Cars

High Speed Off-roading in the 2015 Toyota TRD Pro 4Runner

Editor's Note: When Toyota calls out of the blue and asks you if you want to spend a week driving a pre-production prototype of their newest dirt-eating SUV, you say yes.

The road ahead isn't really so much a road, but mounds of dirt, arranged by nature and other vehicles into the sort of mogul course you’d expect to see on the mountains at the Winter Olympics. It’s the path that an aftermarket-prepped Jeep would feel dangerous on if you go more than 25 mph. And it’s raining. Toyota is adamant that their new TRD Pro 4Runner is built precisely to tackle this kind of terrain at high speed.

Four-wheel drive engaged? Check. Stability control set for nutjob, er, dirt? Check.

Go time.

At ten mph, everything feels...dare we say it, normal. You know you’re off road, but there aren’t any rattles or squeaks. The only real noise is the occasional rock hitting some of the shields strategically placed under the chassis for protection.

Now we're at 25 mph. This is where Jeeps and pickup trucks alike go home because they can’t maintain traction past this point on this road. It feels rough, and the steering wheel tugs back and forth as the wheels struggle to find stability. Just when you’re about to abort, a voice reaches out through the ether like Obi Wan: Toyota built this thing to go fast. The fancy suspension doesn’t come into its own until you really push.

Obi continues: Trust the engineers. Trust the engineers. Trust the engineers…

Right foot down. 30 mph. Still rough but it’s going better.

40 mph. Holy crap, what?! It’s getting smoother!

50 mph. Almost highway speeds on a pathway you have zero business being on, and it’s almost like an automotive epiphany.

Compared to a normal 4Runner the TRD Pro has softer springs, rides higher, has an extra two inches of wheel travel—all specially tuned with German shocks that have extra capacity. All of this is especially cool for an automotive geek or an engineer, but in practice, they reach a sort of harmonic balance once you’re going fast enough. The result is not only smoother, but you have more control because the tires stay in constant contact with the ground.

Turns out, slower traffic on uneven roads is crummier than on paved surfaces. The 4Runner's speed on dirt gives way to an addictive giddiness, which in turn means you’ll find yourself driving way too far into the middle of nowhere in pursuit of conquering new roads. You can't help but want to throw your gear in back, strap a tent to the roof and head to remote places where people play banjos.

A lot of people don’t push their SUVs to the limits (that's usually a good thing), and if you’re someone who has absolutely zero desire to go off-road, this isn’t for you. Even when driving on the street, you’ll wind up intentionally aiming for potholes, accelerating for speedbumps in shopping centers, and wondering just how much time you'd spend in jail for taking a shortcut through someone's lawn.

In city-traffic, the SUV leans through corners, the nose dives under braking, and pretty much every motion is symbolic of the 4Runner which begs you to call in sick to work and go back riding through the wilderness.

It’s not perfect, but it’s close.


Aaron Miller is the Rides editor for Supercompressor. He drove so far out to the middle of nowhere for this piece that he saw a woman checking her mail on a ride-on lawnmower across the street from a tent revival. Seriously.