The 2015 Chevrolet Colorado could spearhead a total transformation in the American truck market if it's successful. But you just wanna know if it'll bash rocks with the best or just suck sand on the sidelines. We punted one up and down the rocky Mexican border trails of the San Ysidro Mountains to find out.
(Disclosure: Chevrolet brought me to San Diego to test the Colorado, but they wanted me to stay on pavement. Booo. A phone with a map and access to hundreds of off-road forums is helpful for solving that problem, but all you really gotta do is b-line it to Mexico.)
Tested here is a long-bed (6'2") crew cab with the 3.6 V6 and Z71 Off-Road package. That makes it the most rough and tumble version of the 2015 Chevrolet Colorado you'll be able to buy at the showroom, at least initially. It's no Ford Raptor, or even a Toyota TRD Pro... but for $2,000 over the LT trim you get a decent bag of goodies as detailed right here.
Besides, the badge is neat.
My truck was also loaded with some cargo-carrying racks from GM's new GearOn cargo management parts catalogue. Excellent build quality, but the things whistle loud enough to make your dog's head explode at highway speed.
My favorite thing about Southern California's bougie beach towns is that even when you're stuck in line for latte from some contemptuous dead-eyed barista behind ten dudes in Tommy Bahama shirts... you're never that far from some sweet off-road action.
The Otay Mountain Truck Trail is one such easy escape from Del Mar.
How easy? I've never been here before and by the time it was my turn to spend $5 on a coffee I'd found the trail, read ten reviews on it, and mapped my way to it with a detour for tacos.
The suburbs of San Diego give way to dust and shady liquor stores abruptly. About two turns after that you're at Minnewanna Road, the base of the San Ysidro Mountains, and the Otay Mountain Truck Trail that crosses them.
From the unmarked trailhead in the corner of a convenience store parking lot I entered the Otay at, it's a pretty fierce ascent climbing from something like 775' feet of elevation to over 3,300'.
If you're afraid of heights, this ride is not for you. Every inch of vertical you climb is only a tire's width away from your outside wheel the whole way up. Passing oncoming vehicles means somebody's backing up, sometimes for hundreds of yards. Around hairpins.
At night it's a whole new hairy. I don't know if it's worse knowing how steep and deep the drop is when you can't see it, but I was almost nervous enough to cup-holder my beer and use both hands on the wheel for the dark ride down.
I'm kidding, relax. Obviously I'd never put two hands on a steering wheel.
When you can see, even in a little overcast, the view of Dulzura, the Pacific Ocean, and Mexico is absolutely breathtaking. I know you won't, but I feel compelled to tell you, please stop your truck before you Instagram. No one is going to find you at the bottom of these hills.
The trail itself is not exceptionally taxing but it's got a good smattering of obstacles making it a perfect baseline for an off-road evaluation. Winding fire road with a fairly stable surface gives way to a gnarly rut, tricky soft patch, or abrupt hairpin dropping into oblivion every hundred feet or so.
When you really want to strain yourself there are endless interesting side tracks too. Most are really rocky, some have deep sand, all will give you a chance to work on your neck-tan as you pathetically dig your truck free all by yourself if your truck is a stock Chevy Colorado.
Since cops love a good scenic vista as much as the next guy, the Otay is frequented by US Border Patrol. So don't fret if you get buzzed by a green-and-white helicopter... I'm told it's a pretty common occurrence up there.
I saw no less than three Chevy Tahoes with USBP livery and tube bumpers in the day I spent mucking around, all ignored me. "White guy in new truck" is basically "not the droids they're looking for."
Ride Quality & Comfort
The Colorado soaked up most of the little fire road bumps, driving at what I considered a reasonable clip when a Wile E. Coyote-kinda cliff's edge is inches off your bumper.
Bushings start to squeak in protest if you go much faster than that or porpoise through a series of bumps (colloquially called "whoops," of course). That said, there's enough suspension travel to keep you from bludgeoning yourself to smithereens if you come over some dips a little too hot. The truck just doesn't sound like it wants to put up with very much of it.
The seat is plenty supportive for the literal ass-pounding that is off-roading and it's comfortable with leather or not. It's also easy to adjust for prime visibility, and the short hood is pretty easy to see over from anywhere.
The Colorado doesn't feel as short as I hoped it would, because it isn't (212.76"), but the width feels closer to a Jeep than a full-sized pickup truck and that helps a lot getting this thing through a trail.
