It’s 102 degrees when we step off the plane at the Moab, UT, airport. Excruciatingly, baggage claim is outdoors so, as the sun chars us during the wait, someone makes the hackneyed joke that at least it’s a dry heat but it’s too hot for sympathy laughs. I wonder how we’re going to fare tomorrow when we’ll be out on one of America’s toughest off-road trails, Hell’s Revenge, coaxing the 2020 Toyota 4Runner and Tacoma over taxing obstacles, given that the forecast calls for rising temps.
Moab is the first stop in a three-day journey that’ll test our mettle and Toyota’s metal over the La Sal mountain range on the way to Ouray, CO. Much of the journey will see chunky all-terrain tires ferrying us over unpaved roads and paths, an act now commonly misnomered as “overlanding,” drawing eye-rolls from true overlanders. Still, the passage won’t be easy, especially not in the oven that is Utah in mid-July.
Basecamp is in the thick of downtown Moab, at Gonzo Inn, a spot seemingly named for Hunter S. Thompson. It’s fitting, given that Thompson only blazed down paths less traveled, eschewing safe and mundane to welcome the challenges of adventure. It’s here that we meet our affable guide, Kurt Williams, owner of Salt Lake City–based Cruisers Outfitters. Williams, who holds a mechanical engineering degree, built his first Land Cruiser at 15 and hasn’t stopped since. The 37-year-old worships exclusively at Toyota’s off-road altar because he believes the reliability, longevity, and capability of Toyotas cannot be beat. “Stock, they’re already fantastic,” Williams explains. “With minimal mods, you can go anywhere on the globe.”
Hell’s Revenge, as Williams tells it, is high on most off-roaders’ conquer lists because more than 30 percent of the obstacles along the 5.5-mile trail are rated at least a five out of 10 on the difficulty scale. “It’s a trail you work up to, not one a sane person starts with,” he adds, recalling the 100-plus runs he’s had on the trail. “You never want to let your guard down out there. The margin of error is razor-thin and minor mistakes compound quickly, resulting in serious crashes and injuries. The terrain is remote, which makes completing it more rewarding, but also makes receiving help difficult. It’s hard for stock vehicles to run here.”
The next morning, we climb into a (stock) 2020 4Runner TRD Pro and follow Williams’ 2008 Land Cruiser—running a stock drivetrain but everything else has been modified—to the trailhead. He’s never led a group in stock trucks before, but “your 4Runner will do particularly well because it’s got relatively short overhangs, so you don’t have to spot as much as a Tacoma.”
The 4Runner has long been revered for its surefooted prowess off-road with credit due, in part, to the SUV’s bulletproof body-on-frame construction. In fact, the 4Runner’s nominal evolution over the past few years proves that Toyota got many things about ute right from the start. Our TRD Pro edition boasts Nitto Terra Grappler tires, Fox shocks that provide an extra inch of lift over other 4Runners, and a new exhaust system. The powertrain—a stalwart of a 4.0-liter naturally aspirated V-6 with 270 horsepower and 278 lb-ft of torque on offer, mated to a five-speed automatic transmission—hasn’t changed in ages because it’s got all the get-up-and-go you’ll need for this type of rock crawling. (On the road, it can be a bit slow and laggy, leaving a little something to be desired.)
The toughest obstacle we face is Lake Michigan, a gauntlet that’s full of off-camber and cross-axle twists that you use to drop into the canyon. “When it rains, it floods,” Williams says, but thankfully the oppressive heat—registering at 107 on the 4Runner’s dash—means everything except the back of my shirt is dry. The 4Runner’s Multi-Terrain Select system lets you dial in various terrain modes and employs brake vectoring to keep your wheels from slipping. Here, Mogul and Rock mode pairs nicely with the electronically locking rear differential to keep us plodding along without incident. Williams is right; our shorter wheelbase means the 4Runner breezes through and over the boulders, while a few of the double cab Tacomas in the group lightly smooch the rocks with trailer hitches, though no damage is done.
Part of the route includes Roller Coasters, stretches of inclines and declines up to 50-degrees steep. Ascents are often blind where the only thing you can see is sky. Aim your wheels poorly and there’s nothing preventing you from slipping off the side into what could easily be your grave. Williams typically approaches these treacherous stretches in one of two ways: “Gun it and pray. Or walk it first.” However, one advancement in the 2020 Toyotas affords a third option.
A new 8.0-inch multimedia touchscreen in the middle of the center console boasts Apple Car Play, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa capabilities. All welcome, though Siri can’t help you climb a hill. But Panoramic View Monitor (PVM) and Multi-Terrain Monitor (MTM) can. Both use the vehicle’s external cameras to stitch together in-cabin views that keep you headed in the right direction, especially when you can’t see with your eyes. Colored lines that show where the tires will end up given the steering input are absurdly helpful on the sharpest of ascents and saved our bacon a few times. Low-resolution screens mean smaller rocks won’t get picked up, but you’ll definitely know if you’re about to drive off the side of a cliff or into a boulder, so it’s still a win.
It takes us several hours to completely traverse the 5.5 miles and back, but Williams is pleased all the vehicles emerge unscathed, especially after we watch a another vehicle misjudge climbing a particularly tricky Roller Coaster and roll backward some 50 yards, smashing a waiting vehicle behind it, causing significant damage to both SUVs.
For the trek to Ouray, we swap into the 2020 Tacoma. A new front end brings some new headlights and a grille, but the same 3.5-liter V-6 that’s been in there since the truck launched a decade ago remains unchanged. The 278 horsepower and 265 lb-ft of yank keep you firing forth, even when the gravel gets a little slippery. The new 8.0-inch touchscreen appears in the Taco, too, looking downright giant in here as compared to the 4Runner’s center stack, but as we weren’t tackling big obstacles, we didn’t need PVM and MTM in the Tacoma.
Instead, heavy throttle application sees the TRD Pro Tacoma hunker down in the loose mountain roads, offers a mite of satisfying wheel spin and tail-wagging through the corners. A side-snorkel sticks out above the swirling dust clouds to deliver particulate-free oxygen to the naturally aspirated mill, and we bounce along at a moderate clip. A new 10-way power driver’s seat helps to mitigate the poor, legs-flat seating position of Tacos past, though some further work here could help make the extended drive periods more comfortable ones.
Ouray arrives in hours, and we find ourselves wishing the route was longer and that the journey was the destination. Little may have changed for the 2020 Toyota 4Runner and Tacoma TRD Pros, but that’s fine. Scrambling through the wilds of the Southwest proves little needed to.