“Rock left, going to straddle it,” I called out to my driving partner, Shad Balch, director of Chevrolet Communications. Driving about 45 mph and focused on that rock I somehow missed another rock on my right. Bang!
The radio crackled with a message from truck 99. “Truck 18, you’re dog tracking. You should probably pull over.”
I was piloting truck 18, a blue 2023 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 on a three-day drive from Las Vegas to Reno using much of the 2023 Best In The Desert Vegas to Reno race course. I had heard and felt a boom from the rear end, and saw an alert for a low right rear tire on the digital gauge cluster, but the truck was still soldiering on.
Chevy Colorado ZR2: now, boulder-friendly (sort of)
I was confused. The rock I straddled shouldn’t have made contact with the bash plates.
I got out and saw that the driver side rear tire had too much camber, the right rear quarter panel was dented, the right rear Goodyear was flat, and the right rear wheel and tire now sat farther back in the wheelwell.
Looking underneath, events became clear. A rock had made contact with the dented but still intact aluminum driveshaft just ahead of where it slides into the rear end. The driveshaft spun the rock back to the right, hitting where the U-bolts hold the axle and leaf spring together. It sheared the pin (bolt) that centers the mounting bracket top plate with the U-bolts, axle, and leaf spring. This allowed the axle to slide back about three inches on the passenger side, bending the front U-bolt while shoving the rear U-bolt off the top plate. It was all still in one piece, and the axle was fine.
Henry Canan, a GM tech who spends his days fixing the stuff the engineering team breaks during development, was on hand, but the chase truck didn’t have a replacement pin or U-bolts.
Everyone agreed the truck could drive out with a spare tire, but the axle should be shoved back into place.
Time for MacGyver-level repairs.
After a few failed attempts to get the rear axle aligned, Canan said, “This is going to sound sketchy, but we might be able to do it with the truck.” Canan removed the driveshaft, making the ZR2 a front-wheel-drive vehicle momentarily, and Chevrolet Performance Manager of Performance Integration Tim Demetrio put the truck in 4Lo, locked the front locker, shifted into reverse, and backed into a rock placed behind the right rear tire. We all watched as the axle slid forward and back into place. Miracles never cease.
Canan couldn’t straighten the U-bolts using a boulder with a metal mallet, so he slid the U-bolts in backwards so they pulled against the axle to keep it better centered. That was important because there was no replacement centering pin. He also installed a steel driveshaft available through Chevrolet Performance.
With a spare wheel and tire, the truck was back in one piece. We turned around and drove out the way we came in.
On the highway, Demetrio cracked over the radio, “Let me know if that thing pulls, vibrates, or doesn’t feel right, truck 18.”
“Amazingly, it drives…fine. Seems to pull a smidge to the left if anything, but otherwise it’s fine,” I responded.
We met up with the rest of the trucks at a scheduled pit stop, and there I swapped into the Sand Dune Metallic backup truck.
That night in Fallon, Nevada, the Chevy team went to the local Napa Auto Parts store and bought two U-bolts and a pin. Demetrio said they could fix the truck with less than $10 worth of parts, but I continued in the backup truck.
After five days, four hotels, 350 miles off pavement in the desert, and about 400 to 500 more miles on pavement, that’s the worst, and only, thing that happened to any of the ZR2s aside from flat tires, and the truck was still driveable.
It’s clear the second-generation Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 has morphed into the automaker’s flagship off-roader. It’s not as big as Chevy’s two other ZR2s, the Silverado 1500 and Silverado HD, but that’s a bonus for off-roading, and the Colorado ZR2’s capability sets a new benchmark for the current and looming competition.
Colorado ZR2: good shocks, hardware, and specs
The 2023 Chevy Colorado ZR2 is more than just a base Colorado with some off-road parts added to the mix. The Colorado’s hardware and specs let it brush off jumps, rocks (most of them), ruts, mud, water, silt, sand, snow, and everything else we encountered in the desert.
