2023 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2: A Track Star in Hiking Boots
“Holy smokes, Bill was not exaggerating,” I thought to myself as I uncorked yet another turbocharged four-cylinder press car.
It’s been a few years and at least one model refresh since Everyday Driver co-conspirator Bill Antonitis sang the virtues of the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 and piqued my interest in the process. He’s been one of the little Chevy’s strongest advocates, hailing it as a sports car disguised as a pickup truck. It’s allegedly gotten better since then.
With Baja mode engaged, the digital tach buried, and aggressive mud tires howling for mercy, I couldn’t agree more. At the other end of that morning’s 100-mile backroad blast was one of Wisconsin’s most photographed dirt routes. I had a week to scratch my contradicting itches for a pickup and a sports car — if the $52,630 (as tested) Colorado ZR2 is as good as advertised.
What Makes the 2023 Chevy Colorado ZR2 Different?
For 2023, Chevy offers the Colorado in five trim levels starting at an MSRP of $29,200: WT, LT, Z71, Trail Boss, and ZR2. A suite of upgrades set the range-topping ZR2 apart and it’s anything but an appearance package (shoutout to all the “Your State’s Landmark” Edition trucks).
Every Colorado comes with a turbocharged 2.7-liter straight-four up front, but output varies depending on trim level. The standard engine makes 237 horsepower and 259 foot-pounds of torque. An upgraded Turbo Plus variation that makes 310 horsepower and 390 foot-pounds of torque comes standard on the Z71 and Trail Boss; it’s an option on WT and LT trucks. Only the ZR2 gets the Turbo High-Output version of the engine that dishes up 310 horsepower and 430 foot-pounds of torque.
Combine that stump-pulling grunt with an audible turbo whistle and you’ve got a recipe for hoonery. Unfortunately, you’ll also get V8 fuel economy. The ever-thirsty Colorado is EPA-rated at 16 miles per gallon — city, highway, and combined. It’s not bad enough to keep my foot off the gas pedal, though.
The ZR2 doesn’t just look down on its stablemates on the spec sheet; it’s significantly taller in real life. The Colorado normally offers 7.9 to 9.5 inches of ground clearance but the ZR2 sits 10.7 inches off the ground. Do your morning stretches because there are rock sliders where a step would normally be and ascending into the ZR2’s cab can be quite a test of flexibility.
Off-road upgrades include trimmed bumpers for improved approach and departure angles, snazzy Multimatic DSSV suspension, locking front and rear differentials, and loads of armor to keep rocks out and oil in. There’s even a clever feature that lets you select a tire pressure you want to air down to, manually let air out of each valve stem, and then it honks the horn when each tire is sufficiently squishy.
The Everyday Driver crew is known for being sticklers for good tires, and four-wheel-drive trucks that come with wimpy tires are a pet peeve of mine. The ZR2 gets the rubber it deserves: 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler mud-terrain tires that are as chunky as a 90s football player’s favorite soup.
How Does the Colorado ZR2 Stack Up Against the Competition?
Chevy’s ZR2 badge doesn’t command the same level of name recognition as a TRD or Bronco logo, and that’s a disservice.
Chevrolet is doing a great job of hot-rodding its smallest pickup for off-road driving and it’s only fair to compare it to Toyota’s TRD line. I drove the 2023 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro and even though I pile heaps of praise on both vehicles, they’re not as similar as you might think. The Toyota’s suspension is ultra-plush and takes everything from snowdrifts to speedbumps in stride, even when you’re going a bit faster than might be prudent. On-road body roll makes it very clear that asphalt is not where a 4Runner and Tacoma TRD Pro want to be.
The Colorado ZR2 is much stiffer (read: rougher) off-road, but that makes it vastly more composed on curvy, paved roads. Its turbocharged engine also offers much-appreciated thrust in spite of its meaty mud-terrain tires.
Upgraded technology moves the Colorado ZR2 closer to dirt-savvy Fords like the Bronco and upcoming Ranger Raptor (be still, my beating heart) and I’m sure that’s no accident. I was blown away by the Bronco’s rock-crawling prowess at the Ford Bronco Off Roadeo driving experience, where ragtop Broncos boldly went where only Jeep Wranglers, desert bighorn sheep, and maybe an occasional Suzuki Samurai had been before.
Again, the ZR2 feels stiff and tight compared to the various Broncos I’ve driven off-road but the more refined interior and athletic on-road personality offer something unique. Unlike the Bronco’s interior, which looks like you could clean it with a leaf blower after a day on dusty trails, the ZR2 is a much more civilized place to spend your daily commute.
All three are fantastic and undeniably capable options; they just excel in slightly different areas. The more time you spend on the street, the more the ZR2 makes sense.
Who Should Buy a Colorado ZR2?
The 2023 Chevy Colorado ZR2 is an odd duck in the off-roading world, but that’s not a knock against it. For most people who enjoy driving off the beaten path, reality looks like occasional adventures separated by weeks of commuting and backroad driving. If that sounds familiar, the ZR2 is exactly what you need.
During my time with the ZR2, I was continuously surprised by how hard I could hustle it into a corner. The chassis has an incredible ability to hug a fast line through a turn in a way that no jacked-up 4x4 should. There’s no sloppy body roll, no wooden brakes, and no monotonous droning from the engine; there’s just grip, poise, and delightful turbo noises.
Nothing this rugged should handle so well. Nothing this sporty should have a low-range transfer case, front and rear locking axles, and multiple off-road drive modes. But here we are with a nitro yellow pickup truck that does both. Have your cake and eat it, too.
Scott is a lover of motorized fun, whether on four wheels or two. A child of the ’90s, he has a particular soft spot for hatchbacks and believes all aging cars deserve a second chance at life. If he’s not behind a camera or a computer, he’s probably chasing down new coffee shops with his wife or throwing a frisbee for his dog.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.