Toyota’s TRD Pro Series tech lets any idiot conquer trails like a champ – Updated

The front of the TRD Pro Series 4Runner rose up straight into the air. Suddenly, my view consisted of nothing but sky and the arm of my spotter. Tires slipped and the exhaust growled, as the truck and I attacked a hill roughly the size and steepness of K2. And while part of my mind was calculating angles, trying to determine if I was about to flip over backwards, another part was asking why I found myself in this predicament.

As it turns out, I was there because Toyota’s Racing Division (TRD) is going up against the Ford Raptor for a piece of the four-wheeling market. Like the Raptor, TRD’s Pro Series aims to deliver a showroom model that can take on the wilderness. Think, then, of the Pro Series Tundra, Tacoma, and 4Runner as having been turned up to eleven.

The day began at Browns Camp, in the Tillamook State Forrest. Thanks to the numerous trails and off-roading areas, this muddy stretch of land is a mecca for those seeking to die from a traumatic brain injury or simply spray the side of the 4×4 leviathans with soil. So it was a perfect place to put the trio of Pro Series vehicles, and their butch, old-school styling through their paces.

TRD Pro Series Tundra

Despite the extreme location, the Tundra is actually not that radical. It may be going up against the Ford Raptor. As Toyota reps pointed out to me, though, it is designed to do about 80 or 90 percent of what the Raptor does off-road, while being a more comfortable and more practical choice the rest of the time.

To that end, the Tundra’s upgrades are subtle but very well executed. The most noticeable change is the lift, which raises the big truck 2.0 inches in the front and 1.25 inches in the back. Unlike the average aftermarket lift, this one is both complete and well thought out, with brake lines and pressure modified for the extra distance, and the suspension designed to handle the extra travel.

TRD Pro Series Tundra

In fact, that embiggened suspension is probably the most substantial improvement. TRD had shock and strut maker Bilstein design custom shocks with remote reservoirs – that improve cooling and durability – to give the Pro Series Tundra the ability to not just handle rough terrain, but also at speed. Then TRD had its resident team of sadists torture test it in the California desert.

When it comes to driving, the TRD Tundra the “inferno orange” paint and angry sounding sports exhaust are both more noticeable than the suspension changes. But that actually speaks well to the work that TRD has done. The truck is incredibly well mannered and comfortable, but when you show it, say, a massive pile of gravel, it will roll over it without complaint. Unfortunately, Toyota didn’t let us really put the Tundra through its paces, it was simply too big – and most importantly too wide – to manage the off-road course they had lined up.

That is part of the problem with vehicles like the Tundra, it is simply too damn big, to really be an off road vehicle, at least on the forest trails and rock crawls of the Northwest. So while I enjoy the TRD Pro Series Tundra, I can’t really say that it makes sense. Unless of course Toyota prices it reasonably.

TRD Pro Series 4Runner

I have no such qualms about recommending the Pro Series 4Runner, however. I drove the 4Runner Limited a few weeks back and loved it. Sure the 4Runner is based on old school technology like an outdated V6 and ladder frame chassis, but it is also pretty much the last SUV that can do things like this.

Thanks to a 1.5 inch lift – and additional inch of wheel travel – the Pro Series 4Runner can not only climb obstacles; it can absolutely crush them. Driving the Pro Series 4Runner on the mogul course ranks among the most fun experiences I’ve ever have had in a car. Not least because I am a completely incompetent off-road driver and the 4Runner let me feel like I was Lewis and Clark embedded in the body of a terminator.

2015-Toyota-TRD-Pro-Series-4-Runner-5

This impressive performance comes from a series of incredible technical achievements. Like the Tundra, the 4Runner has custom remote-reservoir shocks and a massive skid plate, but it also has some bits of real wizardry. For on-road driving, the 4Runner has anti-roll bars that help keep the big tall truck civil in the corners, but, off-road, these can be a liability as they limit suspension articulation. So when sensors on the suspension detect that the truck is on extreme terrain, the anti roll bars detach in the middle, allowing even untalented pilots like me to do some truly impressive things.

I say “pilot” because, if the driver so chooses, the 4Runner can do a lot of the work of driving off-road. When climbing the Himalayan gravel pile, I was able to try out Toyota’s crawl control. This system mounted in an overhead switch – and we all know overhead switches are the best switches – allows the driver to choose a speed and then allow the 4Runner to maintain it through use of the brakes, throttle, and traction control, so the driver can focus on steering. Think of it like off-road cruise control.

Perhaps the best part of TRD Pro Series 4Runner is that, despite riding on Nitto tires so aggressive they look like they want to eat your face, it is no louder or harder to drive on the road than the standard model. I have no idea why anyone thinking of buying a standard 4Runner wouldn’t consider getting the Pro Series truck, especially because at just $41,110 it costs a bare grand more than the top of the line Limited edition.

TRD Pro Series Tacoma

The “Taco Supreme”, as it is called by Toyota (seriously), is the culmination of a long series of extreme versions of the humble Tacoma. In fact, the little truck can do just about everything its bigger siblings can do … but for less.

Like the other vehicles in the Pro Series, the Tacoma gets custom Bilstein shocks and a 2.0-inch front lift. It also gets extra wheel travel, allowing an inch more in the front and 1.5 inches in the rear. The suspension tuning is at least partially inspired by Toyota’s pre-runner desert racers. With the goal being to provide maximum wheel contact and traction even while traveling at high speed.

TRD-Pro-Series-111-Tacoma-7

The result is that the Tacoma can do just about everything the more complicated 4Runner can, it just required a bit more skill. In fact multiple journalists got over confident and wound up stuck on the mogul course. A fate I avoided by going last and using the Jeremy Clarkson-approved method of ‘POWWWERRRRR’.

Where the Tacoma falls down is livability. Unlike the 4Runner the, Tacoma feels both rough and loud on road. It constantly reminds you that it would really be happier curb-stomping a particularly tough off-road course, than sitting in traffic. In that sense it might be just the truck for the thrusting young men on dirt bikes that whizzed past us throughout the day, but my spine prefers the 4Runner.

My wallet might also prefer the 4Runner, the top of the line Double Cab Pro Series Tacoma runs $37,415. That is a lot for a vehicle that lacks the same sense of refinement and everyday usability of the Pro Series 4Runner. That being said, it is in line with the price of the standard Tacoma, which has the light truck market more or less to itself until the arrival of the new GMC Canyon.

Conclusion

So what to make of the Pro Series? These are clearly very capable vehicles. And thanks to their awesome wheels and great throwback grilles and lettering, they’re distinctive, too. But, the Pro Series appeal rests on their off-road prowess. That, they have in spades, particularly the 4Runner and Tacoma.

The Pro Series isn’t exactly cheap, but it is still remarkably affordable for what it is … or at least the Tacoma and 4Runner are, as the Tundra pricing won’t be along until the fall.

The 4Runner especially stands out as a remarkable compromise between livability and off-road prowess where neither is actually compromised. Despite this and a reasonable price, I still may not be able to get my hands on one, as Toyota reps told me that the Pro Series will be subject – at least to start – to limited production. In fact just 3600 will be built in the first year.

Regardless, supply and demand won’t stop me from wanting the TRD Pro Series 4Runner. It is such a good off-road vehicle that it makes me a barely competent off-road driver.

UPDATE: 7/31/14 – we added Tacoma and 4Runner TRD Pro pricing.

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