2003 Toyota Tacoma
 2003 Toyota Tacoma
 2003 Toyota Tacoma

The Tacoma is the worthy successor of the iconic SR5 pickup that first appeared in the U.S. in late 1970s. Although Toyota trucks have been in the U.S. since 1965, it was the SR5 and its kissing cousin, the 4Runner, that set Toyota on a sales tear, pulling buyers both young and old from the arms of the traditional domestic brands and creating an entirely new class of pickup: the sport compact. Toyota pickups of the 70s and 80s earned a well-deserved reputation for longevity, with owners touting stories of reaching 100, 200 and even 300,000 miles. But, by the late 90s, Toyota’s reputation was beginning show some tarnish, with early model Tacoma owners complaining of problems with frame rust, head gasket failure and poor paint quality. Additionally, the government assigning the Tacoma some of its lowest side impact crash test ratings.

 

Why You Want It

The Tacoma is fun, inexpensive, cool, fuel efficient, hip, great off-road, youthful, and above all else, reliable. It’s the only truck we can think of that crosses all demographic boundaries, as beloved by the tree-hugging environmentalist crowd as it is to the earth-ravaging four-wheeler set. The 1995-2004 Tacoma’s long run bodes well for those seeking a good condition used model. It’s a well established pickup that holds its value well into old age. Perhaps the most difficult decision will be which model to choose. The Tacoma is offered in Regular or Xtracab (extended), with a long or short bed (Double Cab), two- or four-wheel drive and four or six-cylinder engines. The two-wheel-drive PreRunner is a popular model (so named for the two-wheel drive test vehicles off-road racers use before tackling an off-road course in their four-wheel drive trucks) as is the Double Cab which debuted in 2001.

 

Notable Features & Options

With such a broad range of vehicles spanning so many years, there is no way to list all the features, but here are some of the most important. Base trucks come with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual; four-wheel-drive trucks feature a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine. Upgrades include an automatic transmission, a choice between four-wheel drive systems (manually locking hubs or shift-on-the-fly four-wheel drive), and 3.4-liter V6. Anti-lock brakes are available throughout the model run and a driver-side airbag is standard. Tacomas built after 1998 include a passenger side airbag. Standard features on most base trims include a cloth bench seat and full carpeting. Xtracab models have a 60/40 split bench seat, flip-out rear quarter windows, folding jump seats and a foldout table with cup holders. Available features on the higher end SR5, PreRunner and Limited trims include air conditioning, bucket seats, center console, cruise control, full gauge package including tachometer, chrome bumpers, a sliding rear window, tilt wheel, power mirrors, power locks, power windows and an AM/FM cassette stereo with four speakers. Also available is a locking rear differential and three heavy-duty off-road packages..

 

Model Milestones

1995 – An all new Tacoma debuts

1996 – A new Off Road Package is offered featuring a locking rear differential, aluminum wheels and 31 inch tires. On V6 models, the package includes bucket seats and 4-Wheel Demand, which allows shifting into four-wheel drive while moving.

1997 – Minor changes are made to the 2WD model’s front end, while popular options are made more available across the line.

1998 – The TRD Off-Road Package and PreRunner Package are introduced for the first time, while a passenger side airbag with cut-off switch is made standard.

1999 – No major changes for 1999.

2000 – Daytime Running Lights (DRL) are added to trucks equipped with ABS.

2001 – A four-door Double Cab model debuts, while PreRunner Double Cab models offer a StepSide bed option. New for 2001 is the sporty S-Runner package.

2002 – An optional fiberglass shell designed by Snugtop is offered on Double Cab models.

2003 – Anti-lock brakes (ABS) are made standard on all models.

2004 – Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) is made available on PreRunner V6 and 4WD V6 models.

