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My navigator, Rebecca Donaghe, and I were in Johnson Valley, home of the infamous King of the Hammers rock crawling race. It was the fifth day of the all-female, all off-road Rebelle Rally and we were currently sitting in second place overall and leading the Bone Stock division in a 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2.
Perched atop a steep and rocky hill, a blue flag indicated a checkpoint. I took a deep breath, switched to four-wheel drive low and locked the rear axle.
The diesel engine put out plenty of low-range torque as we clambered up the hill. As the terrain became a bit more steep and more than a bit sketchy, Donaghe gave encouragement to the ZR2, "Go, Zelda, go!"
I felt the front wheels slip just a bit as we approached the top, so I engaged the front locker as well. That was all Zelda needed as she neatly crested the hill, awarding us 10 points for getting the checkpoint and a beautiful view of the desert below us.
The Rebelle Rally is a navigational contest that stretches across California, from Squaw Valley all the way to the dunes of Glamis, near the Mexican border. It's not a race for speed, but for accuracy. Modern technology like cell phones and GPS are banned. Instead, all navigation is done with a compass, a topographical map and a ruler.
Teams can compete in a 4x4 or crossover, chasing three levels of checkpoints. Green checkpoints are well marked with large flags and are designed to move competitors down the course. Blue checkpoints are more difficult, marked by a smaller blue flag or just a blue stake in the ground. Black checkpoints aren't marked at all and teams must use triangulation to determine their position.
Each morning teams are given a set of latitude and longitude points to plot on their maps. Then they decide how they'll drive there. There's no set route, so teams can take whatever dirt road or track they choose. Teams can skip checkpoints, but they must be achieved in order. Once at the checkpoint, teams signal a tracker that sends their position back to rally officials.
At the inaugural Rebelle Rally last year, Donaghe and I headed into the last day in direct competition for the lead, but sloppy time management dropped us down to 11th place. This year in the new ZR2, we were determined to podium.
The ZR2 is Chevrolet's off-road ready mid-size pick-up truck. It sports Multimatic spool-valve shocks, Goodyear Wrangler rubber and it's higher and wider than a stock Colorado. A 3.6-liter gas engine comes standard, but I opted for the 2.8-liter Duramax diesel engine, as the Rebelle Rally is as much about fuel management as it is about navigational accuracy. With an EPA fuel rating of 23 miles per gallon combined, the extra three miles over the gas engine could mean the difference between making it back to base camp or not.
While the Rebelle Rally isn't about speed, the 20 or so checkpoints to find each day mean teams can't dawdle in the desert. Our strategy was simple: Drive as fast as legally possible to give Donaghe time to find the coveted black checkpoints. The Rebelle Rally speed limit on dirt roads is 50 miles per hour.
The ZR2 fit our plans perfectly. The Multimatic shocks are some kind of voodoo engineering magic that I don't pretend to understand. All I care about is the result. We were able to keep a fast pace over all kinds of dirt roads, be it an open and graded dirt road, a whooped-out trail or a silty mess of a track. The shocks kept the ZR2 flat and steady, soaking up whoops and allowing for quick direction change when needed. By the second day of the Rally, other competitors in Jeeps, Land Rovers, even a Ford Raptor and a Ram Power Wagon, knew to pull to the side when they saw Zelda's bow tie in their rear view mirror.
I had to adjust my driving style get the most out of the four-cylinder diesel engine and the six-speed automatic. While driving off road, it's rare for a driver to be on the throttle continuously. Instead, I had to feather the accelerator to account for little obstacles such as small whoops or bits of rock. The diesel just isn't responsive enough to get the truck back up to speed quickly. Instead the transmission downshifted, the turbo took its sweet time to spool, while Donaghe and I kind of leaned forward, annoyed at the power delay.
I solved this problem by left-foot braking. Keeping my right foot on the throttle to keep the engine in higher revs, I dragged my left foot on the brake. Once we were through the problem area and my foot was off the brake, the diesel engine was ready to go with no hesitation.
This was all fine in the hard-packed sections of the desert, and the 369 pound-feet of torque was welcome on the aforementioned Johnson Valley, where slow-speed rock crawling was the norm. That all changed, however, when I reached the dunes.
Navigating in the dunes is difficult for a few reasons. There are few distinguishing landmarks, so Donaghe and I had to keep on as straight a heading as possible. This meant that I had to go straight up and over with enough momentum to crest the dune, but not so much as to launch off the backside.
