4X4 models among the best available.

by Dean Stevens

Base Price $11,528
As Tested $28,596

It's a given that Toyota makes tough, high-quality trucks. The basic Tacoma pickups offer economy and value and those Toyota attributes of quality, durability and reliability. The TRD (Toyota Racing Development) trucks are designed to be sporty, fun-to-drive off-road warriors. These spunky TRD trucks, available in either 2WD or 4WD are just the thing for people who want to play on rough tracks, moguls, or sand dunes. Or for those who have to deal with snow, mud, or ice as part of winter life. Surprisingly, though, the TRD trucks feature a superb ride on pavement-a ride that belies the serious offroad suspension underneath them.

Model Lineup

There's something for everybody in the Tacoma line-up. Base 4X2 Tacomas start at just under $12,000. Frugal in features, these are working machines powered by an economical 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder engine that will push them along for many years of reliable service.

If you want something a little more rugged in appearance and performance you might want to look at a Tacoma PreRunner. These 2WD trucks feature an off-road suspension. They are available in either regular cab or the extended Xtracab configurations. Choose between a 2.7-liter inline-4 and a 3.4-liter V6. PreRunners start at about $14,000.

The 4X4 end of the line is also available in regular and Xtracab configurations, with either the 2.7 4-cylinder (starting just over $16,000) or the 3.4-liter V6 (starting at just over $19,000). The Xtracab 4X4 Limited, which starts just under $25,000, comes loaded with features and chrome.

You can add a TRD off-road option package to 2WD PreRunner or 4WD Xtracab models except those equipped with 4-cylinder and automatic transmissions. The TRD package adds Bilstein shocks, locking rear differential, increased-rate front coil springs and rear leaf spring suspension, modified camber rear springs, a larger stabilizer bar, 31x10.5R15 white-letter Goodyear tires, overfenders (color-keyed on Limited models), and special graphics. As a $435 option on the V-6 Xtracab Limited, it's a bargain.

This fall, Toyota will introduce Double Cab (four-door crew cab) and Step Side models.

Walkaround

Aside from a minor facelift in 1998, Tacomas have changed little in styling since they were introduced in 1995. For the 2000 model year, Toyota added two new colors (Black Sand Metallic and Lunar Mist Metallic), and an appearance package on Tacomas with Sunfire Red Pearl exteriors. The package includes color-keyed front and rear bumpers, grille, door handles, and exterior mirrors. A color package that features color-keyed front bumper, valence, and grille is available on other models.

Interior Features

Tacoma's interior is straightforward. The instruments are large and easy to read, the controls well placed and functional. Standard interior features include carpeting, two auxiliary power outlets, dual cup holders, a diver-side footrest, and adjustable front seatbelts. Xtracabs get a 60/40 split seat and, in the extended rear cab area, a little table that folds up to serve as either a cup holder or as a support for a child-restraint seat.

Drivers over 6 feet tall will find the regular cab a mite cramped for space. The Xtracab has a little more legroom (41.7 inches versus 42.8) and, more important, room to recline the seat.

The Xtracab's standard 60/40 split bench seat is comfortable for driver and front passenger. The big bucket seats in the Xtracab Limited we test drove felt too big for the cab - they gave the space a cramped feeling. But they sure were comfortable. And that lumbar support in the driver's seat was a godsend on a long drive.

Driving Impressions

We drove an Xtracab 4X4 Limited from Los Angeles to the desert town of Yuma. During this four-hour drive Toyota's 4x4 behaved with good manners, providing a surprisingly smooth ride and excellent handling.

Toyota's 3.4-liter V6 is a powerful engine, and it's matched well to the optional four-speed electronically controlled transmission. This combination offers good acceleration performance for passing, allowing us to cruised around slow-moving semi trucks on two-lane stretches of a highway skirting the Salton Sea with no trouble.

But the amazing thing is the ride. It used to be that a four-wheel-drive truck rode like it was going over the wooden plank road that used to be the only way to cross the Imperial Sand Dunes in the 1920s. With a suspension developed by Toyota and its off-road racing teams, this truck rode like we were traversing newly rolled blacktop, not sun-buckled asphalt. At times it was easy to forget that we were driving a 4WD truck. Only the occasional extra front-end bounce inspired by a bump in the road reminded us that this was, indeed, a 4X4. Toyota's 4X4 also holds corners very well. With its high center of gravity you don't want to try anything too radical, but it really hangs onto the decreasing-radius turns on freeway on-ramps and in other moderate maneuvers.

Bypassing the Imperial Dunes for the less traveled desert surrounding Yuma revealed lots of different terrain to try out, from rough, almost nonexistent, dirt roads to steep sandy hills that would turn back a lesser truck. Our truck featured autolocking hubs (Toyota still offers manual hubs) and a 4WD-High button that lets you shift on the fly at speeds less than 50 mph. The shift-on-the-fly button lets you slip into 4-High when a good road goes bad on you. This happened near Yuma when a dirt road we were tooling down turned sandy.

That same sand patch gave us the opportunity to try the push-button locking differential. We purposely stopped in the middle of the pool of sand. Pressing the button locked the rear differential, forcing the rear wheels to turn at the same speed. This enabled the Tacoma to walk out of the ankle-deep sand with absolutely no trouble. The locking rear differential is indispensable for driving in an area prone to mud and snow. At moderate speed over desert moguls the Tacoma suspension keeps the tires on the terrain for good grip without jarring the occupant's internal organs loose.

The 3.4-liter V6 is available in either 2WD or 4WD models. It's a little screamer with 24 valves and twin cams. It puts out 190 horsepower and 220 foot-pounds of torque at 3600 rpm. Even at that it's still reasonably economical with an EPA city/highway mileage rating of 18/21 on a 2WD with a 5-speed manual.

Two four-cylinder engines are also available. The base Tacoma 2WD uses a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. This impressive powerplant puts out 142 horsepower and 169 foot-pounds of torque at 4000 rpm. It compares well to Frontier's 2.4-liter (143 hp and 154 ft.-lbs. of torque), and even better against the Ford Ranger and Mazda B-2500 2.5-liter engines (119 hp and 146 ft.-lbs. of torque). The Toyota 2.4-liter is economical to run, too, with an EPA-estimated city/highway mileage of 22/26 mpg when matched with a 5-speed manual transmission. It might wilt on steep grades and you certainly don't want to tow anything big with it, but otherwise it's a nice, economical engine that's well matched to a good, basic truck.

For 4X4 models, Toyota offers a beefed-up 2.7-liter four-cylinder that puts out 150 horsepower and 177 foot-pounds of torque. This engine is equipped with a direct ignition system that replaces the distributor with a crank fire sensor and an individual coil for each cylinder. This results in more accurate timing, and helps an onboard computer detect and correct misfires.

Final Word

There are bigger trucks on the market (including Toyota's new full-sized Tundra), and there are more powerful trucks. But there are few 4WD trucks that offer the combination of style, comfort, and rugged performance you find in the Tacoma Xtracab 4X4 Limited.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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