Some firmly believe that form strictly follows function and that aesthetics don’t mean a thing – especially in the rugged realm of the off-road world. Though sometimes that may be true, we here at Tread don’t strictly adhere to that train of thought. We believe that there’s little reason that something can’t be designed and built to function as well as it looks.
As a case in point, consider this well-appointed 2016 Toyota Tacoma. It’s built to take on wide-open deserts at speed as well as slow, technical mountains trails. It’s also capable of sustaining its driver and passengers on multi-day trips with ease, all while doing it in style. As good as this Taco looks and drives, you’d think it took a considerable amount of time to piece together and dial in. Remarkably, this build was not a long-term project, far from it. Would you believe, this Tacoma came together in only a (hectic) couple of months?
The Road to SEMA
If you were given the opportunity to display your truck at SEMA, the preeminent automotive specialty products trade event in the world, in Las Vegas, Nevada but only had a couple of months to get your brand-new truck prepared for it, what would you do?
Ryan Lessig, owner of the Tacoma you see here was blessed with just such an opportunity. He was invited to display his Tacoma that he had only picked up from the dealershipabout a month earlier, in Bilstein’s SEMA booth. The catch was that he needed to get it completely built out and ready to display and on top of that, they also needed it be ready for a three day off road trip, in just about two months time. We’ll delve into more about that last part in a minute.
Lessig’s previous ride was a third generation 4Runner. While it was a great truck, his was starting to show its age and he was itching to swap from an SUV to a pick-up. On his switch of format he says, “I had always wanted a Tacoma because I like the truck layout opposed to an SUV for off-roading and expeditions.” He continued, “I wanted to stick with a Toyota because of their reliability and the wide range of aftermarket accessories that are available.” Inspired by Tacoma’s that he saw online, it was easy for Lessig to formulate what he wanted the truck to look like, what brands he wanted to work with and which features he needed in the truck. He adds, “I really wanted something that was ready to go anywhere at any time. I am spontaneous and if I decided at lunch I wanted to go to the desert after work, I knew I could just start up the Tacoma and be in the desert in two hours.”
Planning the Build
After being offered a spot in the Bilstein booth at SEMA, he quickly formulated a plan of action. He based his parts selection on his personal experience as well as the off-road areas that he frequently drives. Lessig explains, “Being in Southern California, I was always in the desert with my family but we also spent a lot of time in the mountains of Arizona. I knew this truck needed to take me to both so it’s built for higher speed desert situations as well as exploring the mountains.
I also built the Tacoma to be easily packed up and have everything I need right in the truck. I go out alone a lot or only with my girlfriend, so I needed to carry everything myself and rely on what I have in the Tacoma to get me where I want to go and back home, regardless of what I ran into.”
With those considerations in mind, he set out on the Herculean task of getting everything together in a short amount of time. He had to line up parts for a truck whose model year that many companies at that time haven’t even finished their development for yet. He also had to source parts, many of them custom made, from all over the country and internationally too.
It’s Got to Perform
The kicker was that not only did the truck need to look good; it needed to perform well right out of the garage. Many “show trucks” are just that. They may look the part in a static display, but in the haste to make the deadline, corners are sometimes cut to make it to the show on time.
That means that sometimes parts may only be non-functional prototypes and do not allow the vehicle to operate as intended. Bilstein wasn’t having any of that. They had other plans in mind and the demands made of Lessig’s Tacoma were no different. Unlike many other companies that displayed at SEMA, Bistein didn’t trailer their vehicles to the show. In fact, they didn’t even take most of Highway 15 through Nevada to get to Vegas. They chose to roll to the show via a three day, 400-mile purely off road trip through the Southwestern desert from their headquarters in Poway, California straight through to Goodsprings, Nevada, which is just outside of Las Vegas. (There’s actually a video of this trip that you can find online.)
“It’s built to take on wide-open deserts at speed as well as slow, technical mountain trails. It’s also capable of sustaining its driver and passengers on multi-day trips with ease, all while doing it in style.”
Because of this, the pressure was on to get everything done perfectly and have it all work properly. There was no time for do-overs, so Lessig chose quality parts that he knew he could depend on and leaned on a good team to help put it all together.
He started by pulling the stock suspension out in favor of Bilstein’s newest B8 series of shocks. The front-mounted B8 8112 shock absorbers contain a position-sensitive damping system with three compression
zones and two rebound zones that Bilstein calls “ZoneControl CR.” This system delivers position sensitive damping in both compression and rebound for comfort and control over even the roughest of surfaces.
The B8 8110 shocks located in the rear have high flow bypass tubes that also offer position sensitive damping with independent external adjustment for rebound and compression for confident and steadfast handling.
Both front and rear shocks are equipped with remote reservoirs for cooler, fade-resistant operation. Completing the suspension upgrades are Camburg Engineering Performance uniball upper arms in front and Deaver Suspension Custom Leaf springs in the rear. Replacing the front arm’s stock ball-joints with Camburg’s uniball bearings allow for increased wheel travel with an enhancement that is stronger than its stock counterpart. The new arms also allow for more caster and an adjusted camber curve designed specifically for the alignment needs of lifted trucks. A modest boost of power to take on steep inclines and stubborn rocks comes from a Magnaflow cat-back exhaust system and Injen Power Flow air intake system. As a bonus, this free-flowing setup gives the Tacoma a nice, deep, throaty growl too. To light up dark trails, Lessig outfitted the Taco with a variety of auxiliary lights by Rigid Industries including an SR2 20-inch unit inside the front bumper and a combination of E2 40-inch and a pair of SR-Q2 light bars on the cargo rack. The lights you see at the base of the A-pillar are Rigid’s Dually Side Shooter driving lights mounted on CBI Off Road Fab’s Ditch Light Brackets. Hidden underneath the truck’s undercarriage are six A-Series Rock Lights, also by Rigid Industries.
