First Drive: 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro

BLUE MOUNTAIN, Ontario – The packed, wet sand, and uphill climb may have finally proven too much for Toyota’s Tacoma TRD Pro. And what a time for the seemingly unstoppable little off-roader to get its comeuppance – at a launch event in front of a few dozen assembled automotive media. We’d all heard, and seen, the videos of the Tacoma’s Crawl Control in action; and were dazzled by its ability to climb out of fender-height mud and sand.

With the arrival of the Tacoma TRD Pro in Canada, “Taco” fans will have a hardcore trail-buster right out of the box.

But in the rain-soaked sands of Blue Mountain, the Tacoma just may have met its match. For what seemed like eternity, we watched in excruciating discomfort, umbrellas held aloft against the cold drizzle, while the truck’s wheels spun futilely in the heavy sand.

But wait – while nearly imperceptible, it seems the truck’s nose may have just moved forward. Painfully slow, then gaining in momentum, tires clawing for purchase, the truck laboured upward and shot triumphantly out of the pit and onto level ground.

How could you not love this truck? It’s like The Little Engine That Could.

The Toyota Tacoma has long enjoyed the reputation of being formidable off-road, and even old, battered specimens still command hefty prices. Enthusiasts have been jacking them up and putting heavy-duty suspension components and protective plates on them for ages – but now they won’t have to.

With the arrival of the Tacoma TRD Pro in Canada, “Taco” fans will have a hardcore trail-buster right out of the box. It joins the Tundra TRD Pro that arrived last year, and the recently announced 4Runner TRD that should go on sale early next year.

All TRD Pros are built on a double-cab, short-bed platform with the standard 3.5L V6. Starting where the TRD Off Road leaves off, the TRD Pro adds exclusive gloss black 16-inch wheels, tuned suspension coils up front and leaf springs in back, and 2.5-inch Fox Racing shocks all around, TRD cat-back exhaust, aluminum skid plate, as well as TRD Pro-specific “heritage” grille, Goodyear Kevlar off-road tires, fog lights, hood scoop and badging. While the more moderately inclined Off Road Tacomas have a 32-degree approach, 24 depart and 21-degree break-over angles – the TRD Pro boasts 35/24/26 for greater incline and rock crawling clearance. A Class IV tow package is with trailer sway control is also standard.

Our tester boasts a sort of putty-coloured “Cement Grey” paint, but the TRD Pro is also available in red or white. Unlike the previous 2015 Tacoma TRD Pro, which was available only with cloth upholstery, our tester boasts heated leather seats with contrasting red stitching. Much slicker to look at, not to mention easier to scrub clean.

Overall, the cabin is a comfortable leap forward from the spartan and dated Tacoma interiors of the previous generation. It lacks the “look at me, I’m a premium sedan” flourishes of the current crop of full-size pickups, but comes standard with leather-wrapped wheel, power sliding rear window, touchscreen navigation and a TFT display in the gauge cluster with tilt and inclinometer. New features include rear cross-traffic alert and blind-spot warning.

Our drive included an hour of roads and highway before hitting the trails. While the previous model suffered from wind and road noise – not to mention the thrashiness of its powertrain – the new TRD Pro feels tight and fairly well insulated. It’s not as quiet, nor as refined as either one of GMC’s Canyon or Colorado twins, but the TRD Pro’s demographic probably isn’t interested in a cushy cruiser.

As in the regular Tacoma, the 3.5L Atkinson-cycle V6 puts out 278 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque; and though it’s a little lacking in grunt, it feels smooth and refined.

It’s hooked up to a six-speed automatic in our tester, but enthusiasts will be happy to hear that a six-speed manual gearbox is also available. The fun gained by rowing your own gears comes at the expense of performance: while the manual model does come equipped with an electronic locking rear differential and brake traction control, it sacrifices multi-terrain select and the brilliant Crawl Control.

We headed deep into the woods, the fallen leaves and dirt tracks made slick by the cold drizzle. The going was rough, marked with deep potholes and ruts that made the suspension work hard. The excellent damping provided by the Fox shocks compensated nicely for the rudimentary rear leaf springs, and thus the TRD Pro didn’t jitter around, nor did the rear end kick out as much over the washboard as expected.

We covered some rather rough backwood trails, with sections of rock and logs – and not much fazes this tough little truck. There’s a decent sense of solidity, and the fact that you’re not being tossed around over the rough stuff makes it easier to make accurate steering inputs.

Most impressive was its ability to climb a near-vertical hill track in 4-Lo, the face of which was slick mud.

With such a low torque output, it helped to knock the shifter into manual, and drop down a few gears to access the power band – and just gun it. The angle was so acute, we couldn’t see over the top of the hood – especially with the bulging hood scoop – but we crested with a mighty spray of grass and mud clods.

The way back down was just as steep and just as greasy – but threw in a twist, or rather several. Instead of a straight shot from the crest to the base, the trail wound around several trees.

Here’s where Crawl Control came in. A sort of low-speed downhill cruise control accessed by a switch overhead, Crawl Control works by assessing where wheel slippage is happening, and directing torque to individual wheels within milliseconds. It works brilliantly, enabling the TRD Pro to climb – slowly – over virtually any terrain. Nose down, we descended as smoothly as if we’d been on pavement, albeit spattered with muck from tip to tail.

The Tacoma TRD Pro is for the extreme off-roader who wants a hardcore rock-crawler and doesn’t mind paying for it. Because it most definitely comes at a cost. The manual-equipped TRD Pro starts at $50,000 and the auto is $53,295 – that’s $20,000 more than the base 4x4 Tacoma. But when you consider the Tacoma’s popularity with the off-road crowd, and its ability to hold its value – Toyota will probably sell every single one.

The TRD Pro’s biggest challenge may be its own pricetag 1/3/2017 6:28:00 AM