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Left for dead not long ago, America's midsize pickup segment is suddenly vibrant again, brimming with new entries and enjoying a solid sales uptick.
All-new just last year, Toyota's Tacoma has been a key part of that renaissance. As the longtime midsize sales leader, the Tacoma has also been the segment's best-known denizen. And up until just recently, it was also the market's uncontested best truck. Today, however, the Tacoma finds itself under siege from reinvigorated rivals like the reborn Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon twins and Honda's second-generation Ridgeline, all of which deliver superior on-road refinement, interiors and fuel economy. But Tacoma's legendary reputation for off-road prowess and granite-like durability is both unassailable and a prime sales draw, so with the new-for-2017 TRD Pro model seen here, Toyota is wisely doubling down on the Taco's core virtues in an effort to ward off the competition.
Building on the Tacoma's already-capable TRD Sport and Off Road models, the TRD Pro's suspension gets significantly more impressive hardware, including 2.5-inch Fox shocks -- an inch bigger around than the Bilsteins found on siblings -- that feature aluminum bodies and an internal-bypass design that allows for progressively more dampening as input forces increase. Providing a 1-inch improvement in wheel travel and working in concert with model-specific progressive-rate rear leaf springs, the Fox units stand at the heart of the TRD Pro's upgrades. They're complemented by Kevlar-reinforced 16-inch Goodyear Wrangler off-road rubber that spans an inch-wider track front and rear, along with a quarter-inch-thick aluminum skid plate that helps keep the Earth's jagged bits from ruining the fun when you're getting dirty (the latter now incorporating a clever trap door to simplify oil changes).
According to chief engineer Mike Sweers, the TRD Pro's engineering brief was to increase the Tacoma's facility for high-speed off-roading, a revelation that might make tempt you into thinking that Toyota is aiming to create a pint-sized Ford F-150 SVT Raptor rival. On some level, that may be true, but this truck's smaller footprint and essentially unchanged powertrain suggests that few will compare the two, and in spending the day bashing around various off-road challenges in Hawaii, it became clear to me that these trucks have very different personalities, too.
Yes, I said "in Hawaii," and with good reason. You might expect a sun worshipper like the Ford Mustang Convertible or a more prosaic car like a Honda Civic to be popular in America's island paradise, and indeed, they are. But according to Toyota, the Tacoma isn't just Hawaii's top-selling truck, it's the 50th State's best-selling passenger vehicle of any sort, with 5,500 units sold last year, enough to make it more popular than Toyota's own mighty Camry and Corolla. Indeed, in Hawaii, there are Taco trucks on every corner. Many are battered-looking farm hands, some are lifted and wear balloon tires, while others are lowered until they're scraping their door sills on the ground. (Mini truckin' is still a thing in the Aloha State, ya'll).
So our TRD Pro convoy would've fit right in, but almost our entire drive day occurred off road and out of sight in Hana, where I found myself blitzing sideways around a hillside dirt "racetrack" doing my best Dukes of Maui impression; picking my way carefully through a rocky stream bed and walking down a treacherous 41-degree pumice-stone grade (picture ascending a hill of black gravel that's too steep to walk up, and you've got it), among other hazards.
It was a day full of impressive, mud-spattering performances.
On the tight, 9-turn dirt-over-volcanic-rock circuit, those upsized Fox shocks prove their worth, conspiring with the Pro's larger front anti-roll bar, light steering and those knobby tires to deliver hilarious yet controlled fun. Admittedly, even when running in 4WD-High with the Taco's traction and stability control nannies extinguished, there was still understeer more often than ideal, but our hosts advised us against going 2WD -- doing so under such conditions was a recipe for spinouts, they said.
With the course degrading in amusing fashion, my colleagues and I pounded around lap after lap, the ruts only getting deeper and the surface only slipperier after a momentary rain turned the top layer "slicker 'n snot on a rock," as noted by the decidedly vivid Sweers. This was the most entertaining moment of the day, and also one of the most illuminating, as it was easy to imagine how a lesser-suspended truck would deliver a nervous, buckboard-like ride, its empty bed dancing and wheels breaking traction, eroding driver confidence.
