Toyota Tacoma grows bigger and better

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Toyota has been highly successful selling small pickup trucks in the United States since it introduced the Stout in 1964. The name was changed to Hi-Lux in 1969, and by September 1977 Toyota had sold a million trucks to U.S. customers.

The pickup’s last complete makeover occurred in 1995 when the Tacoma nameplate was introduced. For a decade the Tacoma has been one of the most popular pickups in the segment with only minor modifications and a few exterior styling tweaks.

That seems like a lifetime between complete redesigns, but Toyota isn’t the only automaker to hold the same cards for years. The Ford Ranger has successfully survived with only minor modifications, and until the new General Motors nameplates were introduced last year, GM carried on with the same products for more than a decade.
Strange perhaps that suddenly the compact/mid-sized truck ranks are getting a serious overhaul.

The aforementioned GM siblings; the GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado were introduced as 2004 models, an all-new Dodge Dakota greeted customers this fall and an all-new Frontier can now be found at Nissan showrooms.

The competition is heating up, and by our estimation the Tacoma will have no trouble holding its own. It’s built on the 4Runner platform and shares an engine with the popular mid-sized SUV, a 4.0-liter, 245-horsepower DOHC V-6.

The new truck is on average about six inches longer, four inches wider and two inches taller giving it a more roomy feel than the previous model. From behind the wheel, our first impression was that of driving a full-sized truck, certainly not the diminutive pickup that Toyota introduced many years ago.

That fueled our perception that the compact truck segment has all but vanished, turning into the mid-sized truck segment.

The double cab Tacoma with a long bed, for instance, stretches out 221 inches. That’s only four inches shorter than the full-sized Chevrolet Silverado crew cab with a short bed.

Exterior styling revisions on the Tacoma are subtle but effective. Large fender  arches, a large grille and bumper and wrap-around headlights give the  truck a more athletic and rugged stance.

The interior has been adorned with a classier look using higher-grade materials.

Mimicking the full-sized Big Three truck lineups, the Tacoma comes in 18 model configurations. Three body styles; regular cab, access cab (extended cab) and double cab
(crew-cab) are available. Each can be purchased with either 2-wheel or 4-wheel drive.

Toyota also offers two specialty editions. The popular PreRunner is back. It’s a 2-wheel drive truck that has the looks and the heavy-duty suspension of 4-wheel drive models.

Toyota is also offering a 2-wheel drive X-Runner access cab sport truck equipped with the V-6, 6-speed manual transmission, a sport-tuned suspension complete with Bilstein shocks, 18-inch wheels, Bridgestone Z-rated performance tires and additional structural bracing underneath.

Two new engines, including the big V-6, are offered. A 2.7-liter developing 164 horsepower replaces older 2.4 and 2.7-liter engines.

There are four transmission choices, a 4-speed automatic and a 5-speed manual for the 4-cylinder engine and a 5-speed automatic and 6-speed manual for the V-6.

We drove the V-6 mated to the 6-speed manual and discovered a truck with a lot of grunt. The six cylinders kept the Tacoma well motivated in all situations, but don’t expect to do any speed shifting. The manual is easy to shift, but the throws are long. In other words, it’s well designed for use in a truck, but not the best choice for running full bore through the gears.

The ride in our TRD off-road-equipped access cab model was well controlled, but leaning toward the truck side of the equation. Despite its rock-climbing underpinnings, retuned springs and shocks, thicker front sway bar, oversized tires and locking differential we found the Tacoma smooth enough to suit most everyone who climbs on board.

Properly equipped, the V-6 will tow up to 6,500 pounds. The maximum tow rating of the previous model was 5,000 pounds.

The Tacoma comes with a new composite cargo bed with built-in storage units, adjustable tie-down anchors and an optional 400-watt electrical outlet. Toyota says the plastic bed is so tough a bed liner isn’t necessary.

The Tacoma gains many upgrades inside including a handsome dashboard with typically Toyota intuitive switches and buttons. The owner’s manual can stay parked in the glovebox for those to lazy to be well informed on what they’re driving.
The seats are comfortable and gaining a desirable driving position should be easy for most people. The interior is more spacious than the previous model. But transporting more than two adults in the extended cab, while not impossible, is at best uncomfortable.
Even though the rear access doors open wider, the rear seats are comfortable only for children. One nice feature is that they fold to create a flat load floor.

If transporting more than two people is a necessity, opt for the double cab. And the double cab can be purchased with a long bed for the first time for those who actually need to haul stuff.

Toyota gets high marks for making antilock brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution standard across the Tacoma lineup. Other safety features, including side curtain airbags, are optional equipment.

Toyota has been known for creating its base vehicle with little desirable equipment. Nothing has changed here. If you order the regular cab, which is only predicted to be 15 percent of the sales, standard equipment includes a stereo with CD player, full-sized spare tire and tachometer. You can buy that model for a bargain-basement price of $13,980.

Note that the regular cab comes only with the 4-cylinder engine.

Things like air conditioning, keyless entry and power windows and locks will require checking the options list.

Move up to the access cab and more equipment becomes standard. The double cab has a relatively long list of standard features.

The access cab starts at $17,420 and the double cab begins at $22,240. The access cab with the V-6 engine begins at $19,635. The V-6 is standard equipment in the double cab.

Toyota has created a very desirable truck to do battle with the new guys in the mid-sized segment. We can expect nothing less than continued success for the Tacoma.