First Drive: 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2
Master of All
It’s been several years since the internet lost its collective mind over the concept Colorado that Chevrolet rolled out at the 2014 Los Angeles International Auto Show. That truck, shown in a unique green color, sported a long-travel suspension, large bypass shocks, rock rails, unique front and rear bumper styling, and a nifty bed-mounted spare tire. It was also the first time the world got a glimpse of the then-soon-to-come 2.8L Duramax diesel engine. Little did anyone outside of GM know what a rag-tag group of former Hummer engineers and product planners were assembling behind the scenes, readying for the challenge of bringing this concept to life.
A Little HistoryZR2 is more than just a catchy nomenclature pulled from someone’s Marketing 101 textbook. Chevrolet has a long and storied history of naming performance variants of all levels with the Zxx style, referred to as a Regular Production Option (RPO) code. While some are more significant, like the ZR1 Corvette, and some more pedestrian, like the Z66 Avalanche, all are important to some degree.
Originally used from ’94 to ’05, the ZR2 RPO has been utilized to denote a special off-road suspension package, specifically on midsize pickups and SUVs. ZR2 debuted for the ’94 model year on the Chevrolet S-10 and GMC Sonoma pickups. In ’96 the two-door S-10 Blazer received a ZR2 version, and in ’01 it was expanded to include the Tracker. For the ’03 model year, the GMC Jimmy surfaced with a ZR2 variant, though only available in Canada.
It seemed that the ZR2 package was destined for extinction when it was discontinued along with the vehicles it was applied to. The S-10 and Sonoma lost the ZR2 package in ’03, just ahead of their final model year. Tracker met its doom in ’04, and the S-10 Blazer and Jimmy followed shortly after in ’05. With that the ZR2 name was history—or so we all thought.
Present DayFast-forward two years from when the Colorado ZR2 concept first made waves to the 2016 Los Angeles International Auto Show, and it was time to finally pull the curtain off of what could be the most exciting news in the pickup world in some time. While most concept vehicles that eventually come to market do so as a shell of their former selves (not going to lie, we were all a bit sad when the ’15 Colorado Trail Boss came out following the ZR2 concept, thinking this was it), the Colorado ZR2 is not so. Delivering on the promises made by the concept, the truck sports a 3.5-inch-wider track width, 2-inch-taller ride height, 31-inch Goodyear DuraTrac tires, functional stainless steel rock sliders, front and rear electronic locking differentials, high-clearance bumpers, purposeful skidplates, and an off-road mode that allows for fully disabling off-road annoyances such as traction and stability control. The only noticeably absent feature from the concept is the front-mounted recovery winch, which, we’re sad to report, was merely studio magic on the concept—a Warn winch was cut in half to fit in the tight space. We’re sure the aftermarket is working vigorously on an actual mounting solution as we speak.
The rest of the running gear is typical Colorado fare. The ZR2 is available with both the 3.6L gasoline V-6 and 2.8L diesel I-4 engines. The V-6 churns out 308 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque, while the diesel reverses the equation with 186 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque. The gasoline V-6 is mated to a new eight-speed automatic transmission, while the Duramax diesel retains a six-speed. Sorry, gear jockeys, no manual transmission is available for the ZR2 and there are no plans of adding one. Fuel economy drops from 18 city, 24 highway, and 19 combined for a standard 3.6L 4WD to 16/18/17 for the ZR2. Economy from the diesel drops from 20/28/23 to 19/22/20, with highway driving taking the biggest hit in both drivetrains. Using the EPA’s combined figures, you could theoretically run 420 miles on diesel or 357 miles on gasoline using every drop of the truck’s 21-gallon fuel tank.
Nearly everything is standard on the ZR2 package, which starts at just $40,995. You can choose a crew cab or extended cab, gasoline or diesel engine, carpet or vinyl floors, and which exterior color you’d like. And that’s all. Speaking of colors, unlike other special editions the full Colorado color palate is available for ZR2, along with the unique-for-ZR2 Deepwood Green Metallic. Want cloth seats? Don’t even ask, leather is your only option. From the factory you can add on a host of accessories that include the GearOn system for the bed, interior lighting and all-weather floor mats, tonneau covers, a bed-mounted sport bar and lights, and a bed-mounted spare tire carrier among others.
