First Drive: 350 off-road miles in the 2023 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2
Chevrolet has created quite a strong brand in its ZR2 off-road package, first introduced on the 1994 S-10 and brought back into the spotlight in 2017 with the second-generation Colorado. In the past year, Chevrolet expanded the ZR2’s reach with Silverado 1500 and HD variants. Our time with the previous Colorado ZR2, however, had us eager to try out the latest iteration to see how it stacked up.
The third-generation Colorado that arrives for 2023 rides on an all-new chassis that pushes the front wheels forward by about three inches. That allowed the Colorado ZR2 to wear 33-inch tires, up from 31-inchers in the previous generation. The result is more ground clearance and an improved approach angle, up from 30 degrees to 38.3 degrees. Thanks to the taller tires, the longer wheelbase didn’t result in a reduction of breakover angle as that, too, increased from 23.5 to 24.6 degrees. Just as important, wheel travel is also increased, to 10.3 inches up front and 11.6 inches in the rear. Like before, the truck is protected by a bevy of skid plates, and electronic lockers front and rear can make the most of available traction to get over or through slippery or rocky conditions. ZR2 even features a unique frame with reinforced outboard rear shock mounts that tuck the shocks closer to the wheels to help them avoid obstacles.
We’ve already spent some time in every other 2023 Colorado trim, but for the ZR2, Chevrolet had something special in mind. We were invited, along with 9 other drivers, to spend three days blasting the 2023 Colorado ZR2 off-road across the Nevada desert. The plan was to retrace the route from the 2022 running of the Best in the Desert Vegas to Reno off-road race, with a few modifications. That would give us plenty of off-road seat time to get a taste of the ZR2’s new chassis, suspension, and powertrain. With so many miles to cover, in such a remote location, with drivers of varying off-road experience, there were plenty of ways for things to go wrong. Several GM engineers who accompanied our trip, despite being confident in their product, were rightly concerned about trusting all of us behind the wheel. Rest assured, we all made it back unscathed.
Leading all of us over the route was none other than Chad Hall, who had raced this same course behind the wheel of his 7300-class ZR2. His race truck used the same powertrain and much of the same suspension as the stock ZR2. In fact, Chevrolet engineer Tim Demetrio noted, “I can count on two hands all the parts that are different on that truck.” Aside from a roll cage, 35-inch tires, and a bed-mounted fuel cell and pair of spares, Hall’s rig was basically the same truck we’d all be driving as he led the way, calling out directions and obstacles to us with his radio.
This route would have a variety of terrain, but most of it would be exactly the type of high-speed dirt trails that the Colorado ZR2 was designed for. We started our off-road journey on a rather steep, rutted climb. Chevrolet’s confidence in the ZR2 was apparent as we scrambled over the rather intimidating stretch of trail without needing any spotters. Granted, it wasn’t rock crawling—we’d do just a bit of that in the coming days—although it was more technical than you’d expect to tackle in your average crossover.
As we noted in our initial drive of the Colorado back in February, the 2.7L four-cylinder can build boost to react to additional load, rather than downshifting its eight-speed automatic. On a steep climb, more throttle was met with more power and our speed was maintained even though the engine speed remained constant. In Normal driving mode, the ZR2’s engine responds quickly and gets the mid-size truck up to speed efficiently thanks to its broad, flat torque plateau. Even with 33-inch tires, the ZR2 uses the standard 3.42 axle ratios, and we didn’t notice it slowing things down too much.
On the trail, we spent most of our off-road driving in Baja mode. On the center console, it’s activated with one dial click over from Normal, and you must confirm your choice on the touchscreen. Once engaged, Baja mode lights up a warning on the instrument panel alerting the driver that traction control is off. Mostly off, anyway. Enough to fool you.
In Baja mode, a performance shift program can be activated by mashing the throttle. It keeps engine speed and responsiveness up by remaining in a lower gear. Once you’re at speed, the throttle response is tuned just right to adjust quickly for changing demands and trail conditions. It really wakes up the 2.7L.
Each day had us hitting flat graded roads, sandy river washes, and undulating whoops. And each day we managed to get a little bit faster. That’s one way the Colorado ZR2’s capability can be a bit of a curse. Both the L3B turbo four-cylinder and the Goodyear Wrangler Territory tires keep things surprisingly quiet save for the occasional rock plinking off a skid plate or rock rail. The Multimatic DSSV shocks keep everything calm and level as the suspension reacts to bumps, dips, and worse. Once you’re used to cruising dirt roads at 50 mph, 60 mph doesn’t seem that fast at all, and 35 mph seems downright leisurely. It’s easy to get up to speed and realize you’ve got a turn coming up and need to dial it way back. Lifting off the throttle or trail-braking in Baja mode allows for a grin-inducing amount of yaw and oversteer, but it’s smooth and gradual and not at all snappy.
I’m not sure how often the Colorado’s stability control applied brakes to straighten out my path and keep me from looping our truck over the berm on the shoulder of the trail and into some sagebrush and cholla, but it must have been busy. I’m not that good of a driver. It just made me feel like I was. With constantly changing traction over dirt, gravel, and deep sand, the ZR2 made it possible to keep going where I pointed it every time, and it never felt like stability control was stepping in to do so.
