By Stephen Elmer, May 15, 2017, Photos by Stephen Elmer
Engine: 3.6-liter V6 gas; 2.8-liter four-cylinder turbo diesel
Output: 308 hp and 275 lb-ft; 186 hp and 369 lb-ft
Transmission: Eight-speed auto; six-speed auto
Tow capacity: 5,000 lbs
Payload capacity: 1,100 lbs
US Fuel Economy (MPG): 16 city, 18 highway; 19 city 22 highway
CAN Fuel Economy (L/100 km): 15 city, 13 highway; diesel N/A
US Price: Starts at $40,995
CAN Price: Starts at $45,915
Automotive engineers across the globe fight the same battle to deliver vehicles that suit many purposes and each one faces the same heartless enemy: compromise.
We’d all love to have a seven-passenger family hauler with top safety ratings that is able to run 10-second quarter miles, tackle the Rubicon trail and return 50 mpg in the city, but those traits simply cannot coexist with one another, although automotive engineers are getting closer to making it happen with each passing day.
And while the Chevy Colorado ZR2 isn’t going to be ripping up the drag strip anytime soon, this new off-road version of General Motor’s midsize pickup certainly shows that automotive compromises can be overcome.
The Real Deal
With trucks like the Ford F-150 Raptor and Tacoma TRD Pro prowling the streets, Chevy had to step up to the plate with a substantial off-road package to be competitive, and the ZR2 takes things quite a bit further than the ubiquitous Z71 package that can be found on Silverados and Colorados all over North America.
First of all, a two-inch lift brings the body up over obstacles, boosting the Colorado’s approach angle up to 30 degrees, a serious improvement over the 17.7 degrees found in the standard truck and also a product of the redesigned front bumper on the ZR2. Breakover and departure angles are both measured at 23.5 degrees, only a slight improvement over standard models. And when the off-road math equation doesn’t quite add up, a standard skid plate and rock sliders are fitted to help the truck escape with its important bits unscathed.
SEE ALSO: Chevrolet Colorado Diesel Review
A pair of locking differentials, one in the front and another in the rear, provide an equal split of power to make sure that the ZR2’s standard 31-inch Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac tires can get optimal grip. Those tires have plenty of space to absorb impacts as well, with 8.6 inches of wheel travel in the front and 10 inches in the rear.
But easily the biggest difference in the way this truck handles comes from a new set of dampers, provided by supplier Multimatic. Key to their success is position sensitive damping, the trait that allows this truck to fight the battle against compromise.
These Multimatic units allows the ZR2’s suspension, which includes specially tuned leaf springs in the rear, to offer comfort and stability over small bumps for everyday roads while still being able to absorb those massive impacts without punishing passengers.
The ZR2 is certainly more than just a paint and plastics package, but there is one area that Chevy didn’t touch which would have truly made this truck near perfect: the powertrain.
There are two engines available, either a 3.6-liter V6 making 308 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque or a 2.8-liter turbodiesel putting out 186 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque. The gas engine sends its power through an eight-speed automatic, with the diesel using a six-speed.
At a glance, the numbers aren’t all that bad, but there is one more stat that is most telling. The gasoline engine, which is generally the one you want for a high-speed desert racer, makes peak torque up at 4,000 rpm, while peak horsepower doesn’t hit until 6,500 rpm. Despite the eight-speed’s best efforts, you have to wring this little V6 out to get the ZR2 hustling, and it just never feels like a quick truck.
In the case of the diesel, all the torque comes on at 2,000 rpm, but even that isn’t enough to make this truck feel all that quick, especially considering that the diesel model adds 250 lb to the curb weight, further slowing it down.
Fuel economy for the 2.8-liter comes in at 19 mpg in the city, 22 on the highway and 20 combined while the 3.6-liter gas engine is rated to return 16 mpg in the city, 18 mpg on the highway for a combined 17. As for capacities, the maximum payload for the ZR2 is 1,100 lbs regardless of trim or engine while towing capacity maxes out at 5,000 lbs.
The powertrains are adequate, but the lack of some more boost from somewhere (a turbo would have been nice, but even a rear-end axle ratio with some more power than the 3.42 offers would have worked) feels like a missed opportunity that could have truly made the ZR2 special.
