenty of ground clearance and suspension travel, and a single-speed transfer case with a good handful of driving modes. The AT4 adds more by introducing a second speed to the transfer case, a shield to protect that transfer case, advanced hill descent control, and a rear-locking diff. For most, that's plenty to work with when the great outdoors calls out to their spirit.

What, then, does the "X" in AT4X get you for your buck? An extra inch of lift, for one. And that lift is augmented by the Dynamic Suspension Spool Valve (DSSV) dampers made by Canadian engineering firm Multimatic, the same DSSV dampers found not only throughout the GMC AT4X line, but also the Aston Martin One-77, the Mercedes-AMG GT, and the Canyon's Bowtie'd twin, the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2. The ride the DSSVs provide meets the road (or lack thereof) through a full set of 33-inch mud terrain tires. Selectable front and rear e-lockers, more underbody protection to keep the jagged rocks away from your drivetrain, and an exclusive Baja Mode for hard desert running round out the rest of the Canyon ATX4's tricks.

Raw power, creature comfort

Whether you choose the AT4, AT4X, Denali, or Elevation trims of the 2023 GMC Canyon, there is one powertrain combo available for all: a 2.7-liter turbo-four tied to an eight-speed Hydra-Matic 8L80 eight-speed automatic. The turbo-four is all-aluminum with dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder with continuous variable valve timing, and direct high-pressure fuel injection with active fuel management. The high-output lightweight throws quite the punch compared to the competition, too, packing 310 horsepower and 430 lb.-ft. of torque. 

That's more than enough raw power for the Canyon to tow up to 7,700 pounds (the AT4X tows up to 6,000 pounds, while the AT4X Edition 1 tows up to 5,500 pounds) with two fewer cylinders than the (relatively) big V6s offered by the Jeep Gladiator, Nissan Frontier, and the Toyota Tacoma, and even bests the Ford Ranger's own 2.3-liter turbo-four. Payload capacity wildly various on trims, too, ranging from just 1,010 pounds for the AT4X Edition 1 to 1,640 pounds for the two-wheel drive Elevation. GMC says the 2.7-liter turbo-four was designed with diesel engine-building techniques to help it be a beast no matter what it does. Its active thermal management with electric water pump keeps everything cool under pressure, too.

Those lucky enough to get the 2023 GMC Canyon in the AT4X Edition 1 trim — the very trim we would take through an off-road trail an hour away from Camp Canyon — will be greeted with a stunning interior of perforated leather seating for five in a triple-shot of Obsidian Rush, red and white leather with red seatbelts. The theme continues on the dash and doors, too, with white leather and red stitching, and red-trimmed driver- and passenger-side air vents, chrome and red knobs and drive-select dial, red-and-chrome trimmed black switchgear, and a black leather steering wheel and shifter boot with red stitching pulling it all together. It's as close as you can get to the days when truck interiors could be had in a ton of colors beyond black, gray and beige.

The tech you need on and off the trail

Tech fans will have plenty to smile about in the 2023 GMC Canyon AT4X, especially once they start digging deep into the touchscreen. That screen, by the way, is 11.3 inches and comes standard across all trims of the Canyon. Not only does it make use of both wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto plus Amazon Alexa, but it has built-in Google, including Google Assistant, Google Maps and Google Play. Though General Motors recently announced it would discontinue Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support in its EVs — beginning with the 2024 Chevrolet Blazer EV — Canyon owners can continue to connect their iPhones and Pixels to their truck, as GM will offer access in all of its gas- and diesel-powered models.

Next to that touchscreen in the ATX4 trim is an equally large, 11-inch digital cluster with a standard 6.3-inch head-up display mounted ahead. Your eyes won't be the only ones on the road, though, for the Canyon comes with up to 10 camera views, including a pair of underbody cams front and rear. The underbody cams — which are equipped with their own washer fluid jets — will help you see what's underneath your truck, especially at the peak of any high hills you may come across. You can even view the terrain from both cameras via a split-screen mode for even more info on what's going on underneath the Canyon AT4X.

A confident ride no matter the terrain

With all of the big points out of the way, there's but one question to answer: how well does it ride and drive? For that, I took my 2023 GMC Canyon AT4X Edition 1 out of Camp Canyon to an off-road trail an hour away. The "on-road" portion of the drive meant navigating through Monday morning rush hour traffic on the interstates before reaching the trail, and the Canyon handled itself quite well. Its 66.3-inch wide track may be a bit much on narrower roads and streets, but it was no issue on the highway. Adaptive cruise control proved helpful in the thick of traffic, as did the thunderhorses under the hood when the need to pass more than a few semis came to pass. The mud terrains didn't seem to make too much noise rolling across the asphalt, but they more than demonstrated their worth on the trail.

My drive through the woods would take my Canyon AT4X Edition 1 and me up to a meeting point before handing the reins over to my co-driver. And what a drive it was getting there, one that made use of nearly all five drive modes (Baja, Terrain and Off-Road for the trail, Normal for the drive to and ride from; Tow/Haul, of course, wasn't needed that day). Though going at fairly low speeds through the woods on one-lane roads with steep drop-offs to one side, the Canyon AT4X felt fast going through every rut and rough corner. Deep water and rocks were no problem for the truck, either, though trying to keep the underbody cams clean on the ride down was at times a Sisyphean effort. Still, the Canyon AT4X can handle nearly everything nature or humanity can throw at it with ease.

Canyon AT4X at home wherever it roams

It seems like more and more manufacturers want to give their trucks, SUVs and crossovers the ability to tackle whatever road (or lack thereof) a given driver may experience. Some, like the Mercedes-EQ EQS SUV, certainly have that ability, though most will only live the fine city and suburban life. Others, like the Ford Bronco Everglades, may truly be the happiest playing on the muddy, rocky, flooded road. Where, then, does GMC's most hardcore off-road midsize pickup fit into the scheme of themes?

Equally at home on the open road and within the great outdoors, of course. Not only does the 2023 GMC Canyon AT4X have plenty of power and the presence to give it space on the street but, as-is, it has the capability most off-road and overlanding fans crave out of the box. There are plenty of accessories to add even more capability to the Canyon, too, like a bull bar with a built-in winch for rescuing others (or yourself) from tough situations, and a bed-mounted rooftop tent for a comfortable night under the open sky where no animals can reach you (as long as you pull up the ladder, of course).

Just be prepared to pay a hefty sum for this "professional-grade" off-roading pickup. Starting MSRP is $56,995, just about $4,000 more than the luxury-oriented Denali's starting MSRP of $52,495, and around $9,000 more than the regular AT4's $45,395 starting MSRP. The Canyon AT4X is worth every penny, though, if you're looking for a truck that can really do it all, and with plenty of style to boot.