There’s more desert dust than blue sky in sight through the Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro’s windshield on an otherwise cool, cloudless morning en route to Las Vegas. This is because we’ve avoided roads altogether, instead heading to Vegas the Hard Way — the short name for Toyota TRD Pro’s first off-road drive with their full line available to the motoring media. Oddly, the visual obstruction that would normally prompt complaints was part and parcel our visit: we were there to put the 4Runner TRD Pro’s meatier guts through conditions that would whip a unibody crossover into whimpering submission.
Compared to its more “modern” SUV brethren, the 4Runner seems a Jurassic-period titan in need of some 21st century alterations, despite being a new 2014 model. Blocky as a German pillbox, the current 4Runner makes a Jeep Wrangler look slippery and svelte (especially on the inside). But dressed in an Inferno Orange paint job, and with the right rugged touches — a matte-black grille, darkened headlights and taillights, blackened 17-inch wheels, functional skid plates — you’ve got a Vegas take on Mad Max. Inside, the standard 4Runner’s brushed faux-metal plastic pieces are given a delicious matte black finish, transforming chunky into badass, and the red stitching on the seats, a small detail, counteracts black drab with punch. And that hulking TRD shift knob, looking a lot like Voltron’s fist, is impossible to ignore.
But we were there to drive more than look, and the 4Runner TRD Pro’s internals are the most exciting part of the car. Though the stock 4Runner’s 270 horsepower 4.0-liter V6 engine is unchanged, Toyota will install a supercharger, for a price. The TRD Pro really gets brutish with its chunky Nitto Terra Grappler tires, flaming red Eibach springs and Bilstein shocks, with an extra inch of travel at all four corners. It’s not for paved suburbia-only drivers, but it makes for a tasty concoction for off-the-beaten-path motoring.
The group of ten Toyota off-roaders made available to the press consisted of TRD Pro versions of the 4Runner ($41,995 MSRP), Tacoma ($37,390 MSRP) and semi-sized Tundra ($42,385 MSRP) — all led by Ryan Millen, son of racing and rally icon Rod Millen. Millen’s made a name for himself in the Baja 1000; his easy manner and off-roading knowledge comforted the uninitiated and inspired the seasoned among us. Each one of the TRD Pro vehicles was more than up to the task of traversing dry lake beds and mushy silt, but the 4Runner seemed most apt to eat up the terrain while providing off-road comfort. Over the course of the nine-hour desert drive, it took hits to the suspension like Rocky Balboa in his final round. And its impressive ability to keep loads of gear free of dust and mud is no laughing matter.
We pulled into glitzy, glamorous Las Vegas in a group of utterly filthy TRD Pro Vehicles. The 4Runner TRD Pro handles just about everything thrown at it — it made our nine hours of slogging seem like two. This vehicle can make any lover of sports cars seriously consider abandoning the track in favor of life in the dirt, gravel, mud and sand.