When off-road isn’t far enough out
THE GOOD
  • Impressive off-road ability
  • Simple controls
  • Beats its rivals on price
THE BAD
  • Hard seats
  • Tough to get in and out
  • Dated interior styling

Any four-wheel-drive pickup truck will get you beyond the pavement, but midsize trucks just make so much sense as off-roaders because they can fit in tight quarters where full-size trucks can’t go.

That’s the case with the 2021 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 – a truck that’s off-road-ready out of the box for its $47,998 starting price. My tester had a coat of extra-charge paint, and an optional package of black wheels and a light bar, bringing it to $52,588 before freight and taxes.

Styling: 8/10

Enhancements over the regular Colorado tell you this is no ordinary pavement-pilot. It has ZR2-specific front and rear bumpers; the front and rear tracks are 89 mm (3.5 in) wider; the suspension is 51 mm (two in) taller; and it has functional rock sliders on the sides – although they’re tougher to step over when getting in or out. My truck’s light bar and off-road lights were part of a $4,015 special-edition package, along with its gloss-black wheels. It looks good, but you’ll have to forego that bed-mounted bar if you want to use a tonneau cover.

Inside, the Colorado’s cabin looks a little dated but I’m okay with that, because it also means it’s simple and easy to use. Still, while I realize it’s primarily due to weight savings, it bugs me that trucks specifically equipped for trail-driving and mud-running like this one have carpet instead of an easy-to-clean vinyl floor.

Safety: 7.5/10

The United States National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) gives the Colorado a four-star rating overall, one below the top rating of five, broken down into four for frontal crash, five for side crash, and three for rollover protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) grants it the highest “good” rating, but passenger side small-overlap and ease of child-seat latches at “marginal,” and “poor” for headlights.

The Colorado’s design is older, and there aren’t any high-tech safety items that can be added to the ZR2, although it does include automatic headlights; a Teen Driver mode that lets you set limits on speed and stereo volume, as well as track how the truck was driven; a tire pressure monitoring system with tire fill alert; and the back-up camera that’s mandatory on all new vehicles.

Features: 9/10

While it’s definitely not a luxury truck, I’m giving the ZR2 high marks for the number of items for its starting price of $47,998. Many are related to its off-road ability, including front and rear locking axles, an electronic transfer case with a few four-wheel drive settings (including an automatic one), rails to protect the rocker panels from damage on the trail, and specialized dampers developed by Canadian firm Multimatic that use spool valves instead of pistons. The unique suspension setup has been used in a variety of race settings, too, including Formula One.

Beyond that, other standard features include a spray-in bedliner, six-way-power heated leather seats, a heated steering wheel, automatic climate control, wireless charging, eight-inch touchscreen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, satellite radio with a three-month trial, OnStar, and a Wi-Fi hotspot.

User Friendliness: 8/10

Before you can judge how friendly this truck is you have to get into it, and that can be a chore. The rock rails are important for off-road travel, but they’re an impediment to step over. The seats are positioned deep inboard – likely a factor for that top side-crash rating – which makes that step even longer. There’s a grab handle on the A-pillar for the passenger, but not one for the driver as there should be.

But once you’re inside it all gets easier. The inner workings fulfill my trifecta of big, simple, and intuitive, with nicely sized buttons and dials for the climate system and stereo, and large icons on the touchscreen. The four-wheel drive system is engaged with a dial, and there are toggles for locking the axles. This is how a truck should be.

Practicality: 8/10

When you’re assessing this truck for practicality when cross-shopping, keep in mind that it’s purpose-built, and for the purpose of running roughshod over whatever’s in its path. So yes, it is taller and tough to climb in, and it’s more than you’ll need for running errands, but it’ll still handle your daily commute and then take you all-out on weekends – especially since it’s not needlessly oversized the way full-size trucks are now.

The cabin is decently roomy for the truck’s size, including for rear-seat passengers. There are lots of cubbies for small-item storage, and the rear-chair cushions lift up to reveal hidden bins. The bed is 1,585 mm (5-foot-2) long, and comes stock with a spray-in bedliner. Maximum towing capacity with either of the two available engines – a gas-fired V6 or diesel-powered four-cylinder – is 2,268 kg (5,000 lb).