There were at least a handful of times during our three-day cross-desert trek when I misjudged obstacles, came into a turn a bit faster than I should have, or lost focus for just long enough to get into trouble. That led to catching air over some sudden whoops, drifting a bit too enthusiastically through a turn, and hitting a rock that I should have seen coming. The Colorado ZR2 managed to soak up those couple of times where a small wash running perpendicularly to our path was hidden by the high sun, and the Baja mode allowed the rear end to swing around predictably and smoothly so that some gentle countersteering brought things back. But the tires do have their limits, and several drivers, myself included, found that they don’t like taking sharp rock impacts to their sidewall at speed. I ended up with a slashed sidewall and I wasn’t alone, although the ZR2 managed to shrug off just about everything else.
Aside from its off-road suspension and transmission tuning, the ZR2 sets itself apart from the rest of the Colorado lineup with its unique interior. Available in cloth or leather upholstery, the color scheme is the same, with black and gray surfaces and contrasting yellow stitching. We liked the random pattern on the dash trim that mimics forged carbon. The ZR2 is the only Colorado that gets a digital instrument cluster with an 11-inch display filling the gauge pod. It’s highly customizable and, in concert with the 11.3-inch infotainment screen beside it, can simultaneously display just about everything you’d need for an off-road adventure or road trip.
In all, we spent about 800 miles on our trek from Las Vegas to Reno, with about 350 of those miles off-road. Unfortunately, some lingering snow on a high mountain pass made us turn around and miss some of our racecourse miles. Instead, we got to backtrack a bit and see some more desert, which certainly beats slogging through heavy, icy snow at 8000 feet of elevation. We never had any fuel stops to check, but recorded fuel economy was in the 12–13-mpg range thanks to the high speeds, churning through sand, and tearing up hills. Highway fuel economy was much better, although the bigger tires, higher stance, and exposed underbelly will obviously take their toll when compared to the other Colorado trims.
The truck I was assigned to was a fully equipped Desert Boss model that included underbody cameras, vinyl graphics on the bedside, fender, and tailgate, a front bumper bar with fog lights, unique 17-inch beadlock-capable wheels, and a 40-inch LED light bar mounted to a sport bar in the bed. All told, the options added more than $10,000 to the ZR2’s $48,295 base price. In our opinion, the fender and tailgate graphics were well done, and the tessellating bow ties are a nice touch. The tailgate vinyl, cut around the debossed “CHEVROLET” stamped tailgate, is probably our favorite and looks great on every color, particularly white. While I did appreciate the underbody cameras to help pick the best line over tricky rocks, I can’t say how effective the LED light bar is. We never had an opportunity to test it in the dark but it’s mounted rather low, so it might not be able to throw the light too far. Further, the bar it’s mounted to serves to limit access to the bed from the side. Desert Boss will be a one-year-only special model to kick off the third-gen Colorado, and these options will surely roll out to other Colorados in the following years.
Specs: 2023 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2
- Price: $48,295 / $60,725 (base/as-tested)
- Powertrain: 2.7-liter, turbocharged DOHC inline-four, eight-speed torque-converter automatic
- Output: 310 hp and 430 lb-ft of torque
- Layout: Four-wheel-drive, four-door, five-passenger mid-size pickup truck
- Weight: 4,940 lb
- EPA Fuel Economy: 17/19/18 (City/Highway/Combined)
- Competition: Jeep Gladiator Mojave, Ford Ranger Raptor, Toyota Tacoma Trailhunter
What it does well:
Chevrolet’s biggest strengths have typically been its trucks and its performance vehicles. The Colorado ZR2 is both. It’s quiet on- and off-road, it’s comfortable on- and off-road, and it soaks up terrain incredibly well, without beating up its occupants. It seems that the upcoming ZR2 Bison and the Chevrolet Performance Parts catalog will be ready for those who want to take the ZR2 to the next level, but that’s not to take away from how the ZR2 is equipped as standard. It’s everything that we loved about the previous ZR2, and it can take on even more challenging terrain. For less than $50,000, it’s an impressive package that deserves to steal some sales from not only its mid-size competition but from full-size trucks as well.
Changes we’d make:
While we never found the 310-hp four-cylinder to be lacking, it would be nice if the ZR2 had a unique tune to make it a closer match, power-wise, to the upcoming Ranger Raptor, which is expected to pack similar torque but more power. Maybe an intake and exhaust from Chevrolet Performance Parts? Also, considering the limited run of the Desert Boss, we’d like to see some wild graphics to really lean into the fun truck image it projects. If we were shopping for one, we’d probably skip the light bar and also pick a color other than black, No surprise, the white truck wears dust best, but there are some other excellent color options.
Who’s it for?
If you’re considering a Gladiator Mojave and don’t need top-down wheeling, or you just prefer the footprint of a mid-size truck over the off-road variants from the Big Three, the Colorado ZR2 should be on your list as well. It packs an incredible amount of high-speed desert capability and can haul its way over rocks without compromising daily drivability and comfort.