First Drive: Duramax-Powered Chevy Colorado ZR2

Super heavy-duty off-road trucks are all the rage this year. But there’s one thing you’ll never find in a Raptor or a Power Wagon, and that’s a diesel engine. If you want to keep the faith, you’re looking at the all-new 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2. But in addition to the Duramax goodness, you’ll find there’s a whole lot to like about the ZR2.

2.8-liter Duramax Turbo diesel

The engine is a stock Duramax 2.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. The ZR2 gets the same 186 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque as any other Colorado with this engine. You can get the ZR2 with a 3.6-liter gas V6, but the Duramax is better to drive, and gets better mileage at 19 MPG city and 22 MPG highway.

The Duramax engine mates up to a six-speed automatic transmission and an electronically controlled transfer case. Just spin the dial and you can select from rear-wheel-drive, automatic on-demand all-wheel-drive, 4WD high range or 4LO for serious off-road work.

Adventure is just a knob turn away. Four-wheel-drive can also be monitored on the gauge screen.

At the back end, you get a unique 3.42:1 rearend ratio, with a driver-selectable locking differential. There’s also a driver-controlled locking diff at the front end, which allows you split the power exactly four ways with no slip anywhere.

While driving the Colorado ZR2 fast on dirt, the Duramax offers plenty of torque to dig in and go. We learned this on a two-mile Trophy Truck course near Grand Junction, Colorado. Driving both the gas and diesel variants, there was plenty of grunt to get up to takeoff speeds, and to power out of tight corners in deep, loose dirt.

The 2.8-liter Duramax was a big hit in the regular Chevy Colorado, and we see it doing well off-road.

When rockcrawling and trail driving, the Duramax/six-speed combination knew what to do, with plenty of power to climb stairs like a mountain goat. On-road, of course, there was ample driving power, and minimal noise from the whisper-quiet Duramax.

Epic Suspension

The Duramax in the ZR2 is the same engine Chevy delivered for the last two years in the standard Colorado. But the real genius of the ZR2 happens on the underside, where a redesigned suspension works its magic.

The Colorado ZR2 is 3.5 inches wider than a standard Colorado, and sits two inches taller. The extra width comes courtesy of unique front control arms and hubs that push the front wheels outward. The cast iron control arms are much stronger than the stamped steel units on the regular Colorado. The hub and steering knuckle has been beefed up similarly. In the back, the extra width required the use of a custom rear axle.

The suspension on the truck was specifically designed to handle off-roading.

But the best part of the ZR2 suspension is the Multimatic shock absorbers. These advanced units have multiple damping curves to allow for Trophy Truck jumps, and for a fine, smooth and responsive ride when the ZR2 is on pavement. The springs on the Colorado ZR2 are tuned for the extra ride height and suspension travel.

Getting the Look Right

Many trucks marketed as off-road designs are just appearance packages with a thin skid plate under the radiator, but a good look at the underside of the Colorado ZR2 reveals some major armor to keep the rocks and boulders from bashing the oil pan or the diffs.

Topside, you get a great look with a hood that is also unique to the ZR2. There’s a flat black power bulge in the center – painted flat to diminish glare. If you order the Duramax, you get badges for the engine on the sides of the power bulge.

Regardless of where the truck is or what it does, it looks good doing it.

The ZR2 comes with black cladding in the important places, and a special blackout grille on the front. The bumpers increase clearance around the wheels for better approach and departure angles. The bumpers also help with heavy articulation exercises when rockcrawling.

In fact, when you look at the ZR2, only the “Colorado” badging gives a touch of chrome shine to the truck. Apart from that, it’s all understated excellence and serious looks.

Luxury in the Colorado ZR2

Chevy thought through the interior of the ZR2 from beginning to end. The front seats are upholstered in fine leather. You get standard two-way heaters that allow you to warm the whole seat, or just the seatback. The front seats are also power-adjustable. In back, you get a bench seat with a fold-down center armrest.

There’s plenty of legroom in the back seat of the Crew Cab, and a little less in the extended cab. But if you want the 6-foot 2-inch bed, you have to get the extended cab. Plus, it’s a little cheaper.

The Colorado has plenty of buttons within reach of the driver. From locking the rear diff to hill desent, it is all there.

The tech story in the ZR2 is good. All models come with an 8-inch touchscreen and the Chevy MyLink smartphone integration package, and you can upgrade to a Bose premium audio system for $500, and for $495 you can add GPS navigation to the system.

On the Rocks or on the Road

I’ll be direct: This truck rocks. Whether you’re bombing down a dirt road hoping for a jump, crawling up a giant rock, or driving to work, you’re going to like the ZR2. The on-road handling and performance is smooth and quiet. You can enjoy the stereo without the howl of the standard Goodyear Duratrac tires, because the ZR2 is that quiet inside.

We were able to test out the Colorado ZR2 on a multitude of terrains.

When you look at pricing, the ZR2 competes very well against other trucks in its class. In the Crew Cab body style, you can get the Duramax for $46,120. If you don’t need to haul five adults, you can get the extended cab and more bed space for $44,495.

Something new for the ZR2 is the in-bed spare tire mount. This dealer accessory really gives the truck an off-roady look.

By the time you option up with the Bose stereo and navigation, you’ve got a real luxury truck that will go anywhere. Even better, you’re still well under $50,000. It’s easy to hit that price point with a lot of trucks. Even worse, many dealers are charging a hefty premium on the full-size off-road trucks these days.

In the end, it comes back to the diesel. The ZR2 is tremendously fun, will go anywhere, and it’s comfortable. But that engine is what makes it amazing.

About the author

Jeff Zurschmeide

Jeff Zurschmeide is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon. He covers new cars, motor sports, and technical topics for a variety of newspapers, magazines, and online outlets. Additionally, Jeff is the author of eight published books on automotive topics, including photo histories of Portland International Raceway and Portland Speedway. His current automotive passion is divided between his Mazda Miata, 1976 Mini Cooper, 1920 Model T Ford, and 1971 Fiat 124 Spider.
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