Payne: Conquering the Mojave in the burly Chevy Silverado ZR2

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 15, 2022

Joshua Tree National Park, California — At 4,200 feet above sea level here in the arid Mojave desert, not much survives. The landscape is raw, rocky, brown. Except for the enduring Joshua Tree. As if taken from the pages of a Dr. Seuss book, its hydra-like branches extend from the trunk — each topped by a head of sharp needles. Thanks to a deep root system and the ability to go months without water, the interloper is uniquely equipped to survive in this hostile environment.

Kind of like the 2022 Chevy Silverado ZR2 performance truck I’m driving.

Armed with fearless Goodyear Wrangler Territorial MT tires, Multimatic shocks, three bash plates, two-speed transfer case, twin-locking differentials and a relentless 6.2-liter V-8 engine, this stubborn pickup is remarkably well-suited for the rocky desert.

Amongst the green groves of Joshua trees, a media-piloted caravan of red, blue, sand, and white ZR2s added welcome color to the scorched landscape. A winding dirt road cut to extract gold from a solitary mine stretched out in front of us.

Transfer case on 4-wheel-drive high. Terrain mode selected. Wrangler tires aired down to 25 PSI. I nailed the throttle and the beast awoke. WAAAUUUGGHHHRGH!

I tested a GMC Hummer EV in similar Arizona desert terrain a few weeks before, its silent drivetrain creeping through Boulders ORV Park’s low brush. Hear the crunch of rocks below. The rustle of leaves. SSSHHHHH.

The 2022 Chevy Silverado ZR2 features comfortable, bolstered seats for off-roading and a sunroof.

The ZR2’s V-8 is a different sensory experience. WAAAUUURGH! You want to keep your boot on it to hear its heavy metal beat. Carbon prohibitionists despise it, of course. It’s fun. Loud. Ban it.

But like Brian Johnson screaming “Hell’s Bells,” ZR2 sends goosebumps up my spine. Windows down. Sunroof open. I crested 65 mph on the open road, pushing through the cloud of dust created by the ZR2 in front of me, another link in our speeding truck train.

It’s an experience that Liana Prieto and her Dirt Days crew share with off-road customers in Joshua Tree and Salton Sea and the Baja Peninsula, home to some of the world’s greatest off-roading over thousands of acres of desert wilderness. Dirt-kickers welcome: super trucks, Wranglers, Broncos.

Before organizing trips like our ZR2 train for Chevrolet, she drove a Tesla Model S in LA. Then she experienced the joy of F-150 Raptor super trucks in the desert and she was addicted. Goodbye EV, hello 4WD.

The ZR2 is a latecomer to the performance truck game. Notably, it lacks the steroid-induced power (Ram TRX has a supercharged, 702-horse powerplant), width (Raptor is 86.6 inches wide) and tires (37s on Raptor) of its more ripped competitors.

Its 6.2-liter V-8 is not supercharged, but it’s a welcome voice in the choir. Raptor long ago abandoned its V-8 for a twin-turbo V-6. More torque, more applause from the Prohibitionists. But less enthusiasm from enthusiasts. Many Raptor owners held on to their gen-one V-8s, and Ford is expected to bring a supercharged V-8 back in the Raptor R.

GM felt the eight-holer’s 420 horses were enough for desert sprints and Michigan off-road parks like Holly Oaks and The Mounds. Chevy’s engineers have augmented it with a sport exhaust that’ll wake the neighbors on start-up — BRAPPPA! — and upshift with authority — BRAP! BRAP!

Like its competitors, the ZR2 has killer off-road shocks.

The 2022 Chevy Silverado ZR2 features excellent Goodyear Wrangler Territory MT tires for where the asphalt ends - but they are quiet on-road as well.

Sophisticated Multimatic shocks and 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler Territorial MT tires absorb the brutal washboard bumps and dips of the Joshua tree mining road like Kong shrugging off arrows. They are the same Formula One-inspired shocks pioneered by the midsize Colorado ZR2, which I punished on an off-road race course in 2017.

Truck expert and Muscle Cars & Trucks scribe Manny Katakis rates the supertruck segment this way: “I’d take the ZR2’s shocks, Raptor tires and TRX engine.”

The ZR2’s interior shines, too. Embarrassed by Ram’s upscale living quarters, ZR2 introduces an all-new dash for 2022 that brings rich 12.3-inch instrument cluster and 13.4-inch console digital displays. My driving experience was aided by comfortable bolstered seats, a head-up display the size of Oklahoma and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The latter is a must for when you take the big dog for a run.

The roomy interior of the 2022 Chevy Silverado ZR2 seats five with a standard 10-speed transmission, and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

At about 5,500 pounds — 40% lighter than the $112,595 Hummer EV! — my $72,560 tester was easy to drive at high speeds even if it lacked Raptor’s insane 14-inch front/15-inch rear suspension travel (ZR2 clocks in at 9.6 inches front/10.6 rear). Chevy’s target is to make the ZR2 an all-around athlete with on-road manners, off-road macho (thus the Multimatics), 9,500-towing capability (thus the V-8) and low-speed rock crawling.

To achieve the latter, ZR2 is armed with a 32-degree approach angle, camera views and class-exclusive front-and-rear locking differentials (like little brother Colorado ZR2) compared to the high-speed focused Raptor and TRX’s rear-only lockers.

Tight canyon-crawling is usually the domain of narrow Wrangler Rubicons — but the Silverado defies the stereotype. Like 6’10” Kevin Durant, dude wants to shoot threes and dunk.

Climbing to reach Joshua’s high plains, I crawled through narrow rock canyons and scrambled up twisted canyons cut by rainy season floods. With lockers activated and one-pedal drive enabled (think one-pedal, Tesla regen driving), my mule crawled effortlessly over rock and mogul.

With its twin-locking differentials, 11.2-inch ground clearance, 4WD and Terrain mode, the 2022 Chevy Silverado ZR2 can go places usually reserved for Wrangler Rubicons.

GRONCH! The front bash plate absorbed a quick descent. PFISHZZZ! A plant’s scraggly branches scraped along ZR2’s muscular shoulders. The sounds might make an owner cringe after laying out $70K for this chiseled truck — but the pickup is built for durability.

A robust top paint coat absorbed relentless branch “pinstriping” across all the trucks in our train. Bash plates are made of steel just like Silverado’s signature bed. And ZR2 innovates a three-piece bumper for cheaper repairs should any piece be damaged.

Washed and waxed after my adventure, ZR2 looked good as new.

Pickups are the new luxury. Basketballer Durant could comfortably lounge in the rear seats of my ZR2 condo. Out back, a six-way Multi-Flex tailgate rolls out steps for easy bed access (if you’re not spry enough to use the corner bumper steps).

Like a supercar, this supertruck must be taken off-road to be appreciated. So call up Dirt Days, or your Midwest pickup buddies. Then head to the Outback, put on U2’s “Joshua Tree” album, and turn up the V-8.

This is pickup (and Joshua Tree) country.

2022 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2

Vehicle type: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, five-passenger pickup

Price: $69,295, including $1,695 destination charge ($72,560 as tested)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 420 horsepower, 460 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 10-speed automatic

Performance: towing, 8,900 lbs.; payload, 1,440 lbs.

Weight: 5,500 lbs. (est.)

Fuel economy: EPA: 14 mpg city/17 highway/15 combined

Report card

Highs: Much-improved interior; Multimatic magic

Lows: No 35- or 37-inch tire option; gets pricey

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

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