Pros: Muscular V6; numerous body styles; convenient in-between size; sporty interior.

Cons: Fuel economy isn't great, even with the base inline-4 engine

Let's start our discussion of the 2012 Toyota Tacoma with what it's not. First and foremost, the Tacoma is not the small truck it used to be. It isn't coincidental that its standard four-cylinder engine won't get 30 mpg on the highway the way it used to, either. Nor is the Tacoma a big truck. Full-size pickups like its Tundra sibling are considerably heftier.

So what exactly is the Tacoma, then? Well, it's something that didn't exist until a few years ago: a mid-size truck. And for many truck fans, mid-size turns out to be just right.

If you've ever tried to fit a Tundra, Ram or Silverado into an urban parking space, you know what we mean. Trucks on that scale almost require the openness of rural America to thrive. But the mid-size Tacoma is much more versatile. It'll fit in your apartment's garage without much hassle, yet you can still tow up to 6,500 pounds and haul about 1,500 pounds with the V6.

We still have a soft spot for the compact Tacomas of yesteryear, but the current mid-size version offers a compelling mix of functionality and flexibility. It's a top choice if you're looking for a new truck and don't need the industrial-grade capabilities of a full-size model.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Toyota Tacoma comes in your choice of three different body styles: regular cab, Access Cab (extended) and Double Cab (crew). The Access has small rear "suicide" doors, while the Double has four conventional doors. Depending on what model you're interested in, the Tacoma offers a wide variety of standard equipment and options. The entry-level regular cab model boasts a limited-slip differential, but otherwise it just has the basics, which thankfully include air conditioning and a four-speaker stereo.

V6-equipped Tacomas get standard foglamps, and the numerous features offered on pricier Tacomas include alloy wheels up to 18 inches in diameter, skidplates for off-road protection, iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, premium JBL audio and Toyota's new smartphone-based Entune mobile app interface with a 6.1-inch touchscreen display.

Inside the 2012 Tacoma, we immediately noticed the crisp black-on-white numerals in the gauge cluster, a welcome upgrade from the old orange numerals. The main controls are exceptionally straightforward, and all but a few of the more technical audio controls-including the optional Entune touchscreen's virtual buttons-should be operable with gloves on. Most of the materials seem durable enough, although we wonder how long the silver-painted plastic trim will last before it starts to degrade.

The base Tacoma regular cab features a three-person front bench, but most Tacomas will have front bucket seats. These come in different forms; we'd look for the ones with adjustable driver lumbar support, as long-distance driving comfort will improve significantly. Our only other complaint up front is that the seats aren't mounted high as in other trucks and SUVs, so you don't get the full king-of-the-road feeling. The Access Cab model's back seat is more of a cargo hold than a passenger compartment; only kids or small adults will fit back there without complaint. The Double Cab Tacoma is a legitimate two-row vehicle, providing adult-size space when you need it.

The Tacoma comes with one of two bed lengths: 60.3 inches (Double Cab) or 73.5 inches (standard on regular and Access Cab; optional on Double Cab).

Technology

You might expect a utilitarian pickup to be thin on technology options, but the Tacoma's out to prove you wrong. Many Tacoma models offer iPod/USB and Bluetooth connectivity, while the Double Cab V6 can even be equipped with Entune, Toyota's new smartphone-based mobile-app interface. If you have a compatible phone (ask your Toyota dealer for details), you download the Entune app from Toyota and then hook your phone up to the 6.1-inch touchscreen. From there, the Entune software uses your phone as a data hub to power an array of apps, including Pandora Internet radio and OpenTable dining services. It's the kind of cutting-edge technology that you're unlikely to find in most trucks.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Most Tacomas offer a choice of rear- or four-wheel drive with low-range gearing. The base engine is a 2.7-liter inline-4 rated at 159 horsepower and 180 lb-ft of torque, and it comes with either a five-speed manual transmission or a four-speed automatic. The inline-4 actually provides respectable acceleration off the line, because Toyota has tuned it to provide more low-end torque at the expense of high-end power. Fuel economy is surprisingly unimpressive, though-the maximum is 21 mpg city/25 mpg highway with the RWD manual, while the 4WD manual dips to just 18/20 mpg.

Still, the 4.0-liter V6, which cranks out 236 hp and 266 lb-ft, is considerably less efficient, topping out at 17/21 mpg with RWD and the five-speed automatic-and sliding down to 15/19 mpg with 4WD and the six-speed manual. We like the V6's capabilities, though, as it really unlocks the Tacoma's towing and hauling potential. Acceleration is strong, too.

Safety

The Tacoma comes standard with stability control, active front headrests and front, side, and side curtain airbags.

In government crash tests, the Tacoma Double Cab received an overall score of four stars out of five, including three stars for frontal impact and five stars for side impact. The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Tacoma its highest score of Good in all categories except roof strength, where the Tacoma got a subpar Marginal grade.

Driving Impressions

The Tacoma's driving character is hard to sum up because there are so many different models. We mentioned the low seating position, which makes the mid-size Tacoma feel like more of a hulk than it really is, but otherwise the Tacoma feels quite maneuverable from behind the wheel. We found parking to be a relative breeze. The 4WD models have a higher center of gravity, so handling suffers a bit. On the other hand, a 4WD Tacoma with the special TRD Off-Road Package is a beast in the dirt, while the TRD Sport Package optimizes on-road handling. Suffice it to say that if you want a mid-size truck, there's likely a Tacoma variant that drives to your liking.

Other Cars to Consider

Nissan Frontier - Although the Frontier lacks a regular cab to compete with the base Tacoma, it otherwise goes toe to toe with the Toyota, from its four- and six-cylinder engines to its extended-cab and crew-cab configurations.

Chevrolet Colorado - We generally wouldn't recommend the Colorado over the Tacoma, but if you can find a Colorado for cheap with the 5.3-liter V8, you'll have the fastest mid-size truck on the block-if you're into that sort of thing.

AutoTrader Recommends

The beauty of the Tacoma is that Toyota makes one for practically every purpose, but we'd love to have the TRD Off-Road Package on ours. Like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, we just think there's something cool about a tough, trail-ready Toyota pickup.

author photo

Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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