2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 First Drive

May. 15, 2017 By Josh Burns
With a two-inch lift, selectable front and rear lockers, 31-inch tires, Multimatic DSSV suspension and a 3.5-inch-wider track width front and rear, the Colorado ZR2 brings off-road legitimacy to Chevy's trucks.

From day one, the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 seemed like a great idea. First teased at the LA Auto Show in 2014, the ZR2 concept provided Chevrolet with a legit off-road package and it allowed us to dream about a diesel-powered mid-size truck ready to tackle the trails. But just because the ZR2 looked like good idea didn’t mean it made financial sense for Chevrolet to make it.

Whether the bean counters lost or Chevy truly sees great potential for the ZR2, we are happy to see it get the green light. We’re probably most excited that the Colorado will now be equipped with an honest off-road package (sorry Z71, you don’t fool us). The new 2017 Colorado ZR2 will be offered with the option of an extra cab or crew cab, and there’s a powertrain choice between the naturally aspirated 3.6L V6 and the 2.8L Duramax diesel.

Chevrolet invited us out to Gateway, Colorado, to get an honest first impression of its ZR2, which is arriving in dealerships across the country right now. Although we were taken for a short ride around a designed track in Los Angeles during last year’s LA Auto Show, this time we’d actually get to drive it – Chevy didn’t hold back either.

The Colorado ZR2 is not big on over-the-top styling cues, but it does have its own unique stance and profile.

Colorado Bound
After a short few flights from Southern California out to Grand Junction, Colorado, we set our sights on the town of Gateway, a city where the population doesn’t exceed much more than a few dozen. The small town does play host to Gateway Canyons Resort and Spa, a luxurious getaway tucked in a valley resting between giant, beautiful red-rock mesas.

After landing, we hopped behind the wheel of a stock Colorado to drive out to Gateway. Of the many activities that Gateway Canyons offers, one is a Trophy Truck driving school to teach aspiring racers the sport of off-road racing. Upon arrival, we grabbed a quick bite and headed straight for the track, as Chevrolet had a few ZR2s available for us to take on the Baja-style course.

The ZR2 features 31-inch Goodyear Duratrac all-terrain tires. Just behind the tires the unique Multimatic DSSV dampers are visible.

This would be our first honest chance to test out the ZR2, and specifically get a feel for new Multimatic suspension. Much has been written and said about the new Multimatic Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve (DSSV) dampers employed on the ZR2. The DSSV dampers are unique, and they turned quite a few heads when they were first announced. Multimatic is more known for producing suspension parts for Camaros and Corvettes, but the company developed this specific shock just for the Colorado ZR2 to provide it with great handling both on the highway and off of it.

In short, the Multimatic DSSV dampers employ multiple spool valves within the three-chamber shock to offer a finer lever of suspension damping compared to traditional shock absorbers. Whereas a traditional shock features holes in its piston with deflection discs and shims helping to adjust damping pressure, the DSSV uses spool valves featuring a spring, piston and sleeve that more freely allow the fluid to flow through the shock. Multimatic is able to provide different performance in different situations thanks to the multiple spool valves within the DSSV damper, their specific placement and the unique cutout designs used to allow fluid to travel through the damper.

After months of speculating, the time finally came to get behind the wheel of Chevy’s new off-roader. We were able to take both a Duramax-powered ZR2 and a naturally aspirated V6 around the track. To prove Chevy wasn’t messing around, we were even given a helmet and a Hans device to stay safe during our test drive. The dirt track featured numerous jumps, tight corners, and high-speed sweeping turns of various angles. Chevy did have a co-driver along with us, but we weren’t limited to cruising speeds and were able to really push the truck.

The ZR2 felt right at home on the Baja-style course at Gateway Canyons.

Our first trip around the track was in the Duramax ZR2 (a crew cab with an MSRP of roughly $47,000), and after a lap to get acquainted with the course we were able to open it up. The track features a variety of jumps, some of which are short and steep and others with a cleaner transition landing, like the tabletop jump on the front straightaway. The different jumps provided a good test of the shocks on takeoff and landing. The course wasn’t horribly beat up during our laps, but still we could feel the suspension help soak up the ruts and bumps along the way. About the only thing missing on the course was a whoops section to see how the shocks felt in quick-hit, desert-style conditions.

Although a well-groomed jump isn’t exactly the most realistic obstacle a ZR2 will see in the real world, it did provide plenty of info about the truck. The Multimatic DSSVs feel great on both take off and, most importantly, landing. The improved 30-degree approach angle of the ZR2 compared to the 17.3 degrees of a stock Colorado, not to mention the lack of the stock air damn, means there is little concern of digging in the front end on landings. The two-inch lift helps get the truck up off the ground, and if you do overshoot a jump the front skid plate is there to cover your butt.

The additional lift and ground clearance also came into play here. When we sailed the ZR2 off the large tabletop jump on the front straightaway at over 50 mph, 10 mph more than the suggested speed, the truck took the landing in stride, and it’s something a standard Colorado 4x4 wouldn’t be able to do gracefully (or without braking something). We also took away that although we do like the Duramax engine a lot, this exercise is more suited for the naturally aspirated V6 engine since it has quicker throttle response when coming off the brakes and getting back on the throttle in turns.

