Toyota has built a stellar reputation for its small pickup series that goes all the way back to the 1970s. Now named Tacoma, this small-to-mid-size pickup is a functional suburban vehicle, a durable recreational tool, as well as a tough off-road warrior.
Last year, Toyota sold over 248,800 Tacoma extended-cab and double-cab trucks in America (no regular cabs sold here), which is more than double the quantity of the full-size Tundra and the exact opposite of the other pickup manufacturers. The Tacoma dominates its segment, besting rivals named Colorado, Ranger, Frontier, Gladiator, Ridgeline and Canyon. The darn things are everywhere, which was more than evident as the latest TRD Pro escorted me around Maine.
If you think of the Tacoma as a lifestyle vehicle — with similar capabilities and attributes to the Jeep Wrangler — the combined sales of the Tacoma and the 4Runner (sister platform mate to the Tacoma) exceed Jeep’s Wrangler and Gladiator.
The Tacoma models named TRD (Sport, $32,745, Off-Road, $34,000, and PRO, $43,960) benefit greatly from the latest off-roading technologies and features. Oversize skid plates protect the sensitive running gear up front and in the middle; Goodyear Wrangler tires are Kevlar reinforced to take the punishment in the dirt along with the Fox Shocks; Multi-Terrain Mode Monitor provides forward and side camera views while moving; CRAWL Control holds the Tacoma to a selected pace — with no pedal work by you; plus Hill-start systems, a limited-slip rear diff, and a new electric-shift 4WD dial all point to the Tacoma’s intentions to master travel when the road ends.
Out back, at the working end, the 5-foot composite box has a grounded power outlet, numerous retainer hooks, plus a sliding cargo clamp-and-rail system to complement the truck’s 6,400-pound tow rating. TRD Pro also includes a power sliding rear window, rear parking sonar, sequential LED lamps, plus Rigid fog lamps.
Power comes from a 3.5-liter direct-injection, 278-hp V-6, while a 2.4-liter 159-hp four-cylinder is available on SR ($26,050) and SR5 models. The four features a five-speed manual, while the V-6 works with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic. EPA estimates are 18/22 mpg for the V-6; two miles per gallon better with the smaller four-cylinder.
Interior improvements include the full array of Toyota’s Safety Sense Portfolio — dynamic cruise, forward braking assist, lane departure warning, automatic high beams — plus keyless access and ignition as well as blind-spot detection and rear cross-traffic alerts. Heated leather seating, wireless phone charging, plus a larger 8-inch multimedia screen with Apple/Android functionality, Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities and a JBL-powered audio system round out the TRD Pro equipment list. Toyota even has a remote connect function so you can manage certain vehicle activities with your smartphone or watch.
There is no denying the Tacoma’s off-roading abilities. Almost 12 inches of ground clearance (big step up into a low cab) help you cross serious obstacles, while the powertrain barely breaks a sweat in conditions that would crush mere mortal crossovers.
Despite yeoman efforts to make all of this competence translate to the street, the TRD Pro asks for some compromises when used as a daily commuter. The TRD cat-back exhaust moans, all of the time, a droning soundtrack that grew tiring. The ride — so great off-road — also grew tiring on the tortured two-tracks that suffice for rural Maine roads. Toyota probably didn’t imagine that while developing this chassis setup buyers would experience the same moguls and imperfections on paved roads, but at higher speeds.
To exact better fuel economy, the transmission’s overdrive top gear labored to hold onto sixth gear on any road less than perfectly flat. Shifting to manual mode and into fifth gear for steady rate travel improved overall drivability, while not appearing to affect fuel economy. It lessened the exhaust moaning too.
Subtle pluses: large knurled knobs for the climate system are functionally perfect, the headlamps are brilliant, the console is workable for two with ample pockets, the V-6 provides robust power, and like the chassis and body, the truck feels as solid as an anvil.
Cons: wish the knurled climate knobs could be used on the audio panel (which, thankfully, still has two, albeit tiny, knobs), wish the fuel tank was larger (about 330-mile range) and wish for a bit more sound insulation for long highway stints.
The Tacoma TRD Pro never lets you forget it is a hard-working pickup truck first. The sales numbers tell us that a lot of buyers want that.