Photos by Jaime Hernandez and Justin Fort
Sometimes “excellent” ain’t too strong a word. With time spent in Toyota’s not-so-small “small” truck, we had an honest opportunity to rack up owner-style miles and test (not just taste) the functional truths of driving it in the dirt. Despite our reservations about certain facets of the new Tacoma, the package as a whole continues to legitimize the reputation of Toyota’s smaller trucks, and it was a honest performer when put to rocks and trails.Off-Road Use with Impressive Results
With this new Tacoma in our hands, its intended function sent us straight for the dirt. The four-wheel drive TRD Tacoma is a good dog, with bone-stock trail-prepped potential that dared us to see if it was worth its weight in body cladding. East of San Diego is a section of the Cleveland National Forest, running roughly north from the Mexican border past the 8 freeway toward Orange County. Several well-established off-roading areas are nestled within it, including Corral Canyon, just south of the 8 at Thing Valley. We headed that way to test this metal’s mettle.
As we exposed this factory-prepped Taco to more and more trail, it became clear that the truck was probably more able to crawl and lump and creep over serious terrain than we were willing to risk with a vehicle belonging to the manufacturer (and on the OEM-supplied BFG Rugged Trail tires, which were competent but not ideal). Whenever we pushed the TRD Taco to higher degrees of articulation or extension or compression or flop, it was willing to go onward even when we were not. Certainly, with a few tidy mods – an inch or two of travel, a shortened bumpstop here, a trimmed wheel well there, with some more aggressive tires - this truck had most of the hard parts required for far more interesting adventures on-trail than we would have considered reasonable for a stock truck. Tthis thing is sorted. We bend it so you can buy it!
Did we mention a few buttons? You can’t see them all. Great seats. Too much plastic. The modular cup-holder was nice.
Interior Effective but Plasticy
If there was a broad disappointment to register, it was the new General Motors-grade interior that the builder has selected to use. If you’ve owned or are familiar with Toyota, you know its interiors are better than most, on par with the company's overall rep for quality manufacture. This generation of Tacoma seems to have been aimed low. Plasticy, overly shiny surfaces abound. Large amounts of conspicuously unused areas beg for a purpose, especially in the center console.
Everything worked well enough in the cabin, fair to say. Cubbies of varying facility littered the cockpit, and we’re not doubting the outright durability of the parts involved here. Our comments about the excess of flashy, spacey and blingy surfaces do not disregard the usefulness. The interior just felt … cheaper than we’d come to expect from a Toyota.
The front seats were another Toyota-grade plus. Well bolstered but not too well (you need to be able to clamber in and out when off-road and move about in the seat in times of funny attack angles), the fabric was pleasing and not desperately stylish. The cushions were long enough that the folks in front could avoid the end-of-leg fatigue that often happens in crew-cab or third-row vehicles that chop front seat depth to accommodate some shred of rear-passenger suitability. The rear seats, well, they were typical of most crew-cabbed four-door small trucks; functional for smaller people, but only worthy of full-sized friends if you don’t like them very much.
|We think this burgundy-red is an attractive color for a mid-size truck.|
Working through the panoply of switchgear and buttonry with which festoon the TRD Taco’s dash (when was the last time you saw panoply, buttonry and festoon in one sentence?), we were less distracted than satisfied by our options, like a pilot who preferred to be in charge rather than have his craft do all the thinking. With this determinist’s dashboard (short of a traction control system that won’t shut off unless you yell at it), the fully outfitted 4x4 TRD Tacoma could boast to having but one unused switchplate. This completely equipped Tacoma had manual controls for the rear locker, traction control, airbag deactivation, fog lamps, and at least a dozen things to turn on or off to enable your off-roading needs. When was the last time you saw a Toyota with a shortage of blank openings?
|With the plastic covers out of the engine bay, it’s simple to view the four-liter. Love that oil filter placement.|
On-Road Experience Satisfying
Power for the new Tacos is split between a big four and a four-liter V6. While the straight-four has plenty of go (159/180 hp/ft-lb), especially for short-bed short-cab arrangements, the best transmissions were reserved for the stronger six (236/266 hp/ft-lb) – likely a nod at preserving mileage. A six-speed manual or five-speed auto make the most of that extra torque while keeping the thirstier V6 from stopping you at every gas station. We netted 19-21 miles per gallong during our week with the four-liter, including time off-road. The V6 was a charmer to drive, though it was not a blistering freak like the TRD mechanically supercharged V6s that you can order from your retailer, but it can take charge when a merge has to happen now.
