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Rugged Toyota Tundra TRD Pro likes to play

Rural Michigan is pickup country. Huge Ford F-250s towing equipment. Laden Silverados hustling to service jobs. Gorgeous Ram trucks prowling construction sites. And macho pickups of all stripes with big tires, menacing hood scoops and lifted suspensions eager to go beyond where the asphalt ends.

Despite its rare Toyota badge my hulking, 2021 Tundra TRD Pro tester fits rights in.

Sitting atop 32-inch Michelin all-terrain tires, Fox off-road shocks and 11 inches of ground clearance, the Lunar Rock-painted behemoth bristles with hood scoops and tow hooks. This is not your father's Camry, but a serious bark-chewing beast.

Think of Toyota as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Japanese automaker has built a reputation as a dependable daily driver (backed up by years of JD Power reliability MVP awards) and a weekend track warrior. Its Toyota Racing Development (TRD) shop has climbed podiums at the highest echelons of motorsports from NASCAR to Formula One. That résumé includes winning the Baja 1000, North America's premier off-road competition.

Beginning in 1998, the TRD badge started to show up on the Tacoma (Taco, as it's known to its legion of fans) as a rough-and-ready off-roader. While the Detroit Three dominated full-size pickups, Taco owned the midsize segment with its Mr. Hyde TRD variants leading the way.

Tundra followed with its own TRD features but has lived in Taco's shadow — its sales just half that of little brother (much less anywhere close to the Detroit Three). But Tundra upped its game in 2015. It grew a comprehensive TRD Pro package (like Taco) with serious suspension and skid plate mods. It even brought back a Baja 1000 trophy in the Pro Stock class to make little brother proud.

Tundra? My TRD Pro tester is Tund-raw.

The Mounds Off-Road Vehicle Park in Mount Morris, Mich., is 200 acres of dirt, sand and bog. It's a place where dirt bikers, ATV owners and Jeepsters can let out their inner child.

And where Tundra lets out Mr. Hyde.

I shifted to Neutral and turned the transfer-case dial from "2WD" to "4WD." Then I held the traction control button to turn off the nannies. When I say "held" I mean "held for a loooong time." This is a Toyota, after all, and the nannies don't retreat easily.

Once unleashed, TRD Pro had a blast. ROOOAARR! I nailed the throttle and the 381-horse, 5.7-liter V-8 bellowed, the rear end slewing sideways through muddy bends. With the Fox shocks allowing extended suspension travel, Tundra bounded over a sandbox of moguls like an oversized puppy.

WHUMP! It's easy to get too excited, and the enormous front skid plate is there for when the suspension travel runs out and the truck's belly slaps a mogul.

The Mounds' tight confines are, frankly, more suited for midsizers like the Tacoma, but it would be impressed by how big bro did.

My friend Scott, who bleeds Ford blue, was impressed, too. Walking around the TRD Pro back in Oakland County, he liked the menacing, black front grille and hood scoops (OK, so the scoops are fake). The big back-seat room. The lifted suspension.

"No running boards for better off-road clearance. Nice."

The TRD Pro trim is key to giving the Tundra personality. It's also key to keeping the Tundra relevant in the full-size truck market.

The Texas-built truck sits on old bones. In today's high-tech truck world of big Ram screens and digital Ford F-150s, the interior of the Tundra is a generation behind. The instrument display is simple. The chassis competent. The 8-inch console touchscreen devoid of fancy graphics or wireless Apple CarPlay.

On the road back down I-75 to Metro Detroit from The Mounds, the rear end fluttered over road seams. Inside, the cabin lacks the noise insulation of today's more refined Detroit trucks. But in its simplicity, truck lovers will find comfort.

The Tundra's tried-and-true design helped it win J.D. Power's 2020 initial quality award for light-duty trucks. Its standard V-8 guarantees 9,800-pound towing capability should you want to drag a boat instead of dirt bikes. Standard, too, is adaptive cruise control for long interstate trips.

Competitors offer cool stuff like digital screens and console work surfaces, but TRD Pro's basics keep its price in the mid-$55,000 range, while comparably equipped off-road-trimmed rivals like the wicked-looking Ram 1500 Rebel (be still, my beating heart) and Ford F-150 FX4 will crest 60 grand.

With the money you save, you can go out and buy even bigger tires to pull little brother Taco out of The Mounds bog.

2021 Toyota Tundra TRD Pro

Vehicle type: Front engine, four-wheel-drive five-passenger pickup

Price: $54,645, including 1,595 destination fee ($55,224 as tested)

Powerplant: 5.7-liter V-8

Power: 381 horsepower, 401 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds (Car and Driver); towing capacity, 9,800 pounds

Weight: 5,998 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 13 city/17 highway/14 combined

Report card

Highs: Aggressive looks; big interior room

Lows: Dated interior; rough ride

Overall: 3 stars 

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