2019 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison First Drive - Boulder-Bashing at a Price

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

How much would you pay for a midsize truck that was just as capable off-road as Ford’s full-size Raptor?

I am not asking about a Ranger Raptor, since that seems unlikely to be sold here for the moment. So if you want to boulder-bash in size medium, it’s either the Toyota store or the Chevy dealer down the street that will tempt you. One with the Tacoma TRD, the other with the Colorado ZR2 Bison.

Tempt Chevy stores will, but for $50K, is it worth your monthly payment?

(Full disclosure: Chevrolet flew me to Phoenix, put me up in a nice hotel in Scottsdale, provided my meals and booze, and gave us the chance to drive the truck both on- and off-road. They also gave us a sneak peek of the Silverado HD.)

Opting for the Bison gets you off-road-ready equipment such as steel bumpers and skid plates (I counted five) made from Boron steel. You get a different grille with “Chevrolet” spelled out as opposed to a bow-tie logo, fog lamps, 17-inch wheels that host 31-inch tires, wheel flares, and some unique badging on the headrests and floor liners. You get Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve (DSSV) shock absorbers from Multimatic, and there’s also cast-iron control arms. American Expedition Vehicles designs the bumpers, wheel flares, wheels, skid plates, and badging.

That’s on top of the ZR2 goodies (off-road appearance package, fully locking front and rear diffs, all-terrain tires, a towing package, a trailer brake, and protection for the rockers). Also like the ZR2, the rear axle ratio is 3.42, the front/rear tracks are 3.5 inches wider, and the suspension gets a 2-inch lift over the Colorado Z71.

You can choose either a 3.6-liter V6 making 308 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque (mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission) or a 2.8-liter turbodiesel making 186 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque, matches to a six-speed auto.

My on-road drive in the Bison was brief and mostly straight-line freeway cruising. This is because Chevy had us driving the four-cylinder Silverado earlier in the day. We did see some gentle curves in that truck, but in order to get us back to the hotel for presentations (yes, I got a sneak peek of the Silverado HD, no I didn’t take pics because they covered our phone cameras, and no, the HD isn’t much better looking in person), we were sent back to the hotel from the desert via direct route.

On-road, the Bison isn’t much fun. There’s an initial bit of weeble-wobble on some types of pavement, thanks to the off-road tires, although you get used to it quickly and the truck tracked straight enough on the freeway with little effort. Tire noise crops up at highway speeds, and the diesel doesn’t offer up great acceleration. The cabin also feels a bit outdated.

No one is buying this version of the Colorado for on-road driving, though. Nope – if you’re plunking down 50 large on this truck, you want to play in the sandbox. The really big sandbox. The life-sized sandbox that has actual desert sand. And rocks. And cacti.

That, the Bison does well. Chevy took us deep into the desert – so deep, I expected to find the remains of loose-lipped mob associates – in order to show off the truck’s prowess. The course started out easy enough – just washboard roads with loose gravel and the occasional curious cow – but it got tougher about midway through. We needed spotters to get us over some rocks. The kind of rocks that could do some serious damage.

Which, some did. Nary an exhaust pipe was spared, and there were other bruises suffered by each truck. But the skid plates appeared to have kept the rest of the important bits “clean” and the Bisons had little trouble getting through, cosmetic damage aside. Suspension articulation is always fun to watch, even if trying to photograph it could lead to an unfortunate cactus colonoscopy should one misplace a foot.

So, yeah, the Bison cuts the mustard off-road, at least in the rock-crawling scenario (no open-desert dune-jumping was on the agenda). It was jittery and nervous on some of the washboard stuff, but then, just about anything would be. What matters is that it got us from one trailhead to another without any real drama, even if comfort wasn’t always on the menu.

Still, there is the little matter of price. You’re talking about a truck that already starts at $42,900 before you add on the $5,750 in Bison bits, plus other options – including the $3,500 diesel. The base Raptor (which is probably unobtanium, to be fair; few Raptor buyers aren’t ticking options boxes) actually has a lower MSRP than the as-tested price of the diesel Bison I drove.

That said, price won’t be the only factor in the purchase decision. Brand loyalty and size will matter, and while both the Bison and the one-size-class-up Raptor are great off-road, they aren’t being tasked with the same mission, necessarily, and I realize that. There may be some cross-shopping between the two, but how much, I am not sure.

Which puts Chevy in an interesting place. Instead of fighting with Ford (at least until the Blue Oval gets smart and sends the Ranger Raptor to America), its closest competitor doesn’t come from Dearborn but from Toyota. The Tacoma’s TRD Pro and Off-Road trims are no slouch on the trail, and you can get a stick, if you so choose.

Yes, the Ranger Raptor is almost certainly coming to America, just like Neil Diamond or Eddie Murphy. And yeah, Jeep is about to drop a Rubicon-sized bomb on the market with its Gladiator, which will also offer a three-pedal option. Not to mention that the Gladiator will also be available with a diesel (no manual with that engine, though). So the Bison won’t have long before other trucks join the TRD Tacoma and the larger Raptor for the desert duel.

The big flaws here are a cabin that feels behind the times, a diesel that’s a little laggy in traffic, and the usual on-road trade-offs made for off-road goodies. That, and the price tag.

Still, you get a truck that’s perfectly competent and capable off-road, and it does look cooler and more badass than a regular Colorado.

You get what you pay for, and in this case that’s a truck that can crawl rocks with the best of them but lacks interior style. If that’s fine with you, sign on the dotted line. If not, just hang in there for the Ford or the Jeep.

The world of the hardcore off-road midsize truck is about to get a whole lot bigger.

[Images: Tim Healey/TTAC]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

More by Tim Healey

Join the conversation
2 of 44 comments
  • Flipper35 Flipper35 on Dec 07, 2018

    So, with the new package did they solve the issue with the side curtain airbags deploying while driving off road?

  • DougDolde DougDolde on Dec 07, 2018

    Could the steering wheel and center console be any uglier? Typical GM trash

  • OrpheusSail I once did. My first four cars were American made, and through an odd set of circumstances surrounding a divorce, I wound up with a '95 Nissan Maxima which was fourteen years old and had about 150,000 miles on it.It was drove better, had an amazing engine, and was more reliable than any of my American cars. This included a new '95 GMC pickup that went through five alternators in under two years while the dealership insisted that there was no underlying electrical problem while they tried to run the clock on the warranty.That was the end of 'buy American'. I've bought from Honda and VW since, and I'll consider just about anything except American now.
  • Ajla A Saab that isn't a convertible. 😏
  • MaintenanceCosts It's not really much of a thought in the buying process. I would think twice about a vehicle assembled in China but other than that I really don't care. Looking at my own history, I've bought six new cars in my lifetime (I don't think choice of used cars says anything at all). I think the most patriotic of them were mostly Japanese brands. (1) Acura, assembled in Japan (2) Honda, assembled in U.S. (3) Pontiac, assembled in Australia (4) Subaru, assembled in U.S. (5) Ford, assembled in U.S. (6) Chevrolet, assembled in Korea
  • ToolGuy News Flash: Canada isn't part of the U.S.
  • Dave M. My Maverick hybrid is my first domestic label ever. It was assembled in Mexico with US components. My Nissan and Subaru were made here, my Toyota, Isuzu and other Nissan had J VINs.