The 2017 Chevy Colorado ZR2 took its sweet time working up to 45 mph, so I wasn’t about to scrub my hard-earned speed for a cute little tabletop jump. The GM engineer riding shotgun was too far from the brake pedal to stop me, so we hit the lip at a canter, asscheeks puckered and 4,963 pounds of truck sailed into the sky.
(Full Disclosure: General Motors flew me to Colorado, put me up in one of the nicest mountain resorts I’ve ever slept in and let me eat dinner in a helicopter hanger so I could drive the ZR2 and tell you about it.)
Wincing against an imminent two-ton slap to the spine, I squinted and prepared to eat airbag as our airborne ZR2 caught gravity’s attention.
But the pain never came.
The ground welcomed the ZR2’s wheels with a warm embrace, not the vengeful bodyslam I was expecting. The truck briefly consumed all 8.6-inches of its front suspension travel, porpoised its nose back up and was charging ahead again at a neutral ride height before I even thought to ask my co-pilot to “hold my beer.”
Being able to drive a truck out of a Chevy showroom and catch air without hurting yourself is pretty sweet, and that’s not even the true magic of the ZR2’s suspension. The truck is smoother than any frame-based 4x4 has a right to be, looks killer and is cushy enough to cross the country in without earplugs or an ass pillow. But it is missing a couple key components to be the complete off-road animal I was hoping for.
What is it?
You probably know that the Chevy Colorado represents GM’s recent return to the mid-sized pickup truck space, with about the same proportions as the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier. “ZR2” is Chevy’s code for off-road performance. See where this is going?
When the Colorado was introduced in 2015, it came out with a Z71 Off-Road package featuring all-terrain tires, a few pieces of armor to protect the truck’s guts and conventional shocks that offered just a little extra absorption of rough terrain.
The ZR2 is pretty much that same idea taken way, way further into awesomeness.
The front bumper’s been resculpted to look leaner, meaner and make it easier for the truck to scramble over rocks. An “off-road mode” has been added into the Colorado’s traction control system to let you screw around in the sand a little more easily without hurting yourself.
Manual electronically locking front and rear differentials are standard equipment. Meaty 31-inch tires are fitted over unique 17-inch wheels, massive skid plates protect the truck’s underbelly and the whole rig rides on the same incredible adaptive suspension technology used in the last Camaro Z/28. Steering components and control arms have also been beefed up significantly to survive a bigger beating than a standard Colorado could.
It’s basically a factory-spec desert toy that’s nice enough to drive to work in.
Is it a Ford Raptor rival?
Chevy’s representatives would like me to say “no” because the Raptor is objectively superior by most measures. It’s also a lot more expensive, thirsty, physically large and aesthetically obnoxious. So while the half-ton Ford is faster and fancier, the mid-sized ZR2 has enough of its own merits to be worth your attention.
The most anatomically direct competitor to the ZR2 would actually be the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro. That’s the only other mid-sized truck you can buy from the factory with truly off-road-oriented suspension and underbody armoring, and the prices of both trucks end up in the neighborhood of $45,000.
Another factory-capable 4x4 at that price point is the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, which is also worth putting up against the ZR2 on your shopping list even though the two are not exactly equivalents of each other. The Wrangler’s short wheelbase, ultra-low crawl ratio and tough axles make it virtually impossible to beat in steep rocks, but the ZR2’s twin locking diffs give it some legitimate crawling credentials too.
And thanks to a long wheelbase and quiet interior, the Chevy truck blows the Wrangler’s everyday ride quality and high-speed stability out of the water. It’s not as simple as saying one’s “better,” these trucks all just have differents strengths and weaknesses.
The coolest parts
You’re going to hear a lot about “spool-valve suspension technology” when you start seeing ads for the ZR2, and indeed, the truck’s Multimatic spool-valve shocks are probably the most technologically impressive element on the vehicle.
Check out our video for a closer look at what makes this suspension setup so impressive.
Basically, a shock absorber is a hollow tube that’s paired with a spring, usually wrapped around the tube. The spring is pretty much there to bear the weight of the vehicle, and fluid in the tube regulates the speed of your wheel’s up-and-down motion.
In a normal shock, the fluid flow is managed with a series of very thin washers which the oil inside pushes by. The size and weight of those washers are carefully selected to deliver a desirable rate of bounciness in the shock.
In a spool-valve shock, the fluid moves through little laser-cut windows instead of rushing around those washers. The most simplistic explanation of why you’d want this is that the spool-valve allows this fluid flow to be controlled more precisely while changing more rapidly and consistently than it could if it were working with those washers.
Practically speaking, that’s supposed to translate to a shock that can stay stiff on-road, then instantly soften up as you hit a bump or drive off the tarmac into the desert. Or very quickly level out after landing some sweet air.
And yeah, the ZR2’s rigidity on hard pavement is extremely impressive while also being pillow-soft plowing through sand piles.
Where this truck shines
Cruising Colorado’s back roads in a Colorado ZR2 is relaxing and easy in all the right ways. The seat’s not particularly plush but those shocks sure are, soaking up bumps and stiffening up instantly to stay dead-flat through turns, almost ambivalent to how much speed you’re carrying.
But the ZR2’s seamless transitioning between different types of terrain is what really made me a Multimatic believer. It’s not that the truck can simply absorb big bumps- this suspension rides so clean and consistently over rough stuff that the ZR2 is exceptionally easy to control when you’re scrambling over uneven ground.
The exceptional versatility of this truck’s shocks combined with its relatively compact footprint and sharp steering make it a real joy to carve and corner at a good clip. Regardless of what you’re driving over.
