What do a Joshua tree and the Chevrolet Silverado have in common? It seemingly takes both of them awhile to mature. The scraggly-looking tree, for example, may only grow a foot in 12 years, which is about 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 setting to figure out what the ZR2 is all about. Motivating this new model is General Motors' sweetheart of a 6.2-liter pushrod V-8. Although there's a strong argument to be made that the low-end grunt of GM's 3.0-liter inline-six turbo-diesel would be a better fit, the gas-fired 6.2-liter's 420 horsepower and 460 pound-feet of torque feel right at home here. A quick-shifting 10-speed automatic transmission mates to a two-speed transfer case with traditional two-wheel drive and high- and low-range four-wheel-drive modes, plus an Automatic mode for those who prefer to let the electronics figure out when the front axle needs to be engaged.
The ZR2 takes the Silverado's existing Trail Boss trim level to the next level via some key off-road hardware. The front and rear differentials incorporate electronic lockers, with the former also necessitating upgraded half-shafts for the front axle to manage the additional loads when the diff is locked. Underneath, beefy skid plates help keep obstacles from impaling the truck's vital components, and knobby 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler Territory all-terrain tires have been wrapped around the standard 18-wheels.
Chevrolet designed the ZR2 to be a weapon for any trail—not just the open desert. By not grossly flaring its fenders in the vein of the Ford F-150 Raptor and Ram 1500 TRX, the ZR2's width remains relatively narrow. Measuring 81.2 inches across, the Chevy is 5.4 and 6.8 inches less broad of beam than the Raptor and TRX, respectively. While ascending the tight canyon trails and dry riverbeds that snake their way through the national park, the ZR2's slimmer profile easily cleared the surrounding rock walls that the wider trucks would need to carefully navigate. The Silverado's direct yet low-effort steering allows you to precisely place the ZR2's Goodyears so as to avoid punctures from sharp-edged rocks.
With its differentials locked, the ZR2 makes quick work of climbing gnarly rock ledges. Setting the three-position drive mode selector to Terrain mode enables a one-pedal trail driving setup that operated more smoothly than we expected. Simply press the accelerator to go and release it to stop, the ZR2 automatically engaging its brakes to keep it from gaining speed. Hill-descent control allows incremental speed adjustments of 1 mph by using the truck's cruise control toggle. Both electronic aids reduce the head-banging motions that can come from two-pedal off-road driving. Fortunately, both systems can be disabled if you prefer to work the pedals yourself. However, you won't want to neglect the truck's various high-resolution camera views, which essentially provide a virtual spotter for picking your way through technical terrain. Though not as high-tech, we also welcomed the deep baritone growl provided by the $1399 Borla exhaust system upgrade fitted to the truck we drove. Unlike most players in the segment, Chevrolet opted not to fit canon-sized exhaust tips out the back of the ZR2. Instead, it cleverly routed the truck's tailpipes high up to prevent any costly damage when departing obstacles.
Still, despite the effort to keep the exhaust out of harm's way, the ZR2's departure angle of 23.3 degrees comes up short versus its immediate competitors. But when it comes to preventing the truck's midsection from dragging over boulders, its breakover angle of 23.4 degrees is topped only by the F-150 Raptor on its optional 37-inch tires. Similarly, the ZR2's model-specific three-piece steel front bumper—the glossy black finish of which is a magnet for trail scuffs—helps enable an approach angle of 31.8 degrees, again bettered only by the big-tired Raptor.
As with Chevy's smaller Colorado ZR2 pickup, the Silverado ZR2's three-chamber Multimatic spool-valve dampers are its most notable upgrade—they imbue the truck with an impressive split personality. On the road, these passive dampers contribute to a supple ride by removing the harshness we've previously complained about in the current-gen Silverado. Even body roll is mostly kept in check when hustling through corners. Yet, in deep sand, they masterfully manage the inherent hopping motions of the ZR2's leaf-sprung rear axle.. But it's in undulating high-speed sections of desert where the trick dampers shine, softening impacts and deftly managing wheel motions so that the ZR2 never feels out of control. And with 9.8 inches of travel in front and 10.6 inches in back—2.0 inches more than in the Trail Boss—plus the addition of hydraulic bump stops, this Silverado shrugs off hard touchdowns with little issue.
Starting at $69,295, the ZR2 doesn't come cheap. But with its elevated base price comes the top grade of the Silverado's newly revised interior. There's now an upscale feel and modern look inside, highlighted by a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster and a 13.4-inch touchscreen running a Google-based infotainment system. The side bolsters and shoulder support of the leather-wrapped and ZR2-specific sport seats do an excellent job of keeping your torso in place, with their only drawback being a bottom cushion that could be a bit on the softer side. However, we're far less enamored with the design of the Silverado's new electronic joystick shifter on the console. Feeling both bulky and clumsy in operation, its top-mounted Park button is especially easy to unintendedly activate with a resting hand.
Unlike its harder-core rivals, the ZR2's off-road prowess doesn't come at the expense of everyday capability. With a maximum towing capacity of 8900 pounds, it'll tug more than both the TRX and the 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 only 15 mpg combined, 14 city, and 17 highway. As a sort of multitool among off-road-oriented pickups, the ZR2 is a supercharged V-8—and maybe a set of slightly larger tires—away from approaching the performance found in the upper echelons of its segment. Given the heretofore slow rate of the Silverado's evolution, we won't count on such upgrades happening anytime soon. But we do hope the ZR2's future growth outpaces that of a Joshua tree.
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