Almost all of the off-road goodies.

by Bob Plunkett

BORREGO SPRINGS, California - In the gritty off-pavement world of four-wheeling truck racing, drivers often need to drive a rugged course like the Baja 1000 in advance of a race to check out nuances of the route. Yet they don't want to risk damaging finely tuned race vehicles in the preview run.

To protect the race equipment, these reconnaissance trips are typically conducted in two-wheel-drive pickups modified with beefy four-wheel-drive suspension systems and raised platforms to withstand the rigors of running at high speed over rough terrain. Such a preview truck in off-road race circles is known as a pre-runner.

These custom-built trucks, which closely resemble the 4x4 off-road racers, rarely venture away from a race course. Now, a customized pickup from Toyota dons the same name as its scout brethren: the PreRunner.

Derived from Toyota's popular compact truck, the PreRunner looks like a hunky 4x4 XtraCab version of the Tacoma pickup with high stance and muscular flared fenders. It packs the boosted power of either the four-cylinder or V-6 engine available for a 4x4 Tacoma, as well as the four-wheeler's ride height and suspension system, including an optional off-road suspension package and on-demand full-locking rear differential. In fact, PreRunner carries all of the features of the 4x4 Tacoma, save for a front-wheel-drive assembly.

What's the point? Consumer research conducted by Toyota reveals that many 4x4 truck owners rarely, if ever, take their vehicles off-pavement, which suggests that they're riding around with pricey four-wheel-drive hardware not used. More surveys show that the elevated cost of a 4x4 truck puts that vehicle beyond the reach of some who desire the rugged look and stance of an off-road pickup.

The PreRunner can satisfy both of these groups by providing a rugged pickup with the high stance and sturdy suspension of a 4x4 truck - and thousands of dollars shaved from the price tag.

A comparison of current price points between PreRunner 4x2 and Tacoma 4x4 XtraCab shows the savings. With the base engine, the suggested retail list price of the PreRunner runs to $17,608, but it's $19,938 for the 4x4. With optional V-6, the PreRunner comes to $18,538, while the 4x4 equivalent hits $21,028.

The standard engine for the PreRunner is a 2.7-liter in-line four. It produces 150 hp from a cast-iron block with aluminum alloy heads and balanced shafts, four valves in every cylinder, and twin cams on top. The optional 3.4-liter V-6, also built from an iron block with aluminum heads and dual overhead cams, pumps the output to 190 hp. The V-6 is particularly strong in lower gear ranges, and for hauling chores it elevates the trailer-towing capacity to 5000 pounds. A four-speed electronic automatic shifter is standard.

Like the 4x4 edition, the PreRunner stretches its wheel tracks wider than a 4x2 Tacoma to improve stability. Front track width increases by 1.6 inches, while in back the track width expands by 0.6 inches more than the 4x2. The PreRunner also compares to the 4x4 Tacoma in platform height, as it stuffs 4 inches more of air between ground and chassis to increase clearance for off-road conditions.

The PreRunner's XtraCab design extends the length of the Tacoma regular cab by 18 inches and hangs two jump seats behind a front bench with 60/40 split back.

The suspension, composed of front independent double-wishbone arrangement with coil springs plus stabilizer bar and a leaf-type rear spring, eases ride quality with low-pressure gas-filled shocks. The vertical travel for each front wheel of the PreRunner compares with the 4x4 to track better in independent motion when dealing with off-pavement surface abnormalities, such as a deep ditch, pothole or rut rock.

Rack-and-pinion steering with power assistance is also aboard for precise control with good feedback. The brakes (discs in front and rear drums) contain larger components than the 4x2 Tacoma's, with larger boosters, too. An anti-lock mechanism is available optionally. And steel wheels, also like XtraCab 4x4 Tacoma, measure to 15x6 inches and mate with P225/75R15 mud and snow tires.

For our tests, we drove several PreRunners on highways winding through California's low Anza-Borrego Desert and off-road over deep tracks of sand in the Borrego Sink, a state park devoted to four-wheeling trailblazers.

It rode smoothly and seemed easy to control on the hard pavement surface, as expected, but the PreRunner surprised us when it plowed through sandy desert washes in off-pavement tests. Those nubby tires and the high stance with a strong suspension combined to maintain forward progress at a steady pace across the desert, proving it's capable of tackling moderate off-road challenges when necessary.

Those who plan to spend more than a moment or two in off-pavement romps should consider the optional off-road suspension package and locking rear differential. The off-road package, developed through Toyota's desert racing truck program, adds Bilstein shocks, progressive-rate front coil springs and modified camber rear springs, locking rear differential, black overfenders, and alloy wheels. The rear differential lock operates through a dashboard pushbutton to split torque evenly between both rear wheels, so that they move in unison for low-speed maneuvers off-pavement.

Safety systems for the PreRunner include dual airbags and side-door steel beams, wide sideview mirrors, and adjustable anchors for outboard three-point seatbelts. The passenger's airbag may be disengaged through a cut-off switch.

The pre-running starts at $15,238. Standard interior features range from air conditioning and stereo system with cassette deck to a fold-out table and twin cup holders, door map pockets, two 12-volt power outlets, sliding rear window, and flip-out quarter glass.

© The Car Connection


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