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The 2019 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison is a more intense evolution of the ZR2 off-road pickup. It basically amounts to some robust armoring and aesthetic choices, plus an official endorsement from American Expedition Vehicles, one of the hotter outfits in the off-road aftermarket. I took the ZR2 Bison off-road, I found the extra protection to take the stress out of bashing a $50,000 truck over jagged rocks. And that’s a good thing.

(Full Disclosure: Chevrolet flew me to Phoenix, Arizona, put me up in a snazzy hotel, and fed me food that was prepared well away from greasy manual transmissions. All this just so I could drive the new Chevy Colorado Bison and Silverado 2.7-liter Turbo, the latter of which I’ve reviewed already).  

Pickup trucks are not particularly great rock-crawlers. Because they need a sizable bed to carry loads, they tend to have long wheelbases and giant rear overhangs, meaning the belly, rocker panels, and quarter panels are likely to get dragged over boulders and damaged when traversing even slightly difficult off-road terrain.

Chevy has a solution to this geometry problem. It took its Colorado ZR2—a truck that’s already quite capable off-road thanks to 31-inch all-terrain tires, locking front and rear differentials, a two-inch lift, a low-range transfer case, and a revised front fascia with a better approach angle than a standard Colorado—and slapped on steel bumpers and five skid plates designed by off-road outfitter AEV.

The result is a truck that can be bashed over boulders without getting mangled. Because nobody wants to trash a $50,000 truck.

What Is It? 

A ZR2 Bison up front. Standard ZR2s behind.

“If you’re going to take the ZR2 and you were gonna drive it to South America, what would you do before you left?” AEV founder Dave Harriton told me is essentially the question Chevy posed to his team at the start of the ZR2 Bison project.

Harriton’s answer was to install bigger fender flares; a stronger, winch-capable, partly-steel front bumper; a partly-steel rear bumper with integrated recovery points; and full skid plating ranging from 1.6 millimeters to three millimeters in thickness.

That’s essentially what the $5,750 Bison package leaves the factory with over the standard ZR2, along with unique wheels and a grille that says CHEVROLET in huge lettering. It’s not as, uh... much as the 2020 Silverado HD that horrified everyone on car internet yesterday, but subtle isn’t in its vocabulary.

The Bumpers

The standard Chevy Colorado ZR2 looks a truck that has had its chin lopped off. And while this was clearly done to improve the approach angle, the ZR2 Bison just looks cleaner, replacing the plastic, fog light-less, truncated design with steel.

While the approach angle does take a bit of a hit over the regular ZR2, the new look does include fog lights, and there are provisions for an integrated winch. Here’s a look at AEV’s CAD image for the bumper:

Image from AEV

And here’s a peek from up top:

Image from AEV

Notice the two fog light housings outboard, as well as the winch location behind the tube at the bottom of the bumper. Harriton described the winch-mounting scheme, telling me: “On the front bumper, you can see a bracket welded to the tube that holds the winch. It’s a bit unorthodox, but that’s what had to happen to fit a winch on while maximizing approach angles and maintaining cooling capacity.”

Image by AEV

“The fairlead is purchased after the fact and dropped into that bracket and then long bolts are used to sandwich the fairlead and bolt the winch in a foot forward configuration,” he said.

As for the rear bumper AEV’s design also incorporates plenty of steel, though it does use the standard ZR2's plastic step pad, in part, Harriton told me, for lighting requirements.

Image by AEV

Shown in orange above are integrated recovery points. Also shown are tubes that go from the outboard ends of the bumper toward the front of the vehicle, and tie into the frame—these are meant to provide protection to the corners of the bed.

In addition, there are square knockouts inboard of the recovery points in case an owner wants to add lighting into the bumper. Here’s another look from the front:

Image by AEV

Skid Plates

The standard Colorado ZR2 has an aluminum skid plate guarding the cooling module and engine oil pan, as well as a “shield” for the transfer case. The ZR2 Bison takes this to the next level with a full suite of steel armor.

That includes a cooling module and oil pan skid plate, a front axle skid plate, a giant transfer case skid plate, a fuel tank skid plate, and a skid plate for the rear differential. You can see the first two skid plates clearly in the first image of this section, whereas the image above shows the truck from behind, and highlights the fuel tank skid plate on the left side of the truck.

Here’s a look at all of the armor underneath:

That fuel tank skid plate, Harriton told me, is thinner than the rest, and is really there to act as “cut protection” for the tank, rather than to prevent rocks from causing deformation. The tank’s location above the frame rails also acts to keep it protected.

Below you’ll see how the transfer case crossmember/skid plate, which Harriton says also protects an ABS module and diesel fuel filters, gradually transitions into the fuel tank skid:

And here’s the skid plate protecting the rear differential and rear driveshaft u-joint. You’ll notice that there’s still no protection for those low-mounted shocks. Harriton told me he and his team may look into that depending upon customer demand:

Here’s a look at all of that protection in CAD form:

Image by AEV

The yellow bars shown are the transmission skid bars, and they’re optional, and would be installed by a dealer. My truck did not have them.

Wheels, Flares, and Snorkel

Photo: Chevy

The trucks also come with special wheels and big flares, which do provide some protection for the fenders, though they’re also just an aesthetic touch.

