Back in the 1970s, German engineers decided that rich sports car drivers were having all the fun. Why, they mused, should you have to sacrifice utility, rear leg room, and your piggy bank to enjoy on-road thrills?
So our Teutonic friends took a common VW Golf, stuffed it full of mustard and sauerkraut, and — Gott in Himmel! — the GTI hot hatch was born. For just $30,000, motorheads (guilty as charged) of all income classes now had access to serious street performance. The wicked looking, 200-plus horsepower Ford ST, Subaru WRX, Kia Forte5 and Mazda Speed3 followed. Raise a lager to the engineers.
Something similar is bubbling in the off-road truck world.
A decade ago Ford developed the F-150 Raptor performance truck, a snorting rhino in ballet slippers. This beast, now in its second generation, can rampage across Baja sands on Saturday, mow forests on Sunday then commute comfortably to work on Monday. It’s a truck of epic capability.
It also costs nearly $70,000. That’s rare air for most pickup buyers — and besides, who wants to risk bending bumpers and scratching fenders in the outback when you have 70-large invested?
Enter the Baby Raptors: the Chevy Colorado ZR2 and Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro. They’re the affordable off-road pickups.
Like the compact-car segment, midsize trucks — I prefer the term compact trucks — are handsome offerings packing broad capability. Long the domain of Japanese truckmakers after Detroit put all its eggs in the full-size truck bed, the segment got new life in 2015 when GM birthed its Colorado and Canyon offerings. Originally billed as a fuel-economy play to hedge against draconian federal gas-mileage mandates (Ford answered with an aluminum F-series), GM’s compact twins were a surprise hit. Now Ford and Hyundai want in the game, too.
Alongside thirsty, full-size trucks the size of a city block, compacts are practical and drivable. As the segment swelled to over 420,000 units annually — the Colorado alone went zero-to-108,725 in sales in just two years — Motor City motorheads began to ask for more from their city slicker pickups. More ruggedness. More speed. More macho.
The ZR2 was born to butt heads with Baby Raptor TRD, Toyota’s off-road pickup entry.
Introduced in 2015, TRD Pro is a proven Baja-tested off-road hellion. It sports a 32-degree attack angle. Rock-resistant skid plates. Locking rear differential for scaling Mount Rushmore. And a 275-pony V-6 engine to propel the war machine into wilderness battle. Toyota knew the ZR2 was coming for its turf and girded for battle; it upped its game for 2017 with Fox shocks and an improved, hushed interior.
To overcome this formidable adversary, Chevy went to DEFCON 1. That is, it brought in Multimatic’s Formula 1-tested, spool-valve shock technology.
“You want to put our shocks on a truck?” thought Multimatic technical guru Murray White when GM first broached the idea.
But there was method to the General’s madness. Chevy already had used Toronto-based Multimatic’s shock tech on its track-carving Camaro Z28. With Multimatic’s unique valving the ZR2 would be able to segment the shock to handle brutal off-road beatings — then adapt seamlessly to asphalt driving.
Chevy boasts that this versatility makes it a “segment of one” in which the ZR2 is as comfortable on-road as off. In the formidable, rocky terrain of western Colorado, the ZR2 — raised two inches over the standard Colorado and armed to the teeth with class-exclusive front and rear locking differentials, rock guards, skid plates and 30-degree attack angle — proved a match for the TRD Pro and Jeep Wrangler that I recently tested. It also boasts connectivity its peers can only envy with 4G WiFi (helpful in the boondocks) and smartphone app connectivity. And it is much more drivable on the road home with its nimble dampers.
But let’s be honest — slow, surefooted rock-climbing is Wrangler Rubicon country. If you have $40,000 to spend, its sway bar-disconnecting, plastic-fender ruggedness is the tool of choice. And you can peel the top and doors off the Rubicon and get 360-degree views of Mother Nature.
Where the ZR2’s versatility really came to the fore on my test run was in high-speed off-roading — courtesy of Gateway Canyons Baja test track in Colorado. Like a super sports car, Ford’s Raptor needs big, epic venues to show off its superpowers. The compact ZR2, like my beloved GTI hot hatch, is a blast anyplace.
Over jumps it settles quickly without pogo-sticking. Slew it into a corner and its four-wheel drive bites, rotating the power of either the available V-6 or turbo diesel. It’s a hoot. A fun day in a hot hatch is just a parking lot autocross away. Ditto the ZR2 which can turn any small off-road course — think Michigan’s Silver Lake or Rocks and Valleys off-road parks — into a memorable adventure. And if you’re a pickup dude, the ZR2 can do the tight, rock-crawling, Jeepy stuff better than the ginormous Raptor.
Off-roaders crave this kind of all-around performance. Just as versatile Golf GTIs and Focus STs are hot sellers these days, I think the ZR2 will fly out of showrooms.
Detroit trucks own 70 percent of the U.S. market, yet Toyota’s TRD has monopolized compact, off-road pickup fun. Until now. I’m betting there’s a lot of pent-up demand from Made-in-America pickup boys for a bad-to-the-bone, Detroit-badged off-road truck.
When the Chevy isn’t fulfilling your off-road, mechanical-bull fantasies, it’ll look cool just sitting in your driveway. The grille scowls. The fenders bulge like biceps in a muscle shirt to show off the ZR2’s 2.3 inches of added width.
That hood scoop isn’t functional — a reminder that Baby Raptor budgets go into suspension upgrades, not driveline remakes. Step on the throttle and there is no more grunt out of the ZR2’s 308-horse 3.6-liter V-6 or its 369-torques 2.8-liter four-cylinder diesel than its stock stablemates. Bigger engines didn’t fit the balance sheet. Chevy spent its dollars (Multimatic shocks come with a Formula 1-like sticker price, too) where it mattered most: on ruggedness.
Want to add an aftermarket supercharger for off-road racing? Go right ahead.
Thanks to our hot hatches, we track animals have had our choice of weekend fun for decades. Thanks to the Detroit vs. Japan pickup wars, weekend warriors can play in the dirt with the sportiest pickups yet.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News.
2017 Chevy Colorado ZR2
Front-engine, four-wheel drive, five-passenger pickup
3.6-liter inline V-6; 2.8-liter
Eight-speed automatic (V-6);
six-speed automatic (diesel)
4,734 pounds (V-6 Crew Cab);
4,985 pounds (diesel Crew Cab)
$40,940 base V-6 ($41,935
as tested); $41,625 base diesel ($47,060
308 horsepower, 275 pound-feet
torque (V-6); 186 horsepower, 369 pound-feet
0-60 mph, 6.5-9.5 seconds
(V-6-diesel, Car and Driver est.); 5,000-pound towing capacity; 1,100-pound max. payload
EPA mpg est.: 19 city/22 highway/20 combined (V-6); 16 city/18 highway/17 combined (diesel)
Good handling off and on-road;
More horsepower, please;
faux hood scoop
Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★Fair ★★Poor ★