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First drive: 2023 Chevrolet Colorado is a pickup that appeals to everyone

The Colorado proves to be a true chameleon with powertrains and trims that feel completely different

2023 Chevrolet Colorado Trail Boss front end angle from passenger's side parked on a grass lawn in front of a lodge on a rainy day.
Joel Patel/The Manual

It’s no secret that large pickup trucks are all moving upstream. Once the obvious choice for workers needing a capable pickup for towing or hauling, large pickups have morphed into family-friendly vehicles with luxurious touches and six-figure price tags. While a lot has changed for large trucks, automakers are happy to continue offering midsize trucks with no-frill interiors, decade-old powertrains, and terrible ride quality. The fully redesigned 2023 Chevrolet Colorado enters the segment and immediately gets to work on changing the status quo. Like an overzealous 16-year-old heading into their first job, the new Colorado eagerly looks to change how things are done.

Chevy must have gotten tired of falling behind the reliable Toyota Tacoma in sales, being pushed aside by the off-road ready Jeep Gladiator, or being ignored by the comfortable Honda Ridgeline, because the 2023 Colorado incorporates qualities from all of its main rivals.

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Do the changes work? Yes, undoubtedly so. They do more than just work; they send the Colorado to the top of the tier list, regardless of where your allegiances – Toyota for this particular writer – lie.

2023 Chevrolet Colorado Z71 and Trail Boss parked on the side of the road with trees and mountains in the back.
Joel Patel/The Manual

What’s new with the 2023 Chevrolet Colorado?

Pretty much everything. While most people will get caught up on the Colorado’s far more rugged design that improves off-roading capability, the changes are more than skin deep. The truck utilizes a new frame that’s derived from the Silverado 1500. Compared to the outgoing Colorado, the new pickup’s front axle is moved forward for a far shorter front overhang, and the wheelbase has been stretched by 3.1 inches.

Chevrolet has streamlined the Colorado’s body styles by only offering the 2023 version of the pickup as a crew cab with a short bed. Seeing as how two-door pickup trucks have all but disappeared from existence, this isn’t a surprising change.

Another large change is what’s under the hood. Before, the Colorado was offered with three engines: a four-cylinder, V6, and a turbo-diesel. Now, consumers have to spec their Colorados with a turbocharged 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine with three different power ratings. More on the engine later.

Unlike other midsize pickup trucks in the class that have infotainment systems from the prehistoric era, every Colorado comes with an 11.3-inch touchscreen with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. You’re also getting Google built-in and an 8-inch digital instrument cluster. These features blow anything you’ll find from a competitor out of the water.

Chevy brought us to San Diego to drive a few Colorados. We had some time with the base Work Truck, rugged Trail Boss, and Z71. The LT trim was harder to get a hold of than decent weather, and while Chevy did have a ZR2 on hand, it was more for the purposes of teasing everyone.

The one to skip: Work Truck with base turbo engine

Even Chevy will be the first to tell you that the Work Truck, or WT, is aimed at fleet users. Sure, the WT trim comes with the high-tech infotainment system, but you can tell that this is a barebones truck that’s meant to fit into a neat budget with minimal features and a plastic-heavy interior.

Most people will find the Colorado’s interior, even in the base WT trim’s cabin, to be good enough for regular use. But the one thing that really hurts the WT’s appeal is the standard turbocharged 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine and 8-speed automatic transmission. The WT and LT trims come with the base engine that’s rated at 237 horsepower and 259 pound-feet of torque. The base engine also gets its own 8-speed transmission compared to the rest of the lineup. While the turbo engine is a major upgrade in power over the outgoing 2.5-liter four-cylinder, it feels like an old dog.

The base engine sounds gravelly and buzzy, while feeling unrefined. The standard engine lacks the noise-canceling materials found in more powerful versions of the engine, so there’s no getting around the fact that the engine is loud. These are things most people can live with, but what’s harder to get around is the lack of oomph.

