2017 Colorado ZR2 First Drive: It’s Money Honey

In the first installment of the Jurassic Park franchise, we’re introduced to the vicious raptors — a breed of dinosaurs who tear, smash, and maul their way through the storyline (and more than a few characters). By the time we see them in the most recent installment of the series, Chris Pratt has managed to tame them to a certain degree, creating creatures that obey a few commands but will still rip his face off if given the opportunity.

Chevrolet had a 2017 F-150 Raptor on hand at its launch of the Colorado ZR2. Hammering its loud pedal, the beast ripped across the hot Colorado asphalt, its psychotic twin-turbo exhaust note sounding like Marilyn Manson screaming obscenities into a vacuum cleaner hose. Backing off to 7/10ths, it struck me that the Raptor and ZR2 bear more than a passing resemblance to those fictional silver-screen scoundrels.

Let’s be clear: the Raptor in a class by itself. With 450 horsepower and 510 lb-ft of torque ready to deploy at the wiggle of your right toe, the black sheep of the F-150 family will gleefully tear your head off, stuff it into a box, and show it to its friends. The Raptor can — like an early morning Trump tweetstorm — be surprising, powerful, and alarming. Price and power differences scupper the argument that the Raptor and ZR2 are direct competitors. Still, given their off-road raison d’etre, comparisons are inevitable. The ZR2, then, incorporates a few of the Raptor’s tricks — plus a whole host of its own.

What separates a ZR2 from its mundane brothers? Well, unlike the lame-duck Z71, this ZR2 is far more than a paint-n-stickers package. Beefy 31-inch Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac tires wrap exclusive 17×8-inch aluminum rims, which — along with unique hubs — help widen the front and rear track widths by 3.5 inches over a standard Colorado. Chevrolet has jacked the suspension 2 inches skyward and shove a brace of locking differentials underneath the ZR2.

2017 Chevy Colorado ZR2

The ZR2’s main party trick is its deployment of Multimatic’s Spool-Valve Damper technology. Multimatic, you may recall, is the Canadian outfit building the Ford GT. It also supplied the dampers found on Chevy’s own Camaro Z/28 and have, at certain points during its history, supplied dampers for F1 teams including during Red Bull’s savage dominance of the sport in the early 2010s.

Slicing through the marketing chaff, these DSSV dampers replace the traditional piston and shim setup found in most shocks with a pair of spool valves. Spool valves have been used to control fluid in hydraulic systems for decades but have only recently been deployed in dampers, such as the aforementioned Formula 1 and Z/28 applications.

This explains the presence of gold bling on the ZR2’s dampers at all four corners. This extra real estate moves the spool valves which control the normal on-road operating range into a separate chamber in the middle of the damper. A third spool valve resides on the shaft in the main body of the damper and is tasked with handling extreme compression events such as those which occur during gnarly off road maneuvers. The chamber furthest outboard on the damper is a reservoir full of nitrogen. Compared to the Fox shocks on the Raptor, which are tasked with managing all aspects of gonzo off-road action and on-pavement civility, the ZR2’s dampers are essentially (and expensively) designed to provide the best of both worlds.

Multimatic Dampers, ZR2

Chevy could’ve gone to a mainstream company like Fox or Bilstein and called it a day. That they didn’t speaks to the commitment of the ZR2 development team. It’s always encouraging to learn that true gearheads toiled on the development of a performance vehicle, be it of the racetrack or off-road variety. Suiting up to lap a fast dirt track frequented by Trophy Trucks in a gas-powered ZR2, Nick Katcherian, a Lead Development Engineer at the General, jumped in and rode shotgun.

The track featured a good mix of short straights, long sweeping turns, and jumps that could easily be taken at 40 mph. With all the electronic nannies turned on, the ZR2 treated me with kid gloves, reining in the power and dousing any attempt at lurid powerslides in the turns. After a lap of StabiliTraking our way through the dirt, a quick punch of the ZR2-specific “Off-Road Mode” button altered the throttle progression and changed the eight-speed automatic’s shift calibrations.

This mode woke up the ZR2 and eliminated the feeling that the truck’s throttle was set in wet cement. A further, longer jab of the traction control button backs off the t/c and was my preferred mode for high speed running, as it allows for tail-out action and a snappy throttle. It’s a three-step system: nannies on, nannies partly off, nannies mostly off. A complicated button dance (think up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-A-B-start complexity) makes all the nannies go away completely.

