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The 2019 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison Is GM's Most Capable 4x4 Ever

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 3/22/2019 Scott Oldham
a truck driving down a dirt road: The 2019 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison, modified by the off-road specialists at AEV, is made for off-road adventuring. If you can't have fun with this fortified mid-size pickup, you're doing it wrong.

The trail doesn't have a name. It shouldn't. It isn't even really a trail. It's a climb, a two-track that mangles skid plates and tests a 4x4's traction, wheel travel, and ground clearance.

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We just call it "the Hill." For most of its quarter-mile length, it holds a steady angle of 40 degrees or so, which is no big deal. But about 25 feet from the top, it gets nasty, kicking up sharply just as the surface changes from grippy hard-packed dirt to slippery rock. Deep ruts grab the left-side tires and throw a truck back and forth across the slick surface, arresting its momentum just 10 feet from a stupid-steep breakover that high-centers all but the tallest rigs. Crest the top, though, and you're treated to a panoramic view of California's Sierra Nevada mountains. It's a challenge most new trucks and SUVs can't handle. Over the last few years, we've attempted the Hill in a couple dozen factory-fresh 4x4s, but either the kickup or the ruts stop them in their tracks, forcing them to back down the incline. Until today, we've enjoyed this particular view of the Sierras in only three modern-day vehicles: the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon, the Ford F-150 Raptor, and the Ram 2500 Power Wagon.

a red truck driving down a dirt road: Built with help from AEV, the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison loves to do all the stuff great off-roaders do.© Marc Urbano - Car and Driver Built with help from AEV, the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison loves to do all the stuff great off-roaders do.

Add Chevrolet's Colorado ZR2 Bison to the list. With its front and rear differentials locked and its armored undercarriage scraping along the jagged rock shelf, Chevy's most capable off-roader made the climb look easy.

a red truck driving down a dirt road: Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison: GM's Most Capable 4x4© Marc Urbano - Car and Driver Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison: GM's Most Capable 4x4

Chevy partnered with American Expedition Vehicles (AEV) to create the ZR2 Bison. Headquartered in Missoula, Montana, AEV has been creating quality off-road accessories and cranking out custom-built Jeeps and Ram trucks for over 20 years. The aftermarket 4x4 builder is probably best known for its Wrangler-based pickup, the Brute. AEV built about 700 of them from 2002 to 2017, and some, including us, say the Brute was the inspiration for the new Jeep Gladiator. Work on the Bison began about two years ago, soon after Chevy unveiled the Colorado ZR2.

"Essentially they asked me what I would do to the truck," says Dave Harriton, the founder of AEV. "I said, 'Well, if I was an average Joe and I was going to take a ZR2 to Russia and do the Road of Bones or go to South America with it, what would I do to it before I left?' And that's essentially what we got."

a close up of a metal pole: Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison: GM's Most Capable 4x4© Marc Urbano - Car and Driver Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison: GM's Most Capable 4x4

What we got is basically a Colorado ZR2 in a suit of armor. AEV hasn't added traction, power, or suspension travel to the already impressive Colorado ZR2, which now makes up about 10 percent of all Colorado sales. The truck's stance is still 3.5 inches wider than a standard Colorado's, and it still stands two inches taller. Its Multimatic Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve dampers remain untouched. Instead, AEV focused on protecting the truck's body and powertrain.

Beefy stamped-steel front and rear bumpers and five hot-stamped boron-steel skid plates are at the heart of the Bison package. Shielding the pickup's oil pan, fuel tank, transfer case, and its locking front and rear differentials, the new skid plates are stronger and more extensive than the ZR2's aluminum units. The front bumper is designed to accommodate a winch (not included), and the outer portions can be replaced if needed.

a red truck driving down a dirt road: Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison: GM's Most Capable 4x4© Marc Urbano - Car and Driver Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison: GM's Most Capable 4x4

To further visually differentiate the truck from lesser ZR2s, the Bison package also includes larger wheel-well flares, AEV-badged floor mats and headrests, purposeful-looking 12-spoke aluminum wheels, and a Raptor grille-except this one reads "Chevrolet." For $5750, buyers can spec the Bison package on any ZR2 configuration with either available engine-the 3.6-liter V-6 or the turbo-diesel 2.8-liter inline-four-and they can do it right on the Chevrolet website. AEV engineered all the parts, but they're installed on the assembly line at GM's Wentzville, Missouri, plant.

The Colorado ZR2 is GM's only truck with locking front and rear differentials. They're unchanged on the Bison, which also wears the same Goodyear Wrangler DuraTracs as the ZR2, size 265/65R-17-or, as the off-road guys call them, 31s, on account of their 31-inch overall height. Harriton wanted larger, 33-inch tires to be part of the package, and a motivated owner could cram such tires under the Bison's larger flares, albeit with a little trim of the plastic. The aftermarket is not going to have a hard time fitting them.

a red and black truck sitting on top of a car: Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison: GM's Most Capable 4x4© Marc Urbano - Car and Driver Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison: GM's Most Capable 4x4

Most of AEV's 130 employees are based at the company's Wixom, Michigan, facility, but Harriton spends most of his time in western Montana, where he drives a fifth-gen Viper and a McLaren 650S. "Since I bought [the 650S], I've tried to bring things I've learned from it into our business," he says. "Once you spend some time with a car like that, you just appreciate the time and energy they put into things. Honestly, that was kind of the inspiration for us to take the risk with the new boron steel on the skid plates, which had never been done before. It was a completely new development, and, to me, that was the equivalent of McLaren's carbon-fiber usage."

