Catching air over a table top, sliding sideways through the corner with tires grasping for traction then foot on the floor demanding speed from the engine, we drive across a trophy truck training track framed by Colorado mountain ranges near Grand Junction, Colo. Yet, these aren’t trophy trucks. They are 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 models and they are holding their own on this dirt landscape.
This high-speed course is just one of the routes Chevy has planned for us over the next two days. We will take these trucks on road and off putting hundreds of miles on them as Chevy proves to us they are more than a sticker-package update. In fact, the terrain is very similar to the same sort of environment Ford and Toyota showcased their off-road trucks. Chevy is serious about being a player in the stock off-road pickup race and we are beating up the Colorado ZR2 to prove it.
Historically, new vehicle development takes several years of careful planning and execution. This was not the case for the ZR2. After the large positive response from journalists and consumers after the 2014 LA Auto Show concept reveal, Chevy knew they had to build it and less than a month later they got going.
The first challenge for Chevy was finding off-road specialists on their team. Since the loss of Hummer, the team hadn’t built this kind of truck before. Fortunately, they had two members from Hummer still around and a travel budget. Making their way to various desert tracks like in Michigan, Indiana and rock-crawling the vaunted Rubicon trail, Chevy engineers and designers crafted a truck worthwhile of taking a beating and still looking good.
In the end, the Colorado ZR2 was born through trial and error rather than through an AutoCAD drawing. Team members tore off the front air dam, crunched the rear bumper steps resulting in new front and rear bumpers. Then, they widened the stance for more traction, tossed on rock rails, threw the spare in the bed to create more clearance and lifted the truck 2” to further help clear obstacles. They also reached out to an unlikely source, Multimatic makers of shocks for Formula 1 and the Z/28 shocks, to help with the suspension. This brave approach of eschewing renowned shock makers like Fox and Bilstein along with giving the team the freedom to really build an off-road truck in a short amount of time was a big gamble. Fortunately, it paid off.
The result of those months of testing, learning the trails and breaking whatever parts they could, Chevy engineers showed us the result of their work. It was time for us to get to experience how far and how quickly they had come.
First up was the high-speed dirt course. This course had two harsh jumps and one tabletop along with plenty of wide corners. Our goal was to test out the various drive modes through multiple laps. We did this by switching off the various driving aids (nannies) like traction control. After a scouting lap and then successful laps with turning off aids, we were finally let loose on our final lap.
My first truck was a $45k extended cab model equipped with a 2.8L four-cylinder diesel and a six-speed automatic to put through the paces. Having driven the gas version in similar circumstances in the Colorado and the Toyota Tacoma, I was most curious how the diesel would do. My initial thinking of it being quick off the corners was quickly dashed as the turbo needs time to wind up. Putting my foot on the floor, there was a considerable lag as the truck got going. This disappointment was shared among my group; however, this engine would redeem itself later.
The gas engine was the clear winner on this track with no lag and considerably quicker power output leaving the corners.
Next up was rock-crawling through Bangs Canyon, which included a great section of stair-stepping over the rocky terrain. Driving in a lead and follow setup, we took a convoy of trucks through the backcountry. This time, I drove a $43,560k crew cab model equipped with a 3.6L V6 gas and a 8-speed transmission along with the diesel version. After driving over many boulders and up and down the stair steps, the conclusion here was quite different than the high-speed course. The diesel rules this kind of terrain with its greater torque of 369 lb-ft over the gasoline’s torque of 275 lb-ft. With the direction of a spotter and taking your time, the negative effects of the turbo winding up were minimized and the gasoline engine struggled much more doing the same climbs.
On the paved roads heading out and back from the off-road park, the ZR2 also shined in its ability to give us a comfortable ride. Compared to a base Colorado, we felt a slight bit more body roll and could barely hear the 31-inch Goodyear Duratrac off-road tires. Compared to other off-road trucks, this is quite the accomplishment, and it is comfortable enough to drive all day.
Chevy PR and marketing teams will tell you the 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 is a segment of one among off-road pickups. While this may be the case inside Chevy’s truck lineup, it is hardly the case in the industry with the Ford Raptor, Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro and Nissan Frontier PRO-4X all coming to mind.
Without getting into too much of a comparison, the Colorado ZR2 is a very strong competitor depending on your area. For example, the Ford Raptor is the king of off-road racing, yet it has grown so large it just doesn’t work in all environments.
The Tacoma TRD Pro and Frontier PRO-4X are more suitable competitors. The Colorado ZR2 is just as capable as the Tacoma and Frontier. However, unlike its competitors, Chevy put more money into their truck. With a more comfortable interior, Apple Carplay and Android Auto as well as a locking front differential, the Colorado ZR2 offers more than the other competitors. Plus, it can be had with a diesel engine returning 22 MPG highway and 20 MPG combined. The Raptor, Tacoma TRD Pro and Frontier PRO-4X don’t come close to those numbers.
In the end, the question isn’t which mid-size stock off-road truck to shop for – the choice is clear – it is which engine choice is right for you. You want to go fast, buy the gas. You want to conquer the rocks, buy the diesel. The 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 will handle the rest.