Chevy’s midsize Colorado gets serious about off-roading with the new ZR2 Bison

Chevy's new ZR2 Bison is an off-roader bedecked in the stuff of joyous mud-slogging and rock-climbing dreams.

GM was first to re-enter the midsize pickup market four years ago with the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, the variation of which is the off-road-focused Colorado ZR2 Bison.
GM was first to re-enter the midsize pickup market four years ago with the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon, the variation of which is the off-road-focused Colorado ZR2 Bison. –Jim Resnick

Being first counts. First place in racing wins the biggest prize, obviously. Being first to market with the next technological advancement beats a lucrative path to your door.

So perhaps part of the reason Chevrolet is launching a serious off-roading edition of its popular midsized Colorado pickup truck is the very real fact that Ford is re-launching the Ranger name in its upcoming midsized pickup. Combine that with a second very real fact: Jeep’s Gladiator midsize pickup also hitting the market in 2019.

Together, these new competitors are chomping mighty close to the midsized home bone for Chevy.

Midsized pickups: a growing segment

The new Colorado ZR2 Bison is built to go places your typical midsize pickup truck can’t. —Jim Resnick

Chevy’s enjoyed almost no competition in the midsized pickup segment since launching the Colorado four years ago. And even if one thought Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles were slow to respond to this, the Ranger and Gladiator have already stolen this particular spotlight.

Advertisement

Cue the new Colorado ZR2 Bison.

Chevy’s new ZR2 Bison is an off-roader bedecked in the stuff of joyous mud-slogging and rock-climbing dreams. And it’s born of a size that makes actual trail-going and overlanding possible; full-size trucks are often simply too big and heavy to climb ev’ry mountain and ford ev’ry stream.

Chevy also turned to off-road specialty equipment design and manufacturing firm American Expedition Vehicles for the extra capacity to design and make parts that would enable greater capability from the basic Colorado ZR2.

Hard-core midsized off-roading

American Expedition Vehicles makes the Bison’s steel bumpers, fog lights, 17”x 8” wheels, and five steel skid plates to protect the truck’s vital bits underneath. —Jim Resnick

But first, let’s pause to delineate this truck’s mission. Whereas Ford’s big and famous F-150 Raptor is inspired by and aimed at high-speed desert racing where rock climbing and slow-going are secondary, the Bison takes a more conventional off-road approach, where speed is pretty much last on the priority list and poor-surface traction, clearance, crawling, overcoming obstacles, and protecting the vulnerable parts of the chassis are primary.

Chevy turned to AEV for certain protective armor because they could handle small production quicker than GM. The Bison’s AEV steel bumper sprouts large fog lights and also incorporates a mounting plate for an electric winch. Chevy also points out that a unique grille separates the Bison from lesser ZR2s. Large fender flares surround 17 x 8-inch black wheels and 31-inch Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac tires. The Bison’s AEV steel rear bumper also incorporates big tow hooks.

Advertisement

Underneath – and where the bulk of the hard-core bits live – five Boron steel skid plates cover both front and rear electronically locking differentials, the transfer case, the engine’s oil pan, and the fuel tank to protect them from puncture by boulders in the ground, flying rocks, and other fun-ending, off-road riskiness.

Doing suspension duty are the ZR2’s Multimatic remote-reservoir dampers and hefty cast iron control arms. The Bison yields 3.5 inches of additional front and rear track and two inches greater ride height than the Colorado Z71.

Comfortable on road, as well

The Bison’s dash is unchanged from the Colorado and non-Bison ZR2. Seats adapt and make on-road driving surprisingly comfortable. —Jim Resnick

Bisons use a standard, 3.6-liter gasoline V6 engine delivering 308 horsepower and 275 pound-feet of torque with the newer eight-speed automatic transmission or a more recently engineered turbocharged, 2.8-liter inline-4 diesel making 186 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque paired to a six-speed automatic. Seems counterintuitive that the newer engine mates to an older transmission. The diesel drivetrain also comes at $3,500 extra.

But with all the knobby and rough-and-tumble gear on the Bison, it’s actually more impressive that it does the on-road thing so well. It remains relatively quiet up to about 75 miles per hour on the highway when the tires begin thrumming due to their aggressive tread patterns. It offers a flexible driving position for varied body shapes and does not beat you up with a stiff truckish ride.

As you veer off the road, the Bison pleases. Loose trail surfaces pose no real challenge. It sweeps away even large boulders as long as you’re realistic with your expectations. I needed to lock the rear differential only twice over a whole off-road test alongside the Arizona Saguaro cacti.

Advertisement

Indeed, those AEV-designed skid plates and protective gear did scrape on the rockiest bits thrown at the Bison. There’s no telling if the mechanicals they protected would have punctured and then failed, but that’s the very definition of insurance.

A small part that would be a big help off-road would be a front-mounted camera. When cresting steep hills off-road, the driver can momentarily lose sight of the trail ahead. Cameras are cheap, capable, and the truck already has one doing back-up duty. Surely, it would be an easy task to network in a front camera.

Other midsized off-roading creatures lurk

As capable as the Bison is, upcoming midsized off-roading pickups from Ford and Jeep will arrive in 2019. —Jim Resnick

The new Bison is very capable off-road and fulfills all its promises for a minimum of $48,045 in extended cab form. But other off-roading animals lurk.

Toyota’s popular Tacoma comes as either a mild TRD Off-Road for $37,510, or a harder-core TRD Pro at $46,410. Ford will probably offer an off-roading package on the upcoming Ranger pickup. And finally, with the Jeep Gladiator and its capability to strip down some of its bodywork for open-air off-roading, the Bison will have to fight with some other burly off-road wildlife.