WHEATON, ILL.—Diesels in light-duty vehicles remain a niche segment in the U.S., but General Motors thinks that enough buyers of its midsize Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon pickups will want the low-end torque for occasional towing and hauling—while enjoying higher fuel economy—to launch a small diesel for 2016.

In early December, GMC invited ENR to take a 2016 Canyon pickup, equipped with the optional 2.8-liter, four-cylinder Duramax turbo diesel, for a spin in the outskirts of Chicago. The Duramax, with 181 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque, achieves up to 31 miles per gallon on highway, more than any other pickup truck currently available. It also is available on the GMC Canyon’s brand stablemate, the 2016 Chevrolet Colorado.

Prior to stepping into the Canyon, a faint diesel clatter was noticeable but not annoying. After stepping into the driver’s seat and closing the door, that noise faded away completely. The only other indicators that this truck was equipped with a diesel engine were Duramax labels on either side of the hood and a larger tailpipe.

As we drove on a 13-mile loop that included suburban streets and highways, the diesel torque snapped the unladen truck quickly into traffic. A driver information menu registered that we had ample diesel exhaust fluid, but it did not say how much was left in the tank. The truck’s six-speed automatic transmission was the same as the gasoline version and had no trouble finding the correct gear.

After the drive was over, we observed a fuel economy of 24.6 mpg—we thought that was quite impressive for such a short trip around the block. This particular model had a fuel-economy rating of 20 mpg in city, 29 mpg on highway and 23 mpg in combined driving. 

And for those seeking to put a truck this size to work, they probably would not be disappointed with its max trailer rating of 7,600 lb and payload capacity of 1,470 lb. However, the price of this small, premium truck was similar to a mid-trimmed, full-size truck, which may give some savvy buyers pause.

The GMC came with many creature comforts. The four-wheel-drive, crew-cab model we drove was highly optioned up with the top-line SLT trim. It normally retails for $38,375 including delivery fees. The $3,730 diesel and other options, such as $725 side steps, $495 navigation system, $500 Bose audio speakers and a $475 spray-on bedliner, brought the window sticker to $44,885. 

Currently, GM has capacity to build about 10% of its midsize trucks as diesels, and sales could support a few percent more, according to Kenn Bakowski, Canyon marketing manager, who added that the midsize pickup truck segment is enjoying a growing number of buyers who want a capable truck that is easy to maneuver and doesn’t take up an entire parking space.

“They want a truck that fits,” he said.

Midsize pickups are typically seen a lifestyle vehicles, but engineers, surveyors and other construction personnel who need to haul light tools and gear into the field may find midsize trucks appealing. After Ford discontinued the Ranger—it is rumored to be bringing it back by the end of the decade—some of these users moved to crossover cars and sport-utility vehicles. GM hopes its new midsize pickups may sway prior users back to small trucks.

Of current Canyon buyers who bring a trade-in vehicle to the negotiating table, 34% traded in cars, crossovers of SUVs; 23% traded in a full-size pickup; and 22% brought in a midsize pickup, Bakowski noted. The truck's most-sold model is a 4x4 SLT crew cab, similar to the one we tested. More than half of today's GMC sales are what the brand calls "conquest" customers, or those who previously owned another manufacturer's brand, he added.

Small diesel engines are under increased scrutiny this year after Volkswagen Group allegedly installed “defeat devices” intended to fool regulators, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is now re-testing engines to verify their emissions are compliant. 

So far, the testing has not significantly delayed GM’s so-called "baby diesel" from entering the market. A spokeswoman for GMC said engineers are “in final validations with the truck and expect to be shipping to dealers soon.” The company has promised that the diesel trucks would be available this fall.