The front skid plate is basically off-road insurance for a truck.

The following day we were treated to some slow-paced rock crawling on Billings Canyon Road. We had about an hour drive to get there, which provided plenty of time on the windy highway canyon roads en route to the OHV area. The ZR2’s road manners are really good. It feels like a slightly modified truck in that the steering is not quite as sharp as a stock Colorado; it turns predictably but isn’t as effortless and smooth as a stock truck – which, in all honesty, is exactly how it should feel. The Mutlimatic suspension feels very good on the road and really soaks up the little bumps and road chatter nicely. There’s a little bit of road noise from the Goodyear Kevlar tires but it’s perfectly acceptable considering the intended off-road benefits of the more aggressive tire.

The Goodyear Duratracs performed well in the variety of conditions in which we drove.

Once out to the trail, the ZR2 showed its worth tackling the rocky trails. We had a variety of terrain to explore, including some sticky mud sections from a recent rain. In all, the ZR2 took the varying terrain in stride. The Goodyears did cake up a bit with the mud, but we never experienced a loss of traction. We took on some moderately challenging climbs later on in the day, with some rocky sections that featured stepped ledges close to the same size as the ZR2’s 31-inch tires. Overall, the truck performed well in this 4 Lo exercise, and this gave us the chance to use the selectable front and rear lockers with great success. Not only is it awesome to have selectable lockers straight from the factory (because it’s a costly upgrade down the road), it also proves that Chevy is making sure this truck has true off-road chops. We liked the dry traction of the Goodyears during this section as well. One other thing we noted is that the Duramax is our preferred engine choice for this type of off-roading – the low-end torque is just awesome for taking on slow-speed climbs of all types.

The selectable front and rear lockers help provided that additional bit of traction in challenging climbs.

Not much attention was drawn to it other than our drive on the track at Gateway Canyon, but the ZR2 does feature an off-road mode to help sense and control wheel spin. The system is activated by pushing in the 4WD dial, but it is not adjustable or selectable depending upon the terrain like other off-roaders Chevy drew comparisons to in the Ford Raptor or the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro. It’s hard to tell if the system truly has a large impact on performance, so it’s something we’d like to explore more during a long-term test.

Chevy built a great off-road truck with the ZR2.

Lasting First Impressions
For our first test of the Chevrolet ZR2 we are impressed. Chevy built the truck we’d been begging them to, and in our time with it we came home with a favorable impression. The Multimatic suspension performed well in both our on- and off-road testing. There’s a lot to like about how the suspension on the ZR2 feels, but there are a few small gripes as well. There’s no adjustment or tuning of the DSSV shocks; to be fair, there isn’t on the different Fox units on the Ford Raptor or Tacoma TRD Pro either. Although we didn’t get a price, we have to imagine the DSSVs aren’t a cheap replacement down the road, and although they can be rebuilt there’s not a simple way to adjust them should a ZR2 owner, say, stick 33s or 35s on the truck and want to tweak the damping pressure a bit.

The Multimatic DSSV dampers performed well during our time with the ZR2, but the low mounting of the rear units contributes to the 8.9 inches of ground clearance that's a little lower than we'd like.

The shocks provide 10 inches of suspension travel in the rear, but this is also the lowest point on the truck because the shock mounts that hang below the rear axle contribute to less-than-stellar 8.9 inches of ground clearance. There’s no tweaking the numbers – that’s the lowest point of the truck. That said, we have to be fair and note that we never had an issue catching the shock mounts on anything during our two off-road sessions.

The ZR2 comes well equipped, and there's only a few optional upgrades to add on.

For our money, we’d fork over the additional $3,500 and get the Duramax. Although the naturally aspirated V6 is ideal for wide-open desert running, the diesel engine’s torque and power just feel more usable in most driving experiences. One could argue you’ll eventually make up for the fuel savings with the slightly better fuel economy of the Duramax (19 mpg city/22 hwy versus 16/18), but really what you’re paying for with the Duramax is better all-around performance. A ZR2 Duramax won’t come cheap, as our crew cab short-bed test truck has an MSRP of $47,060. The extra cab with the 3.6L V6 we drove is more moderately priced at $41,935.

The ZR2 is handsomely equipped inside (power leather seats with heating, MyLink navigation, BlueTooth wireless connection, OnStar, etc.). About the only upgrades on most of the test trucks we saw is the premium Bose audio ($500) and the larger 8-inch MyLink touch ($495). The styling of the ZR2 isn’t flashy or in your face, and some buyers might want more added flair and graphics. We actually like the subdued styling of the truck, and the profile alone makes it clearly stand out from a standard Colorado 4x4.

The rock rails on the ZR2 are fully functional and nicely tucked up along the rocker panel.

Chevrolet answered the call with the ZR2, giving mid-size truck buyers a capable off-road package. We’re happy to see Chevy make what we feel is a truly capable truck, as this helps erase the idea of the Z71 being an “off-road” upgrade. Chevy now has its flagship off-roader, one that’s a whole lot of fun to drive off of the pavement and yet is still very civilized when on it.

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