Mysterious DampersThe true magic of the Colorado ZR2 lies in the Multimatic DSSV dampers. We dug deep into the technology behind the dampers in the March/April 2017 issue (ZR2 Shock Sorcery), so we won’t bore you with the gory details here. Where the DSSV shock differs from a traditional unit is in its use of spool valves in place of stacked washer shim plates. A DSSV shock’s funky-looking body conceals a nitrogen-charged reservoir, a spool valve housing in the middle, and a traditional main body in which the shaft rides. The compression- and rebound-controlling spool valves reside in the middle chamber, while a third spool valve designed to handle heavy compression events rides on the shaft. A rebound valve at the bottom of the main body provides added control for when the shocks are fully extended.
In essence, what Multimatic has created is a damper that is both position- and velocity-sensitive, makes no compromise in on- or off-road performance, and is far less susceptible to heat fade than a traditional shock absorber. There’s also none of the weird clicks or rattles commonly heard with traditional internal or external bypass shocks. While the question of longevity remains for this new application of the technology, GM and Multimatic engineers assure us that the DSSV dampers had to pass all of the same rigorous testing that every damper put into production by GM does and that they are designed to last just as long.
How Does It All Work?The short answer: phenomenal. What Chevrolet set out to build with the Colorado ZR2 was a truck that is just as at home in the desert whoops of Baja, the rocky trails of Moab, and the gridlocked highways of Los Angeles. This is a tough task for anyone to accomplish, but one that the ZR2 has seemingly mastered.
High-Speed DesertOur first experience behind the wheel of the Colorado ZR2 found us at the aptly named Trophy Course. The 2.5-mile short course–style off-road track once used by famed racing drivers such as Ricky Johnson now plays host to rich kids wanting to try their hand at driving Trophy Trucks. Needless to say, the ZR2’s nearly 9 inches of front and 11 inches of rear suspension travel are no match for the caliber of trucks normally running this course, making it an excellent demonstration of just what the ZR2 can do.
The Colorado ZR2 has several modes for the electronics, ranging from fully on to fully off. A single press of the 4WD selector enables Off-Road Mode, while a single press of the traction control switch disables that system. For full nanny-free fun, the traction-control button needs a second push and hold. From there you are on your own, free to deal with the consequences of your shenanigans.
Littered with deep sand, sweeping corners, and large humps, bumps, and jumps, the Trophy Course was a great place to experiment with all of the ZR2’s different modes. We found driving with all of the safety features turned off to be the most exciting, but we have decades of dirt driving experience. Your mileage may vary. With all of the ZR2 configurations at our disposal, we proceeded to flog on the gasoline V-6, diesel I-4, crew cab, and extended cab variants. At the end of the day, we found the extended cab V-6 to be the most lively and fun, easily kicking the tail out and drifting through the banked, sweeping corners. The Duramax diesel’s short rpm band made epic power slides tough, though with enough throttle feathering it would kick a solid roost.
Most impressive was the suspension handling. The DSSV shocks soaked up big hits with ease and smoothed out the roughest ruts. While we expected extreme headshake while crossing a rutted corner against the grain, the ZR2’s suspension took away all of the harshness we were expecting. The course also had mounds that lended themselves to catching a bit of air under the tires, despite the wishes of GM’s lawyers. We found the truck to be extremely controlled over the irregular jumps, with no unnerving secondary motion after the initial contact with the earth. What we thought were going to be hard landings simply weren’t, with the DSSV shocks doing their job phenomenally well.
Slow-Speed RocksWith the Trophy Course thrashing in the books, we pointed the trucks toward the notorious Bangs Canyon trail system, located just outside Grand Junction, Colorado. As with most things off-road, these types of trails can be as difficult as you make them. While the trail wasn’t quite as tough as the Rubicon—which the ZR2 traversed during its development phase—the path chosen for us gave a mix of dirt, rocks, mud, climbs, and descents. We split our time between a pair of crew cab pickups, one gasoline and one diesel.
