Toyota Tacoma Off-Road Tune-up Project
Toyota trucks can be a double-edged sword when it comes time to purchase one. With a great track record for reliability, as well as a certain level off-road savvy even in stock form, it’s fair to say that some of Toyota's dependabiliy is priced into the new units. In need of a truck to travel to races, go camping and hit the trails, we found that purchasing a used unit was probably the best – and most cost-effective – bet. Besides, if we could find one with low miles, it should still be a great off-road vehicle for years to come.
After a search on Auto Trader and Craig’s List, we came across a good deal for a used 2002 Toyota Tacoma with just over 80,000 miles. The truck featured the 3.4-liter V6 motor and was priced at about $10,000, which worked within our budget and was a fair price considering most trucks we found in that range had over 100,000 miles or had four-cylinder engines. It was a 2WD TRD (Toyota Racing Development) version of the truck, and although we would’ve preferred 4WD, it wasn’t absolutely necessary for our needs. Besides, the truck was in good condition and was pretty hard to pass up.
The Tacoma we bought was a TRD version, meaning it came equipped from the factory with monotube gas shocks, aluminum wheels and a sticker noting its “off-road” capability. Even though the shocks were better than average, at this point they had seen their fair share of action and were too soft for any real off-roading. We wanted to upgrade the truck into a capable off-road vehicle that could still be a daily driver, but we also wanted to do so within a reasonable budget. So the plan was to upgrade the suspension, upgrade to more capable off-road tires, swap out the wheels and maybe even squeeze a little more power from the V6 engine.
We contacted Bilstein and decided to use its replacement shocks for the rear. We also had heard and read of many Toyota owners using the popular Bilstein 5100 shocks on Tacomas. We soon found that we needed to go to Race Car Dynamics out of El Cajon, Calif., to get them. For the Tacoma, RCD actually holds the patent on the 5100s. So Bilstein makes the units to RCD’s specifications but doesn’t sell them direct – you have to go through RCD for that. Aside from the 5100s being a great gas monotube shock, the units RCD offers have the ability to increase the front ride height to one of three different positions – stock, 1 inch, or a full 2.5 inches. Note: The 5100s are only for use with the six-lug Tacoma wheels.
Although the Tacoma comes with decent aluminum wheels that are unique to the TRD version of the truck, we thought it time for a change. We decided upon the KMC Enduro wheel in black, which would give the truck a clean, blacked-out appearance that we thought would blend in nicely with the black wheel guards on the truck.
With our tire tread about dead, we also needed to get new rubber. Since we weren’t doing a big lift, we decided to stick with the stock wheel size but find a good all-terrain tire – something that would provide good on- and off-road characteristics since this truck is a daily driver and weekend warrior. We went with General Tire’s Grabber AT2 all-terrain tire. The tires feature a 5-row tread pattern with deep grooves, which are designed to provide great off-road traction in wet or dry conditions while still retaining a quiet ride during regular highway driving – perfect for our needs. The tires meet the severe snow service requirements for RMA and RAC, and they include a 60,000-mile limited treadwear warranty.
When it came to the engine, we chose to remove our restrictive stock airbox and replace it with a K&N air intake, deciding to use the 57 Series Generation II for our Tacoma. By removing the stock air box, the K&N intake is designed to more efficiently flow air to the engine, thereby providing an increase in power and torque. K&N claims the estimated horsepower gain is 9.45 hp @ 4842 rpm, and the intake is currently legal in all 50 states (yes, even California). The filter is also washable and reusable. Most importantly, it’s a pretty inexpensive upgrade.
We tackled the installation of the air intake and found it to be pretty straightforward. The included step-by-step instructions from K&N are easy to follow, and it only took us a few hours from start to finish. Once installed, we definitely noticed a little extra pep in power, especially when really getting on the gas. The engine also has a little more growl, as the stock airbox that helps reduce engine noise is replaced by a more direct air intake. The increase in sound is mostly noticeable when really getting on the gas, and overall it’s not so loud that it makes daily driving a nuisance. Although we didn’t notice much difference driving around town, fuel economy did improve for us between 1-2 miles per gallon on long drives.
Suspension, Tires & Wheels
For the suspension, tire and wheel installation, we turned to our friends at Off-Road Warehouse to help get everything dialed. With all the proper tools and equipment, they were able to knock it out in a few hours. Off-Road Warehouse has four locations in Southern California – San Diego, Temecula, El Cajon and Escondido. We actually worked with their newest shop in Temecula a previous build (Project Dodge Ram Mega Cam KORE Suspension), and they were happy to work with us again. Although our build is relatively minor in terms of what ORW is capable of handling, they tackle everything from simple maintenance (such as checking on a stock Jeep’s wobble, which came in while we were there) to full-blown pre-runner builds and beyond. Check out their site for more information about the parts and services they offer at http://www.offroadwarehouse.com/.
Lenny De Taranto and Brian Carta helped us with the installation, removing the old wheels, shocks and struts and getting the new units installed. One thing that surprised us a little was the realization of what kind of stock shocks were on our four-door TRD. We were under the impression that all the TRD Tacomas featured Bilsteins straight from the factory, but we learned that the four-door units utilize a different gas shock from Tokico. Although they still had a little bit of life left, they clearly had seen their share of miles and were ready to be replaced.
With Brian working on installing the tires on the new wheels and getting them balanced, Lenny got to work on the suspension, installing the Bilstein replacements in the rear in place of the stock Tokicos. He pulled out the Tokicos in front, removed the springs (which still had plenty of life) and installed them on the new Bilstein 5100s. Since we weren’t putting larger tires or bigger wheels on the truck, we decided upon setting the 5100s in the middle position, giving the front of the truck one inch of lift. Going up to the last highest spot at 2.5 inches would’ve been fine, too (we might adjust it later), but we are happy to get a minor lift on the front end for a little more wheel clearance and a more aggressive look.
Once the wheels were balanced and installed and the new suspension was in place, Lenny went to work aligning the front end. After just a few hours, all the parts were installed and we were set.
With the all-terrain General Tire AT2s, KMC Enduro wheels and the front end lift, the truck just had a whole new look and feel – it really was an overall tune-up in appearance and performance. We even pulled off the TRD stickers on the rear side panels of the truck bed to finish off the new clean look. We’ve very happy with the off-road performance of the Bilsteins, as the truck tackles bumps and ruts with ease, and the on-road ride of the truck is much improved as well – it’s not too firm (rattling you to death on the freeway) or too soft like our old, battered Tokicos.
The AT2 Generals are a good pairing with the setup, as they provide great off-road traction in the muddy and soft dirt conditions we’ve encountered, and although they have the aggressive tread for an all-terrain tire, they are relatively quiet on the road (a minor hum is to be expected). We were not sure about replacing the wheels, but after seeing the final product we’re very happy with the decision. The KMC Enduros are the perfect compliment to finish off the “tune-up” build. All in all, we were able to upgrade our used truck within a reasonable budget, and we couldn’t be happier with the result.
Thanks to Off-Road Warehouse for its help in the installation and assistance in the build. Also, thank you to the companies who contributed to the story: General Tire, Bilstein, K&N and Race Car Dynamics.
Race Car Dynamics