Thousands of stars twinkled over Colorado’s Uncompahgre National Forest.
Far away from city lights, I could barely make out silhouettes of the resting 2019 Toyota Tacoma, Tundra and 4Runner TRD Pros against the shadowed campsite.
Hours earlier, the same fleet of off-roaders carried us over the Rimrocker Trail from Utah’s desert to the deep forests of Colorado.
The adventure offered an opportunity to test Toyota Motor Corp.’s refreshed lineup of 2019 TRD Pro vehicles.
The trip started in the off-road mecca of Moab, Utah. The trucks bounded over 140 miles of varying terrain, ranging from winding dirt roads to loose rock along sheer drops. They crossed rivers and gutted over challenging boulders.
Each mile revealed new splendor in some of America’s most beautiful country.
After three days the journey ended in the gold rush-era town of Ouray, Colo., home of the 12th annual FJ Summit that celebrates all things Toyota off-roading.
Enthusiasts from across the country venture to Ouray each year to exchange knowledge and showcase their rigs. This year, the new TRD Pros took center stage.
For 2019, Toyota updated its Tacoma TRD Pro midsize pickup and 4Runner TRD Pro SUV. It also returned the Tundra TRD Pro full-size pickup after a one-year hiatus.
The TRD Pro Series is the most capable trim of light trucks — a category that includes pickups, SUVs and crossovers — that Toyota builds. All three 2019 TRD Pro models will be available this fall.
As commuter vehicles, the trucks show their age. Each uses a familiar engine and transmission that are not fuel efficient. The infotainment screens are small compared to the competition, and there are few USB ports.
That’s because TRD Pro vehicles are built to tackle the outdoors. Each comes with a lifted suspension, 2.5-inch Fox internal bypass shocks, larger all-terrain tires and additional bodywork.
Expedition Overland led Toyota’s TRD Pro caravan. It is experienced in high-mileage journeys through remote locales such as the Yukon to the South American rainforest.
The crew brought two of their own Toyota rigs: a Tundra and a Land Cruiser, each heavily modified for overlanding with rooftop tents and extensive storage for equipment. The Land Cruiser towed a rugged Patriot Campers trailer.
Overlanding has exploded in popularity, and Toyota is a major player. In a 2017 survey at the influential Overland Expo, Toyota was the top brand of vehicles owned by attendees. Jeep and Ford ranked far behind. The Rimrocker trip offered firsthand exposure to the lifestyle attracting outdoor enthusiasts to Toyota.
On the first morning, our group gathered for a briefing on the vehicles and route. There would be potential for danger. The trucks are capable but not unbreakable.
“Let’s practice mechanical sympathy,” said Kurt Williams, a rally driver and guide with Expedition Overland.
We let out the air in the tires on each vehicle to 25 psi. Then it was straight up the La Sal Mountains, a range with several 12,000-foot peaks.
Crawling over solid rock and even light technical driving was no problem in the Tundra TRD Pro. The truck uses the same 5.7-liter V8 engine, with 381 horsepower and 401 pound-feet of torque, as the standard version. It powered up the mountain side.
Even on narrow trails where branches scraped dust marks across the side of its wide body, the Tundra seemed unbothered. Despite only having a one-speed transfer case, Tundra’s new shocks, grippy Michelin all-terrain tires and 2-inch front lift equipped it to handle the first leg of the trip. It also lacks the Multi-Terrain Select system in the other two TRD Pro models.
The Tundra does have drawbacks compared with its TRD Pro siblings. First, its dual chrome exhaust tips hang low below the rear bumper, reducing the truck’s departure angle and scraping on steeper rocks.
Second, the Tundra is the only full-size truck that does not offer a locking rear differential on any trim. Its limited-slip differential performed well but seemed mismatched on a TRD Pro.
The caravan crawled along Rimrocker and stopped for lunch in a glistening meadow surrounded by purple mountains. We then descended the other side of the La Sal range and reached camp on the edge of the Buckeye Reservoir just across the Colorado border.
Under a pink sky, we dined on grilled steaks and veggies. Rippling waves in the tiny lake echoed like an ocean as night fell.
The second day largely consisted of desert. As the elevation decreased the temperature spiked. The 4Runner’s windows started down, but as the heat surged we rolled them up to blast the A/C. Part of the fun of overlanding is maintaining some of the creature comforts of glamping.
The 4Runner TRD Pro felt completely in its element. Covered in dust, tires unperturbed by scraggly trails, its engine gulped mountain air through the large front grille. In its back hatch the SUV ferried gear that couldn’t fit in the Tacoma and Tundra cabins.
Fully loaded and at altitude, which saps power from naturally aspirated engines, the 4-liter V6 engine felt a touch underpowered at 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque. The 4Runner also uses an ancient five-speed automatic gearbox.
But on the trail, the transmission delivers timely power. Its full-time four-wheel drive and two-speed transfer case are properly equipped for overlanding. On dirt, the 4Runner TRD Pro is the real deal.
The 4Runner is the only TRD Pro with rear coil springs. Compared with the others’ leaf springs it provided a suspension that bent but never began to break. Its gentle rocking over bumps delivered reassuring feedback.
