Is the Chevy Colorado ZR2 a Rally Car in Disguise

Testing Chevy’s off-road Colorado along the snow-covered stage roads at Team O’Neil Rally School. Perhaps the perfect rally truck.

Good chance you’ve already heard of the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2. A smaller option to the high-speed desert-crushing Ford F-150 Raptor, it features a handful of fantastic off-road pluses and advanced suspension tech perfect for roaring down your nearest desert flatland. Here in the Northeast, where Road & Track’s online presence is based, we don’t have much desert flatland. But you know what we do have? Access to 600 acres of snow-covered New Hampshire backroads at one of the greatest rally schools in the country. Here’s how the ZR2 stacked up.

The trtip started at the Road & Track offices in midtown Manhattan, the heart of New York City. Our destination, Team O’Neil Rally School, was just six hours and 335 miles north. A road journey was in order, and the ZR2 turned out to be the perfect companion.

From the beginning, the ZR2 makes its off-road chops known. The shaved bumper and sloping skidplate give masses of clearance, accented with dual tow hooks and a track extended by 3.5 inches. The tyres are fully exposed at the front, making it a cinch to climb up a rock face without scraping any body panels. Our truck was further equipped with the $3425 “Midnight Special Edition” package, which includes black emblems, 17-inch black wheels, and bed-mounted style bar and full-size spare tyre, all of which are factory fitted. I prefer the ZR2 in a less-adorned spec, personally, but I can definitely see the appeal of this grunt look, all-black setup. Even in base form the Colorado is a vision—the ZR2 trim just tops it off. Maybe you would pick a lighter color, perhaps.

On the road, the ZR2 doesn’t drive like a ute. Really. Despite the Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac off-road tyres, raised ride height and live rear axle with leaf springs, there’s no indication from behind the wheel this thing is an honest-to-goodness body-on-frame vehicle. There’s no obvious wind noise, no shudder when you hit big bumps, and the steering is impressively car-like. A lot of that has to do with the ZR2’s super-advanced Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve dampers (or DSSV). Built by Multimatic, the Canadian motorsports outfit that puts together the Ford GT, the DSSV dampers mechanically alter the movement of the hydraulic fluid within them to adapt the compression and rebound damping on the fly. (This type of damper design has been used in Formula 1, Le Mans, and CART race cars, along with the Aston Martin One-77, Ford GT and Chevy Camaro ZL1 1LE.) On the ZR2, the DSSV units offers half a dozen different damping curves on the front axle, and four at the rear, rather than just one damping profile all-around like a traditional damper. They also look awesome.

Even before leaving the pavement, it became obvious that these dampers are the heros. New England highways of broken winter pavement were no match for the spool-valve shocks, which easily brushed off massive potholes. Each impact is handled smartly and efficiently—it’s almost as if the shocks are asking you to go faster. Both high-speed sweepers and tight corners were met with almost no body roll, complimented by direct (though slightly numb) steering and strong, linear brakes. It’s a weird feeling hopping into such an aggressive-looking off-road powerhouse and having it drive like a finely-tuned performance crossover, but that’s really how the ZR2 feels on the bitumen. It’s worth noting this is the first time any manufacturer has used a spool-valve damper setup in an off-road application. They are brilliant.

It’s when you leave the pavement that the ZR2 gets rather impressive. Unlike the Tacoma TRD Pro or upcoming Ranger Raptor, the ZR2 doesn’t have electronically-controlled drive modes—it’s decidedly old-school in its approach, making it all the more appealing for off-roaders who prefer to make their own decisions. Instead of terrain controls, the console switches facing the driver handle the basics of power flow—2HI, 4HI, 4LO, and differential lockers front and rear. Your call as when to use them.

Founded in 1997 by car rally champion Tim O’Neil, the Team O’Neil Rally School is home to 600 acres of forests, rally stages, off-road tracks, and skidpad facilities in the heart of Northern New Hampshire. In addition to one-, two-, or five-day rally prep schools, Team O’Neil offers winter driving, off-roading, and drifting classes, using a fleet of Ford Fiestas, Subaru WRXs, BMW E30s, and Jeep Cherokees. It’s a fantastic place to learn how to drive off-road, and the perfect place to stretch the ZR2’s legs.

The two-wheel drive setting was useless on most of the hilly, snow-covered rally stages Team O’Neil had to offer, so I spent most of the day in 4HI with the rear differential locked and traction control turned all the way off. Because it’s still a pickup truck, there’s no weight in the back, meaning fishtailing out on snow was easy and predictable. Even through steep uphill sections and slippery downhill slopes, the truck remained a goer.

After some hours trekking through the forest, Team O’Neil let us loose on its slalom circuit, where students learn left-foot braking, car control, and loose-surface handling. Icy bumps and crested hills proved light work for the Baja-ready ZR2. The truck seemed almost too easy to get rotated around the cone-marked trail. Despite its maneuverability, it was the slalom course that shined a light on the ZR2’s true size. Compared to a Silverado, it’s small. But park it next to any one of Team O’Neil’s Fiestas, and it looks like a monster. Still, it’s one of the most placeable trucks I’ve ever driven. It would appear that suspension has a lot to do with it.

The only real weak point of the ZR2 is its powertrain. The souped-up truck doesn’t get any special engine or transmission options in ZR2 form—you’re given the choice between the 308-horsepower 3.8-litre V6 with an eight-speed automatic transmission, or a $3500 optional 2.8-litre Duramax turbodiesel inline four with a six-speed auto. Our diesel test truck was slow to accelerate to highway speeds; the torque was nice for slower work (like the kind of driving we were doing at Team O’Neil), but the engine felt tired and overworked on the highway. Any stab of the throttle was met with a few tenths of a second delay before the transmission kicked down—not optimal for trying to maintain a slide in the snow. There’s no manual gearbox option available on any version of the ZR2, which is a pity considering the Tacoma TRD Pro can be got with a six-speed stick. To see how the V6 gasser compares to the diesel, check out our First Drive Review of the ZR2.

The ZR2’s cabin is in essence Colorado, nicely appointed but decidedly not special. I appreciate Chevy retaining a console-mounted gear selector lever, but would’ve liked dual-zone climate control and a more intuitive infotainment system. There’s a screen in the middle of the gauge cluster capable of displaying all kinds of information, including stereo settings, speed, fuel efficiency, as well as pitch and roll angle and current drivetrain settings, which was quite fun to toy with. Some extra seat bolstering would’ve been nice for when I was going sideways in the forest, and I expect it would’ve helped had I been bombing through the desert as well.

Though we didn’t really send the ZR2 off any real jumps, we think the snow-covered, tree-lined roads at Team O’Neil were more than adequate for us to get an idea of how it performs. That DSSV suspension is truly great—it’s just as competent barreling down a full-blown rally stage as it is slamming into bumps and potholes on the road. It’s when we started to operate the truck on those stages that we discovered its eagerness to shrug off any imperfection, even on the roughest of surfaces at higher speeds. That capability, paired with the truck’s reasonable size, make it easy to pitch around tight bends, despite its less-than-perfect drivetrain—something I’d never be able to say about a bigger, chunkier Ford F-150 Raptor. There’s no question the ZR2 is a hero off-road—we found that out from our time spent off-roading it in the mountains and dirt. What we didn’t expect was that it would be such a pleasure to hustle through a snowy stage circuit, like some kind of jacked-up rally car with a cargo compartment.

Henry Sapiecha

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