Test Drive: 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2

If you’re looking for a mid-size pick-up truck that’s ready to get dirty, you may be finding these days that you don’t have a lot of options.

Most pick-ups have a bouncy way about them with tons of body roll and rebound over bumps, but the Colorado ZR2 has none of that. Its smoothness and composure is roughly the same whether it’s on a highway or a rock crawl.

The Nissan Frontier is getting long in the tooth. The new Honda Ridgeline has been well-received, but it doesn’t come in a dedicated off-roading configuration.

Toyota has an option, the Tacoma TRD Pro. But at a starting price of a little over $53,000 with an automatic transmission, it’s not cheap.

That leaves the General Motors twins, the GMC Canyon and the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2. It was the latter that my daughter and I used to wheel our way around Georgian Bay late this summer.

Our Colorado came in at an MSRP of $51,045 with a healthy suite of optional equipment. Yes, that’s right: that’s lower than you can even start at in the Taco.

But don’t let yourself believe that makes it a ho-hum default option. It’s much more than that.

Powertrain

In the ZR2, there are two engine options: the 2.8L Duramax turbo-diesel and its six-speed automatic, and the 3.6L naturally aspirated V6 that was installed on our tester. The former delivers a best-in-class torque figure of 369 lb-ft at 2,000 rpm; the latter tops out at 275 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm. The V6 uses cylinder deactivation to save some fuel in cruising.

With the gas-powered engine you’ll find an eight-speed automatic transmission, and both come with a standard four-wheel drive system with settings for auto mode or permanent two-wheel drive or four-wheel high or low. The ZR2 also has driver-selectable fully locking front and rear differentials.

I’m going to level with you on the engine: this is not a light truck at a curb weight of 4,734 pounds, and while I can’t speak for the diesel mill, the gas-powered one feels like it has trouble hauling that weight around at times. Between that and a pick-up’s naturally unaerodynamic shape, acceleration at lower speeds meets with resistance. Once you’re higher in the rev band, naturally, it’s a different story – highway overtakes have a fair bit more meat to them.

That said, I haven’t driven a mid-size pick-up that’s any different. And if you’re shopping in this segment then there’s a good chance you don’t need torque out the wazoo. If you do, go straight to the diesel. Just be aware that it will cost you an extra $4,090.

On the fuel mileage front, the V6 is a thirsty one, coming in with NRCan’s ratings at 15.0 L/100 km city and 13.0 highway. I fared considerably better than that by averaging 12.0 L/100 km over our week-long run, which was mostly on country roads with 80 km/h speed limits.

Drive experience

One of the most touted features on the ZR2 is the trick Multimatic Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve dampers. What makes these special is the high degree of tuning that’s possible; using proprietary software and a series of tools like simulators and four-post rigs, Multimatic can configure these dual spool valve dampers with greater precision than average to offer more control over a vehicle’s final suspension character. (And the company’s head office is in Markham, Ontario. Go Canada.)

In an off-roading pick-up application, this means greater control over and longer contact with undulating surfaces. But where I appreciate the character of these dampers even more is in everyday driving. Most pick-ups have a bouncy way about them with tons of body roll and rebound over bumps, but the Colorado ZR2 has none of that. Its smoothness and composure is roughly the same whether it’s on a highway or a rock crawl.

There’s more to this than the suspension, of course, which is lifted 2 inches higher than the standard Colorado. The front and rear tracks are 3.5 inches wider than in other trims and are finished with 31-inch Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac off-road tires mounted on 17-by-8-inch aluminum alloy rims. But it’s those dampers you’ll come back for. Really.

Design

Making a mid-size pick-up look tough can be, well, tough. But to my eye, the Colorado ZR2 achieves it. The sculpted off-roading front and rear bumpers and the unique grille and hood combination go a long way in making this truck look like it lives up to the hype. I also fell pretty hard for the Deepwood Green metallic paint that really finishes the belongs-in-the-forest vibe. (My daughter insisted it was grey, though, so if you don’t enjoy arguing with six-year-olds then maybe don’t choose this colour. To her credit, the green tint is almost imperceptible in certain lighting. But that’s part of what I like about it.)

On the inside, you’ll find a standard General Motors truck interior layout, but the compressed and minimalist layout of the buttons makes everything easy to reach and work out at a glance. The seats are leather-upholstered as standard, and the front two come with a split heating system that can warm your back and your bottom separately.

There’s none of the creaking and rattling that you get in some trucks. The interior is noticeably quiet and feels well fit and finished throughout.

Camping

I mentioned off the top that my daughter and I spent a week camping in this truck using a bed tent. If you’ve ever wondered whether this is worth doing, I can tell you that it comes with some major benefits and some challenges.

