As I walked back from a short hike around the White pocket in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona last week I took stock of the parking lot. There was something about it that was noteworthy, but familiar. Look at the photo below and you’ll see it immediately: seven of the nine cars are Toyotas. This doesn’t surprise me at all; in fact it’s pretty much the norm out here in the intermountain west — if you go remote, you find Toyota’s. If you’ve been overlanding, this probably doesn’t surprise you much either; the truth is that out here non-Toyota’s stick out in the backcountry.
[Hi, meet Patrick Rich. He and I once worked together on a huge deep-dive he wrote about all-wheel drive on Jalopnik. He’s also written for various overlanding publications and is a proud Toyota Land Cruiser owner. -DT].
Why? Honestly, Toyota has understood the overlander long before the activity was the new hotness, back when it was called exploring or car camping even and when trip photos were for you and no one else.
If you need further proof that Toyota gets this market you would have a hard time making a better case than the new Trailhunter trim of this latest 4th gen Tacoma. As someone who knows the overland world and knows his Toyotas, allow me to walk you around this latest masterclass in knowing your audience from Japan’s Mr. T.
Toyota Was Already On The Right Track
Let’s start with what Toyota was already doing right with the outgoing Tacoma TRD Off-road, the previous best choice for the overland-inclined.
- Locking rear differential
- Exceptional off-road angles
- Well balanced suspension
- A HUGE aftermarket. I’ll chalk this one up to being Toyota’s doing on accident, by keeping so much the same between their models through the years.
- AC power in the bed
- A stupidly reliable drivetrain
Still, as good as the Tacoma was at its core mission, it wasn’t perfect, and the previous generations have left a little on the table when compared to the ideal overland vehicle. Here are some of the biggest items on the wishlist for buyers of the 3rd gen — things that many have had to upgrade on their own.
- Better support for bigger tires.
- Upgraded shocks and springs, with upper control arm upgrades
- Auxiliary switches
- Rear suspension that doesn’t creak and groan once dirty.
- Higher payloads!
- A better transmission
- A better engine
- Room for people with legs.
The New Truck Proves Toyota Is Listening
So the 4th gen Tacoma is finally here in all its glory and you know what? I like what I see. There are a few familiar faces in the trims and a few newcomers. Among the newcomers is the brand new Trailhunter trim, which I guess is Toyota speak for: “We totally get you overlanders, but sorry all the cool trail model names were taken.” Dumb name aside, Toyota thinks it has the ideal overlander in a box. Are they right?
To start, it’s clear this is going to be a little less svelte of a truck. A bigger frame, taller body and bed, and wider stance hides the fact that this is the first Tacoma ever to come with 33 inch tires. A Toyota with 33 inch tires from the factory? Just in time for 35’s to become the new 33’s, which I suppose is right in line with the Toyota way of being characteristically late to the party. While other Toyotas have had no issue moving up tire sizes to compete with others in the class, Tacoma has always been a little lacking on that front. With the 3rd gen it was easier to fit 33s and now with them as standard we can hope that moving to 35’s will be likewise easy.
While the TRD PRO model has the go-fast bits, Toyota took a more conservative approach with the Dinosaur Hunter — sorry, Trailhunter (that’s a reference to the Ford Ranger Raptor, in case you missed that). Toyota wisely chose to partner with OME — the default choice for suspension upgrades on Toyotas for years — to develop the suspension. It looks like Toyota has skipped the Baja vibe and went for a shock more suited for long days and high loads. The OME (Old Man Emu) offering seems to be a middle ground between the company’s top tier BP-51 internal bypass suspension and its standard nitrocharger twin tube shocks. It’s a 2.5” monotube position-sensitive valving (I would guess 3 zone internal bypass) with integrated fluid reservoirs on the rear shocks. With this upgrade you also get the 1.5 inch rear and 2 inch front lift most people are looking for right off the bat. Also the shocks are inverted, which is neither here nor there, but a little odd.
Basically, this suspension is how you should spec a typical overland Tacoma. The OME brand is dead reliable in the backcountry and this new shock looks to be a great choice for load control and comfortable miles.
