For General Motors (GM) - Get General Motors Company (GM) Report , defending a position of competitive strength in the U.S. light-truck market entails more than just manufacturing a top-selling full-size pickup truck like the Chevrolet Silverado (also sold as the GMC Sierra).
GM's return to the midsize pickup market two years ago with the new Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon gave rise to the No. 1 U.S. producer's creation of the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2, a performance truck aimed at off-roaders and not-so-subtly at Toyota's (TM) - Get Toyota Motor Corp. Sponsored ADR Report Tacoma TRD Pro -- the most prestigious midsize off-roader among the cognoscenti. GM's new pickup was first shown last November at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
GM last week invited journalists to western Colorado to drive the ZR2 over a variety of rugged high desert terrains. The automaker said it previously had tested the model at nine locations in the U.S., gauging its performance in sand, mud, snow, water and on steep, rocky grades. But the goal was to offer a truck that also could serve as a daily driver.
Ford (F) - Get Ford Motor Company Report , which boasts the top-selling full-size F-150, lacks a midsize entry and won't have one until reviving a redesigned Ford Ranger two years hence. Meantime, ZR2 should reinforce GM's credibility among pickup buyers and off-road enthusiasts, while forestalling encroachment by Toyota and other automakers hoping to expand their position in the U.S. truck market.
"Chevy dealers absolutely can't wait to get their hands on ZR2," said Anita Burke, GM's chief engineer of midsize pickups. "Let's just say there's a lot of demand for this vehicle." GM executives acknowledged that the automaker's North American truck business generates most if not all of the automaker's profit.
With ZR2, GM attempts to define truck performance in terms of off-road capability, equipping the model with special shock absorbers developed by privately owned Canadian parts maker Multimatic. The first use of Multimatic's so-called "spool valve" damping technology for off-roading follows its use in Formula One and other racing applications.
GM also claims ZR2 is the first midsize truck with factory-equipped locking differentials for front and rear wheels, enabling the vehicle to negotiate boulders and other obstacles that otherwise might be impassable or necessitate the use of a winch.
ZR2 generates a sufficient though not exceptional 308 horsepower from a 3.6-liter, six-cylinder engine. Those customers preferring torque over horsepower can choose GM's 2.8-liter Duramax diesel. The $41,000 sticker price for the gasoline version includes a $940 destination fee. GM executives said it was priced "slightly" under Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro, which may enhance its value proposition.
During several hours of plowing through sand and soil, over rocks large and small, surmounting seemingly impassable obstacles, ZR2 proved that it had been engineered to overcome difficult terrain -- perhaps the most difficult being the reputational high ground now occupied by Tacoma. But if GM merely holds its ground in the U.S. truck market, the automaker will have accomplished a great deal against very formidable rivals.
Doron Levin is the host of "In the Driver Seat," broadcast on SiriusXM Insight 121, Saturday at noon, encore Sunday at 9 a.m.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.