Colorado ZR2 is the best midsize off-road truck you can buy
"OK, you can take the jump 10 miles per hour faster this time."
I was behind the wheel of the highly anticipated 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 , the tougher, hotter version of Chevrolet's midsize Colorado pickup. A development engineer from Chevy was riding shotgun, and after much cajoling on my part, he agreed to let me hammer the throttle just a bit more.
I accelerated out of the previous turn onto the straightaway, manually shifted into third gear and hit the jump. All four wheels immediately left the dirt and for a second or two we were flying, with nothing but empty space below us and the beautiful Rocky Mountain skyline in front.
The truck landed cleanly, the new Multimatic shocks cushioning the blow, and we were off to the next corner. If I hadn't been wearing a helmet, I'd say there was nary a hair out of place.
The big news on the ZR2 is Chevy's choice of suspension. Most manufacturers play it safe with their off-road focused trucks , opting for Fox or Bilstein shocks. Chevrolet, however, took the Canadian company Multimatic's Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve technology, first seen on the 2014 Camaro Z/28, and adapted it for off-road use. I admit I was skeptical at first. I've had plenty of experience on Fox shocks in all kinds of desert terrain and they're great. Why reinvent the wheel?
The reason, my friends, is compromise. Or rather, the lack of it. The Multimatic shocks provide a remarkably good ride on the pavement and on the dirt. On a winding paved road through the Rocky Mountains, I was able to take sweepers at 70 mph with very little body roll, the independent front suspension providing a comfortable ride at the same time. The same road in the stock Colorado had me pitching and rolling at much lower speeds. The difference is remarkable.
And the shocks shine just as brightly in high-speed off-roading. After landing a jump, the truck settles so quickly that a direction change is possible just as soon as you can think to turn the steering wheel. The same is true coming out of a turn. Stability is enhanced with a 3.5-inch wider track over the standard Colorado, and slaloms are easily sped through with the shocks keeping the truck nice and tidy, all the while kicking up dirt on the folks trying to keep up.
I'm far from an engineer, and the technology of these shocks is pretty complicated, but if you want to get your nerd on, check out my colleague Antuan Goodwin's deep dive piece on the Multimatic system. All I care about is the result... and the result is glorious. High speed on the pavement and controlled shenanigans in the dirt. What could be better?
The ZR2 is powered by the same engine offered on the standard Colorado. The 3.6-liter V6 knocks out 308 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque and comes mated to a new eight-speed automatic. A diesel is also available -- the only midsize pickup truck to do so -- with 181 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque. This engine, however, is still rockin' the six-speed automatic transmission from 2016.
I took the diesel out for some trail-running and rock-crawling. I loved the extra torque on the slow-speed sections, where more grunt is needed at slower speeds, but found the turbo lag to be a hindrance on the high-speed track. If your off-roading mantra is "As slow as possible, as fast as necessary," the diesel is your jam. Overlanders will love the fuel rating of 19 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway. But if you know you'll be taking your ZR2 out to the open desert, the gas engine is more satisfying. However, at 16 mpg city and 18 mpg highway, EPA fuel ratings for the gas engine are low for the segment.
While the shocks might be the big story on the ZR2, it has other off-road goodies that make it the most capable midsize truck in the dirt. With a redesigned front bumper and integrated skid plate, the ZR2 has an approach angle of 30 degrees, with breakover and departure angles of 23.5 degrees. Compare that to the dismal 17.3/19.8/22.1 of the standard Colorado, add a 2-inch lift, and you start to see why I've been so excited to drive this truck.
When we got to the rock-climbing segment of our drive, I switched the truck into four-low and locked the rear differential. Then I did something that I can't do in a Toyota Tacoma or even a Ford Raptor: I locked the front differential. Keeping my eyes on my spotter, I approached the rock steps. Keeping the throttle steady, and obeying my spotter's steering commands, I hit the rock dead-on and easily rose to the top, the small, 31-inch Goodyear Duratrac tires grabbing a purchase.
The 31s look a bit out of proportion to the ZR2, and I was hoping for some 33-inch rubber wrapped around smaller 16-inch wheels, all the better for sidewall traction. The Duratracs performed well despite their size, but one driver had a flat tire on our slow-speed trail run.
Going down the rock steps was a bit steeper, but again, by following my spotter's commands I placed the truck correctly and eased down the rock face. Suddenly, the underside of the truck slammed against the rock, hard enough for me to think, "Well, I'm not going to be invited back to any Chevy event after they see this damage."
I needn't have worried. The spotter put me there on purpose, to demonstrate the effectiveness of the standard rock sliders. True to his word, the truck wasn't damaged, even after I ran through the section a few times.
Comparisons to the Ford Raptor are inevitable, but really, they are just two different trucks. The Raptor is a huge full-size truck, about 1,000 pounds heavier, 1.5 feet longer and 10 inches wider. The Ram Power Wagon, the only other truck with front and rear locking differentials, is even bigger, but with a solid front axle it doesn't have the same on-road dynamics as the ZR2. Instead, the ZR2 is better suited against the fun little Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro and the stately oldster, the Nissan Frontier. Both can be had with a manual transmission, an option not available on the the ZR2, but lack a front locking differential. Further, both rely on more traditional off-road shocks -- Fox on the Tacoma and Bilstein on the Frontier -- and thus lack the same nimble cornering ability on the pavement.
If you're looking for drive modes like Crawl, Rock or Mud, you'll need to head to your local Toyota dealership. There is only an Off-Road mode, which modifies traction and stability control, as well as throttle and transmission response. If you're a fan of computer-assisted driving aids, the ZR2 will probably disappoint. Lane keeping assist, blind spot monitoring and adaptive cruise control are not available on the ZR2.
So what's not to like?
I can live without the driver's nannies, but I do wish for a Sport mode to hold the gears a bit longer. The eight-speed automatic transmission upshifts a bit too early for my taste, especially when I was trying to wring all the power out of the truck on the high-speed desert course. I was able to use the rocker button on the gearshift for more, although not total, control. It's an awkward workaround and the ZR2 excels in every other capacity, so it really deserves better.
Chevrolet's MyLink infotainment system is standard on an 8.0-inch color touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Teen Driver is also included, which tracks distance traveled, maximum speed and the number of times the traction control and collision warnings engaged. It's perfect for parents who don't want their kids going out and hooning against their wishes. As with all Chevrolet products, OnStar 4G LTE with a Wi-Fi hotspot are standard.
The 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 is on sale now. Base price is a straight-up $40,000 with the diesel adding a $3,500 premium to that price. For all the performance you can get out of the ZR2, it is a supremely good value. Just call it the ZRWhooo-hoooo!