2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2

The DSSV dampers proved their worth, landing 40 mph all-wheels-off-the-ground jumps without shaking loose any of my fillings. As I slid around a fast left-hander, Nick explained the leeway his ZR2 team was afforded by GM, allowing them the freedom to work together and have a bit of fun as a relatively small team without being hindered by the traditional miles of General Motors red tape.

Nowhere was this devil-may-care attitude more on display than on a rocky trail in the wilds of Colorado. Every event like this has a support vehicle, but few see fit to hack apart an example of the very vehicle being demonstrated for the purpose of affixing a utility service bed where a perfectly good truck box once resided.

2017 Chevy Colorado ZR2

“We just went ahead and did it,” a GM engineer told me as I examined the support truck’s custom welds. Tossing a one-inch body lift on the thing allowed for meatier 33-inch tires, and one-off electrical work permitted an extra battery to help out with a winch and compressor. It was a bleedingly cool addition, putting an exclamation point on the gearhead level of the folks working on the ZR2 program.

On the rocky Bangs Canyon trail, the ZR2 showed off its aggressive approach, breakover, and departure angles by dispatching rock maneuvers with ease. In fact, viewed from the front, the ZR2 appears to be made solely of Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac tires, as the development team hacked off the standard Colorado’s lower front fascia to expose nearly the entire front tread to terra firma. This allows for a 30-degree approach angle, the same as a Raptor. A Wrangler Rubicon, it must be noted, has a 42-degree approach angle.

2017 Chevy Colorado ZR2

The ZR2’s rock sliders, tough metal bars protecting the rocker panels, allow the driver to slide over rocks like a skater boardsliding a handrail without causing damage to the truck. They spoke to me but once on the trail. Shifting to four-low and locking both the front and rear diffs, the ZR2 used its 10 inches of rear suspension travel to traverse its way up and down a broad and rocky staircase. It was easy to modulate the throttle during these exercises, with the off-road systems allowing just the right amount of slip. Sightlines were clearer than a pair of Topshop jeans and it was easy to place all four tires. The addition of an around-view camera system would be welcome.

I was driving a ZR2 equipped with the 308 hp, 3.6-liter DOHC V6, but the truck ahead was a 186 hp Duramax diesel example. Shod with the same 31-inch tires and 2-inch suspension lift, the diesel nevertheless seemed to suffer from a worse departure angle than its gas-powered brother, owing to its sewer cannon of a tailpipe which dinged itself on some rocks on a couple of occasions where mine did not. This, coupled with the diesel’s $3,500 price tag, cemented my preference for the V6.

2017 Chevy Colorado ZR2

The sole option on our $40,000 extended cab ZR2 test truck was a $995 audio system. Freight brought the as-tested total to $41,935. Along for the ride were all manner of creature comforts such as remote start, heated seats, and a sliding rear window. The extended cab configuration provided Yao Ming levels of legroom for front seat riders but the rear seat space, despite the presence of seats and safety belts, is a cargo only affair. Get the crew cab if you plan to take the family off-road.

The ZR2’s interior is largely a carbon copy of the standard-issue Colorado, with the exception of ZR2-specific rocker switches for the front and rear lockers, plus a secondary function on the four-wheel drive knob for Off Road Mode.

2017 Chevy Colorado ZR2

While the ZR2 does look the part with its unique hood, butch fender flares, and aggro approach angle, it lacks a visceral visual punch. I may be in the minority with my proclivity for obnoxious styling choices but the ZR2 could use a bit of additional flair. When asked at dinner about the Lawrence Welk-level of bling when compared to certain other off-road warriors, a GM honcho said they would put money on the eventual appearance of special editions. Good. Make mine lime green.

Returning to town from the trailhead, the DSSV dampers earned their keep, providing a smooth on-road ride over Rim Rock Drive and past the towering snuff-colored rock monoliths which make up the Colorado National Monument. An indicated 21.8 miles per gallon was recorded on the 80-mile journey back to civilization. Try doing that in a Raptor.

2017 Chevy Colorado ZR2

Yes, the Raptor is a bigger, more powerful, and vastly more expensive truck, so direct comparisons are ill-advised at best. Nevertheless, the ZR2 team has done a great job of imbuing the Colorado with sufficient off-road chops to at least be worthy of being mentioned in the same conversation. Yes, the Raptor is better … but I’m not sure it is $15,000 better.

If the Raptor is a clever girl, then the ZR2 – with its manageable size, off-road capability, trick suspension, and daily livability – is arguably a cleverer girl. For many urban cowboys and weekend warriors, that’ll be more than enough to sign on the dotted line.

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