What is the common denominator between the Joshua Tree and the Chevrolet Silverado? They both seem to take a while to mature. For example, a lean-looking tree might grow only one foot in 12 years, which is the same amount of time we’ve been waiting for Chevy to build a truck with serious off-road performance. With the 2022 Silverado 1500 ZR2, that wait is finally over.
Our recent drive up, down and around Joshua Tree National Park provided the perfect place to find out what the ZR2 is all about. This new model is driven by GM’s sweetheart of its 6.2-liter V-8 propulsion engine. Although there is a strong argument to be made that the lower grunt of GM’s 3.0-liter inline-turbo diesel would be a better fit, the 6.2-liter gas-turbine engine with 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque feels better. Comfortable at home here. A 10-speed automatic transmission pairs a two-speed transmission with conventional two-wheel drive and high- and low-range all-wheel drive modes, plus an automatic mode for those who prefer letting the electronics shape out when the front axle needs to be engaged.
The ZR2 takes Silverado’s current Trail Boss trim to the next level with some major off-road hardware. The front and rear differentials have electronic lockers, the former also entailing upgraded front axle semi-shafts to manage additional loads when the diff is locked. Underneath, thicker skid plates help prevent snags from affecting the truck’s vital components, and 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler Territory all-terrain tires are wrapped around the standard 18-wheelers.
The Chevrolet ZR2 is designed to be a weapon for any trail—not just the open desert. By not burning the fenders as much in the context of the Ford F-150 Raptor and Ram 1500 TRX, the ZR2 remains relatively narrow in width. The Chevy is 81.2 inches wide, which is 5.4 and 6.8 inches less than the Raptor and TRX, respectively. As you climb the narrow valley passes and dry riverbeds that wind their way through the national park, the ZR2’s slim profile easily removed the surrounding rock walls that wider trucks would need to navigate carefully. The Silverado’s direct but effortless steering system allows you to position the Goodyears ZR2 precisely to avoid punctures from sharp-edged rocks.
With its locked differentials, the ZR2 does a quick job of climbing thorny rocky ledges. Setting the three-position drive mode selector to Terrain allows a single-pedal driving setup that works more smoothly than we expected. Simply depress the accelerator pedal to launch and release it to stop, and the ZR2 automatically applies its brakes to prevent it from gaining speed. Hill Descent Control allows incremental speed adjustments of up to 1 mph using the truck’s cruise control switch. Both electronic aids reduce the head-banging motions that can come from off-road driving with two pedals. Fortunately, both systems can be disabled if you prefer to operate the pedals yourself. However, you won’t want to neglect the truck’s various HD camera views, which essentially provide a virtual monitor to choose your way through technical terrain. While not very high-tech, we also welcomed the deep baritone sound provided by the $1,399 Borla exhaust system upgrade installed in the truck we drove. Unlike most players in its class, Chevrolet chose not to place canon-sized exhaust heads in the back of the ZR2. Instead, it cleverly routed the truck’s exhaust pipes upward to prevent any costly damage when leaving obstructions.
However, despite efforts to keep the exhaust out of harm’s way, the ZR2’s 23.3-degree departure angle comes in short against its direct competitors. But when it comes to preventing the truck’s midsection from dragging over rocks, its 23.4-degree break angle is topped only by the F-150 Raptor on its optional 37-inch tires. Likewise, the ZR2’s three-piece steel front bumper — whose glossy black finish is a magnet for trail-digging — helps enable an approach angle of 31.8 degrees, once again bested only by the big-tired Raptor.
As with Chevy’s smaller Colorado ZR2 pickup, the Silverado ZR2’s multi-chamber spool dampers are its most notable upgrade—they give the truck an impressive separate character. On the road, these passive dampers contribute to a supple ride by eliminating the harshness we previously complained about on current Silverados. Even body roll is mostly kept in check when hustling through corners. However, in the deep sand, they brilliantly manage the hopping motions inherent to the ZR2’s leaf-trimmed rear axle.. but it’s in undulating, high-speed sections of the desert where the resourceful dampers shine, softening impacts and maneuvering the wheel motions subtly so that the ZR2 doesn’t feel out of control. And with 9.8 inches of travel in the front and 10.6 inches in the rear — 2.0 inches more than the Trail Boss — plus the addition of hydraulic shock stops, this Silverado shrugs off tough landings with few problems.
Starting at $69,295, the ZR2 isn’t cheap. But with a higher base price, the first class comes with a newly revised Silverado cabin. There’s now a refined feel and modern look inside, highlighted by a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and 13.4-inch touchscreen display powered by a Google-based infotainment system. The side bolsters and shoulder support of the ZR2’s leather-trimmed sport seats do an excellent job of keeping your torso in place, with the only drawback being a bottom cushion that can be a bit on the softer side. However, we’re less enamored with the Silverado’s new electronic transmission design on the console. Feeling bulky and clumsy during operation, the top-mounted Park button particularly facilitates inadvertent activation by the comfort hand.
Unlike its tougher competitors, the ZR2’s off-road prowess doesn’t come at the expense of everyday ability. With a maximum towing capacity of 8900 pounds, it’ll pull more than the TRX and Raptor. Of course, you’ll still want to shop in a different segment if fuel economy is a priority, as this Silverado earns EPA estimates of just 15 mpg combined, 14 city, and 17 highway. As a sort of multi-tool among off-road pickups, the ZR2 is a supercharged V-8 — and perhaps a set of slightly larger tires — far from approaching the performance found in the upper echelons of its class. Given the slow rate so far of Silverado evolution, we won’t count on such upgrades happening any time soon. But we hope that the ZR2’s future growth will outpace that of Joshua’s tree.
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