GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado—Three years ago, General Motors re-ignited the midsize truck segment by bringing back its twins, the GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado. They proved, in short order, the market for these smaller trucks still existed.

Ford, Mazda, Ram, and GM had all dropped out of this niche and claimed demand had dried up. However, Toyota and Nissan kept at it, and between Tacoma and Frontier owned the segment, and those sales rose. Why? Because the midsize market never went away—there just weren’t many options for customers that wanted them.

Thankfully, GM woke up. (Ford, late to the party, has announced the return of the Ranger next year.) They didn’t just re-introduce the twins, though. They made them better, and then upped the ante even more by bringing a diesel to this new chassis just last year.

So, with building sales momentum going into year three of the return, they’ve decided to top the topper by building an off-road version of the Chevy Colorado called the ZR2.

Even at a distance the ZR2 is obviously different from the standard Colorado. It’s wider – by 3.5 inches over a standard Colorado – and features a more aggressive stance. The fenders also bulge outwards to protect the paint from the mud and stones the 31-inch Goodyear Duratrac off-road tires are going to fling.

The ZR2 also boasts an aggressive grille and hood with a black power-dome insert. The real clue to its off-road ability, though, comes from the front and rear bumpers, chopped and pulled up and back for better obstacle clearance.

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Along the body you’ll find a functional body-side rock guard; while underneath it has aluminum skid plates, and heavy-duty suspension and steering components. The ZR2 frame is lifted two inches and it runs 17×8-inch aluminum wheels in a pattern exclusive to the ZR2.

Peeking out from behind those wheels are Multimatic shocks front and rear—more about those later. If you roll underneath the truck to take a look – I did – you’ll note all vital bits, like the exhaust, are nicely tucked above the frame rails. If you contact rocks or debris off-road, it will be hitting steel, not running gear.

If all these special modifications aren’t enough, an available bed-mounted full-size spare tire screams “Hey! This is a desert racer!”

Interior appointments are the same as the standard Colorado, with the exception of special badging such as ZR2 logos stitched into the headrests. Also available this year is the Chevrolet MyLink radio with 7-inch colour touchscreen.

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The ZR2 is equipped with the standard 3.6-litre V-6 with continuously variable valve timing, direct injection, and Active Fuel Management (cylinder deactivation). It drives a Hydra-Matic 8L45 eight-speed automatic transmission.

However, you can opt for the available 2.8-litre Duramax diesel engine. This costs more, but also tows more.

The truly exciting news about the ZR2 version of the Colorado is it’s not just a paint-and-decal package. This truck comes with tech built for the task of off-roading—and in the case of its Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve (DSSV™) damper technology from Ontario, Canada-based Multimatic, it’s tech that’s unique in the marketplace.

Here is a short list of components that make this truck an off-road beast:

  • Front and rear electronic locking differentials
  • Multimatic Dynamic Suspensions Spool Valve (DSSV™) dampers
  • Off-road rocker protection
  • New cast-iron control arms
  • Autotrac transfer case with shield
  • Modified rear axle with a 3.42 ratio
  • Off-Road Mode Technology
  • Four-wheel disc brakes

The electronic lockers, body lift, aggressive tires and two-speed transfer case qualify the ZR2 as the real deal when it comes to off-roading. However, it’s the Multimatic suspension that makes it unique and so very good at speed off-road.

The Multimatic system uses pre-tensioned spring-loaded spool valves that control the flow of oil in and out of the shocks. In a nutshell, these shocks respond at various rates, in milliseconds, to adjust how hard or soft hits to the shocks are.

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The range is so wide that on pavement, for example, the truck feels firm and controlled, but not at all overly stiff as you might imagine off-road shocks’d feel. At the other end of the spectrum, coming off a jump where all four wheels left the ground, the impact was soft and controlled.

This is the beauty of the Multimatic setup: it does it all, making an off-roader a pleasant daily driver.

Coming up to the first table-top jump on the dirt track, my right-seat factory chaperone called out “slower, slower!”—but by then we were airborne. I braced for the impact, expecting it to jar my spine. But that didn’t happen.

The truck landed and the suspension compressed, slowing the weight of the truck softly. In fact, that’s the only word that fits this landing: soft. I didn’t bottom out, I didn’t rattle my teeth, and the truck maintained a straight-and-level attitude. I was in control throughout. Wow.

Despite hitting the jump at over the recommended speed, the Multimatic spool values and dual reservoirs saved my bacon.

The rest of the Trophy Truck course we were using really highlighted the strength of the suspension components and grip of the tires as I powered through the turns with all the electronic nannies turned off. I drove the 2.8-litre Duramax diesel around the track first, and the torque output of this engine tore up the dirt.

This muddy introduction was followed by on-pavement driving, and apart from some “singing” from the Wrangler Duratrac tires, you’d never know you were driving a highly modified off-roader. Its road manners are gentle and light. You can easily drive this truck around town all week, and then bash the hell out of it on weekends. Kudos, Chevy.

The last segment of the test was rock-crawling. This pursuit requires ground clearance and severe approach and departure angles to keep the body panels from getting bent. It’s also a low-speed exercise that requires precise steering and control. My feeling was the ZR2 was in its happy place climbing the rock ledges.

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The high-performance off-road ZR2 trim level comes with a starting price of $44,215, plus a $1,700 destination freight charge. Keep in mind that though this truck leans towards off-road performance, it’s still rated to tow up to 5,000 lb and carry payload of 1,100 lb, making it all-week-long usable.

The ZR2 is not for everyone—that much is obvious. But if you are the buyer who appreciates the character traits found in this version of the Colorado, chances are you’ll become a devoted fan very quickly.

The single best feature on the truck is this Multimatic suspension; it performs in ways you’d typically have to turn to aftermarket parts to mimic. However, when the factory builds the truck, you get the engineering that integrates it perfectly into a single package. Can you tell I’m impressed?

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Disclosure—This writer’s travel and accommodations were provided by the automaker for the purposes of this first-drive review.