 

Engines and Performance

With only 142 horsepower, the stock 2.4-liter four-cylinder is not quick, but it gets the job done, especially when teamed to the five speed manual transmission. The larger 2.7-liter four produces 150 horsepower and is standard on four-wheel-drive models. If you’re going with a 4x4, we suggest the 3.4-liter V6. Its 190 horsepower and 220 lbs.-ft of torque make it well suited for off-road adventures as well as competent highway passing maneuvers. Handling is good for a small pickup, with the best suspension found on the PreRunner and S-Runner models. Cabin space is fairly generous for up front, but the Xtracabs folding jump seats are barely big enough for kids, let alone two adults. If the shorter bed length doesn’t bother you, go for the Double Cab. As for the Tacoma’s off-road abilities, we can best describe them as formidable. With a choice between manually locking hubs or a more automated four-wheel drive system that includes a locking rear differential, the Tacoma is a favorite among off-road enthusiasts, rock crawlers and snow bunnies alike.

 

Recalls, Safety Ratings and Warranties

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, has issued the following recalls for the 1995-2004 Toyota Tacoma:

1995 -96 – Recalls were issued for a possible defect in the positive and negative battery terminals and for a possibly defective front suspension support that may crack, leading to loss of steering control.

1996 – A recall was issued for a possible defective cruise control module that could lead to unintended acceleration.

1998 – A recall was issued for a misstatement in the owners manual about the proper use of the passenger-off airbag switch.

1999-2000 – A recall was issued for possibly defective wiring harnesses converters on dealer installed trailer tow packages.

2001-04– A recall was issued for a possible problem with the Double Cab’s fuel inlet hose connecting the fuel filler pipe to the gas tank. In side-impact testing, a flange at the rear end of the truck deformed and interfered with the fuel inlet. A recall was also issued for a possible defect in the front suspension lower ball joint that could lead to premature failure and separation.

Recall repairs are required by law even if the vehicle is out of warranty. Your dealer can check to see if the repairs were performed and if not, will fix the car at no charge to you.

As for safety, NHSTA gives the 1995-2004 Toyota Tacoma mixed reviews. Early models (1995-1996) earn only one or two stars out of a possible five in the driver’s side front end crash test; the passenger fares better with three out of five stars. After 1998, the driver’s scores improve to three and four stars (variations depending on model), and 2005 models earned five out of five stars. Side impact crash tests performed on 1999-01 models were also poor, resulting in a safety concern warning. 2003 through 2004 models test better, with Double Cab models earning five out of five stars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety did not perform a side-impact crash test, but did give the 1998-2004 Tacoma a rating of ACCEPTABLE in its frontal off-set crash test.

The 1995-2004 Toyota Tacoma has a 3-year/36,000 mile power train warranty and a 5-year/unlimited corrosion warranty. As all of these vehicles are passed the three year mark and are too old to qualify for Toyota’s Certified Pre Owned program, a used Tacoma will not have any kind of warranty protection available. To cover yourself, we suggest you take your potential purchase to an authorized Toyota shop and have them to a thorough inspection before you buy the vehicle. It may also be wise to use a service such as CARFAX to check the vehicle’s history.

 

Word on the Web

There’s a lot to read about the Toyota Tacoma, both on and off the Web. Consumer sites such as Consumer Reports only test back to the 2001 model, but their ratings are nearly all excellent with the exception of some paint and brake issues on 2001 and 2002 V6 models. CarComplaints.com similarly has little bad to say about the 1995-2004 Tacoma. Owners generally praise the Tacoma, with many having bought the vehicle second hand and still loving its durability and reliability. We did find more than a few threads about head gasket problems on early four-cylinder models (Toyota covered the repairs under warranty) and some rust and paint issues. It was also noted that Toyota was very good about fixing or repurchasing vehicles with frame rust.

 

Auto Trader Recommendations

Given the safety history of the early model trucks, if we were picking a Tacoma, it would have to be a 2001 or newer. In a perfect world, we’d say get the 2004 V6 with VSC, but that may be difficult to find. If you don’t need to go off-roading, the PreRunner models have all the looks of the 4x4 but for about two grand less overall. The Xtracab V6 4X4 with the TRD is our favorite off-road pick, followed by the Double Cab V6 in Limited trim.

 

Competitive Set

Nissan Frontier

Ford Ranger

Chevrolet S-10

Dodge Dakota

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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