The 4Runner’s approach and departure angles are the best in the TRD Pro family. It also has a 1-inch front lift and 9.6 inches of ground clearance. Nitto Terra Grappler tires communicate directly to the steering wheel. It feels solid, rugged and smooth at the same time.
The 4Runner is the only truck in the TRD Pro group that does not come with Toyota’s Safety Sense P, or TSS-P, a suite of advanced safety tech that includes features like automatic emergency braking, lane-departure alert and adaptive cruise control.
After lunch under the Patriot trailer’s canopy that offered shade from the blistering sun, the group traveled into the tiny town of Nucla for our first taste of Wi-Fi in several days. A couple of e-mails and Instagram posts later it was back onto dirt.
Sand and rock turned to towering spruce trees as the elevation climbed again. The tents came out at Columbine Campground, an off-road recreation site with mud, puddles and hills for practicing incline technique. At night the stars were blinding. The calls of cattle put us to sleep.
As the third day on the Rimrocker began, the finish line beckoned. The comfort of our luxe Helinox cots and Australian-made OzTent was nice, but it was time for a real bed and shower. The group said farewell to Columbine and headed east for Ouray.
While the 4Runner felt like the perfect marriage of off-roading and practicality, the Tacoma TRD Pro proved itself the Swiss Army knife of factory off-roading. Its tight dimensions, light weight and natural dynamics are tailor made for off-pavement capability.
The Tacoma is the only one of the three TRD Pros that previously came equipped with the Fox shocks. For 2019, the new model enjoys a larger skid plate and black chrome tips on the TRD exhaust.
The most visible change is the addition of a “desert air intake”—Toyota is hesitant to call it a snorkel— mounted high along the A-pillar to improve airflow to the engine. This allows clean air to reach the engine if the front grille is inundated with dirt, sand or water.
The Tacoma TRD Pro is the only vehicle that has a factory-installed snorkel. Without challenging dunes or water crossings it’s difficult to say whether the desert air intake improved performance on Rimrocker. But it looks cool. It also prevented dirt clumped into the wheel wells from reaching the engine.
The smallest and lightest of the TRD Pro family, the Tacoma, felt the most fleet of foot. There is an extra inch of track width and meaty Goodyear Wrangler All-Terrain tires. The combination makes it easy to place the Tacoma TRD Pro in exactly the right spot.
It also means that the Tacoma is tight inside. Throughout the trip drivers complained of trouble finding a comfortable seating position. The Tundra and 4Runner had no issue packing gear inside the cabin, but those same bundles were a tight squeeze in the Tacoma.
But there is no substitute for the way the Tacoma TRD Pro handles rocky terrain. Its six-speed transmission and 3.5-liter V6 engine with 278 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque are capable of delivering the right amount of grunt when needed.
The Tacoma is also the best suited of the three TRD Pros to the Fox shocks. Unexpected ruts and bumps are no problem. On the final leg of our Rimrocker trip the truck coasted downhill and into town.
Given its pedigree, new equipment and ease of driving the 2019 Tacoma TRD Pro deserves mention alongside the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 as the most capable out-of-the-box trucks available today.
Toyota pours advertising and sponsorship funds into pastimes like NASCAR and fishing, but it doesn’t invest as heavily in the off-road community. The vehicle owners, however, are enthusiastic. Tickets to the 12th annual FJ Summit sold out in 21 seconds.
Ouray, a town of 1,000 permanent residents, was bursting at the seams with Toyota trucks. Owners traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to attend. A central square included food, games and vendors.
I spent most of the day in the 4Runner. At one point the SUV struggled to gain traction on an aggressive rock slope, even after I shifted into 4-Low and locked the rear differential. The front right tire hung in the air and the left rear had little contact.
It offered a perfect opportunity to test Crawl Control. The system uses traction technology to ease the vehicle across difficult terrain on its own, leaving the driver free to focus on steering.
I shifted into neutral and pressed the On/Off button on the headliner to activate the system. Next, I released the brake. Without pressing the accelerator, the 4Runner clawed its way to level ground.
The trail continued through open plains and ran along a steep mountainside. At the top, a marker read 13,114 feet.
Back in Ouray, FJ Cruisers donning every imaginable modification and accessory rolled down Main Street — covered in mud and dirt from the day’s adventures.
Kurt and Sarah Wood had driven their 2011 FJ Cruiser to Ouray from Spokane, Wash., for the event. The couple describe themselves as off-roading rookies and were thrilled that the event was welcoming.
Josh Cope and his 17-year-old son, Blake, traveled from Oklahoma City. They made the 13-hour drive in one day. Their 2008 FJ Cruiser is only lightly modified but had no problem on guided trails above Ouray. This was Blake’s first off-road adventure.
“It was just as nerve-wracking as I thought it was going to be,” Blake said. “But it was a lot of fun.”
As night fell I walked down Main Street for a nightcap. The stars were out in full force. The next morning, I would pack and return to starless Los Angeles. I tried to find the Big Dipper, but a mud-caked FJ Cruiser roared by, breaking the silence.
I headed for home, having successfully practiced mechanical sympathy.
Editor’s note: The Tundra comes with Toyota’s Safety Sense P, driver’s assistance package. An earlier edition of this story said that it did not have that equipment and technology.