The Toyota Tacoma is an especially rugged and reliable midsize pickup truck, generally regarded as the best in the class for bouncing over boulders. Tacoma TRDs are popular in California for carrying dirt bikes and ATVs into the desert.
Tacoma got a partial redesign (new hood, front fascia and cabin structure) along with new powertrains and suspension for 2016; a new TRD Pro off-road model for 2017; and for 2018 the changes are all in safety: standard automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, and adaptive cruise control. A rearview camera is also standard.
Tacoma comes in four configurations: Short Bed and Long Bed, with Double Cab (full rear seat) or Access Cab (small folding seat). There’s rear-wheel or four-wheel drive.
The length of the short bed is 60.5 inches, and the long bed is 73.7 inches. The width of the bed is 53.4 inches, narrowing to 41.5 inches at the wheelwells, so a sheet of plywood won’t fit flat, and will have to ride on the raised tailgate. The depth of the bed is 19.1 inches.
Base engine is a 2.7-liter four-cylinder making 159 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque, mated to a 5-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmission, depending on the cab. The four-cylinder is rated at an EPA-estimated 19/23 mpg City/Highway, or 21 mpg Combined, with automatic and rear-wheel drive. It’s a good work truck, able to tow 1620 pounds.
More popular is the 3.5-liter V6 with direct injection making 278 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque, mated to 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic. V6 fuel mileage is about the same as the four cylinder, while it’s considerably smoother and more powerful. The V6 with automatic and 4WD gets an EPA-rated 18/23 mpg City/Highway, or 20 mpg Combined. The manual gearbox drops mileage by about two miles per gallon, while two-wheel drive improves it by one.
The V6 is rated up to 6800 pounds, with a package including a heavy-duty oil and transmission cooler (with the automatic), 130-amp alternator (manual), and Trailer Sway Control. Still, the full-size Toyota Tundra is a better choice to tow anything heavier than a bass boat or motorcycle on a trailer.
Off-road capability and durability is a big part of the Tacoma brand. Its Multi-Terrain Select system (taken from the 4Runner) is similar to systems on Land Rover, Jeep and Ford. Drivers can set the modes for mud, sand, slick rock and more, changing the throttle and braking. The four-wheel-drive transfer case, set with a knob on the dash, isn’t meant to improve cornering on the road, unlike all-wheel drive on sedans. TRD Sport models include an automatic limited-slip rear differential, while TRD Off Road and TRD Pro models go a step further with a locking rear differential.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awards the Tacoma its top scores for both moderate front-overlap and side-impact crashworthiness. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has only crash-tested the Crew Cab, giving it four stars overall.
The 2018 Toyota Tacoma comes in six models: SR, SR5, TRD Sport, TRD Off Road, TRD Limited, and TRD Pro. The SR Access Cab I4 automatic with six-foot bed and two-wheel drive ($25,200) is the base model. (All prices are MSRP and do not include destination charges.)
The tailgate with Tacoma stamped on it looks industrial like the Tundra. The three-piece bumper made of fiberglass and resin makes it look different. It may not be rugged but it’s lightweight and easy to replace, if you don’t mind throwing away the easily broken one and paying for a new one.
The Pro looks more rugged, with its black alloy wheels and all-terrain tires, and lifted by one inch.
The seats are short and flat, the driver’s seat doesn’t raise or tilt (not even in the top Limited model), and there is no power adjustment, which comes standard on Canyon and Colorado. Maybe the lack of ability to raise the seat is because headroom is limited, especially with the available moonroof.
The leather seats offer slightly more support than cloth, but the seats across the Tacoma line are springy, foam-core affairs that put too much pressure on the seat bones and not enough support under the thighs. Back support is also poor.
All that said, the Tacoma is full of excellent details. There’s an acoustic glass windshield and a lot of sound deadening, and the lack of cabin noise makes it feel refined. There are some upscale materials on the horizontal dashboard, and the surfaces are coordinated. The rearview mirror has a GoPro mount. There’s touchscreen audio, and most models can do smartphone navigation.
In the back, the tailgate has a lock and damper to keep it from slamming down when you drop it with one hand. Rails in the bed have movable cleats and tie-down points. Some models have a deck-mounted 120-volt AC power outlet. There’s an available four-panel folding tonneau cover.
The folding rear seats in the Access Cab are very small, suitable for kids who think it’s fun to be put in a box and bounced for a while, and groceries that might not mind. The Double Cab’s full back seat allegedly seats three, while being split 60/40 with storage under the bench.
The 278-horsepower V6 is a happy-revving engine. With both direct injection and a variable intake system with a wide intake, it meets the Atkinson combustion cycle. Its 265 foot-pounds of torque work well with the 6-speed automatic, with its smooth upshifts and downshifts and excellent gear spacing. The 6-speed manual is a market rarity; neither the Colorado, Canyon, nor Ridgeline have a manual transmission.
The rigid chassis uses a steel ladder frame that’s closed with a crossmember in front, though not in back. The cabin structure uses high-strength steel with side beams.
Ride quality is better than it used to be. The front suspension uses double wishbones with coil springs whose rates were softened for 2016 to improve the ride, along with a softening of the rear shocks. That shock tuning included tweaks to the rebound damping through changed valving, to improve control.
Four tunes of suspension mean four levels of ride quality and handling. The SR, SR5, and Limited get the standard suspension, TRD Sport models get a sportier suspension setup, while TRD Off Road models get a suspension designed for offroad, with more wheel travel and articulation. The TRD models actually ride smoother on rough roads and gravel roads.
The TRD Pro gets heavy-duty Fox dampers. It handles really well off road, while the traction and stability control are low-key enough to be effective without interfering under a broad range of conditions.
TRD Off Road and TRD Pro models with the 6-speed automatic have Multi-Terrain Select, its dial located at the top of the windshield, presumably so an offroad charger can change modes without taking his eyes off the trail. The settings are Mud and Sand, Loose Rock, Moguls, Rock and Dirt, and Rock. The system affects a number of the truck’s dynamics, including throttle, and delivers the best theoretical traction for those conditions. For example, it allows a lot of wheelspin for Mud and Sand, but none for Rock.
There’s also hill-start assist and crawl control, which takes over the throttle and brakes at speeds up to 5 mph, so the driver doesn’t have to think about traction; just focus on steering around big rocks or logs. Excellent sight lines from the cabin make them easier to see.
The TRD Pro’s 16-inch alloy wheels are mounted with big Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain tires with Kevlar sidewall reinforcement. The wheels are smaller than standard, leaving room for more sidewall, which is needed in very rugged terrain. That’s where the thick skidplates come in, too.
A key element to these trucks is their durability. Owners who spend a lot of time bouncing their trucks along river banks or over rugged, rocky terrain will find a Tacoma holds up for more seasons of abuse than many other vehicles will. Only Jeep and Land Rover compare in this regard.
The Toyota Tacoma is the best choice among mid-size pickups for regular travel over boulder fields and other rugged terrain. The cabin is tight and the seats are uncomfortable, however, making the Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon, and Honda Ridgeline better for commuting or as a second car. The Tacoma’s V6 is a more powerful and smoother engine than the four-cylinder, while getting the same fuel mileage.
Sam Moses contributed to this report, with Mitch McCullough reporting from New Jersey.