The pickup truck market took a massive hit last year when gas prices topped $4 a gallon, but the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado still managed to hang on to the number one and two spots, respectively, on the 2008 sales charts. Even so, many full-size truck buyers made the switch to smaller models, such as our latest test vehicle - the Chevrolet Colorado, equipped with a V8 from the factory for the first time.
What is it?
The Chevy Colorado is a mid-size pickup that thinks it's a full-size truck. Its exterior design is tough and the Colorado is available in almost as many models and configurations as its big brother, the Silverado, which we tested earlier this week in new-for-2009 6.2-liter form. To add to its full-size mentality - and, GM hopes, to lure some buyers who might bet stepping away from full-size trucks, buyers can now have the Colorado with GM's 5.3-liter V8.
What's it up against?
Buyers eyeing the Colorado will likely cross shop it with the Ford Ranger, Dodge Dakota and Toyota Tacoma. At the upper end of the Colorado spectrum, some might even be taking a look at Hond's Ridgeline pickup.
Only the Dakota offers V8 power, however.
With V8s a genuine rarity in this class we'd call the Colorado's newfound 5.3-liter a breakthrough, although we'd hesitate to call it a big breakthrough. Aside from the new powerplant, the Colorado doesn't offer anything that shatters the mid-size pickup mold.
How does it look?
On the whole, the Colorado isn't a bad looking truck. However, it does have some cartoonish features that detract from its overall appearance.
Up front, the Colorado sports an aggressive front fascia, highly reminiscent of the last-generation Silverado. A solid chrome bar does a nice job of breaking up the Colorado's rather tall front grille, and also serves as real estate for the massive Chevy Bow Tie. Some might say the Colorado's mug is a bit too much and over the top, but the design actually grew on us over the week we had the truck.
Pronounced wheel arches hint at the Colorado's off-road prowess, but the upward sloping design is lost on us. We would have much preferred more conventional wheel arches, but at least our tester's meaty Bridgestones filled them nicely.
Out back, our top-level Z71 finishes nicely, thanks to a ducktail treatment on the tailgate and chrome accents on the bumper and rear handle.
And on the inside?
Although the Colorado does a pretty good job of masquerading as a full-size truck from the outside, it can't hide its smaller roots on the inside. The Colorado's interior is noticeably tighter than the Silverado's and also feels a bit dated.
The Colorado's center stack doesn't have a terrible design, but definitely harkens back to the dark days at GM - think one step above the now-dead Chevy TrailBlazer. Just below the center stack is an open storage area, but small side walls means any stored cargo can easily slip out around corners. There is an enclosed storage area below the center armrest, but a restrictive opening limits storage to cell phones and other items of the like.
Although we didn't really mind the lack of space during our short stint with the Colorado, we imagine that many truck buyers would. Granted the Silverado is bigger than the Colorado, but it manages to offer enough space in its center console for a laptop computer and full-size folders.
But where the Colorado really falls flat is in its driving position. It's almost as if General Motors designed the interior of the Colorado and then just threw in some seats. No matter how much we adjusted the seat, we just couldn't get comfortable. Adjust the seat to the right driving height and you can't see the top of the gauges, scoot in to reach the pedals and the steering wheel is resting in your lap - a truly vexing experience.
Back seat passengers have it a little easier, although rear-seat leg room is just short of sedan spacious.
But does it go?
Although the Colorado has its fair share of shortcomings, we seemed to forget about them every time we put our right foot to the floorboard. Check the 5.3-liter V8 option box and the Colorado is suddenly transformed from an everyday hauler to a sports truck. Low end grunt is much improved over the base truck's five-cylinder engine and the V8's power only grows as the revs climb.
In all reality, the Colorado V8 is probably more deserving of Chevy's coveted SS badge than the V8-powered Impala SS, a front-wheel-driver that could serve as a textbook example of torque steer.
The Colorado's four-speed automatic transmission isn't the most sophisticated gearbox in the world, but it doesn't an admirable job when hooked to the optional V8 engine. Shifts were smooth and as expected, although don't expect lightning-quick shifts.
Our test truck was equipped with Chevrolet's Z71 Off-Road package, so all-out road handling wasn't a priority. The Colorado never felt overly top-heavy - despite its rather high stance - but the nubby off-road tires did make for a slightly noisy ride. We can't comment on the Colorado's off-road prowess as we kept the truck on paved roads thanks to a nasty weather week that would have stranded all but a tank on our favorite trails, but it sure does look the part.
That extra power does come at a cost. The EPA rates the Colorado V8 4WD at 19 mpg highway, which is 2 mpg less than the Silverado XFE and the exact same as the larger Silverado equipped with the identical drivetrain. Around town isn't any better, with the Colorado V8 posting an EPA rating of 14 mpg city. So much for the added efficiency of a small truck.
Why you would buy it:
Either your garage or your wallet isn't quite big enough for a full-size truck.
Why you wouldn't buy it:
If you don't have to have the absolute top-end model, you would probably be much happier with a Chevrolet Silverado at the same price point.
Leftlane's bottom line
The V8-powered Colorado seems like an oddity in Chevrolet's lineup, and we really can't figure out where it fits in. In base form, the Colorado makes a lot of sense. It's cheap, relatively economical and far removed from the larger Silverado. However, check all the option boxes - like on our tester - and the Colorado encroaches quickly on its big brother. It costs about the same as a decently-equipped Silverado and, even with the V8, it offers less hauling capability than the full-sizer, yet it still comes with a penalty at the pump. Compare the two trucks' interiors and it's not even a fair fight.
We hope the next-generation Colorado moves a little further away from the Silverado while gaining some of the refinement that has made the Toyota Tacoma, the class-leader. In the meantime, the new 5.3-liter V8 does add some performance to the Colorado that might make more sense in a lowered street truck than it does in a high-rider off-roader, despite the additional low-end torque.
2009 Chevrolet Colorado 4WD Crew Cab 1LT base price, $26,940. As tested, $33,765.
2LT trim with Z71 Off-Road suspension, $1,695; Heated, power leather seats, $1,495; 5.3-liter V8, $1,300; Sunroof, $695; Chrome tubular assist steps, $575; Front bucket seats, $340; Destination, $725.
Words and photos by Drew Johnson.