2023 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2 Bison Review: Purpose Not Posturing

  • Focused AEV upgrades make a reassuring off-roader
  • Smooth and compliant on-road manners
  • Upgraded infotainment is easy to use
  • Spacious cabin
  • Won't win a power specs battle with Raptor or TRX
  • Short bed only and lowest Silverado tow rating
  • Expensive with all the add-ons

Love them or hate them, there's no escaping the outsize place the pickup truck has earned on American roads — and beyond them. The days of a truck being a simple, affordable workhorse are long gone: now, the question is just how much do you want to spend to give your new pickup a manufacturer's rugged makeover. On that front, the 2023 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2 Bison is playing catch-up.

Ford arguably established the framing for upscale performance trucks when it turned America's best-selling pickup into the F-150 Raptor, bulging bodywork and all. Ram followed suit, with the similarly-potent TRX. It'd be easy, then, to see the ZR2's Bison package as Chevrolet's rejoinder.

In reality, Chevy hasn't followed Ford and Ram's strategy, or at least not beyond demanding a premium price for a collection of strategic upgrades. The Bison package takes what's familiar from the regular ZR2, like the naturally-aspirated V8 engine, but then upgrades it in a way that, though hardly ineffectual, doesn't stand out quite like the Raptor or TRX will. For the right off-roader, with the right priorities, that could be a winning formula.

A tough new suit

2023 Silverado ZR2 ownership starts at $73,395 (plus $1,895 destination). That gets you a 6.2-liter V8 engine paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission and 4WD, plus the ZR2 Suspension Package. As well as a 2-inch lift, that includes DSSV dampers, Hill Descent Control, and skid plates, plus a heavy-duty air filter. A rear differential with front/rear selectable full locking, Autotrac 2-speed transfer case, and a 170 amp alternator are also standard.

To suitably dress the ZR2 Bison up, Chevrolet turns to American Expedition Vehicles (AEV) and its bulging parts catalog. The standard alloy wheels are swapped for 18-inch gloss black versions, while the front and rear bumpers are now stamped steel with heavy-duty cast recovery points. There are stamped steel skid plates for the front, rear differential, transfer case, and fuel tank, plus a rocker protector.

You'll pay $7,895 for all that and get AEV-branded floor liners, an 18-inch AEV aluminum spare wheel, and Chevy's clever Multi-Flex tailgate, too. Unlike Ford's Raptor, however, there's no uptick in outright performance.

A familiar V8

That means you get the same 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of torque as normal, figures that — though hardly small — aren't all that special compared to flagship trucks from Ford and others. The F-150 Raptor, for example, coaxes 450 horsepower and 510 lb-ft of torque from its much smaller 3.5-liter turbocharged V6. Step up to the incoming F-150 Raptor R, and you're looking at a 5.2-liter V8 with 700 horsepower and 640 lb-ft of torque.

Chevy's naturally-aspirated V8 is hardly frugal. EPA ratings of 14 mpg in the city, 17 mpg on the highway, and 15 mpg combined mean it's not only less potent than a Raptor but slightly thirstier too. In my own time behind the wheel, I didn't quite hit the Silverado's numbers, either.

On the road, the fancy Multimatic dampers lend an unexpected degree of comfort. Though straight-line acceleration is reasonable, this isn't a truck you're going to want to hurl into corners. Instead, it gobbles up highway miles with refreshing refinement while the lavishly-scaled cabin delivers plenty of adult-proportioned accommodation both front and rear.

Reassuring off-road

Of course, it's off-road where the Bison package is really meant to shine, though the AEV add-ons are more about reassurance than outright ability. Instead of upgrading the Silverado ZR2's rock-climbing talents, the tough steel armoring should make (inevitable) bumps, grazes, and over-ambitious jaunts less of a headache later.

Treating what has become an $85,300 truck (with options, including destination) as something you can beat up without compromising your ability to drive home from the trail definitely takes some mental gymnastics. I suspect the first time scraping one of those handsome rocker protectors, after underestimating just how much of a breakover angle you'll need, will trigger a sizable wince. Nonetheless, better that than damaging the frame or puncturing the fuel tank.