This truck is configured with the crew cab and the short 5-foot-2-inch box. (The ZR2 is also available with an extended cab and the long 6-foot-2-inch box.) The Napier tent we took with us installed around the dropped tailgate to give six feet of length. This worked fine for the two of us, and we were able to drop a queen-size air mattress in for a perfect fit. Plus, at 5-foot-7, I was able to stand fully upright in the middle of it. So, despite this bed’s relatively small size, the tent ends up being nice and roomy.

What also worked fine for the two of us was that between the front passenger seat and half of the back row we were able to fit all of our gear inside the cab, which meant that we didn’t need to mess around with getting things in and out of the bed when we set up – which was often.

We’re nomadic travellers and tend not to stay in one place for more than a night or two while going exploring during the day. Because the tent needs to be fully collapsed before you can drive the truck away, this made for a lot of setup and tear-down.

I was only truly cussing the tent out on the first night while trying to work out which poles and clips went where. On the first try, it took me the better part of an hour. (Yes, I probably should have tried it at home first. I forgot.)

With a bit of practice, though, I was getting it up in about 20 minutes and down in about 10. This was aided by the fact that, rather than fully packing it into the tent bag each morning, I brought some ratchet straps along and rolled the flattened tent up neatly against the cab wall so that I could secure it using the tie-down rings. Since this meant I didn’t have to unfold the entire thing and figure out where the door was each night, it saved a lot of time.

By the end of the week, the worst part about the set-up was getting in and out of the box constantly. Most mid-size pick-ups don’t need any kind of step-up aid, I suppose, but the extra couple of inches of height on the ZR2 was wearing on my knees after a while. A step-stool would have been a welcome addition to the gear list.

Given the way my daughter and I travel, to be perfectly honest, I’m just as happy to throw the seats down in an SUV and throw an air mattress in the back (although the fresh air and breeze moving through the canvas is, admittedly, very nice). But if you’re the sort to stay in one place for a while and bring a second vehicle with you for day trips, or if you like the clear benefit of being raised off the ground and away from the wet and the bugs while you sleep, or if you just want your off-roading truck to be an all-round adventuring machine, then you’ll be delighted with this set-up.

Connectivity

Between its smartphone app functionality that’s compatible with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the subscription-based 4G LTE WiFi and OnStar services, and the general quickness and usability of it, the General Motors infotainment system is one of the best available on the market right now.

That said, after spending many more hours with it on this drive than average, my daughter and I did add a couple of minor features to our wish-list for the next-generation system.

For example, when Android Auto is running, some vehicles make it easy to switch between radio stations and, in the case of satellite, even to see what song is playing on either a drop-down or a different screen. In the Colorado, I needed to switch the display out of Android Auto fully, find a station I was happy with, and then go back into the app – and I missed notifications from time to time by doing this. For a serial station-flipper, this is less than ideal. I eventually gave up and just played my own music off my phone.

We also found that we missed being able to set favourite songs and artists through the satellite radio interface so that we could be notified when they were playing on a different station, a feature we really came to enjoy on a week-long road trip we took earlier this summer. (Though, in retrospect, this spared me from having to listen to every Katy Perry song ever made, so maybe it wasn’t so bad.)

These really are only minor quibbles, though, and they wouldn’t take away from my enjoyment of the system long-term. They’re just on the list of things that would be nice to have someday.

Safety

In this department, the Colorado ZR2 is relatively light. It comes with a standard back-up camera and GM’s Teen Driver feature that lets you assign things like an upper speed limit and a geo-fence to a specific vehicle key. As far as things like cross-traffic alerts, collision warnings, lane-keeping, and blind-spot warning go, they’re not available. But that’s not out of line for the segment.

Verdict

It may not have much in the way of competition, but the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 doesn’t need any. In the mid-size pick-up segment, it’s the clear off-roading leader.

However, a new challenger is on the way. Stay tuned.

2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2
Engine Displacement: 3.6L
Engine Cylinders: 6
Peak Horsepower: 308 hp @ 6,800 rpm
Peak Torque: 275 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
Fuel Economy: 15.0/13.0/14.1 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 62"/157 cm box
articles_PricingType 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2
Base Price $45,515
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,700
Price as Tested $51,045
Optional Equipment $3,730 – Deepwood green metallic paint $495; 8-inch touchscreen with navigation $795; Bose premium speaker system $685; engine block heater $150. Dealer-installed: spare tire carrier $715; cargo bed lamp $310; all-weather floor liners $205; black Bowtie emblems $175; cargo tie-down rings $125; wheel lock package $75
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.8
8 Styling
8 Powertrain
8 Quality
8 Comfort
8 Practicality
8 Drivability
7 Usability/Ergonomics
7 Fuel Economy
8 Features
8 Value