Automakers constantly brag about the “great” new features in their cars and trucks. Most are incremental in nature and some downright backfire. That’s not the case with the 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 pickup truck.

The ZR2, a juiced-up variant of Chevy’s Colorado midsize truck, is optimized for off-road driving. Almost 200 miles of highway driving, desert running and rock crawling in and around the Bangs Canyon and Mica Mine trails near Grand Junction, Colo., proved this is one able truck.

The key is an advanced suspension system that does mark a significant technological improvement.

The heart of the system is a stiff frame and Multimatic Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve, or DSSV dampers. Markham, Ontario-based auto parts supplier Multimatic has adapted suspension technology for auto racing and high-performance sports cars to work in the rough and tumble off-road environment.

The result is a truck that is equally assured on highways, silt, sand and rocks.

That’s an advancement and one of the best improvements in a pickup reviewed by Trucks.com since the introduction of the smooth-shifting eight-speed transmission from ZF Friedrichshafen of Germany in the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel full-size pickup.

Typically, suspension systems on off-road trucks are tuned for the toughest conditions. The idea is to avoid going thump when driving off a rock step in the middle of a trail. Engineers compromise the ride on paved roads or in the muck to make that work. The damper system in the ZR2 balances the compromise better than just about any of the other mid- and full-size off-road trucks on the market.

The dampers use spool valves to improve the tuning range and ability of the suspension to cushion the truck, especially as it compresses to soften downward impact.

“The more you travel the more damping forces they can generate to provide for nice cushioning,” said Todd Hubbard, a Chevrolet ride and handling engineer. “That’s what makes the truck a nice desert runner and something that works very well on the road.”

This proved to be the case. Spooling up past 45 mph toward a ramp on a closed dirt track, the diesel engine version of the ZR2 demonstrated its ample low-end torque. The speed was fast enough to launch all four wheels into the air. The truck comes down with a whoosh rather than a jarring clunk. Likewise, the truck drops softly when traversing down rock steps on a trail mesa. The driver feels the drop, but as long as the frame clears, there’s no kidney-bashing.

The same truck, travelling at 65 mph on Colorado State Highway 141, felt planted and firm. The squishy feel a driver encounters in other off-road trucks at highway speeds is absent in the ZR2.

There’s more to like in this truck. It offers front and rear electronic locking differentials that provide additional traction when you need it and where you need it. The features proved especially useful when navigating through inclines of wet, greasy gypsum trail after a spring cloudburst. automated hill descent feature will glide the truck down the steepest slopes.

The interior is comfortable and has features that enable the ZR2 to double as a daily driver.

Standard features include a six-speaker audio system with Chevrolet MyLink Radio with Navigation and an 8-inch diagonal color touch screen. The truck comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Just plug an Apple or Android phone in with a USB cord, and with one button on the screen you are able to make phone calls, have text messages read to you, tap into Apple’s map program, and get your music and podcasts. No need to sync Bluetooth, no need for passwords. It really is just plug and play. There are four USB ports — one on the instrument panel, one in the center console and two in the rear of the center console.

The truck comes in both extended and crew cab models. Like other extended cab trucks from every manufacturer, the back seat is useless for anything but storing gear or an emergency. Anyone with even an occasional need to transport more than two occupants should purchase the crew cab version.

The standard powertrain is the 3.6-liter V-6 gasoline engine with 308 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque. It is mated to an eight-speed transmission. That gives the truck a payload capacity of 1,100 pounds and a towing capability of 5,000 pounds. Fuel economy is 21 mpg in combined city and highway driving.

The front and rear track widths are 3.5 inches wider than the standard Colorado, and its suspension is 2 inches higher to clear off-road obstacles. The bumpers also have better off-road clearance. Obviously, the ZR2 is only a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Although General Motors, which owns Chevrolet, is careful not to compare the ZR2 with the full-size Ford F-150 Raptor high-performance off-roader, it does have some advantages. The smaller size makes it more maneuverable. It drives better on pavement. And it certainly is easier to park.

It has a starting price of $40,995 including destination fee. Its closest competitor would be the Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road, which has a starting price of $32,900 including destination fee. But the Toyota doesn’t have the locking front differential, sophisticated dampers and several other features of the ZR2.

The Colorado ZR2 also has an optional 2.8-liter Duramax turbo-diesel engine that is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. It produces 186 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque, but it doesn’t offer an increase in payload or towing capability. Serious rock crawlers and desert drivers will want the diesel. But that’s a pricey $3,730 upcharge.

While the ZR2 is an excellent off-road vehicle, there are some drawbacks, mostly a result of GM trying to leverage the design of its regular Colorado model to build the variant.  It is pricey – at least $10,000 more than the four-wheel-drive version of the standard Colorado V-6.

The four-cylinder diesel engine could use more power. The tailpipe on the diesel also sticks out and looks to be in a vulnerable position for rock crawling. Modern diesels have special emissions equipment to comply with federal nitrogen oxide emissions regulations. But these systems create heat that has to be dissipated. That’s why the diesel tailpipe is larger than its gas counterpart. It’s also likely to get crunched.

Overall, the Colorado has been one of GM’s success stories. GM launched the Colorado and its sibling GMC Canyon late 2014. The pair put the automaker back in the midsize pickup truck market that it had abandoned in 2012. Now, the Colorado has captured nearly a quarter of the market. Combined with the Sierra, GM accounts for almost a third of midsized truck sales.

We realized that there’s an unmet demand for a Colorado-sized pickup truck,” Mustafa Mohatarem, GM’s chief economist, told Trucks.com.

GM sees the ZR2 as a way to expand the line and add to the sales count even as the overall auto market, and the narrower pickup truck segment, starts to stall as the industry pulls back from record sales in each of the last two years.

And it is only going to become more competitive. Ford plans to bring the Ranger midsize pickup truck to its North American vehicle lineup in 2019 and the Bronco midsize SUV to its global vehicle portfolio in 2020. Both are expected to have off-road variants that will vie for sales to trail-running and rock crawling enthusiasts.

But until then, the ZR2 will be leading its midsize competitors on just about any dirt trail.

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