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2017 Chevy Colorado ZR2: Is This The High-Performance Midsize 4x4 Truck You’ve Been Waiting For?

Posted in Features on July 7, 2017
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Photographers: Courtesy of GM

Go big or go home. It’s a saying we’ve all probably uttered at some point, but Chevy applied that philosophy to the new ’17 Colorado ZR2. Chevy took the Colorado body-on-frame midsize pickup truck and integrated a collection of upgrades that transform it into a highly capable off-road machine without sacrificing its on-road refinement.

Before we go any further, let’s reflect on the ZR2 Regular Production Option (RPO) moniker. It was used on several GM vehicles in the past in the U.S., including the Chevy S-10 and GMC Sonoma pickups and the Tracker SUV. ZR2 denoted a special off-road suspension package. Prior to the ’17 Colorado, the ZR2 package was last used on the 2005 model year Blazer and Jimmy.

With the resurrection of ZR2 it’s back stronger than ever. The Colorado ZR2 package includes a mind-bending array of upgrades. Compared to a non-ZR2 Colorado it has a 3.5-inch-wider track width (with cast iron front control arms) and a 2-inch taller ride height. It rolls on rugged and very capable Goodyear Wrangler DuraTrac all-terrain tires that are 31 inches in diameter and use 17-inch wheels. The truck also has electronically actuated locking differentials front and rear and Multimatic Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve (DSSV) damper technology. You can read about the fascinating DSSV technology in the included sidebar.

But that’s not all. There are functional stainless steel rock sliders, a high clearance front bumper with integrated skidplate that protects the radiator and oil pan, high clearance rear bumper, transfer case skidplate, and an off-road mode that allows for fully disabling traction control and stability control. Additionally, a bed-mounted spare tire will be available as an accessory. “The bed-mounted spare tire adds a rugged look to ZR2, and serves a functional purpose. By relocating the spare to the bed, ZR2’s departure is improved and prevents any damage to the spare when you’re crawling over obstacles,” said Rich Scheer, director of design for Chevrolet Truck. And since we’re on the subject of angles, it’s worth noting that the ZR2 boasts a respectable 30 degrees of approach angle and 23.5 degrees of departure angle. These measurements are almost identical to the ’17 Ford F-150 Raptor SuperCab that won the Four Wheeler 2017 Pickup Truck of the Year (PTOTY). However, the ZR2’s approach angle is slightly less than the 35-degree approach angle of the ’17 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, which we also tested at PTOTY, but the departure angle of the TRD Pro is almost identical (23.9 degrees) to the ZR2’s.

Exterior styling was also massaged to match the ZR2’s impressive performance. The truck gets ZR2-specific 8-inch-wide aluminum wheels and a “more aggressive” grille and hood. The ZR2 also gets a healthy dose of standard equipment including the trailer package and integrated brake controller. Even with all the ZR2’s off-road-centric upgrades, the truck can tow up to 5,000 pounds or carry 1,100 pounds of payload.

Get a grip on something because there are more impressive features on the ZR2 that are going to rock your world. Namely, the ZR2 can be outfitted with a Duramax turbodiesel I-4 engine that produces 181 hp and 369 lb-ft of torque and is mated to a Hydramatic 6L50 six-speed automatic transmission. The base engine is an all-new 3.6L V-6 gasser that produces 308 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque and is mated to a Hydramatic 8L45 eight-speed automatic transmission. No matter which powertrain the ZR2 is equipped with, it’ll have a two-speed AutoTrac transfer case that offers nine drive configurations, thanks in part to the electronic-locking differentials.

So what’s it like to drive the ZR2 on- and off-road? Well, we have a full report in the accompanying sidebar, so read on.

The ZR2 is available with the 2.8L Duramax I-4 turbodiesel. This engine makes 181 hp 369 lb-ft of torque. Also available is a 3.6L V-6 gas engine that produces 308 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque. Both engines are mated to automatic transmissions.
Electronic-locking differentials are standard equipment on the ZR2.
With the addition of the electric lockers and the AutoTrac transfer case, the ZR2 boasts nine drive configurations.
A bed-mounted spare is one of the accessories available on the ZR2 and aside from making tire changes easier, it also helps improve the departure angle of the ZR2.

