Finally there's a midsize pickup truck with a factory turbo-diesel option; the two were specifically created to work together. And it's here in the form of the 2016 Chevrolet Colorado Duramax.
In the name of full disclosure, we should note we like the Chevy Colorado; after all, we selected the midsize pickup earlier this year as our Best Pickup of 2015. If that makes us a little biased when testing the Colorado with this new powertrain, we'll own that. But don't let that dissuade you from checking out this new small turbo-diesel Colorado the when you get the chance. It's one of the strongest little pullers we've driven in a long time.
The turbo-diesel will only be offered in crew-cab configurations on the LT and Z71 trim levels. However, you will be able to choose two- or four-wheel drive with either the long-bed (6 feet, 2 inches) or short-bed (5 feet, 2 inches) wheelbase options.
When compared with a similarly equipped 3.6-liter V-6 gas engine choice, the Duramax Colorado will cost $3,730 more. That will make some midsize truck buyers take a deep breath. So we're going to discuss what that cost provides in terms of the features packaged into that extra cost, and what kind of improved fuel economy and capability you'll get in return. Let's break it down.
What You Get
When opting for the new Duramax 2.8-liter DOHC 16-valve turbo-diesel — rated at 181 horsepower at 3,400 rpm and a powerful 369 pounds-feet of torque at 2,000 rpm — the Colorado will come standard with the tow package, an integrated trailer brake controller, a unique tachometer, a special diesel exhaust fluid screen in the information center to show fluid level, a dedicated exhaust brake button combined with the Tow/Haul switch, a separate 5.5-gallon DEF tank, a unique diesel exhaust system and special vibration-absorbing technology in the torque converter.
When you consider that all that additional technology provides better towing ability — it's only the diesel option with a tow rating of 7,700 pounds — and overall performance, that price might not seem so steep to people looking to get good value from a smaller work truck. Prices for the 2016 Colorado with the turbo-diesel will range from $33,000 to $45,000.
During our first chance to get behind the wheel, we were able to do a little towing and some highway cruising, as well as running up and down some coastal mountain canyons where we took full advantage of baby Duramax's performance abilities. Here's what we found.
How It Drives
The Duramax engine adds just less than 250 pounds of extra weight to the Colorado, with the pickup's total average real-world weight likely to come in around 4,700 pounds. Add another 15 pounds for all the other supporting technology in the exhaust and a final 40 pounds for a full tank of DEF, and you can see that there's a little more weight than you might expect for this engine option. But that's not exactly a bad thing.
From the start, GM knew this engine was going into this new pickup; engineers weren't dropping it into a chassis built for other engines. So this torquey engine, which delivers 100 more pounds-feet of torque (with a flatter torque curve) than the gas engine option with two more cylinders, is perfectly matched to the six-speed automatic transmission. Integration engineers obviously spent a lot of time working with the engine controls to make sure the power curve of the engine matched the shift controls of the transmission.
Hard starts off the line are strong and immediate, thanks to the fast-responding variable-geometry Honeywell turbocharger. The overall feel of launches and wide-open-throttle runs feel as good as its gasoline-engine sibling, if not better. We had the chance to drive the midsize diesel on some twisty country roads and found the extra front-end weight and fast-responding throttle a hoot to drive. We dove in and out of corners with a little more control and precision than we've done in the past. We found ourselves thinking that if Chevy lowered the suspension a bit, put on some high-performance street tires and put in a fatter steering wheel, it could have the first midsize performance sport truck worth its weight in gold.
We also had the chance to drive congested city streets, hitting quite a few stoplights, as well as cruise a two-lane highway at 65 to 70 mph. Over the course of our 58-mile impromptu test route (we admittedly ran a little on the "enthusiastic" side), we averaged a combined mpg of 33.5 mpg with the air conditioning on, the windows up and just one adult passenger in the empty 4×2 Colorado LT crew cab.
Acceleration during our highway sections offered nominal diesel noise — although you always know you're driving a diesel on the highway and at idle — and a quick, responsive passing personality when needed.
Exhaust Brake, Towing
The exhaust brake combined with Tow/Haul mode works well in this little pickup. When the brake is engaged, the engine and computer controls provide a more aggressive shift pattern when accelerating, holding each gear longer before upshifting. It also provided more control when running off-throttle, quickly downshifting and holding gears longer. Additionally, the setup provides a more aggressive grade-braking algorithm that GM engineers borrowed from the heavy-duty Silverado's exhaust brake setup. The diesel Colorado's ability to pair the exhaust brake with cruise control to offer much better downhill engine braking when towing a large trailer or carrying a heavy payload works just like it does in the Silverado 3500 dualie with the 6.6-liter V-8 Duramax.
During our test drive, we took out a properly hitched 3,800-pound horse trailer and found the grade braking exceptional, and in some cases even better than what we remembered about the last Silverado HD dualie we drove with a monster trailer. The added control and the engine's ability to hold the weight at different rpms based on our cruise control setting comforting had us fairly relaxed on our hilly highway cruise.
The biggest surprise we experienced while driving this new turbo-diesel pickup was how smooth it felt off the line, especially between the 1st and 2nd gears as well as between 2nd and 3rd gear shifts, which is typically a tricky thing to modulate in an engine producing this much torque. When you have a lot of torque, it can be a challenge for the computer to manage the shifts between gears without creating strong impacts.
New Transmission Technology
To respond to possible shift issues, GM incorporated a centrifugal pendulum vibration absorber used on some luxury European diesel cars. It's a rotating disc that sits inside the torque converter and has a series of springs mounted on the disc. The spring mass vibrates in an opposite direction to any torsional vibrations that might be transferred through the driveline during gear shifts, smothering a good amount of vibrational energy in the process.
We were especially impressed with the shifting feel when manually running through the gears with the stick-mounted toggle button, as well as when letting Drive mode do the decision-making. The small diesel engine tachometer goes up to 5,000 rpm and doesn't seem to mind being in the 3,500-to-4,000-rpm range when making a quick downshift to hold speeds down with a trailer on a downhill section of road. That was the only time we were aware of excessive engine noise getting into the cab along with a small amount of floor vibration. The Colorado diesel comes standard with hill start assist and hill descent control.
The Z71 Trail Boss Package proved to be one of the most popular Colorado options during this media drive event. The package includes Goodyear Wrangler DuraTec mud tires, a bed light bar and LED spotlights, fender flares and a spray-in bedliner. It might not sound like much, but it looks pretty cool.
This package created one of the most fun and well-balanced pickups we've ever driven. It offered a whopping 7,700-pound towing capacity, a smooth and relatively quiet ride on the highway (where we had no trouble keeping up with and leading traffic), and it had the look and feel of a solid off-road player. We had the chance to take the Trail Boss to a ranch where we did a few hill climbs and sand wash runs, traversing up and down several peaks and valleys. Although the Trail Boss does not offer additional suspension lift or upgrades, the more aggressive tires and flexible four-wheel-drive system (two-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, 4-High and 4-Low) allowed us to conquer all the nasty terrain we could find. Whether towing, running the highways to get to the trail, digging through loose sand or going up rocky grades, our Colorado Trail Boss barely broke a sweat.
Pricing for the 2016 Colorado with the Duramax engine will be an issue for some midsize truck buyers, but there is value here. If you want more pulling power, better fuel economy and a sportier driving experience, this small diesel engine in this midsize player could be the most well-balanced and fun pickup we've ever driven. We hope Toyota is watching closely.