Comfort: 7.5/10

Did I mention it’s a reach to get in? The seats are supportive but not entirely on the winning side, as the cushions are hard. Still, their heating function can be across the whole chair, or just on the seatback, should you want to soothe sore muscles without cooking your butt, too. The heated steering wheel is my new gotta-have-it feature, and it kept my digits toasty after I’d been out in the snow.

For all its ultra-off-road chops, the ZR2’s on-pavement manners are a pleasant surprise. Trucks like this often tend to bounce or undulate on asphalt, but the Colorado is well-composed and the ride is not only smooth, but quieter than you’d expect.

Power: 8/10

There are two engines available and I had the default one, a 3.6L V6 making 308 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque, mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. For an additional $4,090 – ouch! – you can swap it for a 2.8L four-cylinder turbodiesel that makes 181 hp and an impressive 369 lb-ft of torque, hooked to a six-speed automatic.

I do love diesels (at least my heart does; my wallet’s another story), but I’m more than happy with the gasoline six-cylinder. It’s a good fit to the truck, with smooth acceleration and lots of passing power.

Driving Feel: 9/10

Robert Louis Stevenson must have owned a ZR2 when he wrote the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the asphalt, it’s mild-mannered, with that aforementioned smooth ride, tight steering, and a well-planted demeanour on the highway – and without the constant correction needed with a Jeep Gladiator, which tends to wander on pavement. While the Chevy’s four-wheel high and low settings are for off-road only, its automatic mode can be used on hard surfaces. It’s very useful when you get dry pavement interrupted with patches of snow or ice.

But then I took it to a nearby trail mostly populated by snowmobiles and dirt bikes, and Jekyll turned into Hyde. This truck will give anything from Jeep a run for its money. In the mildest of its three four-wheel drive settings, the ZR2 plowed through deep water, over snowbanks, and in and out of mud with ease. Should you get in deeper, both the rear and front differentials can be locked. It does bump hard over humps and holes at speed, but it’s a small price to pay for how well it does it.

Fuel Economy: 8/10

The ZR2 has a few advantages over its two main off-road rivals, but it comes up slightly short on fuel efficiency. Its official Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) rating is 15.0 L/100 km in the city; 13.0 on the highway; and 14.1 L/100 km combined.

By comparison, Jeep’s Gladiator comes in at a combined 13.7 L/100 km, while the Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro rates at 13.8 L/100 km. In my time with the Colorado, in cold weather but without counting the fuel I burned doing the rough stuff – in other words, all on paved roads – I averaged 15.9 L/100 km.

Value: 9/10

The ZR2 starts at $47,998 and for that, you get pretty much everything. The only available extra-charge options come down to some paint colours or appearance packages, save for a $2,650 Power package that adds a performance air intake and cat-back exhaust. The front and rear lockers, the heated leather chairs and wheel, the towing package, and the bedliner are all part of the base price.

Over at Jeep, the Gladiator Rubicon – the closest version to the ZR2 – starts at $55,345 with a six-speed manual transmission, or $57,140 to match the Colorado’s eight-speed automatic. But then if you want to match some of the ZR2’s other items, it’ll be $995 to heat the seats and the wheel; $525 for the trailering package; $495 for remote keyless entry; and $650 to spray in a bedliner. At Toyota, the closest is the Tacoma TRD Pro, which has crawl control and a multi-terrain dial the ZR2 doesn’t have, but with only a locking rear differential, and it’s $56,830.

The Verdict

And that’s the key: the Gladiator and Tacoma may have off-road name-brand recognition for their followers, who likely will never switch loyalties, but for those who are shopping without preconceptions, it’s tough to ignore a price difference that starts at $7,300-plus and goes up from there. I went in unsure of just how good the ZR2 could be against its competition, and came out very impressed. For off- and on-road, this Chevy is indeed the real deal.

Specifications

Engine Displacement 3.6L   Model Tested 2021 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2
Engine Cylinders V6   Base Price $47,998
Peak Horsepower 308 hp @ 6,800 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 275 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm   Destination Fee $1,900
Fuel Economy 15.0 / 13.0 / 14.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $54,588
Cargo Space 567 L (1,250 lb) payload; 2,268 kg (5,000 lb) towing capacity  
Optional Equipment
$4,590 – Dusk Special Edition (17-inch gloss-black wheels, sports bar, and off-road lights), $4,015; Bright Blue Metallic paint, $495; Wheel lock package, $80