GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado — “You can take this one at 35,” says my passenger, a senior member of the engineering team behind the 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, of the fast approaching table top jump I’m about to fling the ZR2 off of.
Into the air we go. But instead of a spine-crushing crash-landing, there was, well, nothing. The front wheels felt like they hit a pile of puffy pillows instead of pummeling us on touchdown like most trucks would thanks in large part to the ZR2’s Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve (DSSV) dampers.
Instead of shims, these dampers use, as the name implies, spool valves. Multimatic, the Canadian supplier behind the technology, says its dampers offer more predictable and precise behavior and are easier to fine tune to various inputs. Initially developed for ChampCar, the spool valve setup has been used in various motorsports applications over the past 15 years. Several modern supercars have utilized them as well, including the Aston Martin One-77, Ford GT, and Chevy’s own Camaro Z/28, but the Colorado ZR2 is the first off-road application.
While road and race versions of the dampers use feature two spool valves, the ZR2 uses three. The twin valves that control on-road behavior are moved from the piston to an external reservoir. The third, which is positioned on the piston, comes into play during aggressive maneuvers when wheel travel exceeds on-road specifications. It effectively turns the ZR2’s dampers into position-sensitive, energy absorbing units along the lines of those used in hardcore off-road racing. Ergo, the soft landing.
A left hander followed the jump on the roughly 2.0-mile off-road course that served as the starting point for our ZR2 experience. A light touch of the brake pedal scrubbed just enough speed to induce a sharp turn-in, and a little throttle quickly turned it into an easily controllable, oversteer induced rotation — at least until the traction and stability control rudely interrupted.
On the next lap, I pushed the rotary dial that controls the transfer case to enable off-road mode, which dials back the intervention thresholds and lets the rear end get looser still. Even more fun was had a lap later, when traction control went off and stability control was dialed back further still with the push of a button. (Not being Ken Block, I chose to not explore what happens when you hold the button to turn stability control all the way off). Being tail-happier, 2WD mode is more fun than 4WD, and can be used in most situations as the ZR2’s 31-inch Goodyears provide plentiful traction in all but the softest of sand.
At no point did the well-sorted steering — it is light but offers just enough resistance and feels like it rotates directly with the wheels — try to fight back or direct the truck in an unintended direction. The front wheels were content to stay pointed at the desired angle at all times, inducing a great amount of confidence. The aforementioned Ken Block would be able to do donuts all day in this truck without breaking a sweat or feeling tightness in his shoulder.
It’s a similar story on-road. Save for increased tire noise due to its semi-knobby rubber, we didn’t find the ZR2 significantly louder or rougher than other Colorados during our stints on Colorado Highway 141 and Interstate 70. In fact, the ZR2 exhibits less body roll and offers a more compliant ride thanks to its advanced dampers, 3.5-inch-wider track, and solid front anti-roll bar. Chevy had a Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, the ZR2’s closest competitor, on hand for on-road comparison drives; the Taco exhibited a greater amount of wind noise and its steering felt looser. (A Ford Raptor was on hand as well; the full-size truck felt gargantuan by comparison).
After the highway stints, our adventure continued into the mountains outside Grand Junction, specifically the Bangs Canyon Trailhead. From there, we first crawled down Billings Canyon Road, which is a road in name only. In low range four-wheel drive mode, the ZR2 had no problem climbing over obstacles on the tight, rocky trail, while the Z71-sourced Hill-Descent Control kept things slow and steady down inclines. Steering was again a highlight, with the same attributes that made the ZR2 controllable in the sand working in tandem to make it easy to keep the soft body away from hard obstacles. And despite ample lateral motion, the cabin never shook violently enough to slam a head into the B-pillar.
While the ZR2’s twin locking differentials were unnecessary on Billings Canyon, the same was not the case on the rocky staircase called “Playground,” a particularly challenging portion of the Tabeguache Trail that begins at the same trailhead. With both the front and rear axle locked down, the truck made scrambling up and down the steps look and feel effortless. The lockers were probably not entirely necessary, but they certainly helped ensure the absence of pucker moments.
Scraping was nearly non-existent, thanks in part to the ZR2’s 8.9 inches of ground clearance, 30-degree approach angle, and 23.5-degree breakover and departure angles. The Tacoma TRD Pro offers more of each — it boasts 9.4 inches of ground clearance, a 35-degree approach angle, a 23.9-degree departure angle, and a 26-degree breakover angle — but Toyota does not offer a front locking differential. The only other vehicles on the market that do are the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and Ram Power Wagon, both decidedly different machines. The little scraping that did occur caused no damage, as the truck’s soft bits are protected by twin aluminum skidplates up front (oil pan and radiator), a steel plate near the middle (transfer case), and beefy steel rocker sliders on the sides.
Though it wasn’t part of the plan, we even got to sample the ZR2’s traction in the mud thanks to a storm that rolled in while we were at the Playground. If you’ve read this far you probably won’t be surprised to hear that it handled the wet stuff as expertly as the dry.
Chevrolet offers the ZR2 with the choice of a gasoline V-6 or a diesel I-4. The naturally aspirated 3.6-liter six receives an 8-speed automatic for 2017 instead of a 6-speed. It makes 306 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque and is a solid performer aside from the gearbox’ reluctance to kick all the way down at low speeds, which sometimes necessitated greater-than-optimal throttle inputs. However, the oil burner justifies every dollar of its $3,500 premium.
While it makes just 186 hp (5 hp more than other Colorados), it also cranks out 369 lb-ft, all of which is available at just 2,000 rpm, making climbing over obstacles a truly effortless affair that requires the driver to do just two things: pay attention to the spotters and apply only the slightest amount of throttle. The turbocharged oil-burner also doesn’t suffer noticeable power loss at altitude, which is handy in off-road havens like Grand Junction, which sits at 4,583 feet above sea level, or Moab, Utah, which is at 4,026 feet. It also grants an extra 3 mpg city and 4 mpg highway.
In case you’re feeling the urge to yell at me for being a GM sellout at this point, there are some negatives — albeit not the major, deal-breaking kind.
First, the ZR2’s unique front-end treatment is certainly not for everyone. Second, from every angle but the front, it looks like, well, any other Colorado; GM even went conservative with badging, limiting itself to one on the grille and two on the sides of the bed. Third, the interior is virtually unchanged save for ZR2 badges on the seats and switches for the differentials. The uninitiated certainly couldn’t be faulted for mistaking the ZR2 for an LT or Z71 that’s been turned into a bro-runner with aftermarket modifications. Whether or not that matters depends entirely on how image conscious you happen to be.
It’ll set you back least $40,995 to put a gas-powered ZR2 into your garage, and at least $44,495 for a diesel. (For comparison, the Tacoma TRD Pro starts at $41,920 for a manual transmission-equipped variant and $43,920 for an automatic despite not having a front locking diff). But given 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2’s skills on pavement, dirt, and rock, it’s not that all that steep of a price to pay for what amounts to a Real Deal four-wheeler.
2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Specifications
|ENGINE||3.6L DOHC 24-valve V-6/308 hp @ 6,800 rpm, 275 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm; 2.8L turbodiesel DOHC 16-valve I-4/186 hp @ 3,400 rpm, 369 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed automatic, 8-speed automatic|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 4-5 passenger, front-engine, 4WD truck|
|EPA MILEAGE||16-19/28-22 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||212.7 x 83.9 x 72.2 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.4-9.5 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||99 mph|