The New Colorado ZR2 Isn't the Off-Road Beast Chevy Claims

Don't get me wrong: it's a fantastic truck. But if you really want to get it dirty, cutaway bumpers and complicated suspension won't make up for the lack of aftermarket support.

Nov 18, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
The New Colorado ZR2 Isn't the Off-Road Beast Chevy Claims

The new Colorado ZR2 looks great in green, right?    Photo: General Motors

Chevy’s new Colorado has to beat one major obstacle to conquer the midsize truck market: the established aftermarket support enjoyed by the longtime king-of-its-class Toyota Tacoma. You need parts like suspension lifts, bumpers, locking differentials, and more if you seriously want to go off-road—and Chevy just doesn’t yet have that aftermarket support for its new mid-size truck. 

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The brand’s answer to this is its new ZR2. This top-tier, off-road-oriented trim level is available in both two- and four-door configurations, and with both the gasoline V6 and diesel engines. That 181-horsepower, 369-pound-feet diesel motor is enough to get us excited about the truck. Aside from the Grand Cherokee, this is the only off-roader in the country available new with a torquey, fuel-efficient oil burner.

The package includes new bumpers designed to improve the truck’s approach and departure angles (the steepness of obstacles it can climb onto and off); aluminum skid plates for the engine and transfer case; standard rock rails that run under the doors, protecting the body from damage; 31-inch all-terrain tires riding on unique 17-inch wheels; stronger, cast-iron control arms that also widen the front and rear tracks by 3.5 inches; electronically locking differentials front and rear; and, most significant, a two-inch lift supported by some complicated new shocks. That’s a ton of functional upgrades in a market where off-road packages have traditionally been more about appearance than performance.

zr2-front
From the front, the ZR2's new bumper gives the appearance of extreme off-road ability, thanks to those prominent cutouts ahead of the tires.   Photo: General Motors

All that will be enough to boost the off-road capability of the Colorado ZR2 above that of its archrival, the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro. It’s even enough to start drawing comparisons with the most capable off-road pickup ever to hit showrooms: the Ford Raptor.

So why am I skeptical of the ZR2’s ability? Well, let’s start with those complicated new shocks.

Dubbed “Multimatic Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve” designs, they take advantage of separate valving for high- and low-speed damping rates. That’s not miles-per-hour speed, but rather the speed at which the suspension is compressing and extending. With separate valving for different speeds of movement, the suspension can effectively keep the truck stable over small bumps while still soaking up major impacts.

It’s supposed to give the truck a wide performance envelope. “You can go rock crawling on Saturday, desert running on Sunday, and comfortably drive to work on Monday,” claims Mark Reuss, GM’s executive vice president of global product development. “This truck can do it all and do it all well.”

With the extra two inches of suspension bringing additional articulation, the widened track giving the truck additional stability, and the new dampers boosting ride quality in a variety of conditions, the ZR2 will inarguably be more capable than a stock Colorado. But the performance is no better than that of existing high-quality, off-road shocks like the triple-bypass Fox Racing designs in the Raptor or other internal-bypass shocks you’ll find on any off-road racer. So why opt for something complicated instead of one of these proven solutions?

I think the answer is cost saving.

zr2-shocks
The ZR2's new Multimatic shocks package extremely bulky external valving down by the control arms. Seems like that's a very exposed location for some fragile parts. And the actual content of the shock doesn't appear all that impressive, with very thin piston rods, for example.   Photo: General Motors

While the Multimatic shocks on the ZR2 look incredibly beefy with their large external valve bodies, the functional components of them actually remain relatively wimpy. Compare the diameter of the ZR2’s piston rods (above) to those of OME’s new BP-51 internal-bypass design (below), and I think you’ll see what I’m talking about. Complication may confuse consumers, but it can’t replace quality.

