I’m mashing the accelerator of a 2015 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro as it squirts across a rutted track of soft sand. “You ever off-road before?” asks the man riding shotgun, none other than legendary Baja 1,000 driver Ivan “Ironman” Stewart.
My first instinct is to say “No, not really.” But when I think about it for a moment, this kind of off-road driving feels familiar.
Sure, I’ve never driven a racing truck across the desert, but I certainly drive off-road on the way to fish, mountain bike, hunt and hike.
Driving off road is part of living the outdoors life. So when Toyota asked me to travel with them from Palm Springs to Las Vegas “the hard way” through the Mojave Desert, I felt a tingle of excitement.
We’d test three brand new TRD Pro models to see how they handle firsthand.
A bit of background about the TRD Pro lineup: Toyota is launching these rugged trucks for 2015 with the outdoorsman in mind. The TRD Pro models of the Tacoma, Tundra and 4Runner will be the company’s pinnacle off-road offerings with enhanced suspension, wheels, tires and styling.
The TRD Pro trucks are designed for those who want an off-road vehicle right off the lot. For a stock truck, they are pretty tricked out.
All three models get Bilstein remote-reservoir shocks at the heart of a professionally tuned TRD suspension, top-shelf wheels and tires, and a super cool and unique front grill.
The trucks look badass and spec out well, but how did they handle the “bat country” of the Nevada desert?
In our day-long test, I and about 10 other writers roared along with Stewart and Toyota’s current Baja 1,000 drivers, Ryan Millen and Ted Moncure, very fast across the desert between Palm Springs on the way to Las Vegas.
I drove all three vehicles. My impressions follow:
Tacoma (From $35,000) – There’s a reason this is one of the best-selling trucks worldwide. The Tacoma felt aggressive and active. Hit the accelerator and boom! The Tacoma TRD Pro was lively and snug during my drive. I pushed it to about 70mph across a soft dry lake and wasn’t at all freaked.
The Tacoma uses the same 4.0-liter V-6 of (many) prior models, but the time-tested 236 horsepower motor seemed to kick out plenty of power for the smallish truck, especially with the throaty TRD exhaust system that Toyota claims to add a bit of horsepower and low-end torque.
On road it was smooth sailing, with simple and intuitive controls that any Toyota driver will recognize right away (I’m pretty sure it has the exact same cruise control setting lever as my 2001 Corolla.)
Drawbacks? It is a light truck, and other testers complained that it didn’t perform well in soft sand (I didn’t drive it there). The braking was a little touchy, and while certainly effective, sometimes it slowed the truck more quickly than I intended.
4Runner ($41,000) – The only SUV in our test, the 4Runner is built on the Tacoma platform with a more plush suspension. With more interior space comes more weight, and the 4Runner definitely feels heavier to drive.
Hitting the gas, the 4Runner’s 270-hp, 4.0-liter V-6 and five-speed automatic transmission seemed less responsive than the Tacoma, but still fun to drive. To me, the truck felt a little underpowered, but that could have been due to comparing it to the kick-in-the-pants feeling of driving the Tacoma and Tundra.
It handled deep soft sand and rocks well. I wasn’t blown away with its performance, but several other drivers said it was their favorite of the three.
Tundra (from $41,000) – I didn’t want to love the Tundra because it’s just so big. I guess I just like to cheer for the underdog. But damn it, the Tundra is awesome.
Turn the key and the 5.7-liter V-8 engine roars a deep bass note that betrays the hefty 381 ponies that are ready to run. Press the accelerator and, WOW — the truck has some serious nuts.
But better than the power is the smooth delivery through the six-speed automatic transmission and ease of handling over really tough terrain. This thing inspires confidence and made me want to drive faster. It glided comfortably over rocky, rough trail at 60 miles per hour.
Driving the TRD Pro models was a pretty awesome experience. For a very well made truck with proven Toyota longevity, these will make a reasonable investment for truck lovers who want to get off the car lot and into the mountains, forests and deserts.
And for those of us who are a bit too budget-limited to seriously consider purchasing these new, they should remain a good driving vehicle for decades to come. Keep an eye on Craigslist around 2025.