Speaking of comfort, this Tacoma gets coil springs! As an 80 Series Land Cruiser owner I’ve known about the excellency of coils for a long time. So what’s the big deal with coils and why does it seem everyone is going that way?
There is too much to list, and we’ll have our suspension engineer Huibert really dig into it later, but here are the highlights as far as I know. No squeaky leafs for one: Far less friction in the system means less noise and more small bump compliance for a better ride. No axle wrap under acceleration and better lateral axle location and control for better handling. Another pro of coils is that there are so many options for tuning. Dual rate, progressive, high free height but low rate for flex, high rate linear for fixed load, etc. Downsides? They historically don’t handle a load as well as leafs, but Ram has been making it work just fine with its 2500s for a while now and the newest coil tech is doing wonders for old rigs like mine so it’s obvious it can be done. Given that these rear coils are likely to be very similar in size and configuration to other Toyotas, the aftermarket should be ready for you when you are.
It remains to be seen what, if anything, will carry over from the vast Tacoma aftermarket, but you can bet that it won’t take long until we find out.
Included in the Trailhunter are new upper control arms to maintain good geometry with taller springs and with longer lasting ball joints with increased range of motion to suit that longer travel. You will also notice multi-zone jounce bumpers on the Trailhunter, which should help with high speed impacts. Very nice.
Those ball joints will be working a little harder in the Trailhunter thanks to a Toyota first disconnectable sway bar up front. Honestly, this is one of the few things I see as a miss in the Trailhunter. While including a disconnecting sway bar puts the Tacoma on par with others in the class I always felt Toyota had a more elegant and frankly better solution already with the KDSS system. The trouble with KDSS (shown above) is that it’s expensive and frankly no one really understood its benefits or even how it worked all that well which made for a less sexy selling point. I still think KDSS is better, but since we’ve never gotten it on the Tacoma I will happily take what I can get with a splined disconnect. The flex on the old models was pretty good, but it was always a case of the rear doing the majority of the flexing. Part of the problem with a new stiffer platform is that the natural frame twist in the old open C-channel frame is gone and so solutions to keep flex on par must be found elsewhere. While Toyota claims a 10% increase in flex over the old model, the thing you will really notice is the front-rear balance which is going to really help on technical trails.
Higher Payload Is Critical In The Overlanding World
What you can bring on trails may be increasing thanks to what appears to be an increase in payload. The max payload on the 2wd model is the only number we get for now and it’s listed as 1709 lbs. That’s very good, and while that won’t translate over to heavier 4wd trims like the Trailhunter, you can assume that we’ll be getting payloads closer to what people actually put in (and on) their beds. A higher payload is ALWAYS welcome news to the overlander. The previous generation was a little lacking here and while it seems to be able to handle extra load even beyond its capacity just fine, you certainly can’t be mad at getting more from the factory. Of course, the seasoned overlander knows it’s not how much they can bring, but how much they can leave behind. Payload is a huge deal in the overlanding space, as builds often involve rooftop tents and onboard fridges and skid plates and winches — and it all adds up fast.
The Old Taco’s Engine Wasn’t Great
OK, let’s talk about the three things that are universal issues with the 3rd gen Taco starting with the powertrain.
Look, let’s clear the air here: Back when the 3rd gen was on the drawing board Toyota had a choice between drivability and EPA cycle numbers and guess who won? The 6AT wasn’t a bad transmission, per-se, but it had the WORST programming and that was enough to make it a loathed transmission. Programming updates eventually trickled in, making it far more tolerable, but it was too little too late. I can’t tell you that Toyota didn’t do the same thing here with its 8 speed, but it seems no one is complaining with the other products that are using it. I suspect because those vehicles have something the 3rd gen never did. Torque.
Again, it seems Toyota chose the EPA over you with the 3.5, and even diehard Toyota fans will eagerly admit that it was the wrong engine for a truck. While the previous 4.0 1GR wasn’t fast, it had good torque in the low and mid range and made the most of its meager 6,000 rpm redline.
