Cruising through the moderately whooped-out desert road at about 45 mph with the suspension breathing over the terrain and it becomes apparent to us that someone at Toyota took this project seriously. The TRD T|X (for Toyota Xtreme) Baja Series, as its namesake implies, was designed to tackle harsh desert roads at speed, while leaving you with a totally streetable truck complete with a full factory warranty. Sound familiar? If it does, you may be inclined to compare the Toyota Tacoma Baja to the Ford Raptor, and while they aren’t direct competitors, we couldn’t blame you.
Toyota, understanding the effect a halo off-road vehicle has on the entire brand, put an elite team of engineers together with the goal of making a truck that would appeal to a similar audience as the Raptor. Deciding to go with the Tacoma platform instead of the Tundra, the end result is a smaller, more maneuverable performance truck at a more affordable price point. With the limited resources allocated to the project, we knew not to expect long-travel suspension and wild bodywork, and while this was true, what we got were smart, functional upgrades that we could see making ourselves.
Each Baja Series starts life as a four-wheel drive Tacoma TRD in either Access Cab or Double Cab body styles. Once built, the truck leaves the main assembly line at the San Antonio, Texas, truck plant to be hand-upfitted with a slew of TRD-sourced upgrades that bring it up to the Baja Series specification.
The stock front shocks are ditched in favor of huge 60mm Bilstein shocks with special valving and 3-inch TRD springs that lift the front about an inch and a half to level out the Taco when compared to stock. Out back, a three-leaf spring pack from the Toyota parts bin replaces the standard two-leaf pack and 50mm Bilstein reservoir shocks handle rear damping duties. The jounces have also been reworked to provide less harshness during engagement. Once the suspension mods are completed, wheel travel increases by 1.25 inches in the front to 9.25 inches and by 1.5 inches in the rear to 10 inches.
Gone are the BFGoodrich Rugged Trail T/A tires, replaced by beefy BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KOs in the same P265/70R16 sizing, but now mounted on TRD simulated beadlocked wheels. A TRD exhaust system is also fitted, presumably to give a tougher engine note to match the brawny stance. Just as loud as the exhaust are mandatory bedside graphics that leave no one wondering which model of Tacoma they are attached to, at least they appear muted on black trucks. The Baja Series will also be available in Barcelona Red. Because of the hand-built nature of the Baja Series upgrades, only 750 are going to be built for the 2012 model year.
On the highway, the Baja’s ride is taut, but comfortable, making the standard Tacoma feel like a marshmallow by comparison. The only noticeable increase in harshness is felt over short, sharp impacts, such as expansion joints and tar strips. Otherwise, it drives and feels completely natural and displays no negative traits.
Out on the trail, the Baja’s suspension is noticeably more compliant at low speeds than the Raptor, making for a more relaxed ride when you don’t need to go fast. As the speed increases, the velocity-sensitive Bilsteins are up to the task. Doing a great job of wringing out every last inch of useable wheel travel, the Baja can handle wonky roads at a pace that will have your passengers questioning your sanity. Overall, the tuning is spot on, although we did find ourselves into the rear jounces more often than we would have preferred and feel the Baja could benefit from a bit of additional rear uptravel. While it isn’t going to handle the really big stuff like a Raptor, it is a righteous alternative that will take you about 80 percent of the way there.
After 500 miles in the pilot seat, we consider the Baja package a huge improvement, even if it isn’t without a few drawbacks. The Baja still uses the Tacoma as its foundation, meaning some of the Tacoma’s shortcomings are still evident, such as grabby brakes and overactive electronics, which can never really be put on hiatus. For example, hustling through a sandy wash will summon the babysitters and quash the fun faster than mom and dad unexpectedly coming home from a weekend trip on Saturday night. We were also surprised that nothing was done to the interior to distinguish it as a special model.
Under the hood is Toyota’s venerable 4.0L DOHC V-6, which puts out 236hp and 266 lb-ft of torque, and in our tester was paired with a somewhat slow-to-downshift five-speed automatic transmission. A six-speed manual is also available. Torque felt especially light under 3,000 rpm and under acceleration the boy racer TRD muffler drone can be a bit embarrassing. We imagine that we would have loved this exhaust if we were in our 20s, but we aren’t. Fortunately, the drone all but disappears at highway speeds, giving our ears a rest on long trips. What has been a solid drivetrain configuration for Toyota over the years is starting to show its age, with more refined powertrains now available from other manufacturers.
Those shortcomings aside, the Toyota Tacoma TRD T|X Baja Series is the most fun you can have in a midsize pickup these days. Packed with features and with a base price that ranges from $7,470 to $9,735 less than the base Raptor, it is no wonder that the 2012 allotment of Baja Series is nearly sold out. Toyota has a rich off-road history with its trucks, and it is great to see the company catering to the hardcore wheeling enthusiast again. fw
What’s Hot, What’s Not
Hot: Great suspension, available with a stick, a blast in the dirt
Not: Audacious graphics are mandatory, invasive electronics, droning exhaust
Our Take: The best midsize pickup money can buy
Vehicle model: 2012 Toyota Tacoma TRD T|X Baja Series Double Cab
Base price: $35,255
Engine type: 4.0L V-6
Mfg.’s hp @ rpm: 236 @ 5,200
Mfg.’s torque (lb-ft) @ rpm: 266 @ 4,000
Transmission: 5-spd. automatic
Axle ratio: 3.73:1
Suspension (f/r): Coil-spring double wishbone suspension and stabilizer bar/Leaf spring suspension with staggered outboard-mounted gas shock absorbers and stabilizer bar
Steering: Variable-assist power steering
Brakes (f/r): Power-assisted vented discs/power-assisted drums
Wheels/Tires: 16x7 cast aluminum/P265/70R16 BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO
Curb weight (lb): 4,400
Min ground clearance (in): 9.1
Max payload capacity (lb): 1,315
Max towing capacity (lb): 6,500
Fuel capacity (gal): 21.1
EPA city/hwy mileage estimates (mpg): 16/21