Colorado was designed to offer improved comfort and maybe replace the family sedan in the process. Colorado favors roominess, ride comfort and fuel efficiency over traditional truck virtues such as payload and towing capacity. That's a strong selling point because compact trucks are increasingly bought as alternatives to cars, and their owners want more hip room, leg room and head room. Most are willing to sacrifice bed length for cab room. Sales of Regular Cab trucks, which typically offered the longest beds, are way down (although Colorado is one of the few to still offer this variation). The Extended Cab has largely replaced the Regular Cab as the truck for serious haulers, many of whom like being able to stash gear, tools, luggage, or groceries behind the seats. Crew Cabs are exploding in popularity because they offer the convenience of a comfortable back seat for family and friends. Their short bed lengths are an acceptable compromise for many buyers. But don't get us wrong: The Colorado isn't a car with a bed.
In fact, the Colorado provides all the trucking capacity most owners will ever use. It has a six-foot bed with Regular and Extended Cabs, and a five-foot bed on Crew Cabs. A properly equipped Colorado is rated to tow 4,000 pounds, enough for transporting ATVs, dirt bikes, personal watercraft, bass boats, and small camping trailers. In most configurations, the Colorado can carry more weight in the bed than the old S10 could. So it'll get the job done.
On the whole, we think the trade-offs have paid off. Colorado rides smoothly and feels refined. Order the five-cylinder engine and it accelerates smartly. (That's right: five-cylinder.) The Crew Cab features a roomy back seat that's surprisingly comfortable and not bolt-upright. Yet the Colorado fits into tight parking spaces, something that can't be said of full-size pickups. Like all the trucks in this category, the Colorado is substantially smaller and more maneuverable than full-size pickups such as the Dodge Ram or Chevy Silverado.
And Colorado offers something its competitors have forgotten, and that's a utilitarian Regular Cab work truck. In fact, about a hundred permutations are available, giving buyers lots of choices to fit their needs.
The number of trim levels has been expanded for 2006, although little else is actually new. The cloth upholstery for the new high-level LT model has been upgraded, and a new option package that combines the sunroof with a six-disc CD changer is available.
Chevrolet Colorado Z85 LS Regular Cab 2WD ($15,330); Z85 LS Extended Cab 2WD ($17,705); Z71 1LT Extened Cab 4WD ($24,150); Z85 1LT Crew Cab 4WD ($24,920); ZQ8 Sport 3LT Extended Cab 2WD ($24,980); Z71 2LT Crew Cab 4WD ($27,415)
Overall, the Colorado has a clean, modern look. The fender bulges are angular and aggressive, more so than Silverado's. The leading edge of the front fender flares isn't finished elegantly, however. Reach-through door handles allow a full handful of grip for easy opening, even with gloves.
The Crew Cab looks well balanced despite the extra cab length.
Cargo boxes are 6-foot, 1-inch on Regular and Extended Cab models and 5-foot, 1-inch on Crew Cabs. A two-position locking tailgate, which opens to 55 degrees or to fully horizontal, provides more cargo utility. When the tailgate is partway down, the Colorado can carry a 4-by-8 foot sheet of plywood flat, supported by the wheel wells and the rear edge of the tailgate.
Ride height varies by suspension grade and has a dramatic effect on the truck's appearance. The ZQ8 Sport models look slammed with their lower ride height. In fact, with a minimum ground clearance of just 5 inches at the front axle, they ride 3.5 inches lower in front and 1.1 inches lower in the rear than the standard 2WD Colorado. The standard Colorado has 7.5 inches of ground clearance, with 2WD or 4WD, with the low point at the rear axle. The Z71 off-road suspension raises the ground clearance to 8.4 inches, again the same with 2WD or 4WD.
All Crew Cab and Extended Cab models ride on a 126-inch wheelbase, while Regular Cab models ride on a 111-inch wheelbase. Overall length is 207 inches for all but Regular Cabs, which are 193 inches long. Overall height is about 65 inches for the standard Z85 suspension, 66 inches with 4WD; 63.5 inches for the low-rider ZQ8 Sport models; and 67 inches for the Z71 off-road models, 2WD and 4WD.
Chevrolet dealers offer a range of accessories, including a bed extender, hard and soft tonneau covers, tubular assist steps and splash guards. All can be installed at the time of delivery and can be financed as part of the deal.
The front bucket seats are wide and soft, and the fabric upholstery in LT models has been upgraded for 2006. We thought the seats lacked lateral support, whether upholstered in cloth or leather.
Getting into the Z71 off-road models requires stepping up. Specifically, Z71's step-in height is 22 inches, compared with 21.4 for the standard 4WD suspension, 18.4 with 2WD, and just 16.5 for the low-riding ZQ8 Sport.
Each door panel has a molded map pocket contoured for a bottle or can. The center console has cup holders that look capable of handling a variety of drink containers. The center armrest opens into a small storage space, big enough for a large wallet, but it wobbles when pushed. A small tray on the console is useful.