Although thinner than traditional stamped-steel units, the Bison's skid plates are stronger and more resistant to gouging. Plus they have a high yield strength, according to Harriton, so they spring back into shape after taking a hit. But the real advantage of the exotic material is its low mass. Chevy originally wanted to limit AEV to an additional 75 pounds for the Bison upgrades, but that proved to be impractical. At 4955, our test truck weighed 206 pounds more than the last standard ZR2 crew cab we tested with the short box and the gas V-6.

a close up of a car: Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison: GM's Most Capable 4x4© Marc Urbano - Car and Driver Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison: GM's Most Capable 4x4

Harriton prefers the diesel inline-four for two reasons. "Obviously there's a lot of torque there, and that translates well into low-speed off-road use," he says. "But it's really the additional fuel range I personally like. And for the overland community, that's a big deal, not having to carry extra fuel or worry about that." But the diesel adds another 200 pounds. While Chevy increases the truck's front spring rates and retunes its front shocks to manage the additional mass, the truck still handles better without the extra poundage weighing down its nose. Since we're not looking to leave civilization behind for weeks at a time, we'd stick with our test vehicle's 3.6-liter V-6. Yes, the turbo-diesel cranks out 369 pound-feet at just 2000 rpm, but its 186 horsepower is feeble and the truck is ultimately quicker and quieter with the V-6, which makes 308 horsepower at 6800 rpm and 275 pound-feet at 4000 rpm.

Despite the additional mass, the Bison feels quick around town. At the test track, it bettered the last V-6-powered ZR2 we tested by a tenth of a second, hitting 60 mph in 7.0 seconds and covering the quarter-mile in 15.5 at 90 mph. That's more than two seconds quicker to 60 mph than a diesel ZR2. More stiffly sprung, the ZR2 Bison doesn't have the plush ride of the Raptor, but it's cushy enough and comfortable. Before creating the ZR2, Darren Bohne, the Colorado's chief engineer, was the assistant engineering manager on the 2014 Camaro Z/28. He brought the Multimatic shock technology from that road-course scalpel to this off-road hammer. The dampers prove their bandwidth here, providing excellent body control. Unfortunately, the knobby Goodyears give up early on pavement. With 57.6 percent of its weight up front, the Bison only generated 0.69 g on the skidpad. And stops from 70 mph are long, at 206 feet.

a car parked on the side of a mountain: Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison: GM's Most Capable 4x4© Marc Urbano - Car and Driver Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison: GM's Most Capable 4x4

After the Bison beat the Hill, we hit the endless rock-crawling trails, fast fire roads, and water crossings of Burns Canyon, not far from Joshua Tree National Park. Squeezing through tight, rocky trails too small for a Raptor to maneuver, we made liberal use of the Bison's 8.6 inches of front and 10 inches of rear suspension travel, thumping stones off its rock sliders-stand­ard on a ZR2-and skid plates. In high 4WD range with only its rear differential locked, we hammered the pickup down dusty two-tracks, past the Joshua trees, getting some air under its tires over the rises. The landings are supple, and the truck's structure is tight. There's virtually no cab quiver over rocky or washboard surfaces. Our Bison was also equipped with a $459 AEV snorkel, which Chevy plans to add to its parts catalog in the future. The snorkel not only looks badass, it also raises the engine's air intake to the top of the A-pillar, getting it out of the dust and increasing the Colorado's ability to drive through deep water.

Chevy and AEV tested the Bison extensively on the Rubicon Trail and in Moab, Utah, and its wheel articulation is impressive in the slow stuff where its locking differentials keep it moving. Just once did we have to get out and push. The ZR2's rear shock mounts are the lowest points of the truck, and the left one snagged a rock. But a push from the co-pilot was all it took to get moving again. Bohne tells us that the mounts are leftovers from the standard Colorado, and moving them up would have sacrificed suspension travel. "We made sure they were robust," he says. "You can lean on them pretty good, and generally, if you get your line right, they don't become a major obstacle."

a red car: Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison: GM's Most Capable 4x4© Marc Urbano - Car and Driver Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison: GM's Most Capable 4x4

Ultimately, the Bison is an easy truck to drive off-road, handling all terrains and situations well, including riverbeds deep enough to fill its wheel wells. It's far more capable than a Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, which is its most direct competitor-as long as Ford refuses to sell the Ranger Raptor in America and until the Jeep Gladiator Rubicon arrives. Our only real issue with the ZR2 Bison is its price. A Colorado ZR2 crew cab with the V-6 starts at $43,995, and although the Bison package is a good deal when you consider the quality of the parts and the cost of similar upgrades from the aftermarket, our test truck cost $50,740 before the installation of the snorkel. That's just a few grand less than a Raptor and it's a lot more than a four-door Wrangler Rubicon.

With the Chevy properly caked in Burns Canyon's famous red clay, we landed in Pioneertown, a western movie set founded, in part, by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry in 1946. Its old-timey wooden facades have appeared in over 50 films and television shows, but the live music, quality rustic cuisine, and cold beer at Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace have been bringing in tourists and off-road enthusiasts since 1982. Naturally, we ordered a couple of bison burgers.

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