Order tacos, and it’s inevitable that you’ll be asked whether you’d like a soft- or hard-shell tortilla. The same is true for tacos of the four-wheeled variety. Want a soft-shell Toyota Tacoma? Stick with the city-slickin’ Limited and TRD Sport models. But if you want a hard-shell truck formed with chunks of broken glass for added crunch? Look no further than the Tacoma’s burly TRD Pro, which returns to the lineup for 2017 after a one-year hiatus, ready to climb up, jump over, and slog through the worst that this world’s unpaved lands can throw its way.
Pro, Do You Even Taco?
The TRD Pro is an extension of the Tacoma TRD Off-Road model, a four-wheel-drive, stick-shift version of which we tested last year and deemed exceedingly manly. That assessment had less to do with the truck’s goodness when judged as an everyday vehicle and more irrationally to do with its general brawniness. The TRD Pro takes that four-wheeled, chest-thumping persona to the next level with a comprehensive basket of toughened components: New front springs lift the ride height by 1.0 inch and are abetted by Fox internal-bypass shocks at all four corners, a sport exhaust, TRD-branded wheels, and a front skid plate. Specific design touches, such as a black hood scoop and a chunky grille with bold TOYOTA lettering, make the TRD Pro hard to miss.
The result is one purposeful-looking truck, although the Kevlar-lined Goodyear Wrangler All-Terrain Adventure tires carried over from the lesser TRD Off-Road represent a missed opportunity for even more attitude. Leather upholstery, heated seats, automatic climate control, navigation, a Qi wireless charging pad, blind-spot monitoring, a backup camera, and a proximity key are standard; the TRD Pro comes only in crew-cab form with the shorter of the Tacoma’s two available bed lengths.
Four-wheel drive with a two-speed transfer case, a locking rear differential, the Tacoma’s optional 278-hp V-6, and a six-speed manual transmission also are built-in TRD Pro fare, although our test truck came with the available six-speed automatic for $2000. Performance is on par with other similarly equipped Tacomas we’ve tested, with a 7.7-second zero-to-60-mph run and a 180-foot stop from 70 mph—decent for a mid-size pickup on all-terrain tires—but the brake pedal has the same strange stepped resistance as other Tacomas. The TRD Pro’s Fox shocks feel slightly firmer than the TRD Off-Road’s Bilstein pieces, diminishing that model’s body movements without degrading ride quality, but our test truck still listed heavily during its modest 0.70-g skidpad orbit.
Other Tacoma idiosyncrasies are part and parcel of the experience, including the low seating position and the high floor—which lend the cabin a feeling of tightness you won’t find in, say, a Chevrolet Colorado—and the V-6 engine’s grainy nature. The six-speed automatic transmission suffers from dimwitted programming and excessively tall fifth and sixth gears. At highway speeds, the transmission will dramatically downshift from either overdrive ratio to fourth gear when the Tacoma detects even a whiff of an uphill grade or a request for even mild acceleration.
A button on the dashboard labeled ECT Power alters the shift programming to mitigate early upshifts and hasten downshifts between higher gears, perking up the gearbox’s responsiveness. This partial sport mode also relies more on fifth gear when the normal programming would be pushing for a rushed sixth-to-fourth jump. Toyota says that activating the ECT Power mode improves performance but can affect fuel economy, which is a friendly way to indicate that the baseline transmission settings (which the transmission defaults to each time the engine is started) are tuned for the EPA fuel-economy test cycle.
It doesn’t help that the 3.5-liter V-6 makes most of its power high in the rev range, and the TRD-branded sport exhaust doubles as the town bugler announcing the transmission’s frenetic behavior on the freeway. Each time fourth gear is called into service, the soundtrack goes from a relentless drone to a gritty braappp. Our interior-noise-level readings matched those of other Tacomas we’ve tested at wide-open throttle and at a steady 70-mph cruise, but the droning of the Pro’s exhaust note is more annoying. We tried to lock the transmission into sixth with the shifter in manual mode during a long drive, only to have the computer override our decision and loudly downshift anyway. Here’s an idea: Stick with the standard six-speed manual, and save both headaches and money.
Dune’t You Wanna Go Off-Road?
Evaluating a proper off-roader like the TRD Pro on the mean streets of suburbia is one thing, but pavement cruising is to the Toyota’s mission as a fork is to eating yogurt. So we set a course for Michigan’s Silver Lake State Park and its playground of coastal sand dunes. With the tires’ inflation pressure significantly aired down to improve traction and a tall flag bolted to the front tow hook for more visibility, we put the transfer case in four-wheel drive high and fired the Tacoma over the open terrain it was designed to tackle.
The Toyota is by no means as intense or capable as Ford’s F-150 Raptor, a veritable stadium truck with airbags and heated seats. But the TRD Pro’s suspension is claimed to enhance rear-axle articulation and to better absorb large bumps both when crawling and at higher speeds. We found the Fox shocks could handle quick successions of washboard terrain—natural expanses of speed bumps known as whoops—up to nearly highway speeds before smacking their bump stops and causing the chassis to buck fore and aft. The shocks, which feature remote reservoirs at the rear axle for additional fluid capacity and cooling, also soak up landings from mild jumps with aplomb. And the Tacoma can indeed jump.
Climbing the tallest dunes posed no major traction-related hurdles, although we found the throttle must be pinned early in order to tap the V-6’s swell of high-rpm torque and build momentum before hitting really steep sections. The Tacoma’s five-mode Multi-Terrain Select traction-control settings, a range of electronic assists for everything from mud and sand to rock crawling, were unnecessary in the deep sand; instead we favored the freedom afforded by simply deactivating the electric watchdogs altogether. With 9.4 inches of ground clearance, it takes some commitment to scrape the Tacoma’s dirty bits, and we escaped having only once bumped the front skid plate on a particularly ambitious approach. This isn’t shocking given the Tacoma’s 35-degree approach angle, which trails the smaller Jeep Wrangler Unlimited’s absurd 42-degree measurement, although the Toyota sits just 0.6 inch lower and boasts a slightly better breakover angle. Perhaps the TRD Pro’s greatest demerits in the rough are its small, awkward tow hooks buried under the front bumper’s extreme overbite, which make attaching a flag mount or any type of tow strap frustratingly difficult. That’s a serious oversight for a vehicle designed to traverse challenging terrain.
Whether you use it to play in the sand or bash rocks, the TRD Pro stands out as one of the few convincingly off-road-focused trucks you can buy new from a dealership. Even so, the TRD components don’t get in the way of the Tacoma’s day-to-day livability. Harder to swallow is that the truck costs $43,700 to start, and our example expanded that figure to $44,627 with optional mud flaps, side steps, floor mats, and a cargo-bed mat. That’s a few shoulder shrugs and a mysterious reduction in your children’s college fund away from a $49,520 Ford F-150 Raptor SuperCab, meaning this Taco’s size, bulletproof reputation, and specific sort of crunch will need to touch a nerve in a very particular sort of buyer.