We found that the truck was a rather nimble dirt-road drifter, with the chassis responding quickly to enthusiastic steering and throttle inputs. Control is good, and the Bilstein-equipped TRD Tacoma does not isolate you from what’s afoot at its feet. Freeway manners were taut and believable as well, though the truck grew darty when the expansion joints got excessive and forgot their manners. Visibility, especially in the potentially tough over-the-shoulder department, was better than expected as long as you’re in the neighborhood of 6 feet tall.
|There's AC power in the bed, descent-control, the locker, airbag-defeat, et cetera.|
Get the junk out of the way – this Taco is bigger. It drives bigger, too, and the footprint of this truck is larger than the cabin would suggest. This Tacoma, new since 2005, has more height, more width, more length, and more mass. It’s almost a 9/10ths truck itself now, growing up as if to fill the shoes of the previous-generation Tundra (acknowledged by most as the 9/10ths pickup of choice). The increases in dimension are a big step in size, and this makes it hard to call this Tacoma a real “small” truck anymore. That aside, it doesn’t drive overly large, and coupled with the still-snug interior it doesn’t feel oversized either, just more-sized.
Oh, we crawled it. Like rocks? The TRD Tacoma does. Yes, that’s a 45-degree incline. The rocks in Corral Canyon are rough, and tires like to stick to them.
True Off-Road Capability in the New Taco
We had a snort and rip regarding the factory mud flaps. Capable of potential collateral damage during use, they hung so low that everything taller than speed bumps were likely to greet them with contact. It’s likely their deep wake was taken to heart by the engineers, as the same flaps were built of thin, wispy plastic that bent from harm’s way like a reed in the wind. Certain to be removed prior to any serious horse-play, their capacity for flex could mitigate terrain contact.
In the dirt, small troubles were to be found with the bone-stock layout, but these were things that a little attention and tuning could eliminate in short order. The brakes were too touchy for close-quarters creeping (and for the slight movement necessary when hitching up for a tow), but this could have been the result of a press vehicle that’s lived hard, or it could be solved by installing different pads. The seat-belt tensioners would lock up during big-angle crawls too, and you’d think this would be dialed out or deactivated when the curtain airbags or low-range was engaged. Some switch placement was not intuitive, and a little random – with time in the truck, this would be a non-issue, but we occasionally found ourselves trying to remember what did what when you did things to it. A more consequential gripe with the switchgear is the interconnectivity of so many things – the locker in back only worked in low-range 4x4, for instance. If I want to drift a dirt road, I should be allowed to lock up the rear axle in two-wheel drive. The engine and chassis certainly had the poke for such an adventure.
Even articulated-out, there’s room underneath unless you’re a mud flap.
Despite a few niggling complaints, the package itself is at least third base regarding overall function. Off-road behavior is tidy and well sorted, even when some speed and larger whoop-style trail features are involved. On rough county-style dirt roads, the factory’s damping selections were downright pleasing, excellent for a stock configuration. When you take the time to decipher all the switches and buttons, a well-considered array of necessary off-road features is built into the truck. The TRD-packaged Tacoma works exceptionally well on- and off-road for a stock truck, and it would serve as an ideal platform for a life of dirt-play.
Taco for Your Thoughts?
- The slap-stickable automatic is a nice touch, and convenient off-road (so is the dash display of gear selection).
- Don’t be surprised by big cab twist and frame movement during high-articulation moments. It’s cool, and we saw no contact.
- The low-tech wickeresque floor mats were simple and tactilely pleasing.
- The fuel-filler shutoff activates more than a gallon before the tank is full. Somewhere, somehow, the twain shan’t meet.
- Why so much wind noise at the A-pillars?
- iPod/audio jack for the stereo? Best option ever.
- Toyota put some awful head rests into this truck – Booo! Turn ‘em around and your neck will thank you.
- Auto-LSD? Traction-control trying to do a locker’s job. It might not be your cup of tea, though TRD Off-Road Tacos like this one also have the good ol’ E-Locker so you’ll be alright.
- Owner’s manual? Spends a lot of time explaining what stuff is supposed to do, but makes it harder to get to the desired result. Either edit the book or the option list.