That said, the moment I was behind the wheel of the ZR2 picking the best line around a course designed for a trophy truck, thoughts of missed opportunities were not on my mind for one simple reason: the ZR2 is a riot to drive.
Fly, ZR2, Fly!
Pushing up to 45 mph, Chevy designed a perfect table top where the ZR2 would catch just a little bit of air, enough to make the suspension use every single on of its tricks to provide a supple landing, and it did each time without fail. Divots and wash began to develop on the course, but even those weren’t enough to upset the truck’s stable feeling. It’s when powering through a corner that the extra 3.5-inches of added track help to keep the truck planted, while the dampers underneath let it lean, but never allow the truck to feel loose or rubbery.
SEE ALSO: 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro Review
In the loose sand, point the nose at the apex, gas hard into the corner and the ZR2 kicks out its back end in an entirely predictable way thanks to the assistance of traction control.
In off-road mode, the truck hold gears longer, sharpens the throttle response and makes the traction nannies a little less strict, letting the back end step out. One more press of the traction buttons will allow you to go into what one Chevy test engineer called “fun mode,” where the traction lets you really hang the truck out there, while finally, you can fully defeat the nannies and trust your own intuition. I cleverly left it in fun mode, allowing the truck to do just a little bit of the work for me, making sure I wouldn’t be the one idiot who ended up with the tailgate where the nose should be.
After the high-speed Baja course, it was onto public roads to get to a rock climbing challenge, and it’s here that the battle against compromise is won. Driving down the road, the ZR2 is absolutely composed, while through corners, the body roll is barely noticeable. What Chevy has done here is created a truck that can be a daily driver and a Sunday toy with little given up for either task.
And as if that’s not enough, the rock crawling capabilities of the ZR2 are nothing to scoff at. With both differentials locked, this truck scampers over rough terrain, clawing and pushing its way up and over large vertical rock steps. For the few times that the boosted clearance wasn’t quite enough, the standard rock sliders worked perfectly, protecting body from any unwanted scrapes.
An extra kudos must be offered to Chevy for these, as even the Raptor and the big Ram 2500 Power Wagon, a truck that is all about rock crawling, doesn’t have a standard set of rock sliders.
The heavens decided to open on us as we traversed the slick rocks in the ZR2, allowing me a minute to take in the comfort of the truck’s interior. Leather seats offer a fair amount of comfort, although the leg cushions feel a little short.
Everything else inside this small truck is excellent, with the rubber-wrapped buttons on the steering wheel and toggle switches on the center stack offering quick and easy control of all this truck’s systems (it is also, to my knowledge, the only place in the industry you’ll find a toggle for a diesel exhaust brake next to locking differentials).
In the U.S., pricing for the ZR2 begins at $40,995 including destination. There are only a few options for the truck, including the diesel engine, a seven-speaker Bose audio system, a dealer-installed bed-mounted spare tire carrier and a full vinyl floor (offered at no extra charge). With all of that equipped, you’re looking at around $48,000 for a fully loaded model.
SEE ALSO: Toyota Tacoma Review
Chevy is looking to directly take on the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, a truck which has a starting price of $43,700 with an automatic transmission. With a manual, an option that Chevy doesn’t offer on ZR2, the Tacoma TRD Pro costs $41,700, still undercut by the Chevy by nearly $1,000.
And although it’s not a direct comparison, the Ford F-150 Raptor sells for at least $49,520 at the very low end, and once packed with options can get much more expensive.
In Canada, the ZR2 goes for a base price of $45,915 including destination charges, still undercutting the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro’s base price of $50,000 with a manual and $53,295 for an automatic.
That all means that you’re getting what seems to be the least comprised, most comfortable small off-road focused pickup for less than you’ll pay at the competition.
The Verdict: 2017 Chevy Colorado ZR2 Review
It wasn’t long ago that pickup trucks were so focused on hard work that you couldn’t even expect a truck to be a comfortable cruiser on the highway, as compromises were made to accommodate payload and trailers.
Could use a little more power