With the addition of the powerful, efficient, beautifully integrated Duramax diesel powertrain, the 2016 Chevrolet Colorado becomes quite possibly the world's perfect pickup truck.
The 2015 Chevrolet Colorado won our Best Pickup of 2015 award, and deservedly so — it's a fantastic combination of big-truck ability, useful interior technology and decent fuel economy all wrapped up in a reasonably sized rig that's easy to park. When Chevrolet said that it was going to offer a four-cylinder diesel engine a year after the truck's introduction, we couldn't wait to get our hands on it (compare the diesel 2016 model with the top gasoline 2015 truck here, and see our evaluation of the gas models here). Well, the wait is over, and the Chevrolet Colorado Duramax is here. We spent two days driving, hauling, towing and off-roading in it through the ranchlands north of Santa Barbara, Calif., to see if the diesel version of Chevy's hit pickup was worth the wait.
Exterior & Styling
The 2016's exterior is unchanged, and the diesel version isn't differentiated at all aside from a badge on the door. If you want to get a bit of a custom off-road look, however, Chevy offers a Trail Boss version of the Z71 off-road package. It adds unique wheels and trim, a bed-mounted sport bar and LED spotlights that strangely seem to be aimed more at the roof of the cab than the way forward. It certainly looks the part of the tough off-road rig, but the sharp-looking Colorado never really needed much help looking good.
How It Drives
The meat of the matter is the new 2.8-liter Duramax diesel four-cylinder engine under the hood. It's mated only to the six-speed automatic transmission and available only on the crew-cab versions of the LT and Z71 trim levels (although you can still specify a long or short bed and two- or four-wheel drive). Compared with the optional 3.6-liter gasoline V-6, it makes less horsepower (181 hp versus 305 hp for the V-6), but a lot more torque (369 pounds-feet versus the V-6's 269 pounds-feet). You'd think that extra torque would make for snappier launches, but it comes with roughly another 300 pounds of weight attached, thanks to extra equipment and diesel-related gear like a diesel exhaust fluid tank and associated hardware.
It's certainly no slouch, however, with plenty of thrust to propel the Colorado into traffic with ease and confidence. Acceleration is immediate as well — no turbo lag like you get in older diesels — and comes with a big diesel-truck roar that is never intrusive. The operative word for the motor is smooth — smooth torque delivery, smooth acceleration, smooth highway cruising. Chevy's engineers have done an outstanding job of matching the motor to the transmission as well, as it always seems to be in exactly the right gear for the moment's needs. Upshifts and downshifts are fluid and devoid of the jarring lurches that can accompany such powertrains. Credit the addition of a special torque converter normally found in European diesel luxury sedans. Its duty is to damp any torsional vibration that might be transmitted through the powertrain to the driver, and it does so quite well.
The rest of the Colorado diesel drives just like ones we've tried before. The two-wheel-drive LT I drove was a little choppy over rough pavement, but the bigger tires and off-road suspension of the Z71 Trail Boss I also sampled smoothed that right out. In fact, when it comes to Colorados, the Z71 is the one to pick. Sharper handling, a better ride and an off-road ability that saw me crawl over the sand washes and rocky creek beds of California scrubland with aplomb is easily worth the extra cost, even if you never take it off-road. It goes, stops and turns better than any full-size pickup, and yet can tow more than most people ever will and gets better fuel economy to boot.
The two-wheel-drive Duramax LT easily achieved more than 33 mpg in my admittedly brief test loop, which combined stop-and-go city driving with a few stretches of highway action. The four-wheel-drive Z71 I sampled managed a more modest 25 mpg combined, but both drives routes were less than 100 miles, so your actual mileage will vary. Official Colorado fuel economy numbers for the diesel engine aren't yet available. Several other testers in my group reported similar observed mpg, making the Duramax an extremely fuel-efficient truck, given its formidable capabilities. Considering the rest of the automatic transmission-equipped Colorado gas-engine lineup gets an average 20-22 mpg in the combined cycle, our own results are impressive improvements. The new 2016 Toyota Tacoma compares to the gas Colorado V-6 in the combined cycle, but both do better than the ancient Nissan Frontier. No other automaker offers a midsize pickup truck with a diesel engine in the U.S., although Nissan is reportedly looking to with the next-generation Frontier, which is at least a year away.
