2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 First Drive | Edmunds

2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 First Drive

A Truck That's Good at Getting Dirty


Hard-core off-road truck enthusiasts have never previously paid a great deal of attention to the Chevrolet Colorado, and for good reason. Its Z71 "off-road" package had morphed into little more than stickers plastered on the flanks of the priciest versions of the 4x2 and the 4x4 models, and its low-hanging and difficult-to-remove stiff plastic plow blade of a front air dam proved vulnerable on anything more demanding than a steep driveway.

That all ends now with the introduction of the 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, a factory-birthed rock crawler and dune flyer of considerable potential. Picture a midsize pickup version of the Ford Raptor — minus the insane horsepower — and you won't be far off.

2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2

We've Been Here Before, and That's Just Fine
The ZR2 concept is not new. In fact, the old ZR2 predated and inspired the popular Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road package, and one could argue that it pioneered the suspension part of the formula that we see in today's Raptor.

It first appeared in 1994 as a wide-stance off-road suspension package you could add to the otherwise unremarkable Chevrolet S-10 compact pickup. Regular Production Option ZR2, as it was known, hiked the S-10 4x4 3 inches skyward and added abrupt fender flares that housed 31-inch BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A tires. They looked comically huge on that small truck, especially since the tires stood a full 3.9 inches farther apart thanks to wider front wishbones and a wider rear axle. Unique off-road-tuned springs and massive Bilstein monotube shocks made the package a terror in the dirt.

This all sounds eerily familiar looking at the specs of the reintroduced 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2. Today's truck stands 2 inches taller than a regular Colorado 4x4, and it rides on 265/65R17 — 31 inches tall in old money — Goodyear all-terrain tires that, like its predecessor, need fender flare extensions because wider upper and lower front suspension wishbones and a broader rear axle spread those Goodyears 3.5 inches farther apart than usual. This heavily revised suspension and its off-road tuned springs deliver just over an inch of extra wheel travel, and its various motions are tamed by special off-road shocks.

2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2

Taking Things Several Steps Further, and One or Two Back
Those "special shocks" are significantly more sophisticated than the old truck's Bilsteins. The ZR2's exclusive Multimatic dampers are position-sensitive units that feature two distinct zones of compression damping that allows them to behave differently on road and off. Their guts are comprised of unique spool valves instead of the usual shims to make them more durable and less heat sensitive. And the aluminum bodies and remote reservoirs contain a higher volume of oil in which to more efficiently dissipate said heat.

The old ZR2 made do with a limited-slip rear end, but this new one comes with a driver-selectable electronically locking rear differential like the Tacoma TRD Pro, its closest midsize competitor. And it goes the Toyota one better by having a lockable front differential, too. Switches for both live within easy reach on the existing central control panel that's perched just forward of the Colorado's shifter.

Its front fascia has been radically resculpted to create a healthy 30-degree approach angle at the midpoint of the new aluminum skidplate, and that grows to an unspecified clearance angle far greater than that in front of the tires themselves, which stand naked in the breeze when viewed from the front. Rear departure clearance has been improved as well, thanks to a resculpted rear bumper. Rock rails that double as narrow side steps are tucked up tight against the cab.

But Toyota's Tacoma TRD Off-Road sports an approach angle of 32 degrees, while the TRD Pro can boast 35 degrees. And the ZR2's improved departure clearance comes at the expense of the normal Colorado's low-hanging bumper steps, which have been eliminated here. And its spare tire hangs way down. To fix that you have to buy the optional bed-mounted spare tire rack ($500), which looks cool but takes up a ton of bed space.

And in typical Chevy truck fashion the Colorado ZR2's rear shocks stand vertically inboard of the leaf springs where in rocky terrain they represent two extra points of potential contact astride the central differential housing. Worse yet, these protrude lower than the rear diff itself and put the mounts for those expensive shocks in harm's way just 8.9 inches above the ground. The Tacoma's rear shocks, by contrast, are mounted outboard of the leaf springs in a more protected position near the wheels. The Tacoma's rear differential is its lone low point, and it stands 9.4 inches clear of the terrain. The TRD Pro's low point under the cab is tucked up higher, too, which earns it a 26-degree breakover angle to the ZR2's 23.5 degrees.

2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2

Cab and Engine Choices Abound
You won't find the same kind of insane engine like in the Ford Raptor, but that's no deal killer. For one, the ZR2's compact dimensions make it a more likely candidate for narrow trail exploration and expedition-style overlanding. The ZR2's primary competition is the 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, not the comparatively humongous Raptor. Both of the ZR2 and TRD Pro fit better on tighter trails (and in suburban garages) because each is almost 8 inches stubbier than an extended-cab Raptor and nearly 20 inches shorter than a crew cab. The Raptor is nearly 10 inches wider than a ZR2 and 11 inches broader than the TRD Pro, and it stands over 6 inches taller than either of them.

The ZR2 has two distinct advantages when compared to the TRD Pro. In addition to the wildly popular crew-cab short-bed combination, you can also choose a less-expensive extended cab with a standard bed, something the lesser TRD Off-Road offers but the TRD Pro does not. Both ZR2s share the same equipment, external dimensions and clearance angles, so the choice boils down to cost and your cab-versus-cargo priorities.

