To begin: This is no Raptor fighter, but it does get Toyota heading in the right direction. In fact, Toyota will be the first to tell you it doesn't want the new Tacoma T/X Baja Series package to be confused as the automaker's version of the Ford F-150 SVT Raptor; the goals were more modest, and the budget was a tad smaller. Still, there is substance here.
The guys at Toyota Racing Development have done a stellar job of creating a unique suspension package that gives the Tacoma vastly improved high-speed capability over Toyota's previous king-of-the-hill TRD Off-Road Package. In fact, the new Bilstein shocks — designed to better handle extreme desert environments — help improve all-around on-pavement performance and handling dynamics as well. But perhaps that shouldn't surprise anyone, given that Toyota (specifically, its TRD group) has been a strong player in the off-road and performance-truck segments for more than a few decades.
We took a quick drive in the T/X Baja at last year's Texas Auto Writers Association event where Toyota brought out the Baja Series and let us get behind the wheel. The short off-road course was not nearly fast and challenging enough to let the Baja spread its wings, so we made a point of complaining to Toyota often enough that the automaker finally threw us the keys to shut us up.
As a quick recap, the new suspension is a more extreme TRD package, giving the Tacoma better high-speed off-road capability. Much of this is accomplished with much bigger and better Bilstein shock absorbers. The front set has a monster 60-mm-thick shock body originally designed for heavy-duty motorhome use, but TRD tuned it to progressively absorb hard hits and rebound quickly to get the tire back on the ground with the least amount of impact.
In addition to the big Bilstein shocks, the T/X Baja has a new set of stiff front springs that give the Tacoma almost 2 inches of added lift, giving the truck a balanced and more imposing look.
In back, the key improvements also center on the better Bilstein race shocks, with a 50-mm-shock body and horizontally mounted remote reservoir. Astute readers will notice that the remote reservoir was mounted vertically in the T/X Baja we drove in Texas, but we were told the new setup is less prone to damage by rock interference and other debris.
The T/X Baja Series includes distinctive 16-inch beadlock-style wheels that look similar to the Rock Warrior package offered on the Tundra, with 265/70R16 BFGoodrich all-terrain tires. The final additions include a side-exit TRD cat-back exhaust and a set of slinging-mud graphics.
We spent the day in the T/X Baja romping around a local motorcycle/4x4 park. Considering the parts list isn't very long, it's surprising how well they work together to make the Tacoma a significantly better high-speed performer off-road. And we say that having liked how capable the existing TRD package was before.
We ran through several dry washes in the park valleys and found the front end to be exceptionally well set up to absorb some hefty ruts and berms. Several times, we found ourselves stiffening our bodies — maybe closing our eyes, too — in anticipation for a jarring hit to the front end. But it never happened.
Slicing and dicing through the dry riverbed, cutting through and over rock fields, then driving in and out of deep sand ruts — all at around 40 to 45 mph — the Baja was comfortable and responsive. The slightly taller stance seemed to help our visibility as we kept sawing the wheel to keep the BFGs from getting pulled into any of the big ruts (obviously from full-size trucks).
When out of the dry wash and back onto more challenging trails that are popular with motorcycles and Jeeps, the Baja remained a strong player. At this point, we became exceptionally aware of how speed-sensitive this setup was. We found an old service road about 300 yards long with an almost endless series of "whoop-de-dos." For those who ride motorcycles, you know how these ruts form over time with hard riding and how much fun they can be when attacked at the right speed. But for four-wheeled vehicles they are torture, throwing even a good suspension into a violent pogo-like rhythm.
Normally, we'd navigate this stretch in 1st gear and roll up and over each wave. Any faster than that, and we'd be launching off each face, grabbing some awkward air and pounding into the next. The whoops were spread out just far enough to mess with the rear tires as the front tires recover from the last big rut. Not pretty.
When we've tried to take this series of bumps in the past at higher speeds (above 20 mph) in the regular TRD Tacoma, the results were both jarring and unnerving. It was easy to tell we were running outside the suspension setup's capabilities. However, when trying the same section in the Baja Series, the shocks made all the difference. At 20, 30 and 40 mph, the series of ruts and bumps felt like they were getting smoother. In high-range four-wheel drive, we found the best way to keep control of the Tacoma was to keep the revs high (around 3,000 or 4,000 rpm) in 2nd or 3rd gear (depending on speed) and aim for the tops of the whoops. In fact, after just a short amount of time, it was clear from the feel of the truck that it could do higher speeds as well, which we did.