The engine makes the most of its grunt low-down in the rev range and then quickly runs out of puff, like an asthmatic that’s smoked two packs a day and is just coming off a recent bout with COVID-19. Smashing the throttle to get any kind of performance from the truck and hearing what sounds like rocks being thrown around under the engine bay is exhausting. Plus, the WT with the base engine is only rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds – less than a properly equipped Ford Maverick or Hyundai Santa Cruz.

The base engine’s transmission is also a letdown. Shifts are harsh and usually followed by a large lurch. At one point, I came to a sudden stop at a light, which caused the transmission to dole out a slow downshift and the truck to lunge forward.

The WT is mainly aimed at fleet owners that need a cheap truck for work use. At $30,695 (prices include destination), it’s great for people that want a simple truck and can live with the low towing capacity, lack of convenience features, and dull powertrain. For most consumers, this is a hard pass. Of course, you can upgrade to the 2.7L Turbo Plus engine for $1,185, which makes things a lot better.

The one for off-roaders: Trail Boss with 2.7L Turbo Plus

At $48,295, the high-flying Colorado ZR2 will be out of reach for a lot of shoppers. Fret not. For drivers looking to do some off-roading, but aren’t well-off YouTubers, there’s the Trail Boss that’s $10,000 less. It’s only available with four-wheel drive and has a more rugged design compared to the likes of the WT, LT, and Z71 trims. The Trail Boss also adds features that most off-roaders will appreciate like a 2-inch lift kit, upgraded suspension, recovery hooks, an automatic locking rear differential, hill descent control, and 32-inch tires.

As one can surmise, the results are a truck that’s ready to go off-roading, which is exactly what we did. We headed toward mountains just outside of San Diego to unleash the Trail Boss on a trail. The added ground clearance, upgraded suspension, and Drive Mode Selector result in a truck that handled the off-road trail with ease. There were some large ruts and bumps and one section that saw the trucks lift up a rear wheel, but at no point was there a section that made us think the Trail Boss was out of its league. For 90% of drivers that want to go off-roading or get a truck that looks like it can go off-roading, the Trail Boss should fit the bill.

Beyond off-roading capability, the major upgrade that the Trail Boss brings is the standard 2.7L Turbo Plus engine. In this application, the 2.7-liter engine is rated at 310 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. Plus, the engine gets a different transmission compared to the one that’s paired with the base turbo engine.

The mid-engine represents a major upgrade, bringing far more horsepower and torque to feel like an engine that’s up to the task of getting the truck down the road with some gusto. Plus, extra sound-deadening results in a quieter truck, though the unrefined rock-chewing sounds and loud hum are still prevalent. The transmission is noticeably smoother, too, with better shifts and none of the lunges that plague the base gearbox.

The best of the bunch: Z71 2.7L Turbo High-Output

During our time off-roading, we were able to switch into a Z71 for the return trip down the dirt trail. For a road-going trim, the Z71 gets a lot of the same goodies as the Trail Boss, including a two-speed transfer case, red recovery hooks, LED lights, mechanical limited-slip rear axle, an underbody camera, off-road drive modes, 32-inch all-terrain tires, and 18-inch wheels. These features make the Z71 plenty capable off-road, though it loses the 2-inch lift and off-road suspension, for a modest 1-inch lift.

While the Z71 is meant to stick to tarmac, it’s fairly capable off-road. It managed to get through the same trail that the Trail Boss did with little drama, though a few trucks did bottom out and scrape the bottom of the front fascia on one of the more technical parts of the trail.

Where the Z71 really shines is out on the road. All Colorados have superb ride quality for a pickup truck without the harshness that midsize trucks are known for. Getting to the mountain trail required miles and miles of narrow, winding roads. Because of the Colorado’s stable handling and direct steering, the truck was surprisingly enjoyable to drive. At one point, my co-driver pointed out that I was going much faster than he would on the road, but that mostly comes down to how little the Colorado rolls and how balanced the truck feels.