It seems Toyota may have been backed into a corner with the 3rd gen. I guess the company didn’t yet have a turbo engine that would meet their durability standards as well as EPA regulations, and market pressures were making big dumb NA engines difficult to sell. The 3.5 was no less powerful than competitors in reality, since you rarely spend any time with the extra 800 or so RPM you can wring out of the competitors (did Toyota limit its redline for durability reasons?) and the torque curves to 6,000 were very close to the same as competitors. Still, when everyone else is selling a 308 HP 3.6 liter engine and you can only get 278 from 3.5, it’s not a great look. If the engine made up for it with arm twisting torque it would be one thing, but this 2GR-FKS could barely give you an arm burn.
Thankfully it looks like torque will be something on tap with the new engine. Most trims do with around 278 hp, which isn’t even a single hp improved over the old version, but 310 lbs-ft at 1700 rpm is going to make all the difference in the world. Will it be as durable and reliable as the V6? I don’t know, but c’mon, it’s a Toyota; the odds are definitely in your favor, and if Toyota puts an engine in a truck, it tends to do it only with high confidence in that engine.
Of course, the hybrid engine with 465 lbs-ft from the same low revs and a wide-ratio 8 speed will almost make going into low range superfluous. While fuel range is always a concern with an overlander, the hope is that the smaller fuel tank is a sign that fuel economy numbers are significantly up (we’ll see). Turbo engines and high loads have not historically been great friends for fuel economy, so a loaded up truck could be rough, but again, we’ll see.
Better Seating, But I Worry About Running Ground Clearance
Finally, the big one: the seating position. This is easily the number one complaint of people who just can’t find love with the Tacoma. Yeah, I didn’t love it either, but it was born from a good idea that I think goes largely unnoticed, and while I think it was overall the right move that doesn’t mean I can’t mourn what was lost. You see I have a rule that I’ve developed over the years to let me know if a vehicle was designed for trail use, or just a sticker and cladding package. What you do is get a good look at the vehicle from the profile and mentally draw a line from the center of one hubcap to the center of the other. If there are any permanent vehicle hardpoints below that line…then you know that, fundamentally, the vehicle was not designed for off-roading. Obviously variable height suspension needs to be taken into consideration; same goes with easily removable bits like side steps, but the principle is the same.
But why does this matter? Ground clearance is a major selling point for any off-road vehicle, but not all ground clearance is created equal. A Subaru Outback Wilderness has the same 9.5 inches as the tallest Tacoma, presumably the TRD-PRO and Trailhunter, but this does not tell the whole story. Yes the Outback Wilderness and the Tacoma will clear the same 9.5 inch rock, but only one of them will crest the tall hill, or drop over the same rock ledge, or drive through the ruts or get over the 10.5-inch rock.
Toyota makes note of this in the material by listing both the maximum ground clearance and the “maximum running ground clearance.”
Wasn’t I talking about seats? Right! Take a look at this picture. Take a look at the space underneath this truck; you could host a circus under there! There is so much dead space between ground and chassis, or body. This is what is meant by the running ground clearance. It’s the point where in 10 inches of snow the Tacoma leaves three lines and the Outback looks like a toboggan run. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation of Tacoma all ran with a philosophy of maximum running ground clearance and it’s obvious if you know what to look for. With the 2nd gen in this picture you can see that the cab is relatively compact vertically and there is a lot of area above the imaginary line between hubs. Toyota had intentionally raised the floor to increase running ground clearance so that natively its truck would stand out off-road because of the benefits of increased running clearance and breakover angles.
I asked some friends to measure their trucks for me from the ground to the lowest point under the doors. One friend has a 2nd gen Frontier with a 2 inch OME lift and 33 inch tires. The other has a 2nd gen Tacoma with a 2 inch OME lift and the same 33 inch tires. Between the two there was a three inch difference between ground and lowest point, with the Frontier at 13 inches and the Tacoma at 16! Take away the lift and the tires and you get roughly 10 and 13 inches of “maximum running ground clearance.” Toyota lists the running clearance of the highest Tacomas at 11 inches. Put another way, a stock 2nd-gen TRD Off-road Tacoma on 31.5 inch tires has more running ground clearance than the Trailhunter with a two inch lift on 33s.
