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First drive: 2019 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison

by Byron Hurd

Chevy's versatile pickup gets some rugged add-ons.

Back in November, Chevrolet invited us to Arizona for a two-part drive program. We spent the morning driving the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 with the new 2.7L turbocharged engine. The afternoon was reserved for a different beast entirely.

This is the 2019 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison. It's the result of a collaboration between GM's engineering team and the folks at American Expedition Vehicles (AEV), one of the better-known names in the off-road aftermarket.

What is it?

Fundamentally, the Bison is a Colorado ZR2 with some extra goodies. If you're already familiar with Chevy's jack-of-all-trades midsize pickup, you need know only that the Bison adds to the ZR2's already impressive resume. Most notably, you get additional skidplates and custom front and rear bumpers designed specifically for the Bison by AEV.

The already-capable ZR2 comes from the factory with locking front and rear differentials, a lifted suspension, 17 x 8-inch wheels with Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac off-road tires, and (most notably) a set of Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve (DSSV) shocks from Multimatic.

For those keeping track at home, that is the same technology Chevy used on the Camaro Z/28. On the ZR2, the goal was to deliver a truck with a supple on-road ride and aggressive off-road capability. By that measure, it was a home run.

The bigger picture

Above, we outlined what makes a Bison special mechanically (which we'll admit isn't very much considering how special the ZR2 already is), but Bison isn't so much about mechanical differentiation as it is about creating buzz surrounding Chevy's off-road capability.

GM may be two years ahead of the current game when it comes to mid-size pickups with off-road chops, but the ZR2 is already threatening to be overshadowed by some stiff domestic competition in the segment. Up to this point, the only other game in town has been the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro--a competent and respectable effort, to be sure--but the times, they are a-changing.

Ford may not be planning to sell a Raptor variant of its Ranger pickup here, but we expect an off-road-focused trim to be forthcoming nevertheless. That's probably not what has GM worried, however. That honor goes to the new Jeep Gladiator. Bison, then, provides a marketing focal point to counter Jeep's all-business entry into the midsize segment.

The experience

We spent almost all of our time with the Bison on an off-road course--an appropriate venue for an off-road-focused truck. After all, it's not that different from the ZR2 on which it is based, and we had ample opportunity to put it through its paces on the highway when we drove it last year.

When automakers invite media to drive vehicles off-road, the trails are usually chosen (or in some cases, engineered) to highlight the products' strengths and minimize any weaknesses. Chevy's choice of venue for the Bison stood out in that it was more than adequate for showing off the truck's capabilities, it didn't do much in the way of hiding some of its weaknesses.

The tight, technical rock-crawling sections proved to be reasonably challenging, requiring us to make full use of the Bison's mechanical advantages in order to cleanly navigate them. Even so, at the end of the day, each test vehicle carried scars left by obstacles--vegetable and mineral alike--that were simply impossible to completely evade.

That's not to say that all of the damage was inevitable. Some of our colleagues seemed determined to prove that the course wasn't quite as challenging as it looked. They chose to leave their Bison's differentials unlocked for the rock-crawling section, and while they did complete the course, they relied heavily on liberal use of throttle and some other techniques which may not have been employed had the trucks been in their names. The locking differentials didn't completely trivialize the course, but they certainly made for a much less hectic process.

As we surveyed the damage (a healthy dose of pinstriping, quite a few pinched exhaust outlets, more than a couple of dinged-up bumpers and side rails and more than one uneven bed gap), we couldn't help but note that a smaller 4x4 would have made for a much better tool for navigating the tighter rock trails. That's an indictment not of the Bison itself, but of midsize off-road trucks in general.

The cooldown

While we didn't get much time on the road with Bison, we had enough of a transit cruise to confirm that its DSSV shocks make for the absolute best compromise between capability and comfort of any off-road pickup suspension out there. We only wish that the technology was inexpensive enough to employ more universally.

Leftlane's bottom line

The 2019 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison may not be a must-have mechanical upgrade package, but it's a good marketing focal point for Chevy in a world where the midsize pickup game is quickly becoming crowded once again. For our money, the "basic" ZR2 would be the ideal purchase, but we understand that the AEV name brings with it a premium which many will likely be willing to pay.

2019 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison base price, $48,650; as-tested, $50,640

Bose audio, $500; Navigation, $495; Destination, $995