ZR2-ome-shocks
Traditional high-quality aftermarket internal-bypass shocks like theses OME BP-51s mount the bulky reservoirs out of of the way, on the vehicle's frame, while the quality is visibly very high.   Photo: Old Man Emu

Let’s look at another photo I think reveals the limited capability of the ZR2. In side profile, we can see that while the new bumpers may look extreme with their large wheel cutouts, they don’t actually do an awful lot for the Colorado’s very limited approach angle. Sure, you can nuzzle a wheel up to a rock a little easier, but the outright height and steepness of a step you can drive onto is not considerably improved from the stock truck’s weak 17-degree approach. No official angles have been announced yet for the ZR2. Combine that with long wheelbase, and we’re just not looking at the angles necessary for a true rock crawler here. Hit some boulders and those standard rock rails and aluminum skid plates are going to take a beating. Do you really want to trust your brand-new $35,000 to $50,000 (official pricing has yet to be released) truck to aluminum skid plates and plastic bumpers?

zr2-side-profile
Side cutouts give the ZR2 the appearance of having a good approach angle, but viewed from the side, the truck reveals its still-massive front overhang. This is the two-door model, and it has a ton of space between its front and rear wheels. That limited breakover will be even more evident on the four-door.   Photo: General Motors

What the ZR2 gets right is the fitment of standard front and rear locking differentials and the way they’re integrated into the truck’s electronic safety systems. The presence of both front and rear lockers is currently unique in the pickup market, and is a major advantage to the ZR2’s capability in mud, sand, and other soft off-road surfaces. You’ll remember from our AWD versus 4WD explainer that a true 4WD system locks the speed of the front and rear axles together, significantly boosting traction. Locking differentials then lock the wheels together on each axle, maximizing available traction. In showroom form, only the most-capable trucks come with locking rear differentials, traditionally leaving the aftermarket to fill the need for the front axle. That Chevrolet is including a front locker in this package is awesome.

It’s also awesome how well those diffs are integrated into the ZR2’s electronics. Obviously, the driver can activate them individually in both 4WD high and low ranges, but you’ll also be able to lock the rear differential in 2WD, which is suitable for high-speed, desert-racing-style driving. Additionally, the Colorado’s traction control is said to be able to activate the differentials automatically, making their advantages accessible to less-experienced drivers who leave electronic safety aids switches on while off-road. Loan a n00b friend this truck and he’s less likely to call you five minutes later for help getting it unstuck.

zr2-exposed
Holy exposed mechanical components, Batman! What effect will an errant tree branch or rock have on these complicated shocks?   Photo: General Motors

The ZR2 has the TRD Pro matched on tire size and comes with an additional inch of lift compared to that rival. Which is one reason the Chevy’s tires look so wimpy in those big arches. But while the ZR2 packs an extra diff and an extra inch over its Japanese rival, I don’t think we’re looking at a much more capable truck.

The ultimate point of both packages is to provide a halo vehicle for the Colorado and Tacoma ranges while offering some off-road ability in a truck that can be easily financed or leased. Don’t believe the hype with either the ZR2 or TRD Pro—if you really want to get your truck dirty, you still need to turn to the aftermarket. Parts like steel bumpers will genuinely improve your angles while protecting your fragile bodywork and allowing you to mount accessories like winches and lights. Larger (33-inch minimum) tires will more easily clear obstacles, but necessitate more lift. Higher-quality aftermarket shocks that mount their most fragile components out of harm’s way will massively improve ride quality both on the road and off. Genuine underbody protection is capable of taking multiple impacts without damage.

Yes, all that stuff is expensive, but some dealers make it possible for you to package quality aftermarket equipment into your finance payments when buying a new truck. We drove one such vehicle earlier this year, and it would run circles around this ZR2 for what’s ultimately a similar spend. It’s the easy availability of those parts that make the Tacoma our continued recommendation for off-road use in the midsize truck category, despite the inferiority of its engine and transmission compared to the Colorado. If you really want to buy a new pickup for off-road use, buy a no-frills Tacoma, upgrade it with quality aftermarket components, and you’ll have something genuinely capable.

Is the ZR2 better than the TRD Pro? Clearly. But if you really want to go off-road, you shouldn’t buy either.

zr2-scoop
With the same engine options as the regular Colorado, this hood scoop is for appearances only.   Photo: General Motors

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