Las Vegas – It's pretty cool to have multiple-time off-road racing champion Ivan "Ironman" Stewart riding along when you're bouncing a Toyota Tundra along a rutted gravel track in the desert. That is, until you misjudge your speed over a gully and -- BANG! -- smack the aluminum front skidplate. "That's just it telling you you've reached the limit," Stewart says. "That's why we have the plate."
Fortunately, the truck can take that sort of treatment. (And no, we weren't the only ones to dent or ding skidplates.) Like the Tacoma and 4Runner also on hand, this Tundra is equipped with a new Toyota Racing Development (TRD) Pro Series package that was revealed at the 2014 Chicago auto show. Available this fall for an as-yet undetermined price, the TRD Pro treatment beefs up the Toyota trucks and SUVs for use on tough terrain like we're tackling half an hour south of the Vegas strip.
The basic recipe is the same for all three Toyota models. New, longer Eibach springs give an increased ride height and suspension travel, while Bilstein shocks keep the ride tolerable both on and off pavement. A new skidplate protects the engine, black wheels dress up the exterior, a special retro Toyota badge adorns the grille, and TRD Pro-specific floor mats and shift knobs outfit the cabin. The three color choices are black, super white, and inferno. "We're taking three of the most rugged vehicles in the industry, and we're taking them to the extreme," explains Toyota Motor Sales marketing vice president Jack Hollis.
The Comfortable One
The Toyota 4Runner doesn't feel particularly extreme as we head down I-15 from Las Vegas. Despite its higher ride height and off-road Nitto Terra Grappler tires, there's nothing unpleasant about driving this 4Runner on pavement. In fact, because the spring rates are softer than in a normal 4Runner, the TRD Pro is actually really comfortable over rough pavement. Soon though, we put the SUV in its natural territory, heading down a dirt road to a tricky rutted trail. Our speeds are never high, but our angles of inclination are, as we creep up and skitter down steep grades, lean at extreme angles around banked turns, and cross V-shaped gullies.
Even in the worst of it, the 4Runner never delivers the sort of harsh impacts that would prompt calls to a chiropractor. We bounce around when the SUV hops over big rocks or pounds through ruts, but they are soft, controlled impacts. The shocks absorb and slow up the suspension before it painfully bottoms out. It feels remarkably gentle given the type of driving we're doing. And with the raised ride height and quarter-inch aluminum skid plate, there's considerably less likelihood of damaging any sensitive bits than in a standard 4Runner.
The Fast One
Our next journey is in the Toyota Tundra, which has a slightly more advanced system than either of the other TRO Pro vehicles. Softer, longer springs increase ride height and overall suspension travel by two inches, bringing the Tundra to 10.5 inches of front wheel travel -- which the TRD guys like to point out is very close to the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor's 11.2 inches. More important are a set of remote-reservoir Bilstein shocks with position-sensitive damping, which can be tuned to provide different levels of damping based on how far the suspension has traveled. For the Tundra TRD Pro, that means Toyota could dial in low primary compression for a gentle ride and off-road compliance, while gradually ramping-up compression as the wheel moves farther to keep the suspension controlled over large impacts. The more the wheel moves, the more the shock absorber resists its travel. "We're trying to avoid the harsh bottom-out," explains Toyota suspension engineer Zach Zwillinger. "It's not a race car, but it is a lot faster than a stock car."
A flatter, less technical driving route reflects the fact that this truck is setup for higher-speed running. It calmly soaks up and floats over bumps and imperfections, and even more so than the 4Runner, provides a gentle transition when you run out of articulation over large impacts. The ride stays composed on high-speed runs over minor bumps, yet firms up enough to keep the truck from banging into the end of its suspension travel over larger ruts and ditches.
Later in the day, "Ironman" Stewart hops into the driver's seat to demonstrate even more ably the benefits of the TRD upgrades. Stewart blasts the truck down the gravel trail at twice the speed we drove, yet bumps and ruts are almost totally filtered out by the Bilsteins before they reach the cabin. With one hand keeping a loose grip on the steering wheel and his left foot dabbing the brakes, Stewart even posits that the truck's suspension is so good, an unmodified Tundra TRD Pro could tackle -- and finish -- the grueling Baja 1000 race. We take that with a grain of salt given that Stewart is paid to promote Toyota off-road products; he joined the company's factory team in 1983.
The Tundra also benefits from a new TRD exhaust that is said to add about eight horsepower, although its output hasn't been officially certified. The real benefit, though, is the throatier rumble from our test truck's 5.7-liter V-8 engine. Another Tundra-specific feature is the addition of "TRD Pro" logos stamped into the bed's sides.
The Stiff One
If there's one disappointment, it's when we take a Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro up steep gravel switchbacks, down winding trails, and through rocky scrub at the base of a hill. Where the 4Runner and Tundra impress with their composure in the rough stuff, the Tacoma jostles and jiggles occupants so much you're aware of every rock or pebble you traverse. The official word is that the Tacoma's light truck BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO tires are the cause, as they have stiffer construction than the passenger-car off-road tires used by the 4Runner and Tundra. No doubt the Tacoma's relatively light weight and comparatively small wheels (16 inches, versus 18 on the Tundra and 17 on the 4Runner) play a role, too.
Still, the tires afford plenty of grip on loose gravel, which is reassuring given the steep drop-offs along our path. We have to engage 4-High only once, to get over a steep gravel mound when leaving the rocky trail for a dirt-packed fire road. The Tacoma's suspension has been raised by two inches and offers one inch more articulation than stock, and the black TRD wheels have a higher offset, effectively widening the truck's track. As on the Tundra, a new exhaust is said to add about eight hp, although the truck's official power and fuel-economy ratings haven't been revised. Interestingly, Toyota says about 40 percent of all Tacomas sold leave the showroom with the existing, milder TRD Sport and TRD Off-Road packages.
Ready For The Real World
TRD parts are serious business for Toyota; last year, add-on accessories sold through dealerships brought in more than $23 million for the company. Aftermarket pieces that achieve the same effect might be cheaper, but the TRD Pro package is ready from the factory, can be serviced at any Toyota outlet, and is covered by the standard three-year/36,000-mile warranty. Officials even claim that so long as there are no signs of obvious abuse, dealers would warranty problems due to off-road use, like blown shocks or damaged suspension mounts.
Not that we need to test that claim today. Our group of journalists bumped and bounced the TRD Pro vehicles on rough trails all day long with zero problems. While our test couldn't possibly replicate the gamut of abuse to which real-world owners might subject these trucks, it's a promising sign for the package's durability.