In the Colorado ZR2, Chevrolet has fielded a purpose-built pickup truck that boasts a number of exclusives.
It’s the only midsize truck available with a diesel engine, the only one to come standard with true “off-road” suspension and the only one with locking front and rear differentials.
So, who cares?
Chevrolet engineers made a splash at last year’s L.A. Auto Show by bringing a number of pre-production ZR2s to a gritty industrial space they’d rented near the Convention Center.
For the duration of the show, Chevy hosted wannabe terrain-tacklers eager to show off their off-road skills on a bumpy, rocky course fabricated at the former factory site.
But even then the questions that formed in my mind were: Who is this truck for? And, how many of those people are there?
The ZR2 is a midsize pickup truck. Despite its massive 17-inch wheels and overblown 31-inch tires, it can be mounted without a stepladder and drives surprisingly like a sedan.
Around town, it’s sporty and responsive, easy to maneuver through traffic. It can even be parked in a normal-sized parking spot.
For a truck with fat tires, it’s quiet on the freeway, which makes it possible to enjoy the adequate sound system.
The truck’s infotainment system, which features an 8-inch color touch screen, connects easily to a telephone. (A Wi-Fi hot spot is standard too.) The HVAC system functions well.
The seats are comfortable, even on longer drives, and though the “extended cab” rear seating area is really more like an extended storage area, there’s plenty of legroom and headroom up front. (Rear passengers will need to be rather small if they are to experience reasonable legroom.)
Chevy engineers have taken pains to make the cabin comfy. Standard are heated, leather-trimmed bucket seats, with power lumbar adjustments and a telescoping, leather-wrapped steering wheel.
The ZR2 is delivered standard with a 3.6-liter V-6 engine, which produces 308 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque.
But the preferred option — a $3,500 upgrade — is the 2.8-liter, four-cylinder, turbo diesel engine. It makes an acceptable 186 horsepower and a phenomenal 369 pound-feet of torque.
Corner to corner, the turbo diesel is quite zippy, for a truck. In the rough, it makes the ZR2 a wall crawler.
Off road is where the ZR2 really performs. It’s so capable, in fact, that I wasn’t able to find anything to challenge it.
The grunty diesel engine, combined with the ZR2’s four-wheel drive, long suspension travel and Multimatic DSSV shock dampers, made short work of deep sand, slushy mud, rocky roads and desert washboard. Indeed, the truck was almost as smooth on rough surfaces as it was on the freeway.
Since the ZR2 was twice delayed getting to me because previous drivers had damaged it during their test periods, I was perhaps too reluctant to throw the ZR2 up or down a steep cliff, or hit sand berms at the high speeds a Baja 1000 run would require.
And I didn’t even engage the locking differentials, which would have made near-vertical assaults possible, even on uneven ground.
The truck’s plastic-like interior raised concerns about durability and longevity. Would the dash and door panels survive the sun-baking and dust-brushing they’d get from repeated exposures to harsh weather? Only time would tell.
I also wondered about the spare tire placement, which on the model I borrowed was attached to a rack bolted square in the center of the truck bed. That would have complicated plans to haul anything substantial on an overland adventure, such as motorcycles, mountain bikes, kayaks or camping equipment.
A Chevy executive explained that this is an option, desired by dedicated rock crawlers, because it allows for even more ground clearance under the truck, where the spare is typically stored.
Chevy’s marketing people say their ZR2 appeals to truckers “in search of their next adventure and determined to stray off the beaten path.” They want a truck tough enough for “overland travel, rock crawling, traversing two-track trails and bombing through the desert,” while also gentle enough for daily driving.
Those customers, who Chevy said are cross-shopping Toyota Tacoma TRD midsize and Ford Raptor full-size trucks — both of them more expensive vehicles — have added to the Colorado bottom line. The ZR2 now accounts for about 10% of Colorado sales, the company said.
Although the truck’s sales are still dwarfed by the Tacoma’s roughly 130,000 trucks sold this year, according to Kelley Blue Book, the Colorado’s 72,000 moved by dealers is a strong number.
That puts the Colorado far in front of the competing Nissan Frontier, GMC Canyon and Honda Ridgeline. (Full-size work trucks from Ford and Chevy sell better, of course, with Ford turning over about 575,000 of its F-150s this year, and Chevy about 365,000 Silverados.)
Despite the mathematics, I’m still left wondering who’s buying the ZR2s. I haven’t seen any among the German and Swedish sport utility vehicles crowding the streets of Silver Lake. I haven’t seen any in the company parking garage.
I guess I’d better call the Chevy guys and ask them to extend the loan. I need to go canyon crawling in Moab.
2017 Colorado 4WD ZR2
Times’ take: Chevy delivers a purpose-built truck toy
Highs: Mighty motor, massive suspension, handsome lines
Lows: Cheap-feeling interior raises longevity concerns
Vehicle type: Two-door, four-passenger pickup truck
Base price: $40,995
Price as tested: $45,435
Powertrain: 2.8-liter, 4-cylinder turbo diesel engine
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Torque: 369 pound-feet
EPA fuel economy rating: 19 miles per gallon city / 22 highway / 20 combined