When you get into low-speed off-roading, the front and rear locking differentials come into play.
As you may know, if you read Jalopnik regularly or did well in high school physics, a vehicle will naturally put power down to whichever wheel has the least resistance. That means the wheel with the least traction, and that means, with “open” differentials, your engine’s energy gets wasted with futile burnouts when you’re trying to climb up something steep and slippery. If you’re in a ZR2, that’s not a problem.
The ZR2’s rear locking differential literally binds the two rear wheels together and forces them to spin at the same speed, giving you traction in a straight-line climb. (Or make it easier to break the back end loose if you’re trying to drift. And yes, the locker works in 2WD for this purpose.)
Locking the front diff, obviously, has the same effect to the front wheels, activatable in 4WD low range and effectively turning the ZR2 into a four-wheeled mountain goat. The approach, departure and breakover angles are 30-degrees, 23.5-degrees and 23.5 degrees again respectively, making the truck just a hair more capable of a climber than the Raptor by this measure.
The lockers allowed us to make the most of the ZR2’s shape by providing enough traction to scramble up rock walls with virtually zero effort. The torque of the diesel engine didn’t hurt there, either. And speaking of which... have we talked about how cool it is that you can order an off-road spec mid-sized truck with a diesel?
Where it’s weak
In racing we say that “smooth is fast,” but the ZR2 is only one of those things.
Over a loose surface with traction control all the way off, it’s possible to power-over and coax a little slide out of this thing. But the transmission wants to shift too early if you leave it in “D”, the manual override to hold it in low gear is awkwardly positioned and you really need a lot of momentum to freak yourself out in this thing.
The standard 3.6-liter V6 is rated to 308 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque, which apparently is not enough to propel the 5,000-pound pickup truck with any honest urgency. Depress the gas and the truck just, sort of, saunters ahead.
And what makes the suspension so excellent actually exacerbates the sensation of slowness- while the Toyota Tacoma is similarly lethargic, its shocks are so soft that you’ll see and feel significant nose lift when you mash the throttle, making it easier to trick yourself into thinking you’re hauling harder than you actually are. The ZR2 stays level-headed and level-eyed.
The 2.8-liter turbo diesel option has quite a bit more low-end grunt, a sizable 369 lb-ft of torque, but neither engine can snap the truck’s heavy 31-inch tires to speed with the angsty energy you might expect looking at that hood bulge.
Ah yes, surely you noticed that big impressive protrusion on the sheet metal above the ZR2’s engine?
It looks cool, without a doubt. But since there aren’t any ZR2-specific engine enhancements, this bulge is basically the equivalent of stuffing an eggplant down your pants before going out on the town.
And while the exterior may be a touch overdramatic, the interior of the ZR2 is disappointingly bland. You get “ZR2” badging in the bottom of the door jam, embroidered on the front headrests of the seats... and nothing else to remind you and your passengers that you could veer off the road and into the wild on an off-road safari at any moment. Well, besides that big broken promise of a hood bulge you can see through the windshield.
Look, we all know most Wranglers don’t crawl beyond the mall and even fewer Porsche 911s get to run on race tracks. In all likelihood, even the hardcore off-road fans who buy ZR2s will spend most of their mileage on pavement. I have no problem with that, and I totally understand the appeal of the idea of capability. Hell, I wouldn’t trust my International Scout to take me out of LA county but it’s decorated to look like every grocery run is an overland expedition.
The ZR2’s inside fails to remind you how cool the truck looks from the outside, and that’s a major problem when the whole reason you’d buy this thing is to make every ride feel like an adventure.
It wouldn’t take much, either! A unique steering wheel and better-bolstering seats would drive the truck’s price up, but, give us a red tachometer! A big “ZR2” somewhere! A hard-mounted inclinometer, a diagram of the truck’s proportions on the dash, or even a warning label about locking differentials... there’s plenty of just-functional-enough gimmicks that could be slapped inside the ZR2’s cabin to make the truck so much more fun, distinctive and collectible.
What we’re still curious about
When we off-road tested the Ford Raptor in the Anza-Borrego desert, we saw speeds over 70 and even 80 mph in the sand. We only got the ZR2 up to about half that, but largely because we had a much tighter course to test on. I’d like to see how this truck and its magical Multimatic shocks hold up against more significant speed over soft terrain.
Those shocks are supposed to last the life of the truck, too. So I’m eagerly anticipating forum chatter from owners regarding performance fidelity after these trucks get tens of thousands of miles on them.
And finally, GM could make up for my complaints about the boring interior, and even the lack of power, with a deep accessories catalog. Image a rear-seat delete for the extended cab that included a bunch of factory-fitted tool mounts? Stuff like that would rule, and I think the company’s already leaning that way with things like the optional in-bed tire mount and show bar.
If GM reallys want to light my fire, somebody will sneak a supercharger onto that options list, too...
Inauthenticity of the hood bulge aside, the ZR2 has a cool and cohesive design that lets you look badass without branding yourself as an asshole. It’s incredibly comfortable to drive, on-road or off, fits in most driveways and comes with a good list of unique and excellent features.
I mean, we’re talking about a mid-sized pickup truck with two factory lockers and amazing suspension that you can order with a diesel engine. It is nothing short of excellent that the ZR2 exists. I just wish there were a little more fury behind the face of this thing, under the hood and in the cabin.
Here are the gasoline, extended cab (the least-expensive ZR2 variant) specs for reference:
Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Extended Cab
- $40,000 MSRP/$41,935 Tested
- 3.6 V6
- 8-Speed Auto
- 308 HP / 275 LB-FT
- 17 MPG combined
- 4,693 LBS