2021 Toyota Tacoma

By February 9, 2021

The Toyota Tacoma is the best-selling mid-size pickup truck in the U.S. One reason is that it can be configured in many ways, from basic 4-cylinder work trucks to V-6 crew cab to TRD off-road versions.

For 2021 it gets even more versatility, with new Nightshade and Trail Special Edition models. Otherwise it’s unchanged.

The styling is chunky and expressive, while the grille is massive. The cabin has a durable sensibility, with big, useful knobs and buttons on the instrument panel, and good touchscreen infotainment.

The base engine is a 159-hp 4-cylinder mated to 6-speed automatic transmission, with rear-wheel drive; it can tow 6,800 pounds. At the other end of the powertrain lineup is a four-wheel-drive, 278-hp V-6 with a 6-speed manual transmission.

Ordinary Tacomas aren’t suited well for urban driving though they’re often pressed into that duty. The Tacoma’s best known for its most extreme versions: The Tacoma TRD Pro or Off-Road models have a higher ride height and heavy-duty Fox or Bilstein shocks, perfect for tackling Baja-style trail rides.

Base 4-cylinder Tacomas earn EPA ratings of 20 mpg city, 23 highway, 21 combined with rear-wheel drive and the 6-speed automatic transmission; with four-wheel drive, the mileage dips to 19/22/20 mpg.

Surprisingly, the V-6 gets basically the same mileage, 19/24/21 mpg with rear-wheel drive and 18/22/20 mpg with 4WD. The 6-speed manual transmission lowers that to 17/21/18 mpg with RWD.

The NHTSA gives the Tacoma four stars overall in crash tests, while the IIHS hasn’t tested it in some time. Standard safety equipment includes automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high beams.

Model Lineup

The base Tacoma SR for about $27,000 comes with cloth upholstery, power windows and locks (but not power mirrors), a sliding rear window, and 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa capability.

The SR5 adds 10-way adjustment to the manual driver seat, a power-sliding rear window, keyless entry, and fog lights.

The TRD Sport has some styling add-ons, while the TRD Off Road is the real deal with its locking rear differential, Bilstein shocks, hill-descent control, and terrain traction control modes.

The more expensive TRD Pro comes with black 16-inch wheels, a 10-way power driver’s seat, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen, as well as a camera under the chassis to view obstacles below the truck.

At about $40,000, the Limited adds 18-inch wheels, LED headlights, a surround-view camera system, a sunroof, premium audio, navigation, and wireless smartphone charging.

Exterior

The styling is unpretentious, with a boxy outline and lightly curved fenders. It hasn’t changed much in nearly 20 years—except maybe for the grille that’s grown with the times. That grille sits high and bold and upright, framed by LED running lights.

The SR looks spartan compared to the TRD Pro, with its blacked-out trim, chunky rubber and big badges.

Interior

The instrument panel is all business, a wall of old-school controls: big round knobs and air vents, surrounded by grey or black plastic. It jumps into modern times with a touchscreen in the middle of the dash.

For a high truck, the cabin feels cave-like: the roof is low and dark, and the glass slim.

The base SR has minimal comfort in the front seat, with decent leg support. In the SR5 the driver’s seat can be moved 10 ways, although still manually; the passenger seat can go four ways.

The rear seat in the extended cab is only fit for packages; the rear seat in the crew cab is uncomfortable but useful for short trips, with its rigid seat back and its skimpy leg and head room.

The bed on the extended cab is 6 feet, while the crew cab gets a standard 5-foot bed with optional 6-footer.

Driving Impressions

The Tacoma isn’t designed to be a commuter vehicle, although many owners use it for that because it’s often a family second car. Acceleration and handling are not its virtues. Its strengths appear when the demands get rugged.

The base 159-hp 2.7-liter inline-4 has 180 lb-ft of torque, and a 6-speed automatic transmission. We’d skip it, which will be easy to do because there are few of them on dealer lots.

The more common Tacoma has the 278-hp 3.5-liter V-6 that delivers 265 lb-ft of torque, and four-wheel drive. The V-6 is offered with a 6-speed manual. In either form it has more gutsy acceleration.

The ladder frame with rear leaf-spring suspension and solid rear axle don’t do much for the ride. The Tacoma bucks and bounces on all versions.

The TRD Pro with Fox shocks is even stiffer. It works well off-road, but you’ll want to stay on the trail, not the highway. The TRD Pro and Off Road models are peak Tacoma: They feature high ground clearance, a locking rear differential, crawl-control system, and traction modes. The aftermarket knows what they’re all about, hence the plentiful parts offered for the off-road enthusiast.

Final Word

The 2021 Toyota Tacoma hangs on to its mid-size pickup dominance with a strong reputation for its off-road editions. Other pickups have better safety equipment and more modern interiors, but the Tacoma’s enduring appeal goes far beyond that—and far off the beaten path.

 

—by Sam Moses with driving impressions by The Car Connection

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