A few years ago, when the Colorado and Canyon twins replaced the S10 and Sonoma, respectively, gas was in the $2 neighborhood. Even at that price, people were starting to grumble.
At the time only offered with modular four and five-cylinder engines, many were starting to wonder aloud when GM's mid-sizers might get a little fortification in the engine department. Not long afterward, speculation about shoe-horning the small-block under the hood started getting more and more rampant. After all, the similarly-sized Dodge Dakota had offered an optional V8 for many years. Wasn't it time for the bowtie boys to step up and show Dodge who's boss?
So finally, for the 2009 model year, GM has officially announced the availability of the 5.3L Vortec V8 in the Colorado and Canyon. Complete with 300 horsepower and 320 lb./ft. of torque. Slightly down from the output in the full-size models, but nothing that a good set of headers, cat-back exhaust, intake and chip tune couldn't make up for. As an added bonus for enthusiasts, you can even get your choice of a 3.42, 3.73, or a neck-snapping 4.10 rear axle ratio. Alas, stick shift fans will be disappointed. The sole transmission option is the tried-and-true 4L60-E four-speed automatic.
A few years ago, this combination would have seemed like a truck enthusiast's dream come true. For some still, it will be the fulfillment of their fantasies. But I have to wonder how popular this combination will be in the face of nearly $5 per gallon gas. Even without the cylinder-deactivation found on the full-size models, it's likely the V8 Colorado might crack 20 mpg on the highway. Really, not all that much worse than the 22 freeway mpg of the 5-cylinder, and in the same ballpark as most of its six-cylinder competitors.
A few years ago, "V8" was an unequivocal positive in the marketing department. Today, instead of the glass-half-full "powerful, sweet-sounding, high-resale" outlook, customers are just as likely to think "gas hog, low resale, more than I need."
So what's the answer for the midsizer's powertrain options? Well, it gets back to how much customers are willing to pay. As our own Brandan Gillogly so astutely observed in his blog post, the price difference between the Colorado and Silverado is not that great. Many will simply pay the difference and step up to a fullsize model, especially if fuel-economy figures are similar. My easy, fantasy-geek answer would be a twin-turbo, direct-injected 3.6L V6, or a V6 turbodiesel. The problem is, either of these engines would likely command an even higher price premium than the V8. Under that scenario, GM faces millions in R&D to develop powerful, efficient engines for the midsize trucks, with customers buying the lower-level four and five-cylinder engines anyway, and ignoring the high-zoot, high-price powertrain options.
So taking everything into consideration, I can't necessarily blame GM for taking the seemingly "easy" route to higher horsepower. After all, 3 to 4 years ago when this was being conceived in the inner sanctum of GM R&D, fuel was still cheap enough that everyone figured this option would be a no-brainer money maker. Besides which, the Gen IV small-block was a known and generally loved commodity, easy-to-build, and readily available.
I hope this powertrain combo proves successful, but if it isn't, don't expect an encore performance for a V8 in GM's midsize trucks the next time around.