The first time I laid eyes on the production Chevy Colorado ZR2, it was catching air. The second, third, and fourth times, it was doing the same.
Jumps are almost universally discouraged at a new car launch. In recent months, at events introducing the new Ford F-150 Raptor and Ram Power Wagon, organizers politely but firmly requested that attendees keep all four wheels planted at all times. So when Chevrolet gave journalists their first taste of the new Colorado ZR2 by having us lap a medium-speed "trophy course" with multiple dirt ramps, the message was clear: This thing can take the occasional flight.
We should note that all of this occurred under the standard "professional drivers on a closed course" conditions—provided that you're willing to think of automotive journalists as "professionals." And these were mild jumps, not the stuff of . But the low-altitude flights showed that the ZR2 is all about the chassis. This new off-road package widens the base Colorado's track by 3.5 inches, raises the ride height by two, and fits 31-inch Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac tires on sharp-looking new 17-inch aluminum wheels. Electric locking differentials front and rear, painted stainless steel tubular rocker protectors, and a full suite of skid plates back up the gnarly off-road look.
The real trick up the ZR2's wheelwells, though, is the exclusive Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve damper, supplied by racing juggernaut Multimatic. Conventional shock absorbers can only offer one damping profile for compression and rebound; Multimatic's DSSV dampers offer six distinct damping curves on the ZR2's front axle, four at the rear, each acting on a different portion of the truck's suspension travel. In other words, the Chevy's suspension adapts to street driving, technical rock crawling, and high-speed off-roading, all through a single, fully mechanical damper. These amazing damping devices have appeared in CART, Formula 1, and Le Mans race cars—not to mention the last-generation Camaro Z/28 and the new Ford GT. To learn about how these fascinating, painstakingly-engineered dampers work, check out our full technical explanation here.
The ZR2 is the first production off-roader to feature DSSV dampers. In this application, they're nothing short of miraculous. On the street, this lifted off-road pickup corners as flat as a sports car. It's disconcerting to sit up this high and feel none of the body roll endemic to lifted 4x4s. Firm steering and confident brakes, trademarks of this generation Colorado (and the nearly-identical GMC Canyon), add to the sporty on-road feel, as does the commendably stiff chassis—this body-on-frame pickup drives like a unibody sedan, with none of the flex, judder, or shiver exhibited by other trucks on rough roads.
That on-road stiffness gives way to admirable flex in low-speed off-roading. On a rock-crawling jaunt through an off-road park outside Gateway, Colorado, the ZR2 was planted at all times. Shorter 3.42:1 final-drive gearing helps the off-road Chevy chug up stair-step rocks, with hill-descent control to monitor forward progress down steep grades. A new Off-Road mode alters ABS, traction and stability control parameters to keep the truck from fighting you in hairy terrain, and the Colorado's wide-open bumpers let you nudge a front tire against obstacles without tearing up bodywork. Despite "only" having 31-inch tires, the ZR2, with its relatively tidy 128.5-inch wheelbase and long-travel suspension (8.6 inches front, 10 inches rear), never cried out for more clearance.
But it was on the BMX-like trophy course where the ZR2's upgrades really began to shine. Admittedly, this wasn't a high-speed obstacle course—most features were marked with a recommended speed of 30 to 40 mph, fast enough to catch a foot or two of air. You know, responsible jumping, undertaken by professional drivers on a closed course.
Think of the last time you launched a street-legal vehicle, purposefully or otherwise, off a jump. Most cars and trucks land in a cacophony of crashing suspension and body rattles, pogoing and swaying as the dampers strain to control the body motions. The ZR2 swallows up landings with absolutely zero drama. The trick dampers, with a unique rebound valve up front to handle full-extension air time, ease the truck down without clanging or bottoming out. No other factory 4x4 makes landing a jump feel more unremarkable.
That's the whole trick of the ZR2's chassis: Whether you're cruising on pavement, blasting down a dirt path, or crawling along the rocks, the truck feels completely normal, capable and at-ease. Most off-roaders operate best in a narrow set of conditions, sacrificing comfort everywhere else. The Colorado ZR2 feels poised in any environment. As is true across the model range, the off-roader Chevy is worlds ahead of the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro in terms of ride comfort and handling prowess both on and off the pavement, as well as interior space and available equipment. The TRD Pro's 278-hp V6 is less refined and flexible than what's available in the ZR2, though the Toyota does get points for offering a six-speed manual against the Chevy's automatic-only approach.
Even the full-size off-road pickups that overshadow the midsize Colorado in size and price don't feel this well-rounded. The Ford Raptor is quicker with a more responsive drivetrain, but feels heavier, sloshier, with less control of its body motions both on and off road. The Ram Power Wagon, based on a 3/4-ton heavy duty pickup, could tow a pair of ZR2s behind it, but it's a slow, deliberate rock crawler with none of the Chevy's high-speed sharpness. And the 76.7-inch-wide Colorado can sneak down trails too narrow for the Ford or Ram to pass.
The ZR2's upgraded suspension is so good, it leaves you wishing for a buffed-up powertrain to match. The off-roader's two available drivetrains are unchanged from lesser Colorados and Canyons: A 3.6-liter V6 gasser with an eight-speed automatic is standard, with a 2.8-liter Duramax turbodiesel four-cylinder and six-speed auto as a roughly $3500 option. The V6, with 308 horses at 6000 RPM and 275 lb-ft at 4000, feels decently peppy with a low-six-second 0-60 run, but needs a firm kick at the throttle to make any real grunt off-road. On the trail, the diesel is a peach—with 186 horses at 3400 RPM and a whopping 369 lb-ft at just 2000, it has copious midrange muscle, perfect for rock crawling or kicking the tail out in the dirt. But it feels wheezy on the street, with a 0-60 time roughly in the mid-nine-second range. The gasser's eight-speed auto is more flexible than the diesel's six-cog 'box, though manually shifting either, via a rocker switch on the floor shifter, is frustratingly slow.
Nitpicking? Sure, especially given the ZR2's base price: $41,000 for an extended cab gasser with a 74-inch bed, $2600 more for a four-door shortbed. The cheapest Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro commands $1000 more, with far less refinement on- and off-road. Stepping up to the full-size off-road pickups, the Ford Raptor and Ram Power Wagon, entails a nearly $10,000 leap beyond the top-flight Colorado. And none of the aforementioned competitors offers a diesel engine, which improves the ZR2's EPA-estimated fuel economy by three and four MPG, respectively, over the gasser's 16 city, 18 highway rating—and perhaps more importantly, makes off-roading even more fun.
Each automaker's off-road pickup truck is built to a different mission, leaving buyers spoiled for choice. If you're looking for a sensibly-sized pickup with some serious chops where the pavement ends, the Colorado ZR2 makes a compelling case. It's as capable as something you'd spend several thousand dollars modifying for yourself, with none of the ride and handling drawbacks of a homebrew lifted 4x4. And while the optional diesel engine might not be a road-burner, its off-road grunt is delightful. If you're looking for a well-rounded 4x4 that can crawl rocks and the freeway with equal aplomb, your answer just might be ZR2.