To address his need for usable storage for camping and other excursions, Lessig opted for a Leitner Designs Active Cargo System (ACS) to mount in the Tacoma’s bed. Leitner Designs points out that the ACS isn’t simply a bed rack; rather it’s a fully upgradeable and customizable cargo system capable of mounting many accessories including their own Gear Pod lockable and waterproof storage bins. The featured ACS unit is also fitted with mounts for the secure mounting of critical outdoor gear such as RotopaX fuel and water cans, a set of Maxtrax MKII, and even a rack top mounted Cascadia Vehicle Tent Mt. Shasta Pioneer Series Roof Top Tent with 79-inch Awning.
Protecting the vehicle from occasional run-ins with nature is an entire set of CBI Off Road Fab armor. In the front you’ll notice a CBI aluminum bumper with center grill guard. Speaking of the grill, you’ll also notice the stock grill was replaced with a more aggressive looking grill by Custom Car Grills. Because having a rock puncture or damage any component underneath a truck is a quick way to ruin a trip, Lessig beefed up the belly of the beast with CBI’s front and mid skid plates as well as their transfer case skid plate.
A set of CBI rocksliders was bolted on amidships to further defend against any other possible rock incursions. The back end sports a CBI steel bumper with swing away tire carrier and RotopaX mounts. The Tacoma rolls on Stealth Custom Series Stealth6 wheels in 17-inch diameter. The Stealth6 was designed by SCS specifically for Toyotas, which is why they look perfectly at home on this Taco. Both front and rear wheels have a generous width of 8.5-inches which allow them to fit Falken Wildpeak M/T tires in 265/70R17 size.
Lessig made sure that the interior of the rig was as useful as its exterior. He did away with old fashioned toggle switches and instead, installed an sPod touchscreen control system. The sPod is a fully programmable system that allows him to activate anything from his auxiliary lights to his air compressor and more with the simple touch of the screen.
Because travelling off road isn’t as simple to navigate as in the city, a Garmin GLO GPS receiver was installed, attached to an Apple iPad Pro. Garmin’s GLO can receive position information from GPS and GLONASS satellites, which allow it to connect to up to 24 more satellites than GPS-only devices. This makes GLO faster and allows position updates 10 times per second. GPS receivers in most other devices update only 1 time per second. To keep friends and family in voice range, a Rugged Radios RM-25R 25-watt dual band mobile radio with dual band antenna and magnetic mount, which is capable of reaching out to 12-miles.
Powering all the electronics is a reliable Odyssey battery. Also located under the hood is an ARB On Board Twin Air Compressor for airing up tires and other jobs, mounted on a Slee Off-Road Twin Compressor mounting bracket.
A Job Well Done
Lessig finished installing the last part at 10pm the night before he was to take part in the three-day trip to SEMA. He explains, “I needed it to function perfectly and not worry about anything breaking or falling apart along the way.” He, along with the rest of the group, left Poway for their appointment with the dirt trail the next morning promptly at 6am. Rejoicing after a job well done, Lessig shared, “After the trip, the Tacoma was driven straight onto the SEMA show room floor, covered in dirt and mud and sat there for the next week as the booth vehicle for
Bilstein. It was always a dream of mine to go to SEMA, I never thought that I would build a truck for the SEMA show and have it on the show room floor!”
Now that the Tacoma is built and ready to go anywhere, anytime, we asked where his next destination will be. Lessig says aside from driving it daily, he’s always game to go to any of his favorite off road spots including Anza Borrego, Ocotillo Wells and Big Bear. On the subject of when, Lessig says, “Being in Southern California, there is just about every terrain within a few hours of home. I try to get out every other week but sometimes it’s every weekend.”
2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road V6 4×4 Access Cab
ENGINE: TOYOTA 3.5L V6, Magnaflow Exhaust, Injen Air Intake
SUSPENSION: Bilstein b8 8112, Bilstein b8 8100, Camburg Engineering Uniball upper arms, Deaver Suspension Custom Leaf Pack
WHEELS & TIRES: Stealth Custom Series Stealth 6, 17”x8.5” / Falken Wildpeak M/T (265/70r17 E-rated)
ARMOR: CBI Front bumper with Center Grill Guard, CBI Rear bumper with Swing-Away tire carrier, CBI Bolt on Rock Sliders, CBI Front Skid Plate, CBI Mid Skid Plate, CBI T-Case Skid Plate m
LIGHTING: Rigid SR2 20”, Rigid Dually Side Shooter, Rigid E2 40”, Rigid SR-Q2, Rigid SR-M Backup, Rigid A-series Rock Light Kit, CBI Ditch Light Brackets
ACCESSORIES: Custom Car Grills Perf GT, Leitner Designs Active Cargo System, Leitner Designs Gear Pods, GARMIN GLO, Apple iPad Pro, Rugged Radios RM-25R, Odyssey Battery, ARB Air Compressor, Slee Off-Road Compressor Mount, SPOD Touchscreen Power Control System, CVT Rooftop Tent, CVT Awning, MAXTRAX, Rotopax Gasoline & Water Carriers, Salex Center Console Organizer, Weathertech Floorliner, Trasharoo, Hondo Garage Un-holey Dash Mount, Coverking Seat Covers
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the May-June 2017 print issue of Tread Magazine.