The new ZR2 rides on a model-specific frame with additional reinforcements for loads and twist and revised geometry to mount the rear shocks outboard by the wheels instead of inboard like the rest of the standard 2023 Chevrolet Colorado lineup. This change makes the truck more stable on- and off-road and protects the shock mounts from damage while off-roading, should you, or someone like me, tag a rock. I don’t recommend it. Demetrio confirmed I would’ve ripped the shock mount off the old truck.
The new ZR2 also rolls on a 3.0-inch wider track and has 3.0-inch lift compared to the base Colorado. The numbers speak for themselves with 10.7 inches of ground clearance, and 9.9 inches of front and 11.6 inches of rear suspension travel. These changes contribute to a 24.6-degree breakover angle, a 38.3-degree approach angle, and a 25.1-degree departure angle.
The ZR2’s approach and departure angles beat those of the current Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, but Toyota’s shorter wheelbase pays dividends in the form of a slightly better breakover angle at 26.6 degrees. We’ll have to see where the new Tacoma TRD Pro and Ranger Raptor fit into the equation when they arrive. The Jeep Gladiator Mojave bests the ZR2’s approach and departure angles, but the Jeep’s longer wheelbase hurts its breakover angle. The ZR2’s approach, departure, and breakover angles are also all better than those of the Ford F-150 Raptor, regardless of whether it’s on 35s or 37s, and the Ram 1500 TRX.
Among the best off-roading parts on the second-generation ZR2 are its Multimatic Dynamic Suspension Spool Valve (DSSV) shocks, which debuted on the 2017 Colorado ZR2. These gold-sleeved shocks have been upgraded with the rod from the larger Silverado 1500 ZR2 for more damping force and a new tune for more control at speed. The passive dampers have the ability to control the ZR2 while attacking a long sweeper on the road or jumping over a cattle grate off-road. I did both during Chevy’s drive and came away impressed with the body control and smoothness created by the DSSVs. My back should need a chiropractor after those 350 miles of off-roading, but I’m not even taking Tylenol.
Other off-road goodies include front and rear locking differentials and two front tow hooks. GM noted the rear Class IV hitch is the truck’s rear recovery point, and it feels cheap that it doesn’t get rear tow hooks, a problem the upcoming Colorado ZR2 Bison will fix.
Three aluminum skid plates up front cover everything all the way back to the transfer case in case the worst should happen. I never hit the bash plates once, though I could have used one over the rear axle.
Like the base Colorado, the ZR2’s front axle moves forward just under three inches for 2023. It rolls on 17-inch wheels wrapped in 33-inch Goodyear Territory Mud Terrain tires versus the outgoing truck’s 31-inch rubber. These are the same tires found on the Ford Bronco with the Sasquatch package, but the tread pattern is different on the Chevy. Goodyear makes two versions of these tires. Confused? Me too, but the version Chevy chose is much quieter on the highway with no loud thrum. Buyers hoping to throw 35s on their ZR2 will be disappointed. They won’t fit cleanly without rubbing, but changes to the upcoming ZR2 Bison seemingly correct the fitment issue.
The Colorado ZR2 is 4.8 inches narrower than a Silverado 1500 ZR2 and 10.2 inches narrower than a Ford F-150 Raptor. Its size makes it easier to place on the trail and far less harrowing when ripping around rock-strewn surfaces. Trophy trucks take the desert race route we ran, but I have zero clue how they make it through the water drainage tunnels that we went through under the highways.
Colorado ZR2 blasts Baja mode
The V-6 from the last ZR2 has been chucked aside for a 2.7-liter turbo-4 with 310 hp and 430 lb-ft of torque. It’s the most powerful engine available for the redesigned Colorado, and like the outgoing ZR2’s optional turbodiesel-4, it has chunky low-end torque, but modes matter.
Power comes on strong around town in Normal mode, but passing power can underwhelm as the engine loses steam at freeway speeds. Chevy rates the ZR2 to tow up to 6,000 pounds and haul up to 1,151 pounds of payload.