Unfortunately, a raised floor means raised footwells which means sitting on the floor. Hence all the comfort complaints on the outgoing truck.
It seems as if Toyota has finally had enough of the seat height being an issue (or the fix just came with the platform) and it lowered the floor, with its accompanying room for legs and such. This is going to be a HUGE boon to people who found the old models cramped or awkward, but it’s a little sad for people who valued the higher running clearance.
There are a few other things on the Trailhunter that seem to be picked right from my wish list, and some that I’m sorta ambivalent on.
The steel skids are really nice; even though they look thin I’m sure they are up to the task. You can also see the standard rock rails to the right in this picture. The mounting brackets look like nice thick steel, but the design is a little odd for sliders. They might be great, but I would want to look at them more closely in person to decide for myself where they are on the function-to-fashion scale. The good news is that unlike previous generations, most of the components seem high and tight and tucked between the frame rails for protection. It’s an underside that was clearly meant for bad terrain.
The branded Rigid lights in the grill and lower facia are, I assume, like the last model, mostly a gimmick and the light they can output has to conform with DOT regulations, unlike every Amazon light bar on off-roaders today. The roof rack and roll bar are a hard pass for me, but I know how much people dig on the tacticool look, and the MOLLE attachment point strategy for accessories is practical so I’ll give it a pass.
The full bed rack looks much better. The good news is that Toyota reworked the roof rail system for better aftermarket integration and water integrity (i.e. ability to withstand downpours) if you chose not to go with their rack. Speaking of water integrity, the raised air intake – or Trailhunter Air Intake – is back. Yes, it’s a functional piece that draws in clean air for the engine. Yes it will increase the life of your air filter in dusty environments. No, it is not a snorkel, it does not increase the water fording ability of your truck. Yes, us old time overlanders will still call it a dorkle.
(Note: Toyota will likely tell you that it does not increase your water fording if asked. It has never made raised intakes they market as water tight. The first thing 70 Series Land Cruiser owners do if their GX grade came with one is take it off and put on an ARB for this reason. Besides, diff breathers are lower than this intake anyway, so Toyota wouldn’t tell you an increased fording depth.)
The rear locker is back, but that was always a given and even though a front locker isn’t on offer — I gotta be honest — I rarely need mine and where I do, ATRAC would do just about as well.
I am not quite sold on the bronze color for the Trailhunter either. I guess it looks okay but it reminds me of the color I have on my 80 Series 40th Anniversary Edition, which they call Antique Sage, which is a fancy way to say “old brown. I’m sure it looks nice up close.
I really like that Toyota partnered with OME so heavily on this model. They are a trusted name in the community and their work looks nice and well thought out. Rated recovery points are a must and the extra clearance on the rear bumper looks practical.
Speaking of clearance, this looks to be close to the outgoing model in terms of off-road angles, and they are still very close to class leading — one of the few places a Tacoma has always led the class. Of course that’s comparing the new lifted truck on 33s with an outgoing lower truck on 31s, so it’s not apples to apples.
The Hybrid Power Could Be Clutch
One overland item I’m really stoked on is the 2.4 KW inverter and 1.8kw battery on the Hybrid i-Force MAX model. Let me explain. It used to be that when you were outfitting an overlander, a dual battery system was a must. One for starting and standard vehicle systems and one for additional vehicle and house loads. These were expensive, heavy, cumbersome and kludgy and while some setups are still best served with this type of install, solar generators you can buy from Costco or Harbor Freight do pretty much everything you really need in a much more convenient package — no need to add aux fuse panel, or DC to DC charger/voltage relay, no heavy gauge wires, no separate MPPT solar controller and Inverter. The downside is that while a dual battery system can easily recharge at a rate of 20 amps or better, almost all solar generators are capped at 8A input on DC. This is because most 12v outlets in cars are 10A fused, which means you never get more than 100 watts/hr on 12V. On AC power, 1kW input is pretty common for solar chargers these days. So a 1 kwh battery that might take all day of driving to charge on DC becomes an hour on AC, if you have enough AC power that is. After a long night of running a big fridge freezer, it’s nice to be able to put that charge right back in without much (or any) driving.
