Most people won't like the Chevrolet S-10 ZR-2 pickup, but a very select few will simply adore it. Why? Because it is very specialized: It has a special frame, special tires, special wheels, special shocks, special springs. It's built to be especially good off-road and the chassis is designed with that as the premier prerogative. Ride quality, on-road handling, fuel mileage and ease of climbing in all suffer as a result of its off-road orientation. That's unfortunate for most, but off-road enthusiasts will revel in the things most see as shortcomings.
The rest of the Chevy S-10 line has considerably wider appeal. Chevrolet sells nearly 200,000 S-10 trucks in a multitude of configurations. There are regular cab models with short and long beds and an extended cab with a short bed. Two- and four-wheel drive is available. They come in base and LS trim. New for '99 is an Xtreme model with a 2-inch lower ride and ground effects trim. The base engine is a 2.2-liter inline-4, but a 4.3-liter V6 is available with 175 to 190 horsepower, depending on the model. There's an S-10 pickup for just about anyone.
This is one brawny little truck, with chubby chunks of deeply treaded rubber at all four corners, only partially shaded by aggressive matte-black flares. It's meant to look like a custom off-road conversion, with big tires stuffed under a raised suspension, all of it too much to fit under the standard bodywork. If you've seen monster trucks, you get the idea, though only on a smaller scale.
The S-10 ZR-2 is no poser, however. Although the body appears standard issue, it actually has unique front and rear outer fenders. The ZR-2 suspension package is more than just a different set of shocks and springs for the independent front/live axle rear suspension. Chevy starts with a frame not only more rugged than the standard frame, but also broader for a 100-millimeter (nearly 4 inches) wider track. That wider look isn't just from wheels with big tires and greater offset. The suspension raises the truck 75 mm (nearly 3 inches) higher and, if you crawl underneath, you'll see 46-mm Bilstein high-pressure gas shock absorbers, a 28-mm front anti-roll bar, and a rear-axle track bar. Chevy adds an underbody guard-a skid pan-to protect the tender bits underneath. Drive train components are tougher than standard and feature a lower 3.73:1 final-drive ratio for quicker acceleration and improved pulling power off road.
The ZR-2 boasts the most powerful version of Chevy's 4.3-liter Vortec V6, rated at 190 horsepower and a stump-pulling 250 foot-pounds of torque. Our test truck was equipped with the 4-speed overdrive electronically controlled automatic transmission, a $1,070 option. Those who prefer to use their left foot may prefer the standard 5-speed overdrive manual gearbox. (Also available on S-10 pickups is a 2.2-liter inline-4 cylinder engine that produces 120 horsepower and 140 foot-pounds of torque.
Chevrolet includes a special spare tire winch (for the underbed spare) and taller jack to accommodate the added height.
Our test vehicle came with the optional 5-spoke cast aluminum wheels. The ZR-2 is available only in LS trim and ours was an extended cab model.
Open the door of the ZR-2 and climb on in, the operative word being climb. The floor is a full 2 feet from the ground, a rather healthy step up. Grab the wheel and hoist yourself in. The front seat passenger gets a grab rail on the dash and over the door, and can slide easily into the bucket. A bulge in the floor, apparently for the catalytic converter, robs a bit of foot room, however. Anyone so unlucky as to draw the jump seat in the extended cab will find it's not as easy to get in and it's snug once you get there. The extended cab has a third door opening on the driver's side and the jump seat mounts sideways on the side panel behind the passenger's seat. Having the third door on the driver's side is more convenient for the driver to toss stuff behind the seats. But children and other jump seat passengers should take care when getting out on the traffic side of the truck.
The front buckets are covered in velour with patterned inserts. The center console is tall, with a covered storage bin, CD/tape case rack, well-designed dual cupholders, and an open tray. The optional cassette player is mounted under the dashboard, while the optional CD player is integrated into the AM/FM radio.
