The Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 is supposed to be a rough-and-tumble, body-on-frame, solid rear axle-having pickup that can handle off-road trails with ease. And yet, a number of trucks’ airbags are deploying on mild off-road trails, leaving owners with major hassles. Here’s what’s going on.
Back in May, a reader sent Jalopnik a tip about Chevrolet Colorado airbags deploying off-road. “As a ZR2 owner myself, I am very concerned about taking my truck off pavement now,” he told us after reading various complaints on owner forums. I started looking into it.
Then, this past Saturday, a Pennsylvania truck driver named Matt Gotowchikow posted a video onto Facebook showing the off-road variant of the Colorado—the big, bad ZR2—popping its side curtain airbags while navigating what appears to be a relatively mild trail.
At about 13 seconds into the video, the slow-traveling truck produces a loud pop, and a voice is heard screaming, shocked from the explosive airbag deployment—a deployment whose timing doesn’t appear to correspond with any particularly troublesome obstacle on the trail.
I reached out to Matt over the phone to learn about what happened. He told me that he was at an off-road fundraiser for autism in Pottsville, Pennsylvania in his two-door 2011 Jeep Wrangler, when traffic started to slow. The group in front of him was having trouble traversing one of the most difficult obstacles on the relatively mild “advanced green” trail; particularly, the white Chevy ZR2 was struggling to find the right line up and over a rock.
So Matt and his group stepped out of their rigs, and walked up the path to observe the truck attempt the climb. “This was like the third or fourth [attempt], and I said ‘you know what, I’m gonna video this,’” Matt told me.
So he did. That’s when the apparently stock Chevy Colorado ZR2 bumped its way over the rock, and was home free. At least, that’s what it seemed like until the vehicle traveled farther up the incline. “They’re almost to a stop, and you can hear the pop, and you see the airbag come down, and you hear the girl scream,” Matt said.
“After that, the first thing I heard was OnStar was calling them to make sure they were okay.” Describing what caused the airbag to go, Matt told me: “No jarring, no bump or any impact of any type [triggered it]. It was just very bizarre.”
And it’s not the only time this has happened.
Asked about the spate of similar Chevy Colorado airbag deployment complaints, a Chevrolet spokesperson said: “We are aware of this situation happening on rare occasions. The reason it would occur is that head-curtain airbags are designed to deploy if the sensing system predicts that the vehicle is about to roll on its side.“
But owners say that runs counter to the off-roading this truck’s supposed to be capable of.
After talking with Matt, I was able to get in touch with the truck’s owner, David Kostura, who confirmed Matt’s account, and sent me the photo above with the description “I’m heartbroken.”
While Kostura admitted that he perhaps should have driven his gas 2018 Colorado ZR2 with 2,700 miles on the clock more slowly, he said the trail seemed fairly mild, particularly in the section where the airbags deployed. He guesses that was only about a six to seven degree incline.
“[The airbag] should have went off milliseconds after the truck responded to the biggest rock that you do see in that video,” he said.
A lifelong GM customer, Kostura is upset, and wants GM to pay to fix the now locked-up seat belts, the damaged headliner, and the airbags. But, after reading about similar incidents online, he’s concerned that this won’t happen.
“If they’re going to try and weasel their way out of this, I really don’t want anything to do with the truck anymore,” he told me over the phone, clearly bothered by the fact that this happened to a truck heavily marketed as a hard-core off-roader.
He says his vehicle is currently at the dealership being assessed by a third party hired by GM.
This is not the first time this has happened in a Chevrolet Colorado, as the reader who sent Jalopnik the initial tip pointed out in his email. He linked us to the Kelley Blue Book review above, which features a Z71 model press vehicle with airbags dangling from its A-pillar.
“Only the Colorado managed to sucker-punch us in the head by spontaneously deploying the side curtain airbags while driving on a groomed fire road at breakneck speeds ranging from five to seven miles an hour,” the KBB host says in the video, before then opining that this was likely “a freak incident.”
But this wasn’t a freak incident, and Matt’s video isn’t the only one proving as much. That clip he posted got lots of folks talking about this issue, bringing to my attention a number of other cases of Colorados blowing their airbags while off-road. Just look at the video above that someone posted in the comments of Matt’s clip.
I admittedly don’t know much about the conditions surrounding this truck’s off-road excursion, but the video clearly shows a black Colorado ripping donuts on sand dunes, and the side curtain airbags deploying for what looks like no apparent reason.
Matt’s video also helped me get in touch with another ZR2 owner in California, who wanted to remain anonymous out of concern that this story could in some way affect the claim he’s filing with GM. That’s his truck above.
The owner told me he was just cruising in his brand new $47,000 diesel Colorado ZR2 on “easy and moderate” dirt trails near his in-laws in the San Bernardino National Forest area, when he received an unpleasant surprise.
“On my way back to asphalt, I came around a turn, and went over a bunch of big speed bumpy bumps,” he told me. “They were really gradual...they weren’t rocky bumps with quick falloffs.”