As with the outside, there's nothing to differentiate the inside of the Colorado diesel from its gas-powered siblings. The interior gains additional features as you move up the trim levels: nice for the LT, nicer for the Z71 (as of yet there's no luxurious LTZ version, but I wouldn't expect it to stay that way for long). The same combination of good visibility and occasionally cheap materials is still there, the same mix of comfortable seats with inadequate height adjustability. The leather option makes for a much more pleasant-looking and feeling cabin, and there's room for real adults in the crew cab's backseat, unlike the more cramped quarters of the Colorado's competitors.
Ergonomics & Electronics
There are a couple of electronic additions to the Duramax version that are useful, including a special screen in the multimedia system to monitor the truck's DEF tank levels, and a unique tachometer that doesn't rev nearly as high as those of the gasoline trucks. There's also an exhaust brake switch, just like on the heavy-duty versions of Chevrolet's Duramax-equipped Silverado, and an integrated trailer brake controller.
Fans of easy-to-use multimedia systems will be happy to hear that Apple CarPlay will be standard in the Colorado for 2016, and Android Auto will be available midyear. CarPlay remains one of the easiest-to-use systems on the market, and the fact that it's the same system regardless of what vehicle it's in makes it friendly for everyone with an Apple device. Compared with the highly out-of-date system in the Frontier and the less user-friendly Toyota multimedia unit, the Colorado has this area sewn up.
Cargo & Towing
While boosted fuel economy is nice, that reason alone doesn't justify the diesel engine's extra cost (more on that in a minute). But combine that improved fuel economy with the Duramax's towing prowess, and now the real value equation shines through. The exhaust brake combined with Tow/Haul mode works well in this relatively little pickup. When the brake is engaged, the engine and computer 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.
Test-driving a two-wheel-drive LT with a 3,800-pound horse trailer revealed the grade braking to be exceptional, and in some cases even better than the big Silverado 3500 dualie. The added control and the engine's ability to hold the weight at different engine speeds based on the cruise control setting made for a fairly relaxed hilly highway cruise.
The diesel version of the Colorado has not yet been crash tested, but the gasoline versions have. It's got a four-star overall rating out of five from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration because of a lackluster three-star rollover rating, which is more common within the pickup class than other body styles, but some pickups earn four-star ratings, including the new Tacoma. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hasn't done a full test of the Colorado crew cab, rating it good (out of a possible good, acceptable, marginal or poor) only in the moderate overlap front crash test. See the crash-tests results here.
The Colorado falls a little short in safety options when compared with the latest Tacoma. The Toyota offers a suite of electronic systems including lane departure warning, blind spot monitor, knee airbags for driver and passenger, and parking assist sensors. The Colorado offers forward collision alert, a backup camera and lane departure warning, and that's about it. For electronic safety systems, it's a draw with Tacoma, which offers some systems but not forward collision warning. See all of the Colorado's standard equipment here.
Value in Its Class
The Duramax version of the Colorado is unique in its class — nobody else offers a diesel engine in a light-duty midsize pickup (except for a sister GMC Canyon model), although Nissan keeps hinting that the next Frontier may be so equipped. This means Chevy can charge what it wants — and charge it does. The diesel engine is not cheap: It's a $3,730 option on top of the V-6 price. This means the cheapest Duramax-equipped Colorado would be a two-wheel-drive LT and run about $35,000 (exact pricing was not available at publication time). Option up a Chevy Colorado your way here.
Some Colorado competitors are undergoing a few changes. The Nissan Frontier is still unchanged from nearly a decade ago and isn't scheduled for an update until 2017 at the earliest. A light-duty Cummins-branded diesel engine is rumored for the next one, but nothing is confirmed. The current version offers a four-cylinder and V-6 and all the variations in cabin and bed equipment, but it's a smaller truck than the Colorado. The Toyota Tacoma just got a significant update for 2016 but doesn't feature a diesel powertrain. It does feature gasoline four- and six-cylinder engines, but it's less powerful across the board than the Chevy. The Tacoma's interior has been upgraded, featuring better materials and more modern electronics, and it does feature a special "crawl control" powertrain function that can pull you out of the deepest, loosest sand all on its own. The GMC Canyon also gets a Duramax diesel powertrain option, but seeing as it's basically the same truck as the Colorado, there's not much to talk about there. And Ford continues to maintain that the Ranger isn't needed for North America, so the Blue Oval brand doesn't have a dog in this hunt. Compare all four competitors here.