HANA, Hawaii – Roughly 65 miles separate Wailea from Hana, 52 miles of which are traveled on the eponymous Hana Highway, which is known as something of a sports car road. We did not drive this route in the new 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro because that’s not what the sport pickup truck is about, even though its Kevlar-sidewalled 265/70R-16 all-terrain Goodyear Wranglers are meant to balance between off-road acumen and on-road noise and comfort. It would have taken two hours and 25 minutes to drive each way between our hotel and the remote Hana Ranch in Maui’s lush rain forest.
Instead, the drive was all on dirt, mud and rocks – terrain the TRD Pro handles handily. Toyota flew a small group of auto journos on hired helicopters 30 minutes each way (even with a bit of sightseeing), which allowed us time to spend the day caking the Barcelona Red, Cement, and Super White Taco Pros (the only three paint colors available) with mud.
This put Your Humble Servant a bit out of his element. Though more a sports car enthusiast than a truck guy, this critic finds the second-generation Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro the spiritual equivalent of, say, the Mazda Miata Club. It’s to the Toyota 86 what the Ford F-150 Raptor is to the Ford Mustang Shelby GT350.
Unlike the Raptor, the Taco Pro’s 3.5-liter V-6 isn’t a high-performance engine, though a cat-back exhaust gives it a little kick. It’s not related to the Camry’s 3.5, but instead is part of a new engine family that will start finding its way under the hood of other Toyota vehicles. Rated at 278 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque, it features direct and port injection, variable valve timing with intelligent wider intake – which means it uses the Atkinson cycle at cruising speed for better fuel efficiency and switches back to Otto-cycle when torque is necessary – and variable valve timing with intelligent exhaust. It’s available with a six-speed automatic or six-speed manual; one of our six test trucks was equipped with the new, short-throw stick.
Our Moment of Sports Car Zen came when Toyota let us loose with the trucks on a nine-turn, half-mile dirt-and-mud (mostly mud) racecourse. Traction and stability control off, we kept the truck in 4WD-High because Toyota suggested rear-wheel-drive would have us spinning in circles. Nicely tuned, direct and moderately light steering gave us good feedback – it’s notable for not requiring you pay much attention to it. The level of steering quickness seems just right for a tall 4×4. Problem is that we wanted to use the throttle to power out of the sweepers and a switchback, but in 4WD-High, the TRD Pro simply understeers too much, plowing and sliding its way to the outside of the apex. We did get the hang of a progressive 90-degree left-hander by dialing in steering early while lifting off the throttle and then re-applying heavy throttle as soon as the truck turned in, but if the Tacoma TRD Pro truly is meant for such exercises, it needs an expensive, complicated system to change the front-/rear-wheel-drive split. The 4×2 TRD Sport is probably the better ticket for this sort of driving. If you want to try your hand at dirt-road pro-solo competitions and need the TRD Pro’s off-road versatility, trade out the OEM Goodyear Wranglers for some serious knobbies at the expense of on-pavement ride, handling, and noise quality.
The Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro really shines at hill climbing. In Hana, nature has created mountains of pumice piled on top of itself at a 41-degree grade. Humans can stack pumice only up to 33 degrees before it topples. Toyota’s Lower Traverse Trail at Hana Ranch leads to the steeper hill, used to demonstrate the Pro’s Crawl Control, which adjusts the anti-lock brakes, vehicle stability control and throttle and transmission controls in milliseconds to maintain steady uphill or downhill speed. The driver may choose from any of five levels, 1 mph to 5 mph, for descending pumice hills and the like.
It works very well, making it possibly the best edition of now-common SUV hill descent-control to date. Leave your feet off the brake and throttle pedals and carefully steer your way down, or up.
Crawl Control comes standard, but only with the automatic, of course. The manual gets active traction control, instead. While all the automatics were equipped with keyless start, the single manual example had an old-fashioned key, with the ignition at the base of the steering column.
Toyota marketing says 5 percent of the approximately 1,200 Generation I TRD Pro buyers chose the manual, mostly East Coast consumers and serious off-roaders. Toyota worked hard to revise the manual for shifting feel and short throws, says Tacoma chief engineer Mike Sweers. It’s virtually free of the slop associated with most trucks’ stick shifts, easily among the best in the business. While it’s no sports car gearbox, it would be this critic’s choice.
While the new-for-2016 Toyota Tacoma’s design has been criticized for not being new enough, Sweers’ team gave this low-volume, top price level halo a thorough going-over.
“The main thing is that we’ve improved the high-speed elements without taking away from its off-road capabilities,” Sweers says. The suspension has been tuned for a bit more body roll, which helps mitigate head-toss, and there’s more understeer for off-road capability, which explains why we couldn’t master the off-road race circuit using rally car techniques. The front anti-roll bar has been thickened by 2 mm, to 30 mm, to reduce pitching. Suspension travel is up 1 inch and 2.5-inch Fox internal bypass shocks have replaced 1.5-inch Bilsteins. Front ride height is up slightly and it’s backed by a ¼-inch thick aluminum skidplate. Front approach-angle is 36 degrees, up from 32 degrees, the rear is 24 degrees, and the breakover point is 26 degrees. Payload remains 1,420 pounds, though towing is 300 pounds lower, to 6,400.
Listening to the Voice of the Customer, Toyota replaced the old TRD Pro cloth seats with heated leather in order to make it easier to clean out mud and dirt. It’s a decent mid-grade leather that’s more supple than most and the seats coordinate well with the high-quality Toyota fit and finish, though they’re a bit flat, which means you tend to sit on them instead of in them. A new trapdoor under the engine makes it easier for owners to change the oil and filter.
There are new floor mats and shifter trim, and the TRD Pro eschews the Tacoma’s Toyota grille logo for blacked-out lettering that spells out the manufacturer’s name. The hood scoop is blacked out as well, and there’s new LED Rigid Industries lower front fog lamps in a nacelle with a second opening above to make space for brighter (non-Fed approved) aftermarket lighting.
The 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro is typical to the brand’s thorough approach in designing its bread-and-butter vehicles, and it’s proof of the Japanese manufacturer’s ability to offer passionate drivers as much spice as any sexier brand while still cranking out beige RAV4s and Camrys.
The Toyota Tacoma is Hawaii’s Ford F-Series – it’s the bestselling vehicle of any kind here, selling 5,500 in calendar 2015 and an expected 5,900 this year. With a very competitive Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon challenging the segment, the Tacoma remains a compelling truck even for us non-truck guys, from the base SR worktruck starting at just $25,060 to the $31,425 TRD Sport to the TRD Pro, at $41,700 with manual (buy this one) or $43,700 for the automatic. That’s a lot of scratch for a midsize, short-bed pickup truck, though the improvements made to the 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro will do nothing but energize its loyal, enthusiastic following.
2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro Specifications
|Price:||$41,700 – $43,700 (manual/automatic)|
|Engine:||3.5L 24-valve V-6/278 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 265 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm|
|Transmission:||6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic|
|Layout:||4-door, 5-passenger, 4WD pickup truck|
|EPA Mileage:||17-18/20-23 mpg (manual-automatic)|
|L x W x H:||212.3 x 75.2 x 71.6 in|
|Weight:||4,425-4,445 lb (automatic-manual)|