Of the growing numbers of US car buyers who go for SUVs and pickups, most do it because they look good, they have a nice high seating position, and they’re handy for that odd weekend they hit up Home Depot. Their cars will never get really dirty or make use of their improved ground clearance and off-road capabilities.
There exists, however, a smaller class of buyers who really need those capabilities—and then some. The drivers who demand a machine that can tackle any terrain, when they head off-grid for a week, up rocky riverbeds, through forests, into the desert. That’s whom Chevrolet is targeting with its new Colorado ZR2 Bison pickup, a beast of a truck built to survive an apocalypse, or at least life lived among jagged rocks and tough terrain, without falling apart.
“It’s a growing trend, where people load up their trucks and go out for maybe six days and run through all kinds of terrain, where they need the ability to crawl up over stuff and go long distances across all kinds of varying terrain,” says Mark Dickens, Chevrolet’s director of engineering for performance variants.
In what we'll now call the pre-Bison era, the butchest of the Colorados was the ZR2, which went on sale in May 2017. Demand exceeded production capacity, Chevy says, so the company didn't just make more—it made more that could do more. Of the ZR2's key strengths—on-road driving, rock crawling, and desert running—the Bison puts heavier emphasis on the second, for better go-anywhere abilities. Like the ZR2, the truck has an imposing presence, with front and rear tracks widened by 3.5 inches and suspension lifted 2 inches. Looks-wise, the truck definitely sends the message it’s ready for anything. It carries large, standard, fog lamps and has a cut-out for a winch at the front. Customers can choose a “snorkel” high-level air intake and 31-inch knobbly tires housed in flared wheel arches.
To birth this beast, Chevrolet partnered with American Expedition Vehicles, a company known for customizing off-roaders. AEV identified parts of the truck that would be most vulnerable off road and set about strengthening them. It developed five hot-stamped, boron-steel skid plates to protect the oil pan, transfer case, fuel tank, and differentials from bangs and scratches. Boron steel is super high strength, which meant the plates could be thinner and thus lighter, so they don't add too much weight. That’s important for handling and range, which matters when you can't find a gas station in frontierland (or California's Rubicon trail). The optional 2.8L diesel engine helps with efficiency too, as well as bringing 186 horsepower and 369 pound-feet of torque to the party. AEV added a steel bumpers to the front and rear of the truck and replaced the bow-tie grille with a stamped Chevrolet name badge.
“When you go off-roading, you’re forced to use your bumpers—you have to rub against rocks,” Dickens says. That means regular plastic doesn’t cut it. But adding steel changes the way the bumpers behave in a crash. Plastic absorbs and deforms impacts differently, and that’s how the truck was crash tested. Bolting on metal bumpers meant testing that again and making sure the complex electronics behind the bumper, like airbag impact sensors, still worked as designed.
Dickens spends most of his time working with Chevy's track cars and Cadillac's V-series performance cars, so it’s no surprise that one of his favorite features on the truck came from the world of racing: the spool valve suspension dampers, which are also available on the standard ZR2. “They’re one of the most impressive things seen in my career,” he says. It’s a technology Red Bull used in Formula 1 races and features on the Camaro Z/28. The valve mechanisms in the dampers give engineers plenty of scope for tuning over a wide range of suspension motion, so they can make the truck handle well on pavement as well as on the trail.
Chevrolet isn’t ready to reveal the pricing for the ZR2 Bison yet, but expect a bump over the standard ZR2, which starts at $41,000. It goes on sale in January, so if you want to be sure you make it through your off-the-grid week, you might want to wait until next year before checking out of this crazy world.