The instrument panel is traditional white-on-black with orange needles. It's easy to read and doesn't hide its functionality with artsy markings. This practical approach continues to the center stack. No ground-breaking innovation here, just straightforward knobs and dials that don't require a postgraduate degree to operate. Turning on the dome light requires fumbling around for a small thumbwheel, however, which we found difficult while navigating in pre-dawn darkness. For this reason, we recommend the optional electrochomic (automatic-dimming) rearview mirror, which features map lights, compass and outside temperature display. Light switches on mirrors often lead to thumbprints and frequent mirror adjustments, but in this case they're a step up.
The Crew Cab's back seat is surprisingly comfortable, particularly when compared with the back seats of old-generation compact Crew Cabs. There's a reasonable amount of leg room, especially with a little cooperation from those sitting in front, and the seat height is comfortably high. The seatback angles back slightly, making it more comfortable than the bolt-upright backrest found in some other pickups. The wide cabin provides enough shoulder room for adult males, but don't expect the width of a full-size pickup. Getting in and out of the back seats is a little awkward because the door is relatively narrow and you have to swing your feet in to clear the wide B-pillar (the post between the front and rear doors).
Forget about sitting in the back of an Extended Cab. It has back seats, but they're only good for hauling kids and only then for short distances. The rear seats flip down, providing a good place for cargo and, with modifications, it would be okay for a medium-size dog. The rear doors swing open suicide-style.
The optional engine is an inline-5 called the Vortec 3500. A five-cylinder engine is an unusual configuration for a U.S. vehicle, but German automakers have been using them for years. Mercedes-Benz offered five-cylinder diesels in the '70s, and Audi's premier engine was in inline-5 from 1977-91. More recently Volvo has adopted the straight-five idea. All of these engines produce a distinctive, siren-like sound at full throttle, and so does the five-cylinder Colorado. At cruise, however, GM's five-cylinder is quiet, and there's no indication that it's anything out of the ordinary. If you like inline-6 engines better than V6s, then you'll like the inline-5 just fine. It's much more responsive than the four-cylinder and delivers quicker acceleration. It's also smoother. Just don't mention the number of jugs it has in a cowboy bar.
The five-cylinder Vortec 3500 delivers 220 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 225 pound-feet of torque at 2800 rpm. That's a bit weak compared to the optional 4.0-liter V6 engines in the Toyota Tacoma and Nissan Frontier, which rate north of 280 pound-feet of torque. Dodge Dakota's optional V8 boasts 310 pound-feet of torque, but it's a bigger, heavier truck, too. In the Colorado's defense, we should point out that the inline-5 sustains its peak torque over 90 percent of its rev range, which is important when hauling heavy loads or towing trailers. The maximum towing load for the Colorado with the five-cylinder engine and automatic transmission is 4000 pounds, compared with 6500 for the V6 Tacoma and Frontier, and 7150 for the V8 Dakota. On the other hand, the Colorado's recommended fuel is 87 octane. Toyota recommends premium for its V6. Also, the five-cylinder engine with 2WD and manual transmission earns an EPA rating of 19/25 mpg (or 18/23 mpg with automatic), which is significantly better than Tacoma, Frontier, or Dakota.
Both the GM 2800 and 3500 engines were derived from the Vortec 4200 inline-6 used in the Chevy TrailBlazer. GM lopped cylinders off the six to get the five and four. These are modern engines featuring all-aluminum construction, dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, electronic (drive-by-wire) throttle control, variable exhaust timing and a healthy 10:1 compression ratio.
Chevrolet appears to have struck the right balance between capability and comfort for its midsize pickup. Colorado rides like a truck, but it isn't nasty about it. By aiming for a more modest towing capacity, GM engineers were able to reduce the rear spring rate and tune the suspension for a smooth ride. The rear end doesn't bounce around on washboard dirt roads the way it does on older trucks. It's the front end that feels firmer.
The Colorado accelerates decently in traffic and the Hydra-Matic 4L60-E four-speed automatic shifts smoothly enough. But goose it on loose gravel or dirt, and the traction control system shuts down the power and the Colorado bogs. That's not important except when trying to merge into fast-moving traffic from a pebbly roadside. The traction control override button, located high on the dash, can be used in such a situation, but obviously you'll need to think that through in advance. In snow, however, the traction control should help in taming
Chevrolet Colorado offers the increased roominess of the newest generation of mid-size pickup trucks. Anyone looking for a smaller truck that's not cramped on the inside, but is still capable of handling a respectable load or pulling a lightweight trailer, should find the Colorado a good choice. Load three dirt bikes on a trailer, and assorted gear in the bed, and three bikers and a couple of hangers-on can head to the track. Or take the kids to soccer practice and bring home a dozen bags of mulch. The Colorado handles it all with aplomb.
New Car Test Drive correspondent John Matras filed the original report from rural Pennsylvania; Mitch McCullough reported from Southern California.