2020 Toyota 4Runner and Tacoma take on Moab and the Colorado high country

It’s possible that you may have heard something or other about some new Corvette or something. I don’t know. Apparently they’ve rearranged the entire drivetrain and from what I hear, put the engine in the back or the middle or somewhere. Who knows? I wasn’t there. However, at the exact same time GM president Mark Reuss was pulling the cover off that exciting new Chevy, I was 1000 miles away at an event that was equally profound: The reveal of the new grille surround on the 2020 Toyota 4Runner and Tacoma!

Yes, they got a new grille surround AND the Tacoma got new taillamp surrounds! Okay, technically they will get, starting Aug. 16 when the 2020 models go on sale: A new front-collision warning system on all models to better mitigate or prevent front-end collisions, a new 8-inch touchscreen with your choice of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and some handy buttons next to it for easier infotainment operation, two rear USB ports, and a new instrument panel. 

But it was cause enough for some four-wheelin’ in beautiful Moab, Utah and in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. I’ll take any excuse to go there. So off I set.

I missed the first day’s wheelin’ in Moab (thanks airline industry!) but I heard the 4Runner and Tacoma did just fine on Hell’s Revenge, a rock-crawlin’ trail outside Moab which the vehicles crept all over in the blazing, 109-degree heat. Maybe it was good that I missed that one. You can see pictures of that run below.

By the time United finally got me to the single-lane Flughafen Moab and I got a ride into town, I was all lined up for the next two days of 4×4 action.

First thing I did was climb into a new 2020 Tacoma Off Road. This one had the cave man-approved exterior color name of “Cement.” Mongo like. As you know, the Tacoma hasn’t really been redone since about the end of the Pleistocene epoch. It did get a new 3.5-liter V6 in 2016, with that cool direct and port injection system you first saw on the Scion FRS/Toyota 86. On the Tacoma its variable valve timing-intelligent wider intake and variable valve timing intelligent exhaust allows it to run on the Atkinson Cycle if it chooses to, depending on load and demand. It also got a six-speed automatic, part-time four-wheel drive with low range, and mine got an electronically controlled locking rear differential.

Thus equipped I joined a string of Toyota trucks and we caravanned out of Moab to the southeast, a column of Toyota technology aiming straight for the 12,000-foot-plus La Sal mountains. I’d seen them poking up there many times, rising incongruously out of the Roadrunner-vs.-Coyote red and beige sandstone of their surroundings like snow-capped sirens. No matter how hot it was in Moab, and it was dang hot, the La Sals always stood there, beckoning with cool green meadows and snowy peaks.

The dirt roads of the Manti-La Sal National Forest were well-graded and easy to drive, but the altitude sapped the V6’s 278 hp and 265 lb ft of torque by 30 percent at the 10,000-foot pass. Otherwise the smooth road didn’t challenge the Tacoma too much. I could have towed a trailer up there using the V6’s 6400-pound towing capacity (though towing capacity would have been sapped, too).

Down into the rolling pastureland of the Dallas Divide, a place increasingly dotted with yuppie ranchero horse farms every half mile, the mighty San Juan Mountains rose on the horizon to the east, far more formidable than the languorous La Sals. Undaunted, we drove up into them in two-wheel high.

At about sunset our Toyota caravan rolled into the sliver-shaped mountain town of Ouray, Colorado. The town was packed with hundreds of Toyota 4x4s, like a Toyota-sponsored Woodstock: the 13th annual FJ Summit. The FJ Summit has expanded its ranks in recent years to include not only FJs, both the old original models beloved by four-wheelers everywhere, and the newer model that sold in the U.S. from 2006 to 2014, but now it opens its wide, trailing arms to Land Cruisers, Tacomas, 4Runners and even the newly popular Lexus GX 460 and 470, the current V8 bargain-buy of used Toyota off-road vehicles.

In fact, Toyota showed off a new GX concept at the FJ Summit called the GXOR, or GX Off Road. It was slathered with aftermarket parts inside but drawn in conservative dark matte finish on the outside. Hot tip: Buy a cheap, high-mileage, used GX 460 or 470 before the rest of the world realizes these luxo-Lexii can four-wheel with the best of them, come with V8 power, and that they’re still a bargain. You can get a gently used model for under ten grand if you’re willing to take a 100,000-plus mileage model. Your typical second-hand 4Runner gets used a lot harder and sells for a lot higher.

The next day we headed further east into the San Juans, up over the Million Dollar Highway, as Hwy. 550 is called. No one can really say if the name refers to the price it cost to build a century ago, or the value of the stunning views it offers. Maybe it’s both.

I had switched from the Tacoma to a 2020 4Runner that day. The 4Runner differed from its platform-mate Tacoma in that it had the older 270-hp, 278-lb-ft 4.0-liter V6 and a five-speed automatic. You can get a 4Runner with 2wd, part-time 4wd with a two-speed transfer case, or full-time multi-mode 4wd with a two-speed transfer case and locking center diff. Whichever you chose you get 9.6 inches of ground clearance that’ll get you over most obstacles you’ll encounter in the mountain wilderness.

We left the comfortable pavement of the Million Dollar Highway a few miles up at Mineral Creek, dropped it into four-wheel low and pointed the 4Runner’s nose east into the mountains, aiming for Engineer Pass and a route called The Alpine Loop. While this trail gets only a “Moderate” rating, it was tough enough to warrant locking the rear diff once or twice and maybe sending the co-piloto out to spot a few times here and there. You couldn’t do it in a passenger car-based crossover, for instance.

Soon enough we were above the tree line and into what the signs on the trailside said was Alpine Tundra. It was brightly green everywhere and I couldn’t decide whether to start singing John Denver or The Sound of Music. Much to my co-driver’s dismay I went with Denver: “He was boooorn in the summer of his twenty seventh yeeeeeeear, comin’ hoooome to a place he’d never been before…” Others in our group chose the Julie Andrews route, with equally disastrous results.

Rolling down out of the mountains into the 19th Century mining town of Silverton, Colorado

We hit a peak elevation of just under 13,000 feet, a short distance shy of Engineer Pass. The pass itself was blocked by heavy snow this year, despite the heroic work of county road crews to clear it. So rather than continue on to Lake City, we cut back a little then headed to the ghost town of Animas Forks and thence down into Silverton. Silverton is my favorite mountain town in all the world, a protected enclave of summer four-wheeling and winter skiing that almost no one knows about. There’s no easy way in, though Hwy 550 winds in from the west and south, but only after an hour’s drive from the nearest civilization. If you want to hide out, or just enjoy 19th Century splendor, check into Silverton for a while.

In fact, if you have anything with a low range transfer case, you owe it to yourself to come check out this little corner of the world. It’ll be beautiful.

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