None of the trucks I drove came with a snorkel, which is a shame, because as far as the look of the ZR2 Bison, that flexing human arm-shaped snorkel really makes it:

Image by AEV

The snorkel is optional, and is listed on AEV’s website at $459.

What’s Good

Chevy took journalists on an Arizona dirt trail that had a few moderate rocky obstacles. The ZR2 did well. Its front and rear lockers, Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac all-terrain tires, and flexible suspension for the solid rear axle meant grip was plentiful. And the 369 lb-ft 2.8-liter diesel engine, along with the low range transfer case gear meant making it up and over the rocks on our test trail wasn’t an issue.

But a vehicle’s off-road capability isn’t simply defined by the difficulty of the obstacles it can traverse; it also matters how the vehicle looks once it reaches the end. That’s where the ZR2 Bison’s skid plates do a solid job.

Taking the Colorado ZR2 over even the rocky trails that Chevy took us on yielded lots of screeches from metal-on-rock contact as the two axles—separated by 128.5-inches of wheelbase—bounced their way over rocks, and that big rear end hung tried tried hard to hammer itself against them.

At no point during the off-road drive could I ignore the truck’s enormous size. The sliders covering the rocker panels—which are also standard on the regular ZR2—were a true godsend. Without them, the truck’s lower body between the axles would have been thoroughly mangled.

The rear bumper of the stock ZR2, and possibly the rear corners of the bed might also have taken a beating on this trail, as a drop-off in one particular location, shown above, sent the ZR2 Bison’s rear bumper tubes crashing against the surface.

In the end, after inspecting one of the trucks, it’s clear that the skid plates fulfilled their functions. And, practically speaking, they’re what allowed me to send it over all of these rocks without losing all my hair from all the stress.

What’s Weak

Right away, on the short highway jaunt to the off-road trail, I began to wonder if this thing was really worthy of its $50,000 price tag.

Two things stuck out to me, with the first being the extremely basic interior:

Nothing about the ZR2 Bison’s inside screamed, or even whispered,“$50,000 mid-size truck.” From the cheap materials to the less-than-elegant design, it just felt like a work truck with leather seats. You can get a Colorado for under $30,000 easily, and it feels much closer inside than it should.

Those seats, while comfortable, had very little bolstering, and just looked boring. Also, surprisingly, this truck still uses a standard key. And while I myself don’t mind shoving a piece of cut metal into a steering column, for 50 grand, I’d expect push-button ignition, or at the very least, a steering column without big gaps around the lock cylinder:

Another thing that had me questioning the price tag was the 2.8-liter turbodiesel inline-four. It makes great torque, and at 19 city, 22 highway, fuel economy on the standard ZR2 isn’t bad. But over 50 large is a lot of money to spend on a 5,000+ pound vehicle motivated by only 186 horsepower. It is slow.

Off-road, the truck was good, but not perfect. I had trouble modulating the diesel’s pedal properly to gently crawl over rocks. Even in off-road mode, which Chevy says “alters throttle progression,” I often had to keep my left foot on the brake to keep the truck from surging over obstacles as the engine built power.

I will admit that perhaps using hill descent control could have helped in this area, but without it, I found myself going from zero to “too fast” in short order.

I also found that most trucks ended up bashing their exhaust tips on rocks. And while this isn’t surprising, and not the biggest deal from a practical standpoint, nobody wants to drive their expensive truck around town with a muffler that looks like its frowning.

I also would have liked to see some protection for the shock mounts. The image below shows that, if you drive properly—making sure to get the tires on top of obstacles—the mounts often stay well away from harm. But so many folks are complaining about the shock mounts on forums that a skid plate for them just would have made sense, here.

There are also a few small things that I’d change, like the off-road display. If you look at the center, you can see a little arrow under the right front tire—that tells me I’m in low range. I’d prefer a more substantial indicator to tell me what position my transfer case is in; ideally using the term “low” rather than a small arrow.

I also would have liked an overhead grab handle. Getting thrown around as the truck drove over obstacles isn’t fun, and reaching forward to the A-pillar is just a bit awkward, even if I can see the handle’s benefit for ingress and egress.

I want another handle. A vomit-mitigation handle.

Early Verdict 

Based on my short, mostly off-road drive, the 2019 Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison feels like a solidly capable off-road truck. I’d like a bigger crawl ratio or a recalibrated throttle to help with the low speed stuff, but overall, there was plenty of grip, and good protection to keep the inherently non-offroad-y attributes of the pickup truck—its big belly and rear end—from taking damage.

Could you just buy a regular ZR2 and outfit it with skids? Yes. And could you argue that the ZR2 should have come with more protection in the first place? Also, yes.

Still, if you want to do some stress-free rock crawling with a factory pickup truck, the ZR2 Bison is probably the best option out there. Well, maybe until the new Jeep Gladiator shows up.

In the end, I’m not sure I’d drop 50 large on something with such a spartan interior and with so little power, but as an off-road enthusiast, I must admit that this is a badass truck. It also looks damn good, especially with a snorkel. And to many folks shopping in this segment, that’s really all that matters.

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About the author

David Tracy

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).