ZR2 First Drive

After strapping on our safety gear, the Chevy team gave us an opportunity to sample the ZR2 in both gas and diesel varieties on an approximately two-mile short-course-style track near Gateway, Colorado. Once used by racer Ricky Johnson (but now catering to vacationers willing to pay top dollar for the experience of Baja), this track features nearly 20 turns, multiple jumps and tabletops, and a couple of really long and fun decreasing radius turns.

Having hosted countless media hot laps prior to our access, the course was chewed up with formally hard-packed corners reduced to deep and rutted silt. In other words, it was perfect for our testing, allowing the ZR2 to showcase the wider track, more aggressive tires, and the spool-valve-equipped Multimatic DSSV shocks.

We began a brief familiarization run in a V-6 model while under the careful watch of the Colorado’s electronic nannies (and our Chevy representative in the passenger seat). After becoming comfortable with the truck and track, we were allowed to open it up for a few laps, pushing the ZR2 a little harder than other less experienced outlets.

Our favorite setting for fast driving was with the T-case in 2WD with the rear locker on and with the electronic “driving aids” turned completely off. This is about as pure a driving experience as you are going to get this side of the Ford Raptor. And like the Raptor, the ZR2 also offers settings for 4-Hi, Auto 4-Hi, and 4-Lo. For those who want to drive fast with a safety net, Chevy’s “off-road mode” is very good, changing throttle maps and allowing more slipping and sliding, while still keeping you safely away from going over the ragged edge.

With the V-6, we found that the Colorado was lively and fun. It was easy to steer with the throttle, especially when the eight-speed automatic was operated in manual mode to prevent upshifting and to hold higher rpm. It was also noted that GM’s electronic power steering setup in the Colorado means that you’ll never overdrive the pump at speed. As much as we tried, steering assist never diminished.

More impressive though, is how 8.9 inches of front travel and 10 inches of rear travel can feel more akin to 10-plus and 12-plus inches. It’s what we started to refer to as “Multimatic magic.” We found the ZR2 soaked up jumps and crossed ditches with aplomb, and what the engineers have done to maximize the amount of energy absorption in such a short amount of space is nothing short of phenomenal. Sure we were reminded of the relatively short travel when airing the ZR2 and could feel the suspension droop out off the ground, but each time the landing was pillowy soft with zero harshness or secondary ride motions. Amazing, especially when you consider we never saw any shock fade or excessive heat from the Multimatics on trucks that were driven at these extremes all day.

The Duramax-equipped ZR2s felt much like the gas model on the track, with suspension tuning that makes them nearly indistinguishable from one another. However, with a narrower powerband, the diesel was a bit harder to keep on the boil in the fast sections where we appreciated the 308 horsepower of the gas truck. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy the 369 lb-ft of torque of the diesel, because it would also easily hang tail, much to our amusement.

Chevy, wanting to prove the front-locker, skidplate, and rock-rail-equipped ZR2 was not just a one-trick pony, brought us to nearby Bangs Canyon to also experience the truck in slow motion. The midsize nature of the ZR2 makes it a good vehicle for exploring the backcountry and trail riding. The Multimatics once again showed their magic with a compliant ride and good control of head toss. Hill Descent Control also works well on the trail and feels less intrusive than the system on the Toyota Tacoma. We are pretty sure adventurers will prefer the Duramax ZR2 for the increased range and the fact that all that torque makes wheeling technical trails effortless. In fact, the ZR2 team successfully ran the Rubicon with development mules in order to find the limits of the ZR2’s capability and further refine the concept.

On the highway, the Multimatic shock tuning is better than the base Colorado or upmarket Z71, so other than a little extra noise from the more aggressive Goodyear DuraTrac tires, you give up nothing in ride and handling by checking the ZR2 option box. Like we said, “magic.”

When looking at the competition, the ZR2 seems to have a bullseye right on the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, landing somewhere on the off-road awesome spectrum between the TRD Pro and the Raptor, and depending on use, maybe even the Wrangler Rubicon. The reality is that the ZR2 outclasses the Tacoma in nearly every area. The chassis is stiffer with better suspension feel and better tuning, it has a front locker, and a rear one that can be operated in 2WD; it has two better drivetrains, the electronic stability program can be defeated, and the list goes on and on. Whereas in the Tacoma, the intrusive electronics are omnipresent and can’t be relieved of duty, the rear suspension kicks hard in the whoops, and overall the Tacoma feels old and unrefined.