The short course -- maybe a half-mile in length -- didn't allow for particularly high speeds before grabbing all of the brakes, but that didn't stop me from giddily floor-boarding the throttle every moment I got, keeping the 3.5-liter V6 on the balls of its feet and its slightly huskier TRD-spec exhaust bellowing around the course. Shared with other Tacomas, this powerplant may have the same displacement and cylinder count as the Camry, but it's actually a new engine closer to the one employed in the updated 2017 Highlander SUV. The 278-horsepower, 265 pound-feet of torque six is capable of switching from a tradition Otto cycle to a more fuel-efficient Atkinson cycle under light loads (something it probably didn't do much of out on the dirt with me).
During the course of the day, I was able to sample both the six-speed automatic and the new manual transmission with as many ratios, and while the three-pedal array was more involving and occasionally more entertaining, the automatic is probably the way to go, if only because it brings with it Crawl Control, a seriously trick bit of electronics that aids in low-speed off-road maneuvers.
Going one better than even the most skilled off-roader, Crawl Control individually adjusts the power and brakes applied to each wheel, limiting progress to one of five speeds dialed up by the driver using an overhead rotary switch. Designed for use on both inclines and descents going forwards or backwards, Crawl Control works like hill descent control on steroids, allowing the driver to keep his or her feet utterly off the pedals and concentrate on negotiating obstacles with the steering. The system can even automatically unbury itself when there's sand or gravel up to the axles. It works so well that at times, it almost feels like cheating.
If you don't catch sight of its flashy door badging, you'll recognize a Tacoma TRD Pro on the trail by its black-bezeled head- and tail-lamps, blacked-out hood scoop, trick wide-path Rigid Industries fog lights and distinctive black "heritage" grille with billboard lettering, among other things.
Inside, things are pretty standard issue Tacoma, which means you've still got to adopt the same climb-up-and-duck to enter treehouse posture, adopting the same weirdly low, legs out driving position. Things are a bit nicer inside the TRD Pro, though, what with standard black leather seats (customers of the last generation model complained cloth was hard to keep clean) embroidered with TRD Pro logos, along with a matching TRD shift knob and floor mats.
On the tech front, the TRD Pro delivers standard Entune, complete with integrated JBL speakers, navigation and downloadable apps. As with other Toyota head units, it's not the most sophisticated or flashy infotainment setup, but the 7-inch touchscreen is easy to use and well organized. Sadly, neither Apple CarPlay nor Android Auto are supported, although Toyota hasn't completely forgotten about your phone, as there's USB and Bluetooth integration, plus Siri Eyes Free and a wireless charging mat.
In terms of safety features, standard rear-park assist, blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert are welcome additions.
None of TRD Pro's extra off-road ability or look-tough gear comes cheaply, however. Available only in Double Cab, short-bed configuration, the Tacoma TRD Pro costs $43,700-$41,700 if you want one with the manual gearbox. That's an eye-watering sum for a small(ish) truck that starts at $24,600, and it's a good chunk more than the $34,050 TRD Sport, previously the most-expensive off-road-minded Tacoma.
In fact, it's not as big of a price jump to Ford's much more dynamic 2017 Raptor as you might think. It starts under $50k. Perhaps just as worryingly, the TRD Pro's pricing is only a few thousand dollars less that of the Ram 1500 Rebel, which not only tows and hauls a lot more, it's actually likely to be slightly more fuel efficient. (While TRD-Pro-specific fuel economy ratings are not yet available, they don't figure to be much different than that of the TRD Off Road's 18 miles per gallon city and 23 mpg highway).
Of course, not everyone wants a full-size truck -- smaller rigs can scramble and park places that full-sizers can't. And besides, I reckon pricing comparisons don't really matter much in this case. Company officials say they're looking to clear just 5,000 TRD Pros a year, and not only are Toyota owners the most loyal you can find anywhere in the truck industry, a recently published study says Tacoma owners in specific are more faithful come trade-in time than any other model.
That's with good reason -- beyond its well-deserved reputation for bombproof reliability, the Tacoma not only enjoys the industry's best resale value, as this TRD Pro proves yet again, it's also a damned good rough-and-tumble truck.