That idea of confidence in the right hands defines the ZR2 Bison well. Unlike posturing pickups from Ford and Ram, there's a sense of focus to the Silverado: Chevrolet concentrating on features that will make a practical difference rather than pushing for an ostentatious trophy truck. Take, for instance, the absence of a super-wide bodykit: though it leaves the Raptor looking suitably beastly, it also makes it a couple of inches wider than the Chevy. That's the sort of thing that can make a difference on a tight trail.

We hope you like switchgear

Inside, Chevrolet's latest revamp of the Silverado's cabin leaves it feeling a much more modern, welcoming place to be. Gone is the old dashboard with its bulky plastics and diminutive screen. In its place is an expansive 13.4-inch touchscreen running Chevrolet Infotainment 3 Premium, complete with Google Maps and Google Assistant, plus wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It's a welcome step up, as are the plentiful USB-A and USB-C ports.

Running underneath the big display is a row of switches for dropping the tailgate, toggling the lane-keep assist, and opening all the windows in one fell swoop. Beneath that is yet another cluster of controls, this time for the dual-zone climate control. Oh, and there are more buttons and knobs to the driver's lower left for things like lights, 4WD settings — most, though not all, since some are still in the center console — and trailering.

The end result feels somewhat overwhelming, even if Chevy's switchgear feels sturdy for the most part (the plasticky transmission shifter is a less-pleasing outlier). The driver gets a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, while a head-up display is part of the $1,970 Technology Package that also includes a rear camera mirror, power-adjustable steering column, and adaptive cruise control. Sadly GM's Super Cruise isn't available on the ZR2.

One bed, and it's only the short version

No hands-free highway driving isn't the only practicality compromise. Unlike other versions of the Silverado 1500 with the 6.2L V8, which are rated to tow up to 13,200 pounds configuration-depending, the ZR2 tops out at 8,800 pounds, the lowest of any version of the truck. Chevrolet offers most Silverado trims with its Crew Cab and Standard Bed combo, too, but the ZR2 is limited to the Short Bed. That's 10 inches shorter, or a dip of almost 9 cubic feet. 

What space you do get is very usable, though. The box gets a dozen tie-down points, LED lighting, and a 120V outlet (there's a second in the cab, too), along with a bed camera for monitoring it from the dashboard. Chevrolet's Multi-Flex tailgate remains admirably nifty, with its fold-down section either allowing for longer items to be supported on the move — without necessarily removing the hard tonneau cover, a $1,250 option — or acting as a very convenient step.

As for creature comforts inside, the ZR2's heated and ventilated leather front bucket seats, heated steering wheel, and power sliding rear window are all welcome additions regardless of if you're on asphalt or a trail. So, too, is the cooler compartment between the front seats. 

2023 Chevrolet Silverado ZR2 Bison Verdict

I'm pretty sure Chevrolet, if pressed, wouldn't categorize the Silverado ZR2 Bison as a direct Raptor competitor. Nonetheless, given the price tag and its position at the top of the Silverado tree, this flagship spec truck is inevitably going to be compared to Ford's most ferocious F-150.

For those eyeing up the Chevy, though, being upfront about just how much off-road driving you're actually going to do is the most important factor. Where the Raptor's performance and love-it-or-hate-it style upgrade are applicable either way, the ZR2's Bison package really only makes sense if you're truly going to venture away from regular roads. If not, the relatively conservative aesthetic changes and toughness-focused hardware aren't going to live up to their near-$80k price.

Most people, I suspect, would be served just fine with a regular Silverado ZR2. If I was expecting to spend much of my time out in the wilds, however, I think the Bison's practical, targeted upgrades might make it my pick of the burly truck bunch. After all, there's a lot to be said for confidence that you'll make it home — scrapes, scuffs, and all — after a tough day on the trails.