Traction from the Goodyear Duratrac tires proved outstanding, even as the sky gave way to rain, turning the trail to slick mud. For our testing we left tire pressure at the full 35 psi recommended for street service. Dropping the pressure would only help to improve off-road performance, but such actions proved unnecessary for our testing. Speaking of traction, the Colorado ZR2 is the only midsize pickup to feature a locking front differential and one of only three vehicles in the U.S. with a true mechanical locking front diff (the other two are the Ram Power Wagon and Jeep Wrangler Rubicon). The ZR2’s rear locker can be enabled in both 2WD and 4WD, however the front locker is only available when in low-range with the rear locker also engaged. With the front locker activated, both the antilock braking system and hill descent control are disabled. We noticed a small amount of steering degradation with the front differential locked, but were largely impressed with how well the steering worked compared to other vehicles with front locking differentials we’ve driven.
While trail riding is fun, the real test came when we hit the Tabeguache Trail and its stair step obstacle. Two-foot ledges of hard granite covered in fine dirt made for the ultimate test of the ZR2’s rockcrawling abilities. With both lockers engaged and eagle-eyed spotters’ help, we walked the Colorado through the obstacle with no issue at all, climbing both up and down the chosen lines. Then, when our guides’ backs were turned we pointed the truck up an even more difficult section of rock. While we managed to use the rock sliders a bit, the truck climbed up and through the obstacle with ease.
Back on the Trophy Course, the gasoline V-6 ruled the roost, but on the trail it was the 2.8L Duramax that impressed the most. With 369 lb-ft of torque on tap at just 2,000 rpm, crawling around in low-range was impressively easy. We never felt that the truck was going too fast, didn’t have the power needed, or was spinning the wheels too aggressively. For those who spend their time exploring the backcountry and traversing rock-strewn canyons, the diesel is the way to go.
Paved HighwaysWe’ve spent a lot of time talking about the off-road attributes of the ZR2 since that’s where it’s designed to excel. Truth is the Colorado ZR2 is as comfortable, or even more so, on the highway than its Z71 counterpart. Knowing that even the most hard-core off-road enthusiast still spends most of their time driving on pavement, the team behind the ZR2 spent a considerable amount of their resources ensuring nothing was compromised in the highway ride and handling department. The Multimatic dampers find just the right balance between firm and composed and soft and compliant, thanks in part to the use of three separate spool valves and the shocks’ position- and velocity-sensitive nature.
Thanks to the truck’s increased track width, the extra height wasn’t noticeable when carving twisty canyon roads. Much like a good sports car, the ZR2 goes into corners smooth, takes a set, and powers straight through as quick as you want to push it. Understeer is virtually nonexistent, which was a pleasant surprise in and of itself, as we’ve come to expect it from nearly every pickup. On the open road there’s no indication you’re behind the wheel of anything special other than a light hum from the Goodyear tires and the hump of the ZR2’s bold power dome hood.
Since there has to be a trade off somewhere, the Colorado ZR2 does see its towing capacity reduced for both drivetrains to 5,000 pounds. Payload is also reduced to 1,100 pounds. Both figures are still appropriately competitive for the midsize segment, which is a testament to how capable the Colorado is to begin with.
Final ThoughtsBy now you’re probably wondering where the comparison to the other factory off-roaders is. Truth is we agree with Chevy’s marketing team in placing the Colorado ZR2 in a category of one. The number of choices spoils buyers when it comes to dedicated off-road pickups these days. And while they all excel in one or more disciplines, none has quite the complete package the Colorado ZR2 offers. So if you’re looking for a midsize truck that’s equally at home in the desert, on the rocks, and around town, the Colorado ZR2 is just what you’ve been looking for.
2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2Vehicle type: Five-passenger midsize pickup
Base price: $40,995
Price as tested: $43,615 (gas) / $47,115 (diesel)
Engine: 3.6L V-6 (gas) / 2.8L I-4 (diesel)
Transmission: 8-speed Automatic (gas) / 6-speed Automatic (diesel)
Horsepower: 308 @ 6,800 rpm (gas) / 181 @ 3,400 rpm (diesel)
Torque: 275 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm (gas) / 369 @ 2,000 rpm (diesel)
Curb weight: 4,750 pounds (est.)
Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
EPA mileage rating (city/hwy/comb): 16/18/17 (gas) / 19/22/20 (diesel)