The ZR2 owner told me he drove over the first bump at about 5 mph, then over the second, before realizing the undulations were a bit bigger than he’d thought, so he applied the brakes. “It was a very curvy, not aggressive, rugged jostling of the truck. And the airbags deployed at the end of the second bump,” he told me.
“I sat there in shock,” he said. OnStar then called and put him in touch with a tow truck, but the owner of the low-mileage off-road truck declined the tow, and instead opted to cut out the airbags blocking his view, and drive back to where he was staying.
Like Kostura’s truck, the vehicle ran just fine after the deployment, except something related to the seatbelt tensioners had apparently activated, preventing the belts from releasing all the way from their retracted positions. And, because he didn’t want to drive nearly 100 miles on the highway back to his place without a functioning seatbelt, the Colorado owner had his truck towed to a dealership to the tune of over $300.
The driver and his wife don’t think they should have to pay for this, since it happened on a “standard, dusty, easy trail”—particularly on a section that the driver describes as “not even moderate.” His goal is to have GM cover the rental car, the tow, and the repair.
It’s worth mentioning that this anonymous owner is a huge fan of his ZR2, which he bought specifically to daily drive and to take off-road. He raved endlessly about it on the phone with me, saying: “I love my truck... everything about it is awesome except for the stupid airbag deployment thing.”
But none of these stories is as unfortunate as Joe Finn’s, because after his airbag went off on his 2018 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 during mild off-road driving, he said GM refused to pay the repair bill that his insurance company estimated would total $6,512.74 (see below).
His story has been covered on GM-Trucks.com, but I got in touch with him to get a more detailed account.
Finn, who lives near the Sequoia National Forest in California, was out one Saturday in April exploring some dirt roads near his house, planning to go camping. He told me over the phone what the road conditions were like. “I was in four-wheel drive low, I was in off-road mode, I was not going fast, and I was driving on a two-track road that had deep ruts, he said. “It had you moving back and forth, but slow going.”
That’s when Finn says the right side dropped and leaned the truck roughly 20 degrees, and then things went south.
“I was climbing uphill, and [the truck] leaned over to the right...Yeah, the airbags went off. OnStar came on, I managed to get the truck started, tucked the airbags back in, and drove it home.”
Two days later, he took the truck to the dealer, and filed a claim with GM customer care.
Finn says GM then had third-party investigators take a look at the vehicle, and as shown in the letter to the left, GM eventually determined that it was not going to cover repairs.
“After careful investigation of your case, none of the available data suggests that the product allegation has any merit,” the note reads. “Based on the facts provided, General motors is unable to assume responsibility or damages and we suggest that you solve this matter through your insurance carrier.”
And that’s what Finn ended up doing. He filed an insurance claim through Geico, which ended up covering roughly $4,000 of the over $5,000 repair. (This total repair cost was markedly lower than Geico’s $6,512.74 estimate, Finn told me, because he reused the old headliner and airbag module since they seemed in good shape. This resulted in Finn paying a total of about $1,000 out of pocket when all was said and done).
Finn says GM refused to cover repairs because of electrical modifications and damage found on the vehicle, pasting the following message—allegedly from the Chevy Trucks Facebook page—to the Coloradofans messaging board:
It was advised that damage to your Colorado and aftermarket wiring may have had some impact in the deployment. It was suggested that you may want to file an insurance claim as well. We know this wasn’t the outcome you were hoping for, but we must stand behind this decision.
The ZR2 owner told me he had installed LED headlights, LED fog-lights, a winch connected directly to battery power, and an electric lock for the tailgate.
That last modification, which allows for the key fob switches to lock and unlock the tailgate instead of having to insert the key, required Finn to tap into the wiring harness. It’s a fairly common mod in the Colorado community; here’s a step-by-step showing the installation procedure:
Finn, a “roadie” who says his work as a production manager in the entertainment industry has made him quite familiar with electrical systems, believes his modifications couldn’t possibly have affected the airbag system, calling GM’s alleged suggestion that they did “lies” and “bullshit.”
“The airbags went off because there’s a sensor that determined it was in a rollover, which it shouldn’t do in an off-road branded and marketed truck,” he said over the phone, clearly upset about the whole situation.
As for the damage that GM allegedly cited as a second reason for denying coverage, Finn told me this was just scrapes on the rear bumper that resulted from driving off a steep hill, and also light damage to the fender allegedly caused by the dealership (Finn says the dealer fixed this). “They just basically were making things up,” Finn told me.
The situation has left Finn frustrated. Shortly after the incident, he filed the complaint shown above with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. What bothers him isn’t just the money he had to pay or the six-week downtime on a truck he’d just bought, it’s also safety.
