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Review: 2015 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro

We take the hard-core, off-road-focused 4Runner TRD Pro for a spin.

The joke always was that buyers of traditional body-on-frame SUVs, especially during the Nineties boom years, were enamored with the idea of veering off the interstate to bound over red rocks and snow caps, but in reality never so much as strayed from the HOV lane.

It took a couple of decades for everyone to admit that, no, they didn't really care if their rigs had the off-road prowess of a golf cart. All they really wanted was to sit up high, and then automakers realized they save a bunch of money by just building taller cars. Explorers and Pathfinders have morphed into unibody wagons, Monteros and Trailblazers have vanished altogether, but the Toyota 4Runner is, apparently, evergreen.

In fact, the Big T is doubling down on the notion that a select few will actually take their off-roaders, you know, off-road. With the Highlander taking care of soccer practice, Toyota's free to beef up the 4Runner to a hard-core desert bounder in case Ivan Stewart ever finds himself pursued by desert mercenaries while racing the Baja 1000.

What is it?

Chances are, though, the ragtag soldiers chasing "Ironman” Stewart would also be driving Toyotas. Ever since the Land Cruiser became the first vehicle to scale Mt Fuji in 1951, Aichi's been churning out uber-capable terrain thumpers. When you have 30 years of experience racing on unpaved roads, a reputation for indestructibility affirmed by the BBC, and an entire regional conflict named for your apocalypse ready machines, it's time to capitalize on that.

Problem was, Toyota lacked a single moniker unifying their top ground pounders. The ultimate FJ Cruiser was the Trail Teams Edition, the Tacoma's was the T/X Baja, and the Tundra's was the Rock Warrior. TRD Pro is a way to identify the next generation of off-road performers both by name and visually, sort of like Lexus's F cars.

The Tundra, Tacoma and 4Runner are the first to get the treatment. The FJ Cruiser is going bye-bye at the end of this year, so the 4Runner will be the sole fully-enclosed vehicle in the TRD Pro lineup.

What's it up against?

The 4Runner TRD Pro lacks any real competition, as nearly all its body-on-frame rivals have migrated to unibody construction. To get anything similar, buyers would need to dip lower into the marketplace and make do with fewer luxe amenities. Think Jeep Wrangler or Nissan Xterra. Or, there's about 6 months left to get Toyota's own FJ Cruiser.

On the other end of the spectrum are luxury SUVs like the Land Rover LR4 and Toyota's Lexus GX 460. The closest thing to the standard, non-Pro 4Runner might be a Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, which is more capable than most soft-roaders but still of unibody construction.

What's it look like?

All TRD Pro trucks receive a host of suspension upgrades, big knobby tires, and a new grille, but the intensity of their enhancements varies from model to model. The 4Runner TRD Pro hews most closely to the non-Pro'ed version, but that doesn't mean its mods aren't substantial.

The first clue this isn't your garden-variety 4Runner is the Inferno paint job, a color unique to the TRD Pro trio. Pictures don't do justice to the hue, a vivid orange with loads of gold pearl, giving it an iridescent effect that ranges from bronze to near-red depending on the angle of the sun.

Choose one of the other more subdued TRD Pro colors, Super White or Attitude Black, and the the next giveaway is its lifted body, jacked up 1.5 inches in front and 1 inch out back. Pop your head into one of its cavernous wheel wells and you'll come face to face with bright red low-rate springs and remote reservoir Bilstein shocks. Such TRD goodies existed on Rock Warrior Tundras and T/X Baja Tacomas before but are a factory first for the 4Runner.

The hardware provides an extra inch of wheel travel all around. Paired with 17-inch, black TRD 6-spokes wrapped in monster truck 31.5-inch Nitto Terra Grappler tires, the half-inch difference between front and rear suspension height improves approach angles, but has the added side effect of rearing the 4Runner on its rear haunches, like a flaming red rhino ready to charge.

And charge it does, or appears to, even when standing still. When the current-gen 4Runner was redesigned for 2010, its angry scowl received mixed reviews, but the TRD Pro makes sense of it all. Matte black fills both the foglight bezels and gaping esophagus of a grille that seems ready to devour Fiat 500s by the mouthful.

