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“Are you sure you want to do this?” asks the voice coming from inside the full-face racing helmet that covered the driver’s head.
The driver is Tom Wallace, who on his rare free weekends, races a tube-frame, carbon-bodied, 750-horsepower GT1-class Chevrolet Camaro. Wallace also was part of the engineering team that made GM history in the mid-1980s by building the Buick GNX, a rear-drive, turbo V6-powered car that was faster in the quarter-mile than the mighty Chevrolet Corvette.
For the next few laps, Wallace will wring out another rear-drive Chevy, although this one can switch to four-wheel-drive at the turn of a knob. This one also has four doors plus an open bed behind the passenger compartment and, for good measure, will tow 4000 pounds.
This is a 2004 Chevrolet Colorado, equipped with the ZQ8 “sport” suspension package. Wallace is vehicle line executive for General Motors’ mid-size trucks, and one of his roles is to push those trucks to – o.k., often beyond – their limits. Apparently it’s rare that anyone volunteers to ride along.
But I’ve chosen to do so because I know Wallace will get every foot-pound of performance out of this truck, will test the adhesion of its tires beyond the point where I’d be comfortable driving, and I want to experience just what this truck and suspension can do.
I already have a pretty good idea, if not of the absolute limits, then at least of dynamics that only a handful of paying customers are likely to exceed. I’ve just driven the Colorado on paved public roads that twist into the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix, and now we’ve come to GM’s Desert Proving Grounds in the flat desert landscape in Mesa to do laps around the vehicle dynamics road course in this truck and its competitors.
By the way, none of those competitors are trucks. There’s not a Ranger or Dakota, a Frontier or Tacoma in sight. Instead, the competitive set for this test includes a Pontiac Vibe GT, a turbocharged Chrysler PT Cruiser GT and a Ford Mustang V6.
Wallace had provided lively conversation over the dinner table a couple of nights earlier – and we’ll return to the subject of a Colorado SS in a few moments – but now, before he has to fly back to Detroit for yet another of those meetings that keep him away from the race track, we’ve asked him to show us the wild way around the course.
Which he does, see-sawing the steering wheel to keep the truck pointed toward the next apex while the tires squeal loudly as they struggle to relay to the pavement the inputs from Wallace’s right foot. It’s a losing battle. The Continental TouringContact AS tires were carefully chosen for this truck, but street tires of 235/50 aspect are not going to provide optimum traction in the face of driving as aggressive as Wallace’s is on the track today.
But with the volumes at which this Colorado sells – nearly 20 percent of Chevy’s all-new-for-’04 midsize pickup will be equipped with the ZQ8 suspension – performance engineer Joe Taverna had to take a more reasoned approach as he was tuning all of the suspension packages for GMT 355.
GMT 355 is the internal codename for the truck sold as the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. They are available in three body styles – regular, extended and crew cab – in two- and four-wheel drive and with the standard, heavy-duty Z85 suspension, a Z71 off-road package or the Chevy-exclusive ZQ8 “sport” version.
Initial dynamic targets for the ZQ8 were the old Chevy S-10 Extreme pickup, and when that standard was passed almost immediately, the Chevy Camaro Z28 was the next handling benchmark. Next, Taverna took aim at the Vibe GT and suddenly we’re looking not so much at a compact truck as we are at a sport compact.
Imagine, fast and furious, and with a couple of jet skis or dirt bikes in tow.
But we’re still looking at a compact truck that has to be able to do some serious work; and as Wallace will tell you, there’s not nearly as much play time as we’d like to think. Still, Taverna found a way to make the Colorados that ride on the ZQ8 setup as sporty as possible, at least for a truck that will sell in significant volumes. And in the process he caused a change that enhances the ride quality of every GMT 355.
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