Another scenario? How about not ever having to take propane or white gas for cooking anymore? With a 2.4KW inverter, you could easily power an electric induction two-burner stove, air fryer or toaster oven even.
Or what about this random scenario: A while ago my brother and I went to Canyonlands near Moab to play around. He brought his highly modded SurRun electric bike and I had my Land Cruiser. Driving his bike gave me visions of having a sustainable, practical and lightweight runabout for the cruiser. It weighed a 1/3rd what the nearest weight dual-sport motorcycle weighed, was smaller, more nimble, unbelievably fast and completely electric. Sitting around in camp listening to a Harbor Freight generator banging away for hours while it charged however was torture – pretty much killing the idea then and there. With 2400 watts of inverter and 1800 watts of battery, you could simply plug in after a ride and get most of a full charge without ever even starting the truck, and replenishing the Tacoma’s battery would take very little driving given the huge motor generator. Plug the bike in while driving to your next camp spot and spend the evening tooling around in silence. That’s a win in my book.
Really there is a lot going on here and the things that have been changed, added, fixed and modified are evidence that Toyota knows what it’s doing and knows its customers. The question yesterday was “Will the new Tacoma be Tacoma?” Well as far as this experienced overlander is concerned, never has a Taco been so much Taco.
All images: Toyota, Patrick Rich, or Mercedes Streeter
It’s is hard to tell from the pictures – where are the front recovery points?
Nicely done, lad!
Given the Tacoma is strictly North American only, most of us elsewhere have never seen one and don’t really understand them. I certainly don’t (more so since Mercedes said she wasn’t comfortable sitting in the back seat behind a six foot tall driver). They are perceived as either a fatter Hilux or a less capable 70 Series…or a 100 Series in pickup form. If it is perceived as anything at all!
Given that the Tacoma and the Ranger appear to be in the same space in the US (are they really?) then I’d be curious to understand the similarities and differences between the two. Why not throw Toyota Australia’s personal creation in there as well with the Hilux Rugged X?
its sorta the same thing with the hilux here in the US, some people think its the same thing as a Tacoma, and some people think its some HD truck with smaller dimensions. The good news is that the global hilux and Tacoma will start merging into a more uniform product here in the next few years.
I don’t love RUGGED-X either but its better. I spoke with someone at Toyota and they generally confirmed to me that Trailhunter was NOT their first choice, but that a lot of the good names had been taken.
My vote would have been something like XR5 or GR Trail or TrailPro or something.
There’s a GR Hilux in the works and one of the rumours is that it’ll have the 300 series engine in it…
Good to see you write here. Your overlanding videos on YouTube are very cool.
Thanks! I make them for me, but Im glad someone else enjoys them. I just posted a new one from this last trip.
Great article! You did an excellent job with the analysis.
Again with the overlanders.
This place is seriously starting to degrade my (possibly jealousy induced) pessimistic view of them.
I have a 2016 Tacoma TRD-OR on BP-51s that I take out to play in Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Nevada. Fully loaded for long trips with an RTT on the roof, I get about 13 MPG. The factory fuel tank is 17 gallons which means always topping off at the “last” gas station before turning into the woods, and carrying jerry cans. Hopefully the Gen4 fixes this with some combination of better gas mileage and a bigger tank.
If I were to design a dream factory Overland Tacoma, my other dream would be a factory enclosed bed with barn doors setup to mimic what you can get installed on 60 series land cruiser in Australia.
Yay Clawhammer Ground Squirrel is here!
Great article, looking forward to more!
Hopefully the first of many! Great analysis of what’s known of the new model so far.
Welcome to The Autopian Patrick
Super excited to have Patrick writing here! Great addition to the team