The best thing about the Z71 that we drove was the high-output engine. Compared to the other four-cylinder engines, the high-output variant brings 430 pound-feet of torque. It also has different tuning and more boost. These changes might not sound like a lot, but holy hell, do they completely change the character of the engine.

The high-output motor is turbo heaven. It makes turbo wooshes and swooshes that are fit for a hot hatchback. It also loses the rock noises and unrefined turbo-four hum, while gaining a high-pitched angry bee noise that makes it sound like its supercharged. The high-output engine offers the same low-down grunt as the other motors, but continues to pull until around 4,500 rpm and makes the truck feel deceptively quick.

After driving the Z71 trim with the high-output engine, the Colorado finally clicked for us as being a segment leader. You don’t miss the fact that the Colorado isn’t available with a V6 engine, and the truck’s towing capacity of 7,700 pounds (with either the 2.7L Turbo Plus or the High-Output) makes a lot more sense than 3,500 pounds with the base engine.

Nifty features for real truck owners

The Colorado has plenty of useful little touches that truck owners will enjoy. The available StowFlex Tailgate has a useful storage compartment inside the tailgate for small items. The tailgate also has a mid-open point to store large items like lumber or drywall instead of having to keep the tailgate completely open or place items at an angle inside the bed. The front of the bed also has ridges that are meant to make it easier to transport motorcycles. Lastly, the end of the tailgate has a useful four-foot ruler to measure items.

The same useful storage philosophy occurs on the inside, where the rear seats fold up to reveal a handy under-seat storage compartment. The storage space isn’t large, but it could be handy for small items.

We also feel compelled to talk about the cameras, which are excellent. Compared to other midsize pickup trucks, which come with cameras that rival those found on the iPhone 3G, the Colorado’s cameras are crisp and incredibly clear. There are also plenty of angles, and the underbody camera works well when off-roading.

For owners that opt for the Plus version of the engine, they can get it flashed to be the High-Output version at a Chevy dealership. This costs around $400, can be done at a local dealership, and is a worthwhile upgrade in our eyes.

Some oddities that are annoying

There’s not a huge difference in interior quality between the Colorado trims. All trucks have a plastic-heavy interior, and it’s not until the Z71 trim that you see some color or materials that aren’t cloth. The trim is the first to come with what Chevy’s calling Evotex, which feels like synthetic leather, as standard. Also, every single trim comes with manually adjustable front seats and a tilt steering column. That’s unacceptable on the Trail Boss and Z71 trims, as the latter starts at $41,395.

It’s clear that Chevy’s trying to appeal to a younger crowd with all of the standard tech features that the Colorado comes with. While we’re fans of the infotainment system – it’s a gorgeous display and comes well-equipped with features – a lot of controls have moved to only living inside the infotainment system. Headlights, fog lights, the truck’s trip meter, window lock, and traction control are a few things that you can only access by scrounging through the infotainment system.

Is a 2023 Chevrolet Colorado worth buying?

We’re not afraid to say that the 2023 Chevrolet Colorado is the new king of the segment. It’s an impressive machine, especially when you consider how much tech it comes with, its ride quality, and 7,700-pound towing capacity. The way that each trim and engine combination feels different is also noteworthy, making every trim appeal to a different consumer. Our main gripes with the Colorado are its dull interior materials, lackluster base engine, lack of standard convivence features on higher trims, and pay-to-upgrade path where everything costs extra.

But as a whole, it’s hard to come away from the Colorado without finding the truck to be impressive. New trucks from Ford and Toyota are rumored to be coming out in the near future, but Chevy has raised the bar for the class and set a new standard for shoppers looking to buy a new truck right now. Ford and Toyota aren’t going to be able to pull any punches, because Chevy’s engineers have done everything in their power to make the 2023 Colorado the best midsize truck in the class.

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