High quality and civilization in a rugged package. by Ray Thursby
Like other areas of the world of trucks, civilization has overtaken the compact pickup class, and Toyota's Tacoma line is one of many proofs.
The first Japanese entries in this popular class were small, inexpensive and very, very basic. Datsun/Nissan and Toyota got into the market early; they were later joined by Mazda, Mitsubishi and Isuzu. At about the same time, U.S. manufacturers looked to the Japanese companies as sources for their own mini-pickups.
As time passed, the small trucks grew, and increasingly sophisticated buyers began to demand amenities far beyond an AM radio and floor mats. Today, the gap between compact and full-size pickups has narrowed considerably, whether the measure is dimensions or dollars.
Perhaps even more important, the gap between pickup truck and passenger car has shrunk as well. A softer ride, easier steering and a full list of car-like interior features is as much part of the new breed's makeup as a sturdy chassis and load-carrying ability. That's one of the reasons pickups have emerged as lifestyle statements; they're far better designed for serving all-around transportation needs than they were a decade ago.
Which brings us to Toyota's two year-old Tacoma, a prime example of the trend. Dimensionally, it is less than a foot shorter than the Chevrolet S-Series pickup, and has a larger cargo capacity than the standard-bed S-Series. Equipment-wise, it can match the Chevy almost line-for-line in options and powertrain choices. And it is assembled in the U.S., thus avoiding the import duties imposed on Japanese-sourced pickups.
More stylish, roomier, more refined and (potentially) better-equipped than ever, the Tacoma has a great deal to offer. The only drawback is one that's common to most Toyota products, and that's price. Feature for feature, Tacomas tend to cost more than most of their direct competitors. On the other hand, Toyota continues to set enviable quality standards, and its products tend to command high resale values as a direct result.
In any case, the Tacoma is a far cry from the early thin-skinned, bare-bones mini-trucks that once wore Toyota badges.
Gone, perhaps forever, is the boxy look of first-generation small trucks, replaced by smooth, rounded contours. That holds true for the Tacoma's nose, at least; there isn't much that can be done to round off the cargo box without cutting into load space. That's why you'll never see outstanding aerodynamic ratings for trucks.
Combined with the new sleekness are the obligatory hints of toughness: bulged fenders, prominent bumpers and plenty of ground clearance. The latter holds especially true for the 4X4 Tacomas; when the optional 31-inch tires are ordered, there's a full foot of space between ground and differential housings. That's both image-enhancing and highly useful for tough off-road excursions, though the big step up does make entry and egress more difficult for many people.
Two cab sizes -- regular, capable of seating two or three, and the five-passenger Xtracab -- share the same cargo box. The Xtracab rides on a 121.9-inch wheelbase, 18.6-inch longer than the standard truck. Either is available with two- or four-wheel drive, with a long list of trim packages and other options offered. Base versions have relatively plain exteriors; upgrade models have chrome bumpers and grilles.
Toyota makes three engines and two transmissions available in the Tacoma. The base 2.4-liter four-cylinder is wisely restricted to regular cab/2WD use only. The larger 2.7-liter four-cylinder is only slightly more powerful, but is also smoother and strong enough to deal with -- and mandatory for -- 4WD models.
But the best choice is the 3.4-liter V-6 which, like the more powerful of the two four-cylinder engines, is also used in the larger T100 pickup. Anyone who intends to use a Tacoma for serious off-road driving, pulling a trailer (up to 5000 pounds), or extended on-pavement trips will find this to be the most refined and quietest Tacoma powerplant.
It is equally well suited to either the standard five-speed manual transmission or optional four-speed automatic. And it also puts the Tacoma on a more competitive power footing with its U.S. rivals -- Ford Ranger, Dodge Dakota, Chevy S-Series and GMC Sonoma.
Our test truck was an Xtracab model with 4WD, V-6 engine and the oversize tires -- everything you need to go off-road and/or look cool on the boulevard.
The Inside Story
Toyota interiors are generally tops in class, and the Tacoma cabin is no exception. Base model standard cab passengers ride on a bench seat, which gets a split/fold feature in the Xtracab. A pair of bucket seats are installed in the SR5 Xtracab; these are the most comfortable of the three varieties.
Though the Xtracab's rear jump seats ostensibly make room for two more passengers, the available space is far better suited to cargo or small children, for whom a special restraint system is provided. The tilt-out rear quarter windows and folding table are welcome additions to the extended cab features list.
A car-like dashboard provides basic information -- augmented by a tachometer on the SR5 -- and carries radio and heat/vent controls. What it lacks (at least for this year) is a passenger-side airbag. Controls are laid out well, a pair of cupholders are conveniently located, and everything is covered in good (if not exactly lavish) fabrics and plastic.
To go beyond the basics costs more, the key factor in Toyota's relatively high pricing. Only the top-line SR5 has a radio as part of its list of standard equipment features; its AM/FM/cassette unit (or a simpler AM/FM radio) is optional on all other versions.
Air conditioning is an extra on all Tacomas, as are power assists for windows, mirrors, and door locks. Many of the 34 individual or package options Toyota lists are designed to upgrade base models to SR5 levels. While they give the buyer a great deal of leeway in configuring the Tacoma to suit his or her needs, they also drive the price up quickly.
Ride & Drive
On the highway, the V-6 Tacoma exhibits fine manners. It is reasonably quiet and copes well with passing maneuvers and grades. Though nowhere near as economical (17 mpg city, 19 highway in our test truck) as either of the less powerful engines, its increased performance makes it attractive nonetheless.
For a pickup truck, the Tacoma rides well. The coil-spring front suspension copes well with all but the worst potholes, and has enough travel to deal with off-road obstacles. Like almost all pickups, the Tacoma's rear axle's leaf springs do best when there's a load in the bed; with only a driver on board, the rear tends to react noticeably to freeway expansion joints and similar small bumps, and hops up and down over rough surfaces off road.
Tacomas with power steering (all V-6s, and available with the four-cylinder models) are easy to drive. Maneuverability is good, but it's prudent to remember that Xtracab Tacomas have a considerably larger turning radius (40.0 vs. 34.4 feet) than their shorter stablemates -- not quite as handy in close quarters like parking lots.
Once again, options play an important role in preparing Tacomas for their intended use. Anti-lock braking is recommended for all versions, while the 4X4's off-road capabilities are much improved by ordering the 31-inch tires. Standard-cab Tacomas can be ordered with a new Off-Road package that adds a rear differential lock to the larger tires plus a shift-on-the-fly 4WD system (with V-6 engine).
There are many points in the Tacoma's favor. It is rugged, well-finished, and as comfortable as any truck in its class. When the right extras are ordered, it can be downright lavish, and looks good when dressed up.
It's also a proven off-road performer, and the 4WD system is easy to use, even though it still entails a small separate transfer case shifter for engagement (some systems now have pushbuttons). It's possible to shift into high-range 4WD at speeds up to 50 mph.
But when price is factored in, the Tacoma is more difficult to justify. When similarly equipped, a full-size 1997 Ford F-150 -- a more comfortable, civilized and versatile machine -- costs little more. Trucks that compete directly with Tacoma in size generally undercut it in price.
Then again, there's the T-factor -- T for Toyota, of course. While there are lots of good trucks to choose from, we also know that there are very few dissatisfied Toyota owners in this world, cars, trucks or otherwise.
Order our 200+ page magazine of reviews. Send $8.00 (S&H included) to New Car Test Drive, 2145 Crooks Rd. Suite 200, Troy, MI 48084
© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.