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First drive: 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 [Review]

by Byron Hurd

The Colorado goes to Colorado.

Say what you will about GM's history of corporate largess, but when it comes to naming a performance car, the company lives by the mantra that less is more. Enter the latest in performance models bearing three alphanumerics in its designation: the 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2.

And that's because, just like many of Chevrolet's familiar performance brands, the ZR2's name comes from fairly humble roots. Model names like "Z06" and "ZL1" didn't come out of thin air, after all. These nameplates all started life as internal GM codes for certain option packages. Years of development and enthusiast attention gave them lives of their own.

ZR2 goes back to the S-Series pickups of the early 1990s. Like now, it was a reference to a special off-road suspension, but the execution was far different. It eventually spread to the likes of the Chevy Blazer and GMC Jimmy. Even the lowly Tracker received a ZR2 option, but that's a rabbit hole we'd rather not plumb.

Regardless of GM's frivolous application of certain package names, the Colorado ZR2's provenance passes the smell test just fine. The original S-10 ZR2 package included upgraded shocks, flared fenders, skid plates, beefed-up bearings and a short-ratio locking rear differential. If you dig deeper, you'll find it also boasted a modified frame and a wider front track (thanks in part to some hand-me-down engineering from GM's larger trucks).

What was old is new again
Like the original S-10 ZR2, the Colorado ZR2 is more than just some re-valved dampers and a lift kit. In fact, you can almost tick off the similarities one-by-one. Fender flares? Check. A shorter rear end? Yep. Locking differential? Absolutely. Actually, the Colorado has two of 'em.

You'll notice that we haven't mentioned any power upgrades, and that's because there are none. This is not a Ford F-150 Raptor competitor, and that's fine, because it's in keeping with the ZR2 package's heritage. For those who simply wanted to go fast, the S-10 was also offered in SS guise. The ZR2 was always about all-terrain capability, and that holds true here.

The Colorado packs one secret weapon that was unheard of it in the S-10 days, and that's the shocks. The Colorado ZR2 becomes the second performance variant in the Chevrolet lineup to come equipped with Multimatic's dynamic spool valve shocks (we'll call them spool valve shocks or DSSV shocks for short--the latter itself shorthand for "Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve" in Multimatic-ese).

Multimatic has supplied spool-valve shock technology to racing teams for quite some time, but its use in road-going cars is very rare; takers include Mercedes-Benz and Aston Martin. When Chevrolet introduced its Camaro Z/18 for 2014, it became the first nameplate from a mainstream manufacturer to offer the technology.

A different approach
It's important to note that while the Camaro Z/28 was essentially a race car for the road, the Colorado ZR2 is a road truck that is ready for the trail. It's an important distinction to make, as you may remember that the most recent incarnation of the Z/28 was famously stripped-down and no-nonsense.

In fact, the implementation of spool valve shocks in the Colorado ZR2 allowed Chevrolet engineers to make the truck more approachable, rather than less so. The ZR2 is not the only off-road option for the Colorado, after all. The company's ubiquitous Z71 option is just a box-check away, and that includes a beefed-up suspension, a locking rear differential and some other useful off-road upgrades (such as a transfer case shield plate).

At home on the road
Upgrading to the ZR2 will cost you another six thousand dollars (the spool valve shocks and the locking front axle are the big differentiators here) but believe it or not, what you get is a truck that is both more capable off the pavement and more compliant on it. Therein lies the beauty of DSSV.

When you make that leap from the Z71 to the ZR2, you actually get a truck with slightly softer springs, making for a more comfortable ride on pavement (rough or otherwise) despite the ZR2's sharper reflexes and more predictable body and wheel motions. The Colorado ZR2's road manners border on car-like for a body-on-frame truck. The omnipresent body judders and shimmies most associated with this sort of architecture are practically non-existent, even over jarring bumps. The same cannot be said of the Z71.

Don't think for a moment, however, that Chevrolet set out to smooth out all of the Colorado's rougher edges. It is still a truck, and midsize or not, it's not exactly a featherweight. You'll hear the V6 whenever you need to merge, and the diesel can be downright poky from a dead stop.