We've taken both the 5.4- and 6.2-liter V-8 Raptors through this section, and there's no hesitation in our mind that the Baja Series is not as gifted as the Raptor (nor should it be). But the difference between the two, given the Toyota is a much less modified and unique truck, is impressive. We'd guess the Baja Series is about 80 to 85 percent of the way to the Raptor — albeit much smaller, lighter and likely to cost less.
In the slow-go low-range mode, all the usual strengths offered by the TRD setup — big tires, skid plating, traction control, locking differential, low range — are still strongly in play, with the extra bonus of a touch more wheel travel at each corner. TRD engineers, we're told, worked long and hard to squeeze out every millimeter of full-droop and full-compression wheel travel as possible by tuning the front and rear springs and paying close attention to the progressive bump-stops. The added articulation and strong grip of our BFGs made short work of several steep off-camber hill climbs (by our calculations, about a 30-degree slope — almost a 70-percent grade) that made our seat belt tensioners cut into our shoulder as we climbed the rutted grade to the crest.
The T/X Baja does not make any changes to the standard 3.73:1 gear ratios that the TRD package gets or to the stock six-speed transmission. All engine features and characteristics are identical as well. Our Baja Series truck weighed about 100 pounds heavier than the TRD 4x4 Package that participated in our Midsize Shootout, tipping the scales at 4,420 pounds. For comparison purposes, we also tested a rear-wheel-drive PreRunner I-4 Tacoma (also a very capable and fun-to-drive midsize truck for about $10,000 less), and it weighed 3,780 pounds.
Over the course of our 400-mile drive route, we averaged just over 18 mpg (18.14 mpg to be exact), with a little less than that (17.67 mpg) when factoring in our 60-plus-mile off-road day, where our time was equally split between high and low range. Our particular preproduction model had the automatic transmission, but Toyota will offer a manual as it does on its Access and Double Cab models.
Because of our limited time with the Baja Series and unfortunate scheduling, we were not able to do any meaningful track testing; however, some rudimentary zero-to-60-mph runs put our test unit in the 8.5-second range, which is a touch slower than the TRD Tacoma we tested in the Midsize Shootout (8.17 seconds).
Our only gripes with the Baja center on the TRD exhaust package, which does not feel impressive from our ears or from the driver's seat. The note sounds more like an overworked hairdryer than the throaty or rumbly tone you'd expect from this kind of a vehicle. Still, if the point is to give the package small, significant separators from ordinary Tacomas, the exhaust tip does look good.
To help improve the ride and feel of the suspension at higher speeds, some tuning was done to the rear spring-pack; it does a great job helping the ride at speed, but it takes away a small amount of carrying capacity. With a gross vehicle weight rating of 5,500 pounds, our vehicle has a real-world payload of around 800 pounds — and that's without any passengers. Add the fact that the springs raise the front end a little, and if you add anything in the bed and drive at night, expect oncoming traffic to think your brights are turned on. Like the Raptor (at least the first ones), the Baja Series seems to be a vehicle that favors spending most of its life not having to carry any payload.
The obvious question here is what kind of premium price is Toyota going to pin on this new, more aggressive off-road model when a fully loaded TRD 4x4 Tacoma can list for $34,000. (Our Midsize Shootout competitor listed for $34,635.)
Toyota won't announce pricing until closer to the Baja Series' on-sale date near the end of June, but they've been consistent from the time they first showed the truck at the 2011 State Fair of Texas. The vehicle should cost right around $35,000, and when you consider what's on this new package, that price could be a challenge to hit. Toyota representatives told us their research revealed the $35,000 mark was as much as buyers would want to pay for a truck like this. And we're guessing it's no accident that number is a healthy notch below the average transaction prices for the SVT Raptors.
For now, volumes will likely be in the hundreds rather than thousands, but from everything we're hearing, this won't be the last special off-road package (or truck?) coming from Toyota. As return-fire goes, this is a nice shot, but we want to see more.