There are an awful lot of examples where GM does something great. Sadly, the automaker often takes away those good ideas just as swiftly as they were introduced, leaving everyone baffled. It happened to the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon: For a few years, GM dropped a small-block V8 in its compact pickup, giving fans a sporty little hot-rod truck. Then GM snatched it away.
Welcome to Forgotten Cars, where we delve into the history of the fascinating vehicles that haven’t crossed your mind in ages. Join us for an automotive trip down memory lane.
It’s 2009. It’s a pretty turbulent time for GM, and the rest of the world. The Great Recession officially ended in June of 2009, but GM declared bankruptcy that same month. With $82 billion in assets and $173 billion in liabilities, it was one of the largest bankruptcies in U.S. history. While it was a dark time for the automaker, that didn’t stop GM engineers from developing some rather good stuff.
At the time GM filed bankruptcy, the GMT355 platform had been on sale for a few years. The truck was sold as the Chevy Colorado, GMC Canyon, and Isuzu i-Series in the U.S., and offered around the world under various GM nameplates. For the most part, nothing was particularly special about these trucks, which fought against two much-loved competitors, the Ford Ranger and Toyota Tacoma. But then, something changed.
Since the days of the first Chevy S-10, folks wanted GM to drop a small-block V8 in the company’s compact pickups. (In fact, there was an aftermarket company that would do that exact engine swap on your S-10.) The biggest engine you could get in a first-gen Canyon or Colorado was a 3.5 or 3.7-liter inline-5 (a very unique engine for the segment) with power ranging from 220 to 242 hp. But you weren’t gonna win any stoplight races.
After Toyota introduced the Tacoma X-Runner, a sports car disguised as a pickup, GM buyers really wanted a muscular compact truck of their own. So GM delivered.
For the 2009 model year, GM dropped a 5.3-liter small-block V8 into the Colorado, the Canyon, and the Hummer H3T Alpha, which used a modified GMT355 platform. While some people might have hoped for a short-cab body and a manual transmission, you could only get the V8 on extended-cab or crew cab-models, and the V8 — which made 300 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque — could only be paired with a relatively ancient four-speed auto.
You could tell V8 models apart from regular Colorado/Canyons by a small V8 badge on the front fenders, body-color bumpers, unique 18-inch wheels, and special bucket seats. It wasn’t just the run-of-the-mill pickup with a bigger engine thrown in, though. GM actually tried to make a sporty machine out of the V8 twins. Colorado/Canyons equipped with the V8 received the ZQ8 sport suspension package (which dropped the ride height by an inch), a quicker steering ratio, and 235/50 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires on 18-inch rims.
The result was a package that actually performed. Motor Trend pointed out the impressive power-to-weight ratio. “In this case, it’s 13.6 lb/hp, which is nearly as good as that of an Acura TL or John Cooper Works Mini Clubman,” the magazine’s period review said. And the extra power from the V8 shaved a full two seconds off the truck’s 0-60 mph time compared to the five cylinder: It needed just 6.7 seconds to do the sprint. The sport suspension also gave it impressive skidpad numbers, pulling 0.61 g, as good as a Mazda 3 or Acura TSX at the time.
But it wasn’t all good news. The interior was, frankly, terrible, covered in the hard plastics that plagued GMs products of the time. And it was spartan. Motor Trend pointed out that there was no option for navigation and no auxiliary input for an iPod or other music player. Car And Driver called the interior “rental car” and was one of the reasons the truck finished last out of five in a comparison test. “Cheap, hard plastic is as common in the Chevy as in the toy section at the local dollar store,” Car And Driver said.
The biggest problem with these trucks, though, was the price. Let’s use the more popular Colorado as our example. To get the V8, you had to spec the extended-cab or crew-cab configuration. The V8 required that you order the top-of-the-line 3LT trim, which started at $23,330. From there you had to add on the mandatory ZQ8 package at $3,935. If you threw in another $1,395 for the last few options, like a sunroof, locking differential, and side curtain airbags, you were sitting at or near $30,000 for this truck. That was base- to mid-level Silverado pricing in 2009. While a V8 in this size truck sounds appealing, it loses its draw when you can get a much more capable, spacious truck for around the same price.
While I always thought that the V8 Colorado/Canyon was only offered in 2009. In researching this article, I was surprised to find out that the small-block was offered through 2012. Actually, two different versions of the small-block were used in the Canyon and Colorado. To get more info, I reached out to GM’s global chief engineer for the small-block V8, Jordan Lee. He explained details I had never heard before:
The 5.3L V8 was used in the first Gen Colorado/Canyon from 2009 through 2012, 4 model years. The 2009 model used the LH8 engine but was replaced with the LH9 engine in 2010. The LH9 was identical to the LH8 with the exception that the LH9 implemented a camshaft phaser for variable valve timing. This helped emissions as well as drive quality. The LH9 was used in 2010, 2011, and 2012 model years.
The first-gen Colorado/Canyon ended up being the only time GM offered a V8 in the smallest truck in its portfolio. While the current generation Colorado/Canyon is an excellent truck, and the coming 2023 model promises to be even better, it would have been nice to have an eight-cylinder sendoff before our inevitable EV future. When GM’s pickup line goes fully electric, I expect values on the short-lived V8 Canyon and Colorado will skyrocket.