Factory specials always paint a smile on my face. These are the sorts of vehicles that go beyond the original design parameters and product plan. They’re the result of performance-crazed engineers and are typically birthed into existence a couple years after the base vehicle’s introduction. When Chevrolet’s engineers are given the opportunity to do something like this, they do it right.
Intentional, or otherwise fortuitous timing on Chevy’s part, the Colorado ZR2 Bison is right on trend with the growth in overlanding and it’s an excellent foundation for anyone looking to seriously explore the world away from asphalt. It starts life as a ZR2, with its wider fenders, off-road tires, locking front and rear diffs, and a two-inch lift. Most importantly, the ultra trick DSSV spool valve shocks from Canada’s Multimatic are standard equipment.
Spool valve dampers are a Multimatic innovation and the company supplies them for a handful of road going applications, but they’re best known for their success in the highest levels of motor racing. Previously only found in industrial hydraulic applications, spool valves are better at predictably controlling fluid flow in a damper than a traditional shim stack style shock.
In the case of the ZR2, the DSSVs have an additional reservoir and, more importantly, are also position sensitive. It’s actually the speed of the piston that determines which of the spool valves control the damper’s response. The shock piston resides in the main chamber, along with the spool valve that controls maximum compression, while the spool valves in the second chamber control compression and rebound for low-velocity shock movements, like your typical on road driving. The third chamber is nitrogen-charged and acts as a semi-remote reservoir for shock fluid.
When you’re driving off-road, the ZR2’s suspension can rapidly go from full compression to full droop and back again – consider those times when you jump the Bison, for example – so it’s critical that the dampers are able to cope with the extremes of fluid flow in those situations.
Body and wheel control is simply excellent, both on-and off-road, and a pleasant byproduct of these ZR2 suspension calibrations is that the Bison rides comfortably as any sedan on pavement.
Like ZR2, Bison engine choices are the 3.6-litre gasoline V6 and the 2.8-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder diesel. Having tested both previously, I find the real world performance and fuel consumption nearly identical, but the V6 is slightly more refined with a little more usable highway passing power. I was pleased that this tester was equipped with the gas V6.
The ZR2 Bison will tow just over 2,200 kilos, which is more than plenty for a pair of sleds, personal watercraft, or a modestly sized sport boat. Compared to today’s full size pickups, I prefer the Colorado’s dimensions for most driving conditions – including off-road mountain trails – and this crew cab/short box spec is spacious enough to be thoroughly usable.
The cabin is large enough for four adults to sit comfortably, though five might be a squeeze, and the short bed is usable for most home-improvement hauling requirements.
For the Bison, Chevrolet partnered with the off-road experts at American Expedition Vehicles, whose AEV logos you find all over the Bison. The mandate for this truck was to apply AEV’s expertise and develop a truck that was more usable to off-road enthusiasts without having to resort to the after market.
The $7,475 Bison package they developed adds unique front and rear bumpers, as well as boron steel skid plates for the front and rear differentials, oil pan, transfer case, and fuel tank. The fender design and fog lamps are unique to the Bison, as are the attractive 17-inch wheels. Inside, there are AEV-branded rubber floor mats and AEV branding on the headrests. If you’re so inclined, you can also buy a snorkel engineered for the Bison from either AEV or your Chevy parts department.
As well resolved as this Bison is, it’s not quite a trophy truck, let alone a pre runner, but it is a sophisticated take on modern off-road trucks.
The only place the Bison can let you down is inside the cabin. It’s surprising to find any modern vehicle with an actual ignition key and Colorado is one of those trucks that requires a physical key and a key fob. Off-roading the Bison results in the key fob clanking around on the steering column, which you can hear in the accompanying video review.
If you’re an iPhone user, Apple CarPlay rescues the infotainment system with some modernity. Wireless phone charging is a useful, modern feature, but the charging pad only fits smaller phones.
The interior design, whether it’s the dashboard or the steering wheel, lends an older feel to the cabin, though the seats are exceptionally comfortable and supportive for long drives. The Colorado is definitely due for an interior redesign.
To fully test the Bison, I picked it up and immediately drove it over a mountain – the same mountain range that I’ve previously only driven around for years. To be able to drive over these mountains definitely paints a smile on my face.
There is a lot to love about this Bison, most of which has to do with its off-road competence. Surprisingly, I was able to limit my use of four-wheel drive, whether in high or low ranges, simply because the tires and the suspension are so competent.
Immediately into my ascent of the mountain, it became apparent that Chevy and AEV overlooked the need for a proper dead pedal. The parking brake pedal sits at the based of the A-pillar, which creates some clearance concerns for the driver’s left leg, but off-road driving jostles the driver and you find that you need to brace yourself. It’s clear that a dead pedal is necessary, but Bison owners will have to find a solution in the aftermarket.
During my mountain climb, the approach and departure angles of the Bison were never a problem. The Colorado navigated each ascent and descent perfectly, and it cleared every single obstacle in its path. Only once did I ding one of the skid plates, which was entirely user error, and I was thankful for the Bison’s additional shielding.
Normally, when I drive any vehicle, I like to sit as low as possible, but the Colorado has a tremendous amount of seat height adjustment. For my mountain drive, I raised the seat to maximum height for visibility. On challenging trails, you definitely want to see what's coming up ahead and there were some surprise drops that I avoided with that higher perspective.
The Bison didn’t break a sweat traversing the mountains, even with ambient temperatures hovering around 45 Celsius, nor did any of the roads of Southern California manage to form a challenge. As a mid-sized pickup, the Bison proved to be very livable, usable, and even a little efficient. Thankfully, it's got a backup camera and its smaller dimensions make it relatively easy to park.
On-and off-road, the Bison can achieve reasonable fuel consumption numbers, though it’s not the most aerodynamic shape. If you get volunteered into hauling furniture with the Bison as I did, the size of the bed isn’t restrictive, even compared to a Silverado.
You can take this truck off the showroom floor in stock form, just like I've done, and go straight to a challenging trail and see a different part of the world that you haven't experienced before. On the road, you never have to concern yourself with broken pavement, potholes, or even curbs. This truck glides right over everything.
Given my experience both on-and off-road, this Bison proved that it will go just about anywhere you can imagine and, yet, is extremely livable as a daily driver. That lack of compromise, both on-and off-road, is what makes this Bison one of my favourite factory specials.
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Brian Makse is a championship-winning racing driver, performance driving coach, and an auto writer and presenter. He holds multiple road racing track records, has raced off road trucks, and has driven many of the world’s famous circuits including the Nürburgring Nordschleife, Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Road Atlanta, and Laguna Seca. As a life-long automobile enthusiast and accomplished racer, his stories are filtered through the lens of a highly experienced driver, giving his readers and viewers a unique perspective on the world of automobiles. You’ll find Brian’s work in automotive publications around the world and on his YouTube channel.