As I attempted the first set of hills in Dumont Dunes about 100 miles west of Las Vegas, I learned just how difficult this was going to be with a 181-horsepower diesel engine. I lifted just as I got to the top, only to have the ZR2 lose all momentum and basically stop just short of the summit. I had to try it three times before I realized that I had to keep my foot on the throttle just a bit longer than I felt comfortable doing. Lift any sooner and it was a no-go.
Still, I was able to push through my fear and keep my foot buried. All through Dumont Dunes and later in the larger dunes of Glamis, the ZR2 climbed every sand hill I attempted, except for one: the 500-foot tall Oldsmobile Hill, the Everest of Glamis.
When we arrived at Olds and saw the blue flag waving at the top in the strong winds (Mother Nature had given us another challenge to contend with: a sand storm with 50 mph winds and super-low visibility), I got so excited that I took the worst line and went straight up the middle. I attacked the bottom with a speed that overwhelmed the suspension travel, resulting in an unfortunate "stapler effect" as the truck contended with the whooped-out bottom section of the hill. Once the surface was smooth I floored it, but 181 horses are just not enough to propel a 5,000 pound truck up the 88-percent grade hill.
Donaghe, not one to wait, simply jumped out of the truck and ran the rest of the way up, tracker in hand. I managed to get the truck turned around and attempted a better line in four-wheel drive high and again in low, but Zelda just didn't have it in her.
Zelda was also injured. I made a bad line choice in the rocky Johnson Valley on day five and mangled the skid plate, resulting in a slowly leaking differential. Now on day seven, in the 184 square-mile area of Glamis where I needed it the most, the diff finally gave up the ghost. Four-wheel drive was making the most horrendous grinding noise. To compensate I dropped the tire pressure from 16 psi to 12, widening my footprint just a bit more at the expense of making me even more nervous of slipping the bead off the wheel.
For nine checkpoints I wheeled the ZR2 in the dunes in mostly two-wheel drive, using four-wheel drive only when absolutely needed. It set us back in time and we had to skip a few checkpoints, but we kept our spot on the podium, and the respect of the Rebelle competitors and staff. The leaking diff was totally due to driver error, but we kept going, confident in Zelda's off-road prowess Donaghe's navigational chops and my driving skills.
When I started the Rebelle Rally, I was already a fan of the ZR2. Sure, the Raptor is great and much faster, but it's also much bigger and not as nimble. The Power Wagon is a fantastic truck as well, but again, she's a big mamma-jamma. I'll always love Jeeps for their rock-crawling ability and convertible tops, but they sacrifice on-road manners. And as for the venerable Toyota Tacoma, it has all kinds of off-road modes to make wheeling easier. It's available with a six-speed manual but no locking front differential.
In the end, Donaghe and I earned a third-place overall and a second in the Bone Stock class, the first-place Bone Stock trophy going to the giant Ram Power Wagon, a testament to driver Nena Barlow's skill behind the wheel.
It's not all puppy dogs and rainbows. I have a few small quibbles with the ZR2. The four-wheel drive select knob is located low on the dash on the driver's left, pretty much hidden from view by the steering wheel. My 2017 model didn't have a dash light to indicate four-wheel drive status, and I once found myself in four-wheel drive on a pavement transit section, having accidentally hit the damn knob with my knee as I entered the truck.
Driver's aids are nearly nil in the 2017 ZR2. Cruise control doesn't work below 30 miles per hour and there's no blind-spot monitoring, lane-keeping assist or adaptive cruise control. Sure, these might not be things off-road folks look for, but they are available on the Ford Raptor, and Chevy would do well to at least make the tech available for those who commute to work in their dirt truck.
While I still love the ZR2, if it were my money I would go with the gas-powered engine. The diesel is great if you know you'll be on rocky terrain most of the time, but if you want speed, the gas is where it's at. And frankly, I didn't see much of an advantage in efficiency. After nearly 1,000 miles, I averaged only 16.4 miles per gallon. If Chevy ups the horsepower on the diesel in the future, I might change my mind, but as it stands, it's not worth the $3,500 premium.
Chevrolet is currently developing a whole slew of aftermarket parts to make the Multimatic suspension even more magical, but we have no word on when those parts will become available. For now, the ZR2 does a great job in the dirt, even when confined to just two-wheel drive. The 2017 model starts at an even $40,000, but my tester with the Duramax diesel, an upgraded sound system and an eight-inch color touchscreen with navigation (which we had to cover so as not to cheat) comes to $45,435, including destination.