The enormous Los Angeles City fire truck parked outside the Starbucks I was leaving startled me. I panicked for a moment thinking the building was on fire.
But to my surprise the rig’s burly firefighters were only focused on my 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro.
I approached the pickup and was greeted by the biggest of the six, who explained that he and his crew stopped just to check out the “cool truck.”
I sipped my coffee, and thought, “High-performance and the image that comes with it is the reason TRD and TRD Pro even exist.”
After years of dominating off road and desert racing, including the prestigious Baja 500 and Baja 1000 with driver Ivan “Ironman” Stewart, Toyota leveraged its off-roading technology by adding a special option to its new Tacoma pickup in 1997. The Toyota Racing Development, or TRD, package was born.
The TRD equipment was more than a bunch of stickers. It included an electronically locking rear differential, Bilstein monotube gas pressure shock absorbers, better tires and a healthy skid plate up front.
Twenty years later Toyota offers three different TRD-branded trim levels for its Tacoma pickup and full-frame 4Runner mid-size SUV: TRD Sport, TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro. The TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro packages are also available on its full-size Tundra pickup.
Nearly 50 percent of all Tundra and Tacoma models sold include some kind of TRD package, according to Bill Fay, group vice president and general manager for Toyota Motor North America.
Last year Toyota sold a record 139,593 vehicles with TRD equipment and badging, attracting buyers – like the admiring firefighters – who favor the enhanced off-road capability as well as the street cred the brand has earned.
The basic concept emerged from the engineers’ racing experiences, and the vehicles embody the expertise and enthusiasm that inspired their creation. Today, the TRD Pro trucks are the most capable of the lot.
“We have small pockets of enthusiasts within Toyota,” a TRD Product Planner told Trucks.com in 2014 when the TRD Pro package was first developed for the Tacoma. “And if you get the passions of those folks to line up just right, we can come out with some really cool stuff.”
The goal is to build trucks that can bomb through Baja California on the weekend, but still are comfortable to drive to work on Monday.
I’ve driven TRD Pro versions of the Tacoma, 4Runner and Tundra both on and off road.
The 4Runner TRD Pro, which starts around $42,500, is my favorite, and – like it’s Tacoma counterpart – is also the most capable. It sits about an inch taller than any other version of the SUV, yet the front springs are softer. They’re paired with custom-valved Bilstein shocks that add about an inch of wheel travel. The stock coil springs in the rear are paired with Bilstein remote reservoir shocks that are tuned by TRD and increase travel to nearly 10 inches.
There’s an attractive matte-black 17-inch TRD wheel as well, but the tire size doesn’t change. And Toyota equips this vehicle – as well as the Tacoma TRD Pro – with every off-road system it has in its arsenal, including a locking rear differential, Crawl control, Hill decent control and Multi-Terrain select system that tailors the amount of wheel slip to specific off-road situations.
The ride quality over washboard and rocky dirt roads is magic carpet-like; I sailed across a long series of identical and closely spaced peaks in the roads – or “whoops” – at 15-18 mph. And when the suspension bottoms out, the landing is soft and controlled.
Around town this nearly 5,000 pound truck feels stout. This is no agile vehicle, but the suspension is so supple it makes the worst bumps virtually disappear. It’s an extremely comfortable SUV to drive on the street.
Its 270 horsepower 4.0-liter V6 is a bit rough at higher rpm, but it has just enough power to overcome the truck’s archaic 5-speed automatic transmission. Installing the 381 horsepower 5.7-liter V8 engine from the full-size Tundra pickup would properly pep it up and add the exhaust rumble this vehicle deserves.
Unfortunately the TRD Pro Tacoma pickup suffers from the same weak punch as the 4Runner. It’s 278 horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine and 6-speed automatic transmission – a six-speed manual is available – is an adequate combination. Again, swapping in the Tundra’s V8 should be on Toyota’s to-do list.
Available in the double cab body with a 5-foot bed, the Tacoma TRD Pro starts at about $41,000. The package includes an ¼-inch thick aluminum front skid plate, Fox shocks tuned by TRD, a hoodscoop and exterior graphics. A TRD Pro cat-back exhaust system turns up the decibels on the V6’s unpleasant nasal twang.
And then there’s the suspension. The coil springs up front are one inch taller and suspension travel has been increased more than half an inch, as the spring rates have been softened by 15 percent to 20 percent.
It doesn’t ride or handle as well as the 4Runner, however. This suspension is stiffer, partially due to its rear leaf springs. When driving the Tacoma around town, you miss the smoother ride of the 4Runner.
Yet on dirt this truck is a god. It loves slow-speed trailwork, and it gets even better as the speed goes up. I maintained 35-40 mph over ruts, bumps and small whoops without bottoming the suspension.
The third TRD Pro is the Tundra. It packs the most power, the most size and the highest price tag of the three at around $43,500.
Available only as a CrewMax with a 5.5-foot bed, TRD engineers upgraded the independent front suspension with taller, softer coils and Bilstein remote reservoir shocks that use the same massive 60-mm piston as the units on the Tacoma and 4Runner TRD Pro. The upgrade raises the suspension two inches and increases wheel travel by 1.4-inches.
In the rear, longer Bilstein shocks add an additional 1.5-inches of travel. What’s missing? The Tacoma and 4Runner both get a locking differential while the Tundra does not.
Also the wheels and tires should be bigger if only for aesthetics. Instead of scaling, the engineers, went with the same 32-inch diameter Michelins that come on the regular Off Road package. The rubber is wrapped around matte-black 18-inch alloys. They work well enough, but look too wimpy on this behemoth.
A ¼-inch thick aluminum skid plate did make the cut, however, and covers nearly the entire front underside of the truck.
The Tundra TRD Pro is a smooth riding truck and the steering is reasonably light. The powerful 5.7-liter V8 sounds mean with its TRD exhaust, but it can drone on the highway.
Locked in Low Range, the Tundra swallows mild obstacles thanks to the generous suspension travel. But a locking differential would have made crawling up and over the roughest parts a lot more graceful.
Specially equipped off-road ready trucks date back to the 1970s with trucks like the GMC Desert Fox and Dodge Top Hand. Today off road ready combinations are commonplace, from Nissan’s Pro4X lineup to the almighty Ford Raptor.
And there are more to come. Chevrolet will soon launch its Colorado ZR2 to challenge this Tacoma, and a new Ford Bronco has been announced for production in 2020.
“When we introduced TRD Pro a couple years ago, I don’t think we quite anticipated it would have the overall success it’s had,” Fay told Trucks.com at the Chicago Auto Show. “It’s really built a great halo over our pickup trucks and now into our sport utility vehicles.
“It provided great reinforcement to the image of our products in the marketplace, and I think it’s added a dimension of fun and utility and durability,” Fay said.
In Chicago, Toyota unveiled the new 2018 Tundra TRD Sport and Sequoia TRD Sport, which will be the first full-size SUV to wear the brand. Both will hit the market later this year.