A few turns of the drive mode dial to the left and the Baja mode symbol projects onto the touchscreen, but it’s still not enabled. GM makes you confirm via the touchscreen that you indeed want to switch to the Baja mode because it reduces the control of the electronic nannies. Baja mode turns off traction control, and reigns back electronic stability control. In three days of going sideways and airborne, I never felt the ESC system hold me back in Baja mode, which also makes the powertrain feel like a can of Red Bull was injected straight into the fuel line. Demetrio told me ESC’s still there in the background to save your butt should things get too wild. Now I want to know what too wild feels like.
PSA: Enable Baja mode before heading off pavement as it’s not easy to tap that on-screen prompt when you’re bouncing around at speed. Ask me how I know.
In addition to throttle response, Baja mode cracks off quick shifts from the 8-speed automatic transmission and holds gears longer. But there’s a secret unlisted feature that Baja mode brings with it: the Performance Shift Algorithm (PSA).
“What is that,” I asked Balch as a little green gear icon popped up in the lower right corner of the 8.0-inch digital gauge cluster. “Oh, that? That indicates PSA’s been engaged,” Balch said. PSA essentially adds a case of Jolt Cola into the fuel system. To keep the powertrain on boil, it maintains boost at all times and never lets the engine go below about 2,500 rpm when the driver is into it. Blipping the throttle quickly in Baja mode engages PSA, and it’ll remain engaged as long as the driver keeps their foot in it. Letting off the throttle so the transmission drops through the gears will eventually allow the engine to drop to 1,500 rpm. Five seconds after that, PSA shuts off.
Demetrio confirmed the PSA is integrated into the electrical architecture of the truck and can be revised via over-the-air updates. As it stands, the version of PSA I experienced was easily the second-best feature of the truck, behind the DSSV shocks and ahead of Baja mode itself. GM, if you’re listening, I’d remap PSA to stay longer. When a driver (me, for instance) lets off the throttle to cross multiple washouts they’ll probably get right back into the throttle on the other side.
Colorado ZR2: Goodness, with greatness in reach
The ZR2 is one of the most impressive factory-built off-road pickup trucks money can buy. But outside of the parts that make it perform, it’s clear GM’s accounting department held back this truck.
The interior features the same glitzy 8.0-inch digital gauge cluster and 11.3-inch touchscreen as other Colorados. To keep it in the ZR2 family, yellow-stitched accents with gray soft-touch trim bits adorn the dashboard, doors, center console, and seats, and ZR2 is stitched into the front seat headrests. Demetrio called the trim pattern on the right side of the dashboard, in the bottom of the cupholders, and in the wireless smartphone tray crushed carbon. It looks similar to digital camouflage and that was a choice. Thankfully, it’s not slathered on the seats and exterior body trim like on the latest Toyota Tundra TRD Pro.
I can get over the cheap, hard plastics in areas the driver isn’t likely to touch because they make it easier to clean the truck after an adventure. I can even get over the lack of performance front seats, because the seats in the Colorado proved comfortable for days on end of hard off-road driving. The lack of fully LED taillights feels like penny pinching.
Some of the budget-consciousness also affects performance. The lack of trail turn functionality is odd (ability to drag the inside rear wheel for a tighter turning radius). A five-link rear suspension would further aid ride quality and off-road stability. The lack of shift paddles irks me. A rocker on the gear selector can lock out upper gears when the selector is shifted into L, but there is no manual shift capability.
When it goes into production this spring, the 2023 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 will cost $48,295 (including $1,495 for destination) and top $52,000 with a few options like heated and cooled leather seats. That’s basically the same price as a far less capable, less refined, and archaic Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro or the slower, less powerful Gladiator Mojave. The more powerful F-150 Raptor costs $32,375 more and the Ram 1500 TRX runs $32,490 more, and while that power is intoxicating, you can only go so fast off-road. Those trucks are also huge, which means the Colorado ZR2 was a better choice for our Vegas to Reno run.
The new Colorado ZR2 isn’t as fast as the big off-road pickups, but it’s now one of the most capable production pickup trucks. It can provide a lot of smiles while taking a beating over three days on an off-road race course…well, as long as you don’t hit one big rock while avoiding another one.
Chevrolet provided travel and lodging in at least one haunted hotel for Motor Authority to bring you this test drive review and break their truck. It still drove out.
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