Review: 2023 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2 Bison

The 2023 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 ZR2 in Bison trim sat shimmering like a blue opal in the rare October Oregon sunshine after getting dropped off at my home in Portland. It was so clean I felt a bit guilty about muddying it up with a trip to the hinterlands of Southeast Oregon’s desert reaches.

Photo by William Roberson

The guilt didn’t last long, and I loaded up a weekend’s worth of gear plus a Himiway Cobra electric fat tire mountain bike into the bed, then closed up the folding tonneau cover and Multiflex tailgate. I resigned myself to the fact that the shiny Glacier Blue Metallic paint was going to get flecked with mud and Oregon trail dust, and would also likely have to fend off some basalt detritus coming off the 33-inch Goodyear Wrangler Territory meats spun by glossy black 18-inch AEV alloy wheels. That’s just how it goes out in the Oregon Outback, where big trucks like the Bison are king for both work and play.

Photo by William Roberson

Photo by William Roberson

Photo by William Roberson

I hit the remote start on the key fob as I searched for my hiking boots and let the 6.2-liter Ecotec3 V8 warm a bit, a subdued burble mumbling from the dual rear EPA/DOT-spec turndown exhausts. Boots located and laced, I slipped into the heated driver’s seat, queued up an ’80s hairband playlist, paired my phone to the Bose stereo, and settled in for the 260-odd mile drive into Oregon’s High Desert (named for its 4,000-foot average altitude, not that… other reason).

I dropped the 10-speed auto into Drive, but just as I started moving, the Silverado’s perimeter radar chirped as a car approached in the blind spot off my left side, and after tapping the brakes to let it pass, I finally got underway. Disaster was avoided before my adventure even began, thanks to the extensive safety suite aboard the blue Bison.

Photo by William Roberson

I own a 2005 Silverado 2500HD LS turbodiesel, and it’s remarkable how “civilized” trucks have become over the last 20 years. My aging LS is still perfectly comfy if a bit lived in, but it’s a torture rack compared to the plush Bison. It’s not all leather-wrapped ostentation, though. The Bison’s interior, as delivered, was replete with leather door panels mated with contrasting double-row stitching, but the seats and other surfaces were covered in tougher, more cleanable material and abetted by a suite of deeply channeled AEV rubber floor mats front and rear. Still, the Bison has about the nicest truck interior I’ve driven to date. It strikes a nice balance between cush and function. Example: While the Bison includes a nearly 14-inch wide touchscreen, environmental controls, and driveline options are controlled by physical buttons and dials.

Photo by William Roberson

For $85,300 as tested, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at the level of luxe in the cab. Rolling up the miles while bathed in the sonorous tones of a Bose 7-speaker audio system running Apple Carplay, tracking progress on the wiiiide 13.4-inch center touchscreen and with most of the driving duties covered by smart cruise, lane keeping, and collision avoidance tech, the burly Bison felt – and drove – more like a (tall) luxury car than a beefy pickup with two additional inches of ground clearance and 420 ponies laying in wait under the hood. And being bone stock in terms of the exhaust system, the cabin was a quiet zone unless I leaned hard on the gas pedal, which resulted in a muted war cry but no sonic histrionics. Acceleration was brisk as expected, but traction controls and other vehicle dynamics minders kept the nose pointed straight ahead under power despite the light load in the bed.

Photo by William Roberson

As my destination approached, the asphalt was replaced by groomed dirt and gravel roads. I switched over to Off Road 4WD mode but kept the traction controls on Auto to let the Bison suss out the challenges leading to my friend’s deeply rural home. Pressing the pedal a bit while rolling down a long straight of gravel, mud, and potholes, the Bison cleared 65 mph as the Multimatic DSSV dampers smoothed out pretty much every hit to the suspension, and the truck never felt out of sorts.

Photo by William Roberson

Near the end of the straight, I dynamited the brakes, and after a split second of skid slip, the ABS and inertial sensors kicked in and brought the Bison to a quick and controlled stop. I floored the gas heading into a right turn, and the StabiliTrak traction control system dutifully stuttered the engine and pulsed the brakes in a bid to match grip with power. Despite my intentional abuse, no power slides materialized as the Bison’s tech battled to maintain a constant heading. Traction warning lights flashed in both the 12.3-inch wide TFT dash and the head-up display in the windshield as I egged on the V8, but the digits won out eventually and brought the tires to heel. I safely rolled the rest of the way to the small cabin at safe and sane speeds, leaving long, dark marks in the dirt stretching out behind the ZR2.

READ MORE: Gear Showcase: Overland Trailers

The next day dawned clear and cold, coating the Bison in a spiky blanket of frozen condensation leached from the dry desert air. A quick button push on the truck’s fob from inside the cozy cabin fired up the Bison and warmed the interior while I gathered gear for a trip down some local scenic byways inaccessible to most vehicles.

