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2022 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2.Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

The way lead-follow drive programs usually work, the host automaker’s lead driver sets a pace that finds a sweet spot between the capability of the vehicle being tested and the varied abilities of the journalist-drivers following behind. And for possibly the first time in my career, I’m failing to keep pace.

It’s not that my dirt-driving skills are being surpassed by mother-duck driver Liana Prieto (improbably, a former New York lawyer turned California-desert off-road driving guide). It’s my automotive EQ or mechanical sympathy. Should we really be driving this fast on roads this rough?

Apparently we should. The ZR2 is Chevrolet’s riposte to the Ford F-150 Raptor and the Ram 1500 TRX, purpose-built to tackle trails and terrain meaner and rougher than most drivers would ever tackle in their own vehicles.

As previously described last fall, the ZR2 is a new addition to a Silverado lineup that’s been extensively freshened for 2022. And if Chevrolet’s take on the desert-runner genre doesn’t go quite as far as the Detroit competition – there’s no extra power under the hood, and it keeps a leaf-spring rear suspension while the others locate the rear axles more thoroughly with multi links and coil-springs – the ZR2 is correspondingly much more affordable.

With a standard 6.2-litre, 420-horsepower V8, its $76,248 base price sits well below the $90,330 Ford asks for a 450-horsepower Raptor or the $102,595 ask for a 702-horsepower Ram TRX.

Equally important, says Chevrolet, was to build a truck that buyers (most of whom, let’s be honest, will never use all its off-road ability) will enjoy driving on the road. “The overall goal was to deliver all the features on and off road, including the luxury of a really great truck,” said program engineer Scott Janson. “We’re so proud of how it rides on-road. Customers want their creature comforts, and a crew cab. We wanted to develop a truck we like, and we stayed that course.”

The Silverado ZR2 challenges a tough part of the trail winding through the Joshua Tree National Park in southern California.Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Still, GM didn’t skimp on the off-road hardware. Key elements include: trick DSSV dampers supplied by Canada’s Multimatic Corp.; a 7-centimetre suspension lift with increased wheel travel; 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler Territory tires that contribute another centimetre to the 28.5-centimetre ground clearance; improved approach, breakover and departure angles; skid-plate package; Terrain mode with one-pedal driving; and e-lockable differentials front and rear. The transfer case has rear-wheel drive, Auto all-wheel drive, four-wheel drive high and four-wheel drive low modes.

Our 250-kilometre, 8-hour demo drive included the expected all-differentials-locked rock-crawling and impossible-hill climbing in low-range, first-gear, all accomplished with aplomb (always bearing in mind, though, that no six-metre-long, full-size crew-cab pickup can go everywhere that, say, a four-metre compact SUV can).

The real eye-opener was the pace Chevrolet apparently expected us to maintain over the more open sections of rough trails winding through the Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. At speeds up to 80 kilometres an hour, the ride never brutalized us, and the suspension recovered immediately when ambushed by unexpected troughs or by “nature’s speed bumps.” And if the rear axle sometimes felt a little squirrelly over stretches of washboard (a test that coil-sprung rivals might handle better) it never tramped or chattered or got far out of line.

“We decided where we wanted to play and we put it in a class all of its own,” executive chief engineer Jaclyn McQuaid said when the ZR2 was revealed last year. Now that we know the pricing, it’s clear from where she was coming. Ultimately, the Chevrolet may not have the breadth of off-road talent of the competition, but the differences are at levels-of-difficulty that would never be encountered by the majority of owners. And at the price, Chevrolet can expect to convert a lot more buyers into owners of its new desert-runner alternative.

The front seats and dash of the ZR2 are more businesslike and functional than artfully sculpted.Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Tech specs

Base price: $76,258 (excluding freight and PDI).

Engine: 6.2-litre V8, 420 horsepower/460 lb.-ft.

Transmission/drive: 10-speed automatic/Auto all-wheel drive plus dual-range four-wheel drive

Fuel consumption (litres/100 kilometres): 16.7 city/14.1 highway

Alternatives: Ford F-150 Raptor, Ram 1500 TRX

Looks

The ZR2 is also distinguished by a black hood insert, cut-outs in the (removable) front bumper end caps, a unique grille, and wheel-arch mouldings.Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Besides the lifted suspension and 33-inch tires (on 18-inch wheels), the ZR2 is also distinguished by a black hood insert, cut-outs in the (removable) front bumper end caps, a unique grille, and wheel-arch mouldings. As well, the tailpipes are tucked out of harm’s way behind the rear bumper. The “rock slider” bars protecting the rockers are extra cost.

Interior

Despite the extensive range of seat adjustment, the bluff hood hides what’s close in front, but in off-road extremis, a camera is your spotter.Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Like all but the basest 2022 Silverados, the ZR2 has a configurable 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster and 13.4-inch touch screen. The shifter is a toggle lever on the centre console. Notwithstanding the touch screen, there’s still a plethora of physical buttons (including for climate control) strewn across a new dashboard that presents as more businesslike/functional than artfully sculpted. Despite the extensive range of seat adjustment, the bluff hood hides what’s close in front, but in off-road extremis, a camera is your spotter.

Performance

Peak power and torque may be shaded by the higher-priced competition, but traditionalists will appreciate the lowdown thrust of a big-ol’ naturally-aspirated V8, accompanied on the ZR2 by ear-candy “blips” from the tailpipes on fire-up or when downshifting. The on-pavement ride is actually plush, but although unnoticed by me, my co-driver’s more finely-calibrated stomach declared it also a little loose. The downside? The ZR2′s raised ride, squishy tires and less-direct steering substantially dumb down the handling compared with the borderline sportiness of more street-oriented Silverados.

Technology

Trick DSSV dampers are supplied by Canada’s Multimatic Corp.Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Standard 4G LTE and Google built-in enables onscreen access to Google Assistant, Google Maps and Google Play, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. Standard assisted drive tech includes forward collision alert and automatic emergency braking (including pedestrians), lane-keep assist, and auto high beams; adaptive cruise, rear camera mirror and head-up display are optional.

Cargo

The ZR2 max payload is 1,440 pounds and the tow rating is 8,900 pounds. Silverado’s version of a short bed, standard on ZR2, is a little longer and notably taller than the competition, giving it about 17-19 per cent more volume.

Traditionalists will appreciate the lowdown thrust of a big-ol’ naturally-aspirated V8, accompanied on the ZR2 by ear-candy 'blips' from the tailpipes on fire-up or when downshifting.Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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