Buttons controlling the 4x4 transfer case are located on the dash close to the steering wheel. Our ZR-2 was well equipped, with power remote locks, power windows, and heated power mirrors. The seat adjusted manually. Our truck came equipped with a sliding rear window, floor mats, and air conditioning.
The instrument panel, radio controls and heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls should look familiar to anyone who has been in any GM truck or sport-utility. They all appear plucked from the same bin. That's not bad, however, as General Motors qualifies for the most improved truck ergonomics during the past decade. The steering wheel comes with the new minipack air bag and has a delightfully small hub. Leather wrapped, it feels good to hold, and the tilt wheel offers a generous range of adjustment.
One should pay heed any time a manufacturer states that its product has a "very firm ride." It's safe to assume they really mean it and, in the case of the ZR-2, that assumption would be correct. The wheels may be aluminum, but there's a lot of weight in the rubber. Firm springs keep the suspension from bottoming in the outback, but they also pass along every dimple and bump on the road. Firm shock absorbers keep the unsprung wheel-and-tire mass in check, but relay every bump in the road. The big 31x10.50R15 BF Goodrich Radial All-Terrain T/As take on an inertial life of their own; the driver can always feel those tires, reacting to bumps, bouncing with undamped sidewall flex, and generally doing their own thing.
Going around corners on pavement, the ZR-2 exhibits heavy understeer at the limit. Despite the power steering, hustling down a winding road is a lot of work. The gnarly tires have a lot of void, but they're still fairly grippy on pavement. Apply too much power, particularly on slick or dusty pavement, and the rear end will come scooting out. Because the four-wheel-drive is a part-time system, it will not provide handling assistance like a full-time system.
Of course, to a real truck driver, a full-time system would be effete. Real men (and real women) can switch their own 4wd on and off, even if by button instead of by lever and even if there are autolocking hubs that don't require one to get muddy knees to manually lock each front hub. That, son, is progress.
The engine definitely provides enough torque. At idle it rolls out the tailpipe in a ringing metallic bass, and roars at full throttle all the way to the 5100-rpm redline where it lunges ahead to the next gear. It's happiest at lower rpm where the ZR-2's torque assures that it's no sluggard.
Out on the highway, the engine is reasonably quiet-or at least isn't noticeable over the road noise. The same tires that affect the ride also make a fair amount of noise. Although they don't whine like the mudders of yore, the knobs can't help but make their presence known.
Of course, judging the ZR-2 pickup like a Lumina sedan isn't exactly fair-unless you also take the Lumina into the woods. And there the ZR-2 leaves the Lumina hung up and high centered. In the dirt, with the transfer case in 4x4, the ZR-2 will go places seemingly impossible, climbing hills, traversing ravines and scrabbling over rocks. Here the unsprung mass isn't the disadvantage it is on the road, because at the slower speeds you should be driving in the rough, the weight has time to react. The tread that's less than ideal on the highway is perfect for gripping the dirt.
The automatic transmission makes the going easier in the dirt. It's tough enough to take the shock loading that off-roading can dish out and eliminates the worry about slipping the clutch into oblivion. Shifting between two- and four-wheel drive can be done on the fly; stopping isn't necessary. Four-wheel-drive low range is only a button's push away, though, like all such systems, it requires stopping and putting the transmission into neutral to engage.
On road or off, the ZR-2 has one exceptional talent: Getting itself dirty. The flares do only a limited amount of good. The first muddy puddle provides all the ammunition needed to bespatter the flanks--and even the side windows.
Of course, there's nothing that can be said against the ZR-2 pickup that will hold any sway with anyone intent on buying one, whether for the macho image or for actually going off road. In the first case, the rough ride and the big step up are inconveniences to revel in, like coming home from a weekend camping trip with three-day stubble. For the person who uses it, as Chevrolet recommends, "for serious recreational off-road driving," it's simply part and parcel of the experience. You can't do the work without the tool, and for the select few who want or need an authentic off-road compact pickup truck, the Chevrolet S-10 ZR-2 pickup is up to the task.