After our experience behind the wheel, it is clear that the Chevy has hit the Goldilocks sweet spot with the Colorado ZR2. It’s not too little, not too big, not too expensive, but just right. It is hands down the best midsize off-road truck (if not one of the best all-around trucks) you can buy right now (and you should).

—Sean P. Holman, Four Wheeler Network content director

Inside The ZR2’s Multimatic DSSV

When Chevrolet set to engineering the Colorado ZR2, it could have easily tapped industry stalwarts Fox, King, or Bilstein. Instead, it commissioned the engineers at Multimatic, who were behind the revolutionary dampers used on the ’14 Camaro Z/28, to design and build the shock absorbers for the company’s new off-road warrior.

The Multimatic DSSV
Multimatic is a privately held corporation based out of Ontario, Canada. The company provides many different parts to several of the OEs, including control arms for GM pickups, the tailgate step for Ford, and the tailgate damper assembly for Nissan and Toyota. Multimatic first designed the Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve (DSSV) damper technology for racing applications in the early 2000s. The idea was simple: replace the traditional piston and shims with a pair of spool valves. Spool valves have been used for fluid control in hydraulic systems for decades, but never before in a suspension damper.

In 2002, Multimatic had its first racing success with the new DSSV technology with Newman/Haas Racing’s championship win in the open-wheel CART Series. From there, DSSV went on to be the series-mandated damper for the 2006–2007 Champ Car Atlantic Series, the US F2000 National Championship in 2007, and Indy Lights from 2015 until now. Most notable is that Red Bull Racing won its four consecutive Formula One titles (2010–2013) on DSSV dampers, and several teams continue to run them today.

The first General Motors application of DSSV technology was on the track-meets-street ’14 Camaro Z/28. When GM first approached engineers at Multimatic about doing a pickup damper, they thought they were being pranked. But as the realization set in that the Colorado engineers were indeed serious, the crew actually got excited and set to work. To date, the only road vehicles with DSSV dampers are the deMacross Epique GT1, Camaro Z/28, Aston Martin One-77 and Vulcan, Mercedes AMG-GT, Ford GT, and Colorado ZR2.

Why Spool Valves
In Multimatic’s DSSV dampers, spool valves replace the traditional piston and shims. Each spool valve has a spring-loaded valve that opens and closes at a variable rate depending on the speed of the damper’s shaft. Further, the orifices in the spool valve can be adjusted, allowing engineers to make the dampers firmer or softer depending on the amount of force being applied to the spool valves. For example, the Keyholes (as Multimatic calls them) can be tuned so that under light pressure (such as cruising down the road) the dampers are soft and compliant, and then under heavy load (such as large bumps while off-roading) the dampers can firm up.

The Multimatic DSSV dampers on the Colorado ZR2 are unlike anything seen before. These shocks have a main body where the shaft rides and the extreme compression spool valve is housed; a middle chamber that houses the on-road compression and rebound spool valves; and a third chamber that acts as a fluid reservoir and separates the nitrogen charge from the hydraulic fluid. As the piston moves through the on-road zone, oil is forced into the spool valves housed in the middle chamber through special orifices in the body. When the shock is compressed outside of the normal zone, the third spool valve mounted on the shaft takes over damping duties. And during extreme rebound situations, such as having the wheels off of the ground, a special rebound valve at the base of the main body controls the motion. All of this combines to create a damper that works exceedingly well on the highway and in the dirt, with almost no compromise.

While velocity-sensitive damping is nothing new, spool valves offer a much higher degree of repeatability, predictability, and accuracy when tuning compared to traditional valve shim stacks. Since DSSV damping curves are predictable, they can easily be calculated using the math that governs hydraulic equations. This means that the desired damping curves can be calculated and executed without the extensive trial and error of typical shock tuning. Also, due to the flow characteristics of spool valves the shock’s oil viscosity has far less of an effect on performance, meaning that as the shocks heat up with extended use, their performance won’t degrade like a typical off-road race-type damper will.

In order to make the Colorado ZR2 equally as good on the highway as off, the team at Multimatic needed to create a DSSV damper that was not only velocity-sensitive but also position-sensitive. The answer to this riddle is what lies in the ZR2’s oddly shaped dampers. Multimatic moved the spool valves that control on-road ride into a chamber in the middle of the damper and placed a third spool valve on the shaft in the main body that handles extreme compression events. What it created is a bypass shock that doesn’t compromise on-road handling for off-road comfort.

—Jason Gonderman, editor, Truck Trend

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