Lifestyle

Toyota Tacoma: A Rugged Winner


The redesigned pickup delivers good looks, a powerful V-6, solid handling -- and more bad news for Detroit

Toyota's new Tacoma midsize pickup truck, totally redesigned and updated in 2005, is really mopping the floors with its competition. In the first two months of this year, Tacoma sales were up 28.4%, to 26,145 units, quite a contrast to the huge drops suffered by rival models. During the same period sales were down 20.7%, to 12,569, for the Ford (F) Ranger; 24%, to 10,843, for DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) Dodge Dakota; 41%, to 10,845, for General Motors' (GM) Chevy Colorado; and 46.2%, to 25,564, for the GMC Canyon, the Colorado's sister model.

The extent of the Tacoma's success is surprising because Detroit used to dominate the pickup market, and truck buyers are notoriously loyal to their brands. Moreover, the latest models from GM, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler are pretty decent. The Dakota, Colorado, and Canyon have all been redesigned in the last couple of years, and the Ranger, though long in the tooth, is still a very nice truck (Full disclosure: I own an older Ranger and love it).

It's also surprising because Toyota's (TM) other pickup offering, the full-size Tundra, hasn't been quite such a huge hit. Tundra sales were only up 1.2%, to 20,025, in the first two months of the year, though many buyers may be waiting for a new, redesigned Tundra due out this fall.

RESALE ADVANTAGE.

So why is the Tacoma selling so well? The obvious answer is that Toyota really hit the sweet spot in the market with its redesign. The Tacoma's macho styling makes it a lot less bland than most Toyotas, it matches rival models on available features, and it can be purchased with a powerful, 236 horsepower V-6 engine that makes it very quick.

Buyers are also making a basic financial calculation. Tacomas may cost a bit more than competing models: A two-wheel drive base model with a 159-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and regular cab starts at $14,585, while a fancy four-wheel drive, four-door model with the V-6 engine starts at $26,420 and can easily top $30,000 with options. And Toyota dealers won't haggle as much on price as other dealers. But Tacomas have such a strong reputation for quality and reliability that late-model used ones often sell for almost as much as new vehicles.

"Resale value was the deciding factor for me," says my rural Pennsylvania neighbor John Ford, a civilian employee of the U.S. Army, who last year traded in his Chevy truck for a Tacoma.

QUIET RIDE.

I recently test-drove a loaded-up 2006 Tacoma, and it's quite a truck. The interior appointments are outstanding, for one thing. The cloth upholstery is attractive and easy to clean. The bucket seats in the big-cab models are comfortable and supportive, and you can adjust the driver's seat quite high for that sitting-on-top-of-the-world feeling you get in bigger pickup trucks.

The knobs are large and easy to use with gloves on, and there are numerous cup and bottle holders. The passenger seat folds down to form a little table for picnicking. The rear seats are split 60/40 and can be folded down to create a big space for hauling cargo or dogs.

Consumer Reports magazine, while recommending the Tacoma, gripes that its ride is "stiff" -- but I found it quite comfortable. I was also surprised how quiet the cabin is. If you're used to driving an older, noisier pickup, you feel like something is missing -- and eventually realize it's just the excess noise. Though the center of gravity is much higher than in a sedan, the Tacoma handles well, with surprisingly little roll during hard cornering.

MILEAGE MATTERS.

The crew cab on my loaner truck was nowhere near as roomy as the Mega Cab on larger Dodge RAM pickup trucks, but it's a big improvement over the sardine-can effect you once experienced in small pickups with club cabs (see BW Online, 3/22/06, "Dodge's Living Room on Wheels"). There's plenty of shoulder and hip space, while leg and head room are a little cramped.

Most adults wouldn't be comfortable in the back seats on long drives. The rear seat supposedly holds three adults, but the middle person would be very cramped. However, the alternative -- the extended cab, which Toyota calls the "access" cab -- only has jump seats in back and is mainly good for carrying kids or cargo.

If fuel economy is your priority, the regular cab, two-wheel-drive Tacoma with a four-cylinder engine is rated to get 20 miles per gallon in the city and 27 on the highway. But I would definitely go with the V6 if you like to drive. The club-cab version with the V6 and four-wheel drive is rated to get a fairly respectable 17 mpg in the city and 21 on the highway. In a one stretch of 169 miles of mixed driving I got 19.2 mpg.

TAKE YOUR PICK.

With the towing package and big engine, a Tacoma can pull up to 6,500 lbs., which is plenty for most recreational uses. A key choice you have to make with the club-cab version is whether to go with the six-foot-long bed or the five-foot bed. John Ford, my neighbor, went with the longer bed so he could fit his dirt-bike motorcycle in back. The tradeoff is that with the long bed and the club cab, the Tacoma is 221 inches long, making tight turns and parking difficult.

The Tacoma comes in numerous other permutations. There's the Prerunner version of the two-wheel drive Tacoma with the heavy duty suspension, for instance, as well as a sporty X-Runner with the V6, an extended cab, sport-tuned suspension, and a six-speed manual transmission.

There are also two optional sport packages for a little over $3,000 each that add sports suspension, alloy wheels, and special exterior graphics to the standard models. Other key options include stability control ($800), a towing package ($650), side curtain airbags ($650), and an upgraded JBL sound system ($560).

MINOR GRIPES.

Several special features are worth noting. There are handy storage compartments in the sides of the rear bed, as well as a 110 volt electrical socket. Though the owner's manual discourages it, John Ford says he has plugged in everything from a TV to a power saw without incident. Pressure monitors that warn you if the tires are low on air are now standard. They even monitor the spare -- a boon if you've ever gone to change a tire only to discover that it was flat.

My complaints about the Tacoma are minor. Some of the interior styling -- like the bright chromed perforated plastic material on the center stack -- is a bit garish. And Toyota really needs to improve the design of the three headrests on the rear seat of the club-cab version of the truck. You have to take them off to fold down the rear seat, which is a pain. And they badly obscure the view out the rear window, which is dangerous. Other than that, this truck is a real coup. If the new Tundra turns out to be anything like the Tacoma, watch out Detroit!


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