Smack dab in the middle of that maw is the pièce de résistance, an old school Helvetica "TOYOTA” in place of the corporate ovals, a tribute to the FJ Cruiser and FJ40 Land Cruisers of days gone by. And if gravity or a hidden log gets in the way of some spirited wheeling, a quarter-inch aluminum skid plate, vented to cool the front differential, protects your precious oil pan.

With the windows down, we basked in the full admiration of random bros volleying shouts of "Sick ride!” at us. This type of thing happened uncomfortably often during our time with the TRD Pro. We even emerged from a grocery store to find gawkers taking cellphone photos of the Inferno beast. Mind you, this took place all in Los Angeles, where on a daily basis you can see a dozen Aston Martins and a two candy colored Lamborghinis before noon. This is not a vehicle for the shy.

And on the inside?

For an off roader, the interior is pretty swank. Our tester had full leather, heated power seats, and a multi-function steering wheel. Red stitching, TRD Pro floor mats and a fancy shift knob distinguish it from run-of-the-mill ‘Runners.

Speaking of the soon to be departed FJ Cruiser, however, that rig had several neat cues to let you know it was a serious rock crawler. It would seem Toyota could easily sweeten the TRD Pro pot with the simple addition of, say, an inclinometer and ball compass. Four-wheel-drive selection is done via an old school transfer lever, while other driveline inputs can be selected via a spaceship-like overhead console.

Typically intuitive Toyota ergonomics make for easy-to-use climate and driving position controls. The stereo buttons, however, were spread across either side of Toyota's Entune audio and navigation system, an infuriating interface that has the graphics from a Commodore 64. The menu trees are equally confusing and far less navigable than, say, Nissan's system.

Introduced in 1984 as basically a convertible Toyota pickup with an extra row of seats and a detachable canopy, the 4Runner lives on true to its body-on-frame roots. Though you can't pop the top off anymore, the 4Runner still has its trademark roll-down tailgate window, now with one-touch auto operation in both directions. All the windows plus sunroof have this feature, providing in about three seconds as open a feel as one can get this side of a Jeep Wrangler.

But how does it go?

What the TRD Pro doesn't have is any additional power. The 270 horsepower 4.0-liter V6 carries over from regular ‘Runners, good for 278 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm and backed by a five-speed auto. On TRD Pro Tundras and Tacomas, a TRD exhaust adds about 10hp to the festivities, but the 4Runner makes do with stock pipes.

Nevertheless, that's plenty of power on tap. Stomp the pedal and the massive hood scoop rears up like the horns of an angry bull. The TRD Pro makes quick work of rough trails and Los Angeles potholes alike, eating up moguls with none of the steering wheel shudder or jarring vibrations endemic to lesser SUVs.

Though lower rate springs might be terrific for the heroic cresting of ridges, the sprung weight heaves ever so slightly on freeway undulations. Still, that's a small price to pay for an SUV that can tackle desert expanses with self-assurance.

We achieved a tick under 21 mpg on the highway and 14 around town. That city figure is a bit worse than what the standard 4Runner is rated, likely due to the extra rotational mass of its gigantor wheels.

Leftlane's Bottom Line

With its oversized tires and rough-and-ready attitude, the TRD Pro is more faithful to the original than many recent generations. It's reassuring to see that Toyota isn't just willing to slap a renowned badge on a macho-looking crossover and call it a day. Commuters who want nothing more than a tall wagon have plenty of other options, and there hasn't been a dune jumper this good at kicking up roostertails of dirt since the Isuzu VehiCross.

Most of the TRD Pro hardware is available separately from the TRD catalog, but bought as a whole the package will cost $41,110. That's a pretty good deal considering a similarly optioned 4Runner Trail will set you back $39,125 — the TRD wheel and tire package alone retails for $1,799 — and they'll throw in the eyeball searing paint job to boot. The Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro is due to hit showrooms in September. Only 3,400 will be produced.

2015 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro base price, $41,110; as tested, same. Destination $885.

Photos by Ben Hsu.

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