Two well-sorted powertrains are available, both of which perform better than what Toyota is currently offering. The ZR2's standard 3.6-liter direct-injected V6 gasoline engine makes both more power (308 horsepower) and torque (275 pound-feet) than the Toyota's 3.5-liter V6, and it comes with a smart-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission that's a far more willing partner than the Tacoma's six-speed. The Chevy also offers something you can't get in either the TRD Pro or the Raptor: a diesel engine. The 2.8-liter Duramax turbodiesel makes only 186 hp due to its low-revving nature, but it more than offsets that with 369 lb-ft of torque. Peak grunt arrives at just 2,000 rpm, which means a considerable wallop is available underfoot when it's time to tiptoe over rocky terrain or climb a hill.

Unfortunately, the diesel's considerable torque necessitates the use of a stouter six-speed automatic instead of the eight-speed, and its taller first gear dulls the edge slightly in low range in the form of a 36.4-to-1 crawl ratio. The gas engine and the lower first gear in its eight-speed gearbox team up to produce a more favorable 41.4-to-1 crawl ratio. Still, the diesel was adept at climbing the rocky ledges we tackled during our test drive, and the gearing advantage put the gas engine in a good light, too.

2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2

A Good Daily Driver. Weekends Are Even Better
We experienced the ZR2 in a wide variety of terrain. The suspension smothered the cracks and it breathed smoothly over the undulations of the winding asphalt road sections. Neither too firm nor too soft, the ZR2 felt like it was somehow armed and ready for anything. A vague sense of tension was evident, but it wasn't at all tense. As for the steering, our ZR2 flowed through the various corners with a sense of poise and control that we frankly didn't expect. It's a tad lifeless, though, because the Colorado's electric power-assist steering doesn't communicate with the driver nearly as well as the Tacoma's well-sorted hydraulic-assist system.

And the ZR2 was quiet. The Goodyear rubber didn't emit much more than a low purr, and at a steady cruise it was possible to forget we were driving a diesel. Our 2015 Chevrolet Colorado Z71 long-term test vehicle was never this hushed even when it was brand-new and had not yet visited any rattle-inducing dirt roads.

We did more than that in this ZR2, though. On a prepared rallycross-style dirt course, the secondary compression damping zone of the Multimatic dampers soaked up deep holes and absorbed the impact of landed jumps without so much as a whimper. They came into play when creeping down rock stairs, too, by preventing the nose from overstroking and smacking the truck's skidplate on the next ledge.

We encountered a bit of rain on the trail, too, and here the Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac tires proved they might be a weak point. It's hard to know because we were not terribly familiar with the local glop, but the tire tread certainly got packed full of it at one point. The ZR2 has hill descent control, but so does the regular Colorado. We didn't see any uphill crawl control like you'd find on the Tacoma TRD Off-Road and Pro models. But the extra traction provided by the front locker (low range only) was a big plus when climbing a series of rock ledges.

The trail was rough enough to make our ZR2 smack the local scenery once or twice, but there wasn't a TRD Pro along for this bit to tell if it would have cleared. It's possible, because in standard form a Colorado's frame rails are closer to the ground than a Tacoma's — that's why the Colorado's cab feels roomier and its driving position is more agreeable.

2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2

Not Cheap, but Can Be Cheaper If You Do Without
Chevrolet is proud of the fact the ZR2 is cheaper than the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro. It's technically true, but only in a very narrow sense. The cheapest ZR2 costs $40,940, which indeed undercuts the cheapest TRD Pro by $980. But the TRD Pro comes standard with premium audio and navigation, and you have to spend $995 to add those to your ZR2, which makes it cost a tad more than the cheapest Toyota. And that TRD Pro is a crew cab, not an extended cab, albeit one with a manual transmission — a negative in the minds of some but a huge positive for others because it's a transmission the ZR2 does not offer.

The best comparison is crew cab to crew cab, automatic to automatic. Again, at $42,565 the ZR2 is cheaper, mainly because the base version lacks navigation and premium audio. Add those and you're at $43,560. The comparable TRD Pro costs $43,920, a scant $360 more. But the Toyota begins to look like a bargain when you consider its extra standard equipment: a sunroof, the more sophisticated traction control, a composite bed with a power outlet and moveable tie-down cleats, and a spare tire tucked up so high under the bed there's no reason to buy a space-hogging bed-mounted spare tire bracket. It is worth mentioning, however, that the ZR2 comes with standard rock sliders and the TRD Pro doesn't.

Want the diesel engine? Add another $3,500. For that you get a 3-mpg boost in rated fuel economy. The gasoline ZR2 is rated at 17 mpg combined (16 city/18 highway) while the diesel is rated at 20 mpg combined (19 city/22 highway). The EPA says that could amount to a savings of $750 per year, which means it'd take almost five years to pay off the diesel. That's not too bad, and there are other reasons we like this choice, including drivability and the extra off-road range available from the 21-gallon tank they both share. As for the Tacoma, its gasoline automatic is rated at 20 mpg combined (18 city/23 highway), which means it's rated the same as the ZR2 diesel without the extra $3,500 in upfront cost. We're not sure it'd be that good in real life, though, because the TRD Pro's fuel economy certification is lumped in with other Tacoma 4x4s. The ZR2 was certified separately from the regular Colorado.

2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2

Choice Is Good, Which Is Good Because This Is a Good Choice
We still don't have a lot of ZR2 miles under our belt, so we can't wait to get one back home on our familiar roads and trails. Those Multimatic shocks deserve a thorough examination, for one thing. Despite a few potential drawbacks, it's an impressive machine, one that will surely prove to be a lot of fun over the long haul. Its standard engine and transmission bests the competition, and it's available with diesel power. If the Tacoma had that we'd have an even better fight on our hands. The ZR2 is back, and in a big way.

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