Isolation is a difficult concept to truly experience in the UK. Some parts of Scotland manage it, but there’s always a wiggle of tarmac or the bobbing cable of a power line somewhere in your line of sight, evidence that humankind is never that far away.
It’s something I’ve always loved about travelling in the US. Go to the right spot, at the right time, and you might be the only human being on the planet. Stand on the parched, dusty surface of El Mirage, a dry lake bed north of Los Angeles that covers almost 76,000 acres, and as the sun dips behind the mountains to the west and the landscape adopts an eerie silence, it’s just you and your shadow, stretching dozens of metres towards the east behind you. A moment away from work, from emails, a moment alone with your thoughts.
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The silence might be even more stark were it not for the shutter click of photographer Aston Parrott’s Nikon, as he captures the descending, glowing orb through the windows of the car we’re here to drive - a Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro. I say car; what I mean is pickup truck, or simply ‘truck’ in local parlance. Not a style of vehicle evo regularly gets its hands on, but we’re not entirely oblivious to the category either: we’ve run one or two in our long-term fleet, since they make brilliant workhorses for evo’s less glamourous errands.
The ‘Taco’, as I quickly discovered, is a slightly different beast. What it shares with the pickups available on UK shores is utility, and rather rudimentary construction. There’s a ladder chassis, for instance, and the rear is suspended not by coils but by semi-elliptical leaf springs. Where it differs is almost everywhere else: It’s bigger, feels tougher, looks angrier, drinks petrol rather than diesel, and is - unnatural though it is to use the phrase in this context - more focused.
The focus comes courtesy of TRD, or Toyota Racing Developments. I’m most familiar with TRD through hotted-up Japanese sports cars, having steered numerous Celicas and MR2s around virtual circuits in the Gran Turismo series, but in the States it’s a name associated mostly with trophy trucks and NASCAR. The Tacoma features several TRD bits and TRD-selected improvements, from a naughty exhaust system to some trick Fox dampers and a quarter-inch aluminium skid plate under the front end.
Up front, mounted roughly chest-high if you share my 5ft 9in stature, you’ll find a 3.5-litre, naturally-aspirated V6 making 278bhp at 6000rpm and 265lb ft at 4600rpm. As the numbers suggest, and as I found out not long after leaving the confines of Los Angeles, it’s an engine completely out of step with modern expectations of performance.
The TRD Tacoma isn’t slow as such, but it needs working remarkably hard if you’re used to the relentless thump of something turbocharged. Shortly before heading to the US I’d driven the Mercedes-AMG GLC 43, whose twin-turbocharged V6 makes an extra 84 horses and 119 lb ft, and does so 500rpm and 2100rpm sooner respectively. It’s also around 150kg lighter than the 2007kg Toyota, which allows it to get to 62mph in 4.9 seconds. Toyota doesn’t quote figures for the TRD Taco, but we’d estimate it’s a good three seconds slower to 60.
It’s a difficult car to make a case for on the road too, at least if corners are your thing. The loping highway gait is actually quite pleasant and the high driving position feels purposeful, but detour into the twists and turns of the mountains around LA and you’ll go to sleep that evening with the sounds of tortured rubber in your head, and reeling from nightmares about canyon-seeking understeer. It turns out that off-road tyres aren’t conducive to on-road grip, and turning the feel-free steering in either direction feels like opening the valve on an airlock. With time its responses become predictable, but you have the most fun when you eventually stop.
But that’s not really what I came to America for, and certainly not why I paid my $15 daily fee to enjoy the El Mirage Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area. Where trackdays are the last bastion of the thrill-seeking UK motorist, Americans get another option: spend a day hacking around in the wilderness, free to do largely as you please.
Within reason - the lake’s custodians take a dim view of firearms and fireworks, and you’re kindly asked not to tear up the lake surface by doing donuts - but beyond that your only real limit is your imagination. Want to zip about on quad bikes or dirt bikes? Go for it. Need somewhere to land your light aircraft? Be their guest. Want to stage an impromptu race with your mates? That seems to be fine too (and El Mirage is more than suited to it - the Southern California Timing Association, which also runs Bonneville Speed Week, regularly hosts events at El Mirage). And if you simply want to turn up with your buddies and have a barbeque, you can do that too.