On the Road Review: Toyota Tacoma Access Cab

In the fall of 2004, Toyota started building a larger, longer small pickup to replace the outgoing ten-year old Tacoma — one of the most popular small trucks ever. The new truck was designed to beat the Dodge Dakota — the leading “midsize” pickup truck in the market. USA Today called the new Tacoma “crude, but bigger, burlier”.

What has happened since then?

Apparently, the Tacoma is pretty good at doing its job. The “small” Toyota truck forced the Ford Ranger out of business as well as its target rival — the Dodge Dakota. Nissan’s Frontier pickup has largely become irrelevant, while Honda’s Ridgeline remains a niche player in the market with slowing sales. Both Honda and Nissan, however, have new entries coming out this fall.

GM’s twin small trucks, the GMC Canyon and Chevy Colorado, are also all-new and on sale now. The Tacoma had the unfortunate happen-stance to visit after a recent Canyon test, as well as the new Ford F-150. Certainly, comparisons have to be made.

Toyota is still building virtually the same Tacoma as in 2004 — regular cab, extended Access Cab and Crew Cab — while production has moved from California to Texas. The same 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is available as is the same 4.0-liter DOHC V-6 motor. Toyota never put a V-8 in the Tacoma, even though the 4Runner that uses the same platform uses a V-8. Toyota also builds the FJ Cruiser off this ladder-frame platform.

During the 11 years of Tacoma production, little has been done to modify the chassis, while the interior sports modest upgrades. For fans, this matters little. The truck remains strong, rugged, stiff, even unyielding at times, when the roads are rough. The interior is functionally correct; climate controls are big, convenient rotary knobs, the tilt/telescoping steering wheel is thick and textured with a grippy surface, while the standard audio uses conventional push buttons and knobs — not the touchscreens that proliferate. Other buttons and stalks are sure-acting and precise, not cumbersome. There are power outlets and a USB jack, but Bluetooth only comes as an option along with satellite radio and a larger display screen.

The driver’s seat sits low; you feel low in the cab too. But, after 800 miles I had no comfort complaints despite the lack of adjustable lumbar. No heating elements at this price point either; $27,895 before options, $32,395 as shown.

Other notable absences; no one-touch lane change signaling, no outside temperature gauge, no remote starting, no rear defroster, and the rear door windows do not open. The rear doors only open 90 degrees; most truck makers have moved to full 170-180-degree openings on this style of doors.

On the working end of the Tacoma, the SMC plastic bed includes a power outlet for tools, sliding anchor-points, plus a Class IV receiver hitch. The tailgate, however, is unassisted; it bangs down when released and has no spring assist to raise. Max tow rating is 6,500 pounds for the Tacoma and the V-6 surely feels capable of delivering that level of grunt.

Down low, the Tacoma produces ample forward acceleration. Mid-range power is strong as well, making passing a relaxed affair. Yet, with cruise clicked on 75 mph, the Tacoma struggled on mild grades, making a noisy downshift out of the overdrive fifth gear to gain power to hold speed. The engine sounds coarse under stress, not the mechanical symphony of many newer engines. Click the cruise off, and this drama does not occur as you manage the throttle. This unrefined performance was in sharp contrast to the 2.5-liter four in the GMC Canyon as well as the 2.7-liter EcoBoost V-6 in the recent Ford F-150.

The Tacoma’s TRD off-road-oriented chassis also lacked the rough-road composure of these rivals, kicking and bounding sharply over broken surfaces. Using Bilstein shocks and heavier springs for TRD, plus larger 17-inch tires and wheels, the Toyota exhibits brute strength, but little polish, compliance or finesse. The Tacoma pilot must stay constantly engaged, as bumpy roads require your full attention.

All of these gripes aside, the Tacoma is admirable for its straightforward honesty. Its record of accomplishment is undeniable — for both sales success and customer satisfaction — so there is obviously a certain element of the Tacoma that has great mass appeal. The bold look, especially with the power-dome hood, the unmistakable off-road ready stance, as well as the eager engine, all pronounce attributes that generations of buyers have embraced. As I motored about northern New England for a week, I encountered countless samples of this truck, a testament to its popularity in harsh environments.

The challenge for Toyota will be to produce a new Tacoma that retains many of the virtues above, while polishing some of the burrs and bringing the truck into the market with the features that will match, or beat, the competition. The tinny-sounding doors need to be addressed; the noise level in the cabin can be lowered, while simple changes such as assist springs in the tailgate are not too much to ask.

It is not unreasonable to expect better fuel economy too; EPA ratings of 16/21/18 mpg in a small/midsize pickup are well below several full-size pickup powertrains. My realized economy ranged from 16.5 to 19.4 mpg, with the best mileage coming on long rural road runs. Therefore, Toyota needs to keep or increase power, probably add more gears in the five-speed automatic transmission, and work towards a higher EPA efficiency.

When Toyota rolled out the latest Tundra pickup, many critics were surprised that only modest changes took place from the previous edition. It was as if Toyota made a concession that they could not, or would not, match the massive push-the-envelope changes that GM, Ford and Chrysler were making to their pickup trucks, and that Toyota was content with their fifth place market share.

If that strategy is employed with this fall’s next Tacoma, there is a real danger that sales will suffer. As good as this current truck is — strong, rugged, tough — it is old and outdated in some ways too. Tacoma fans deserve to get more.





Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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