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ROAD TEST

Driving like a dream

2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2.

GM has performed all the necessary tricks to make the Colorado ZR2 a legitimate off-road contender

With Raptors and Power Wagons, TRDs and Pro-4Xs, the heated off-road truck market has delivered some pretty amazing products recently, each claiming their own performance niches. Where could a late-comer, such as General Motors, carve out its own spot?

The answer is in a hopped-up version of the Colorado, the mid-sized pickup that was (thankfully) completely redesigned and reintroduced to the North American market in 2015.

The Colorado ZR2 is unapologetically built on the bones of its basic kin – but this is no lipstick on a pig. In fact, the vehicle is rock solid, with a traditional body-on-frame construction (unlike Honda’s car-like Ridgeline), appealing looks and utilitarian – but, okay, let’s say it – uninspiring engine options.

GM has performed all the necessary tricks to turn this suburban appliance into a legitimate off-road contender. The front bumpers and fenders have been cut back to allow clearance for big objects, taller suspension lifts the truck five centimetres higher off the ground, cast-iron control arms up front add durability, standard steel-tube protectors save the rocker panels, aluminum plates shield the radiator and transfer case from errant rocks, and 31-inch Goodyear Duratrac off-road tires sit on handsome 17-by-8-inch aluminum wheels. The front and rear track has also been widened by 8.9 centimetres.

GM turned to a Canadian high-performance parts maker to create highly innovative shock absorbers.

But that’s not the real story of this truck. The real story is in the inspired decision to turn to a Canadian high-performance parts maker to create highly innovative shock absorbers, the likes of which have never been seen on a production off-road vehicle before. GM contracted with Multimatic Inc., of Markham, Ont., to adapt their unique dampers to a truck application.

Multimatic created something called Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve (DSSV) dampers for Formula One race cars. Those dampers contributed to F1 championships from 2010 to 2013, and they are also used in the Ford GT supercar, among others. The 2014 Camaro Z/28 was the first production car to use the technology, and now, the Colorado ZR2 is the first off-road vehicle.

The secret sauce is in the unique spool valves that take a novel approach to modulating the flow of fluid in the shocks, says Murray White, Multimatic’s technical director for vehicle development. The net effect is that they respond with the right amount of cushioning and support in a broad range of conditions, hang tough in the rough and let the truck glide like a limo on pavement. Even after hours of punishment, their self-cooling design prevents shock fade. Most importantly, they save your spine even when you’re doing your best Dukes of Hazzard imitation.

Which is what we did in western Colorado’s semi-desert. We hammered these trucks around a pitted dirt track, caught big air with 70 kilometre-an-hour jumps and then climbed up and down rock ledges. Yet instead of dropping like a bucket of bolts, the truck landed those jumps like a deer leaping over a fence and then stretched to extremes as it tiptoed down the rocks. Flex was virtually undetectable.

The ride on the pavement at the end of the day, meanwhile, offered near-sedan smoothness.

Multimatic execs at the reveal admitted that adapting their expensive boutique product to an affordable high-volume production vehicle was a challenge that forced the company to scale up in a hurry.

Flex was virtually undetectable as the Colorado tiptoed down the rocks.

Also impressive are the electronically controlled transfer-case options. The driver need only pop into neutral at low speed to switch from two-wheel drive to four-high or four-low. The rear axle, or both front and rear, can also be locked by push button – a handy option in extreme conditions.

A little less inspiring was the 3.6L V-6, mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Although the revvy engine produces a claimed 308 horsepower, it is no small trick to get it on its power peak when you most need it. The Duramax diesel engine was our preferred option (adding $4,090 to the price tag). It produces just 181 horsepower but its 369 pound-feet of torque makes mountain-climbing feel like a Sunday picnic.

Towing capacity is rated at up to 2,268 kilograms.

Mid-sized trucks have a few off-road advantages over their full-sized brethren. For one, it’s easier to squeeze through tight spaces, such as the rocks and tree branches that threaten to add random stripes to your paint job. They’re also a bit lighter – the ZR2 weighs around 2,130 kilograms, depending on how it’s equipped. Full-size trucks can weigh up to a tonne more.

GM says the ZR2 covers two market-niches: desert runner and rock crawler. That would, in effect, give you the best of what the Ford Raptor (desert) and Ram Power Wagon (rock crawler) can do. The smaller trucks also have their limitations, however, such as those smaller wheels which find it tougher to climb over big rocks.

What is for certain is that Chevy has dropped an absolutely serious contender into the mid-sized off-road market, a turf largely owned by Toyota and Nissan in North America. The Colorado ZR2 has just raised the bar; it will be exciting to see how competitors respond.

The Duramax diesel engine costs extra, but makes mountain-climbing feel like a Sunday picnic.

Tech Specs

  • Price as tested: $44,215
  • Engine: 3.6-litre V-6 gasoline, 2.8-litre diesel
  • Transmission/drive: Eight-speed automatic (gasoline); six-speed automatic (diesel);
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Gasoline, 14.7 city /13 highway; diesel 12.4 city/10.7 highway
  • Alternatives: Toyota TRD, Nissan Pro-4X

A real-time dash display shows the tilt and angle of the vehicle.

Ratings:

  • Looks: Sporty update on the basic truck, but more cute than aggressive.
  • Interior: Nicely appointed for a truck you plan to flog over rocks and plow through desert sand with. The optional leather is a classy touch – if you can live with the fact it’s going to get very, very dirty.
  • Performance: The suspension is incredibly robust and versatile, absorbing the hardest of landings, yet providing sedan smoothness on paved roads. The sturdy little diesel has so much torque it barely wakes up on climbs. The V-6 is more workmanlike – adequate but uninspiring. The diesel option is $4,090 more. Both are available with two-wheel-drive, 4WD Hi and Lo, and front and rear locking axles.
  • Technology: Switching from 2WD to 4WD requires literally just the push of a button. A favoured feature, however, is a real-time dash display showing tilt and angle of the vehicle. It also comes with descent speed control, back-up camera and, naturally, GM’s OnStar communications and nav system.
  • Cargo: Put the showy spare tire in the back and you’ve got about enough room left for a couple of fishing rods and two bicycles. The crew cab version comes with a teensie 5-foot-2 box; the extended cab has a 6-foot-2 box. No sheets of plywood are going in here, but that’s not why you’re buying the truck, is it?

This mid-sized pickup strikes a balance between power, agility and rock-solid design.

Verdict

9

This is a highly attractive alternative to the full-size off-road products. The Detroit Three haven’t been in the mid-sized off-road pickup-truck market in any meaningful way for some time. This right-sized contender strikes a nice balance of power, agility and rock-solid design. The rigid body-on-frame construction is virtually absent of flex and rattles. If GM added a turbo version to the V-6, they’d complete the package (hint, hint).

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

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