And in the dirt
Remember, DSSV shocks are not "adaptive" in the conventional sense. They're a one-size-fits-all solution. While the ZR2 does offer different drive modes, you're getting the same damper behavior no matter what. The rest of the ZR2's off-road capability rests with its locking differentials, meaty tires and upgraded armor--nothing that would be out of place on any good 4x4's build sheet.

In addition to what we've already mentioned, the ZR2 gains a beefy front skid plate that mates up to a sloped front bumper (allowing for a 30-degree approach angle), a set of rocker guards to protect the lower body sides from scrapes and dings, a modified rear bumper (23.5 degree departure angle achieved) and a set of 31" Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac tires on 17-inch wheels.

To round out the spec sheet, the Colorado ZR2 boasts 8.9 inches of ground clearance, a 44-foot turning radius and water fording up to 26 inches. Total suspension travel checks in at 8.6 inches in the front and 10 flat in the rear. Those aren't numbers that will impress a short-wheelbase Jeep Wrangler owner, but keep in mind that we're talking about a much longer vehicle.

Making it count
It's not too long, mind you. Or too wide, either. The Colorado is a midsizer surrounded by performance off-road options in the full-size category. That can be interpreted as a positive or negative attribute, depending on your perspective. The specs on the Colorado ZR2's powertrains may not impress the Ford Raptor crowd, but then a ZR2 can physically fit many places where a Raptor (or Power Wagon) would become a permanent fixture of the landscape. The only competitor in this size class is Toyota's Tacoma TRD Pro, and despite the similar formulae, the Toyota feels far less refined.

The standard engine in the Colorado ZR2 is Chevy's 3.6L V6, which produces 308 horsepower and 275lb-ft of torque in this application. The ZR2 is also available with the 2.8L, four-cylinder diesel, good for just 186 horsepower but 369 pound-feet. The former is paired to an eight-speed automatic; the latter, a six-speed. No manual is available.

Making it go
We've mentioned already just how composed the ZR2 is on the street, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Its off-road finesse is just as confidence-inspiring, and made all the more impressive by the lack of compromises when you do wander back onto the pavement.

GM set up several courses in order for us to test out the ZR2's wilder side. The first (and arguably most fun) was a miles-long sand course featuring jumps, banked turns, transitions, and more jumps. What fun is an off-road pickup if you can't get at least a little air, right? And with the nannies off, the truck welcomed the opportunity to toss up dusty rooster-tails in the sweepers.

But as fun as it was to just launch the ZR2 off of the course's mounds and kick its rear end out with giddy abandon, we actually found it incredibly fun and rewarding to attempt a few fast laps. For a few moments, it became the world's biggest rallycross car, and we were determined to toss it around like one.

Thanks to the suspension, that's actually possible. The steering has more life than one might expect, and the challenge of getting around quickly came down to more than just aiming at the right spot in the ruts and letting the wheels fall into place. The ZR2 is balanced and controllable.

Where its poise really shone through was in the course's rougher landings. One jump was followed by a 30-foot section of wash-boarded hard-pack that had developed over the course of a couple days' worth of journalistic shenanigans. If you're used to a heavy-duty off-road suspension, you can probably picture just how out-of-sorts a truck could feel after encountering that sort of surface on the first rebound oscillation following a landing. Not only did the ZR2 handle it with aplomb, it also gave us the fine control necessary to steer around the nastier bumps on subsequent laps.

What really struck us, however, was how freely the ZR2 transitioned between its various missions. Chevrolet made a big to-do about developing the truck for dirt, rock and sand, and even when you add pavement to the mix, the ZR2 is ready and willing at a moment's notice. We never aired the factory Goodyears down or up; the most we ever did was pause briefly to engage or disengage the low range--in other words, basically nothing. Versatility? Yep, it's got that.

Leftlane's bottom line
We don't always buy into the idea of "right-sized" vehicles, but the 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 is a glaring (and welcome) exception to the norm. It may lack the everyday utility of the Ram Power Wagon, the resale value of the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, and the brute-force power of the Ford F-150 Raptor, but it's far and away the most approachable off-road pickup on the market. The sticker shock ain't too bad, either.

2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 base price, $40,995 (Extended cab/Long box); as tested, $43,560 (Crew cab/Short box)

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd. Interior photos courtesy of Chevrolet.