Photo by William Roberson

Photo by William Roberson

Photo by William Roberson

Photo by William Roberson

I navigated to a narrow two-track that heads into the Black Hills (of Oregon) and looked for passages that might challenge the beefed-up Bison. I have spent years riding these roads on dual-sport motorcycles, and many of my favorite “secret roads” are now part of Oregon’s new Backcountry Discovery Route, or BDR. But what’s a challenge for the relatively skinny 21-inch front wheel and knobby tires of a motorbike are not much of an obstacle for two pairs of 33-inch grinders backed by 460 pound-feet of torque.

As such, picking my way down the two-track was more of a pleasure cruise than a torture test for the Bison, but I still switched into 4Low and nudged off traction control on a steep section, and the ZR2 charged up the incline like a big blue mountain goat finding its way home. Rocks spit out by the Wranglers clanked loudly off the boron steel AEV underplating as the V8’s revs rose to peak torque at just over 4,000rpm, the MT’s clawing for grip on the short ascent. Inside the cabin, all was bliss as the 11-plus inches of electronically damped travel calmed the chassis while the drivetrain worked away. On my motorcycle, the hill is an advanced skills test. For the Bison, it was off-roading kindergarten.

Photo by William Roberson

Soon enough, I ran out of hill to climb and meandered back to the cabin along tight two-tracks, dusty gravel country roads, and fence lines marking massive ranch lands that locals allow respectful ATV, SxS, and truck warriors to access. Looks like I’ll need to find a bigger hill, and really, I’d love to take a longer journey with a Bison loaded with camping gear into some of the more backcountry spots in this most remote patch of Lower 48 American soil. Someday, but not today, there just wasn’t enough time with the truck.

Fans of that Other Brand endlessly point out that the Ford Raptor has more power than the Bison and is more “capable” off-road. Raptors are certainly hoot-in-your-helmet fun if you’re into racing, but for 99% of driving and for drivers like myself, it’s a lot of wasted potential. For me, the Bison is a well-reasoned mix of power, comfort, and capability. I like to explore, and more often than not, that means going slow, not organ-shaking fast. I have motorcycles for that thrill. Want to send it and see what kind of hang time your truck can manage without breaking? Have fun with that, and I enjoy racing action as much as the next truck enthusiast. But I tend to keep my wheels on the ground and steadily turning towards the next scenic high point. What’s the hurry?

Photo by William Roberson

The stock two-inch lift the Bison receives from the factory means the chassis will clear most obstacles I’ll ever encounter, and the AEV bash plates and rock rails will fend off most misjudgments of obstacles. If Mr. Bison lived at my house, I’d probably forego the tonneau cover in favor of a rack from Leitner so I can haul a motorbike or a fleet of mountain bikes, along with adding a rooftop tent and other overlanding necessities.

READ MORE: How to Find Overland Trails

When it comes to aesthetics, the Bison tilts toward a tech-forward stance with its more subdued but attractive grille, modest hood, angular LED trim lights, and discreet in-bumper driving lights. The pressed steel and blacked-out AEV bumpers look stock but are far tougher than the OEM units and help keep the truck from conjuring a mean mug cartoon for a front fascia. Maybe it’s because I’m a bit older, but the Bison seemed to check many of my truck wish list boxes, one of which is to not drive a giant visual annoyance. I like the idea of factory-fitted AEV plating toughening up the more delicate driveline and chassis bits most likely to suffer while overlanding in the “regular” ZR2, while still preserving the Silverado’s excellent street and highway manners. An exhaust with a bit more bark might be nice, especially if it cuts weight. Who doesn’t like a V8 melody played with respect?

Photo by William Roberson

Once the dirt and mud were washed off from my Eastern Oregon excursion, I got a lot of compliments on the Bison’s clean lines, mature design, and that opalescent blue paint. Rear seat legroom is generous, if not sprawling, but I do wish the seats flipped up like my old ‘Rado so I could store more gear out of sight in the cab [Edit: They do, plus there are cubbies in the seat backs]. And a long bed version would be aces for us motorbike addicts. Good on gas? No, and I didn’t expect it to be, but a light foot can coax almost 20mpg on the highway if it’s not loaded up. Overall, it’s difficult to find much to demerit on the Bison, and easy to find details to like and love, such as multiple USB and AC outlets in the cab and bed. Not rare anymore, but very useful and appreciated. The Multiflex tailgate does enable more confidence when in work mode, such as hauling plywood sheets or a motorcycle.

The price is a bit breathtaking, but it’s on par with the competition and the expensive world we now live in, unfortunately. At least for all that lettuce, owners will get a standout rig with modern but restrained style, a long list of creature comforts, and true off-road exploration capability. The Chevy ZR2 Bison is a solid start on what could be a standout overlanding platform.

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