Tested: The Toyota Tacoma TRD Just Wants to Play in the Desert
The soaring temperatures and tough terrain of the Mojave Desert can prove burdensome for any four-wheeler. In the summer, the thermometer easily reaches triple digits; the area is also prone to flash floods and wind gusts of more than 60 mph. Although the geography is mostly flat, hills and rocks increase the chances of getting stranded. But when Toyota developed the Tacoma TRD Pro, it did so with that type of terrain in mind—its shocks needed to absorb the vibrations from the rocks, its beefy Goodyear Wrangler All-Terrain tires had to withstand the rough ground, and the undercarriage had to be protected from whatever the truck tried to cross. To test the Taco’s capabilities, we drove a few hours from L.A. to the Mojave Road and spent a couple of days overlanding in the desert.
The 2019 Tacoma TRD Pro is based on the TRD Off-Road truck, which means it’s powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 that sends 278 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels via a six-speed automatic. In addition, the Taco TRD Pro comes equipped with 2.5-inch Fox shocks; a 1-inch suspension lift; a TRD Pro skidplate; Rigid Industries LED foglights, headlights, and taillights with black bezels; TRD Pro badges; a TRD Pro hood scoop; and 16-inch TRD black alloy wheels. For 2019, the truck got a meaner look—with a black grille, hood stickers, the letters in the Toyota logo spread out, and a new snorkel that raises the engine’s air intake. Our truck was also equipped with rock rails with attached side steps, which hurt it during our off-road ride.
The current-gen Tacoma feels old, but it felt at home in the desert, and its Fox shocks did a great job keeping the bumps in the cabin to a minimum. “The Fox shocks are pretty spectacular; the Taco ate up all the whoop-de-doos, rocks, and soft sand without complaint,” features editor Christian Seabaugh said. The cabin had pretty good insulation, too, keeping the noise down while on the trail. Nonetheless, we noticed a lot of brake dive and powertrain flaws. “There’s nothing but slop in this drivetrain,” he added. “Even the simple act of shifting the Toyota from park into drive results in a massive lurch from the truck.” One of our consistent complaints about other Tacoma trims is the brake dive, and the TRD Pro is no exception—it feels like the whole cabin moves forward when you’re trying to stop.
On the trail, the 3.5-liter felt in its element while the transmission shifted at the right rpms. “On the trail, poor transmission programming and ride quality weren’t factors,” features editor Scott Evans said. “The Tacoma had the power and suspension articulation it needed to get the job done.” The smooth power delivery allowed the Tacoma to easily climb over an obstacle, and holding the gas pedal nice and steady was a simple task—something that’s essential when you’re climbing rocks or navigating through difficult terrain. The crawl control is also a pretty good standard feature; it controls the braking on each wheel when going downhill. All the driver has to do is control the steering and select the speed at which he or she wants to go, and the Tacoma does the rest. I tested it on a steep downhill on Mojave Road, and the Taco did a flawless job. The truck’s capability was disrupted by the rock rails, which essentially lower the ground clearance; they hit the ground a few times on the trail. Although no major damage was done, the forward step on the passenger’s side suffered a small dent when we came down from a rock. We questioned why Toyota had equipped the Taco TRD Pro—a truck made for off-roading—with these steps that only limited its capability off the pavement. Our suggestion: Save the $649 and don’t buy them.
Whereas the exterior design still looks good, the outdated interior is another story. The 7.0-inch touchscreen uses Toyota’s old infotainment system, so you don’t get Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. The seating position is a bit weird, forcing your legs to stand more upright than relaxed. Christian, Scott, and I complained about the lack of headroom in the front; we all hit our heads when leaning over to see an obstacle during our off-roading. “Couple the headroom issue with the Toyota’s uncomfortable carlike seating position and barely telescoping steering wheel, and you’ve got an overlander that I frankly don’t want to spend a lot of time in,” Christian said. We also found that the rear seats aren’t very versatile. Instead of folding up, the seat cushions fold forward, taking up more space. This was inconvenient when we put our gear in the second row, as we had to play Tetris to accommodate our equipment.
As with all updated Toyota models, the Taco TRD Pro comes with many standard safety features. Radar cruise control, lane departure mitigation with alert, a pre-collision system with pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, and automatic high-beams come standard.
As far as on-road driving dynamics, the Tacoma offers a smooth ride. During our trip we had five spare tires in the bed, which added some weight and probably helped with the smooth ride. The engine still felt like it had good punch, and the transmission held gears longer. The cabin is mostly quiet, though there is some noise from the engine and transmission.
For $51,150, the 2019 Tacoma TRD Pro isn’t cheap, but that’s where most of the midsize trucks stand today. What really stood out is the Taco’s capability in the desert, where it delivered a smooth ride and good power. “This truck is perfectly capable and has good base off-road dimensions and specs, so I completely understand why it’s the basis for so many overland builds,” Christian said. The Taco has its flaws, but the desert is where it truly feels at home.
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