You're not wanting for space in the desert anyway, but I had no trouble making hairpins or even tight U-turns to double back in only about a lane-and-a-half of space.
Electric power steering is dialed way the hell up– you'll be able to spin the helm with a pinky, even in sloppy stuff.
The truck's back-up camera is fine, but with nothing in the bed I felt a whole lot more comfortable dropping the tailgate and turning my head around for backing up to a cliff's edge.
Grip & Traction
Well-traveled dirt roads inevitably form corrugations that feel like speed bumps, so many awful, awful speed bumps, and the Otay has plenty.
Small to medium washboards of these actually gave the Z71 more trouble than I thought they would; the Goodyear Wranglers just didn't want to behave and even the automatically locking rear differential can't always reel them in. That got especially interesting when a few corners I overcooked got a little sharper and bumpier as I rounded them. Nothing like an unbridled rear-end next to a 2,000' drop to pucker your own ass.
Transitioning to 4WD, which happens seamlessly at the twist of a knob, alleviates the issue almost completely. With a lot less traction to be responsible for, the rear diff does a great job keeping the rear wheels moving as you want them to when the truck's in 4.
But I have to admit, after my experience I'd be more wary than I'd been initially to spec my Colorado as a 2WD.
The truck will chug through soft sand, especially in low range, but it can't multitask obstacles particularly well. I optimistically charging what looked and felt like an extremely steep, extremely soft sand hill. We were doing well until a hard-packed step-up shut down the Colorado's climbing efforts, even with decent momentum.
I gave up in enough of a hurry that momentum carried me most of the way down again. The Colorado may have actually made it in another attempt or two, but it would have might cost the front bumper.
Angles, Articulation, Breakover
The Colorado has a pretty standard truck suspension setup: coil-over front shocks with leaf springs and shocks holding a solid axle in the back.
It holds up pretty well on a steep crest; suspension travel is on the shallow side but the truck settled gently even as most of its weight got dumped on one side dropping off a short cliff.
The front airsplitter doesn't look as low as it does on the new Suburban, but it's definitely more "aero" than "off-road." Amazingly it suffered no damage and didn't meet many rocks. I think it might raked back enough to minimize intrusion to the approach angle.
Off-road racers don't slap those enormous LED bars on their rigs because they look cool. Okay, yeah, they pretty much do, but a good lighting setup is totally under-appreciated as an off-road asset.
Maybe you don't plan on staying in the dirt after nightfall, but you probably don't plan on getting stuck either.
The Colorado's halogens provide good light in front of the vehicle for tight trails, but I wish the spread was just a little wider. The factory fog lights are good supplements and brighter than most. High beams are really dialed for distance lighting and the illumination area is even tighter.
It's worth mentioning off the bat that the V6 doesn't feel particularly spirited in the 40 to 60 MPH sweet-spot you spend a lot of your on-road driving in. But you'll never want for juice cruising at off-road pace or over mild obstacles.
The six-speed automatic is good at being where it needs to, and kickdown happens quickly enough to satisfy in "manual" mode.
At 269 lb-ft, effectively doubled in low range, the Colorado has plenty of torque for sand-charging. But it doesn't peak until 4,000 RPM, and the engine's 305 horsepower doesn't max out until a roaring 6,800 RPM. That means you've really got to kick this engine in the ass to make it boogie. And it can go flaccid a little early if your wheels get bogged down; sucking the engine out of the powerband.
Here's to hoping the Duramax diesel will not have this problem.
So What Do We Think After One Day In The Dirt?
It's more comfortable than a Nissan Frontier or a Toyota Tacoma, and it's certainly a lot prettier inside. In rigorous but not destructive off-roading, the kind of intermittent-hazard rough-road we found on the Otay, the Colorado only got stuck where the Japanese mid-size trucks would have.
The Colorado gave me all the confidence I needed to try just about everything I saw, and lopping off the front splitter would give you even more room to work with if you're going to be on the trail all the time.
I don't think we can count on a miniature Raptor-fighter from GM, so it's likely the aftermarket will have a lot to do with how popular these become as off-roaders. Of course, there needs to be an established market for upfitters to start printing parts. Or a serious off-road racer who wants to make GM look good.
...Maybe Robby Gordon's ready to ditch that Hummer H3.
Images: Andrew P. Collins, on an iPhone 5. Pretty good, right?