“GM is basically just refusing to acknowledge the problem and potential safety problem it poses,” he told me, mentioning how badly it could have gone had he had his head poking out of the window to spot himself on the trail. “[Airbags are] certainly just like an explosion going off next to your head,” he said about his first experience with such a passive restraint
He also mentioned that, to prevent airbags deploying off-road, Colorado owners have been pulling fuse No. 18, or installing switches to turn off the airbag system—moves that could result in preventable injuries if the vehicle does roll or crash.
He feels that the off-road mode should increase the threshold for airbag deployment, or that GM should employ a setup similar to Toyota’s RSCA switch, which allows for the disabling the side airbag’s roll sensing function during off-road driving:
Finn did tell me that he’s subsequently taken the truck on a successful 10,000 mile off-road adventure this summer, and had no issues. But then, he told me he pulled the fuse, a move that he finds annoying. And so does the anonymous gentleman mentioned earlier, who told me: “I didn’t pay $50,000 to pull a fuse out of a truck.”
Just a quick Google search brings up other Chevy Colorado off-road airbag deployment stories. A user going by the name Airmon on the messaging board Coloradofans.com says he was driving his ZR2 diesel on some dunes, when the bags popped off, writing:
Headed up a non-descript, small dune, I gave the truck just enough power to get to the top and as I got there it sounded like a gunshot went off and someone punched me in the side of the head.
From there, things went similarly to others who claim to have experienced the same issue. OnStar called, he eventually got the truck to fire back up (though the seatbelts were out of whack because of the seatbelt pre-tensioners), he cut the airbags out, and later brought it to the dealership, where a third party eventually conducted their analysis on what happened.
Airmon describes GM’s alleged conclusion below, which is that they’ll fix it just this once as a courtesy:
GM will repair the truck, this one time. It’s their opinion that the truck operated as designed and if I use the truck off road or in a manner that causes the airbags to deploy a second time, it’s either going to be my expense or I can argue about it as a warranty repair with my dealer. Consequently, GM will not be making any modifications or repairs to the restraint system to prevent another occurrence.
The GM rep suggested that I not use the truck off road or on bumpy dirt roads. I brought up the fact that this is a ZR2, arguably GM’s most off-road worthy vehicle, and the rep suggested again that I not use the truck in situations that the truck might interpret as a rollover.
And indeed, Airmon got his truck back, though he says it took about a month. This all happened on Jan. 27th of this year, so that’s almost certainly Airmon’s NHTSA complaint at the top of this section.
Another story comes from a gentleman named Mike Saad, who commented on the GM-Trucks.com story about Joe’s incident. Saad’s post shows a dark Colorado with its side airbags deployed after apparently driving on a fire road. He writes:
well we’ll, I just bought a Colorado zr2 from Conelle chevy. I only have 2000 miles on my brand new truck and my roof airbag curtans have deployed on me. I was just on a fire trail. O need for 4 wheel drive I was In 2 wheel. My roof Air Bags went off. So I believe this isn’t as rare as GM wants people to think. My car is at the dealer right now I believe there will try to give me some bullsh*** that my roll bar and light bar is the reason and try to reject fixing it but we shall see. Because my bags went off in the day time so all my light switches were off. There’s no way a open circuit can effect the airbag module. That would be like saying jumping your battery would make them deploy. Come on this isn’t just coincidence guys. They have a serious problem GM needs to own it and take care of it before a class action lawsuit is set in motion.
Between the videos and the stories shared online, I’ve found a total of seven accounts of Chevrolet Colorado side curtain airbags deploying in moderate off-road conditions. Plus, in the time it took me to type this story, another apparent owner wrote a complaint on the GM-Trucks messaging board about side airbags allegedly deploying during a U-turn.
GM has been heavily advertising this truck’s off-road capabilities, so it’s easy to understand why so many of the folks who have had to deal with airbags deploying off-road feel like they’ve been duped. If the truck is a real off-roader, it should be able to handle dirt trails without then having to head to the dealership for repair afterwards. And it shouldn’t require owners to remove a fuse.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that many Colorados have been through hard core off-roading without blowing their side curtain airbags, and that the incidents mentioned here likely only represent a tiny fraction of trucks on the road.
It’s also worth noting that the Chevrolet Colorado isn’t the only vehicle that has had such an issue. Nissan truck owners have been complaining about airbags deploying off-road for years (here’s a video showing it happen on an Xterra).
In the end, Nissan started a service campaign for 2004 to 2014 Titans, 2005 to 2014 Frontiers and 2005 to 2014 Xterras to have their Airbag Contol Units recalibrated free of charge, and refunds given to people who had to replace their airbags because of unintended deployment. The company describes the issue and the fix on its service website:
The current ACU rollover-sensing calibration logic could allow for unintended rollover curtain air bag deployment in rare instances occurring under certain unique driving scenarios, usually involving unpaved roads or off-road where one side of the vehicle is higher than the other. The ACU reprogramming will improve rollover-sensing calibration to address these unique conditions and help prevent unintended rollover curtain air bag deployment, while maintaining the design intent for deployment in rollover crashes.
Whether Chevrolet will do something similar remains to be seen.