From off-road tough to on-road sporty, the Tacoma does it all.
by Dean Stevens
Base Price (MSRP) $11,845
As Tested (MSRP) $27,270
Toyota makes the Tacoma pickup truck to fit almost any work-related or recreational pursuit, with two- and four-wheel drive models as well as regular, extended and four-door versions. This year, the Tacoma comes in more configurations than ever before.
For 2001, the entire Tacoma line receives an exterior makeover to give it a more aggressive appearance and a few minor interior upgrades.
Toyota loyalists know that the company's trucks have earned a well-deserved reputation for quality and long-term durability. Tacoma fans also know how successful the brand has been in all types of off-road racing events.
New models added this year include a four-door version called the Double Cab. While this is not a new concept within the compact truck market, it's a first for the Tacoma. Also new this year is the extended cab S-Runner. This sport-oriented model comes with a special on-road suspension system, color-keyed grille, lower valence panel, and bumpers, special aluminum wheels, and a 190-horsepower V6 hooked up to a tuned exhaust system. Also new for 2001 include an available StepSide bed with bulging fender flares over the rear wheels and a small step behind the doors.
Base rear-wheel drive (4X2) Tacomas start at just under $12,000. Frugal in features, these are working machines powered by an economical 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine that will push them along for many years of reliable service.
The Tacoma PreRunner is a 4x2 truck with an off-road suspension. PreRunners are available in either regular, extended (Xtracab) or four-door Double Cab configurations. Choose between a 2.7-liter inline-4 and a 3.4-liter V6. PreRunners start at about $14,000.
The four-wheel drive end of the line is available in the same cab configurations, with either the 2.7 four-cylinder (starting just over $16,000) or the 3.4-liter V6 (starting at just over $19,000).
You can add a TRD (Toyota Racing Development) off-road option package to 2WD PreRunner or 4WD Xtracab models (except those equipped with four-cylinder engines 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. Also available from TRD is a fully warranted, dealer-installed supercharger for the 3.4-liter V6. The TRD blower boosts output by 40 percent, from 190 to 260 horsepower.
Aside from the minor facelift for this year, Tacomas have changed little in styling since they were introduced in 1995. We've recently spent time in 4x4 Limited, S-Runner, and four-cylinder StepSide models.
The Limited and the S-Runner each had the 3.4-liter V6 and Xtracab body style. But that's where the similarities ended.
The 4x4 has a tough, off-road look to it, with big, beefy tires and enough ground clearance to hop over medium-sized rocks and stumps. The S-Runner is much lower to the ground, and is graced with tasteful bodywork add-ons that go well with the handsome five-spoke alloy wheels and low-profile tires. In fact, several people stopped to admire the S-Runner and wanted to know where they could get one. The StepSide is a more modest-looking, practical truck, ready to do some work; the StepSide body features elegant external fenders, more shapely and less radical than most stepside-type pickup designs.
Tacoma's interior is straightforward, but much is new.
Changes for this year include new door trim, orange instrument illumination and available white-faced gauges, fabric bench seat, full-cut pile carpeting, door pockets, two auxiliary power outlets located under the cigarette lighter, dual cup holders, a driver-side foot rest, tinted windshield glass, auto-off headlights and adjustable front seatbelt anchors. In addition, all 2001 Tacomas have new electric rotary climate controls, a new four-spoke steering wheel and new seat fabric. We found the large instruments easy to read, the controls well placed and functional.
Xtracabs get a 60/40 split seat. In the extended rear cab area there's 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 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. The cloth trim seems to be of good quality.
The Tacoma has a pull out hand brake, which is inconvenient and seems old-fashioned.
It's snug sitting in the back seats of the Tacoma Double Cab. Getting in and out is awkward because the clearance around the B-pillar is narrow. The back seats of the Double Cab are best left for little people.
The 2001 Toyota Tacoma 4x4 SR5 equipped with the TRD package amazed us on a rough, primitive road near Big Sky, Montana. It felt like it would go anywhere, and get there in a big hurry. The suspension is fantastic, whether going slow or hauling. Bounding at speed over deep ruts failed to upset the handling in medium-speed corners. Predictably, the handling was much better balanced in four-wheel drive than in two-wheel drive.
It rides reasonably well, though it's stiff at low speeds. That stiffness pays off at higher speeds, however. Like all pickups, it's much better with a little weight in the bed. 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. The TRD suspension developed by Toyota and its off-road racing teams does a good job of smoothing out rough roads.
On the road, Toyota's Limited 4X4 held 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.
Autolocking hubs and a 4WD-High button let 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. (However, Toyota still offers manual hubs for drivers who want to be sure it's locked in or locked out of four-wheel drive.)
A 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.
We've also driven the 2001 S-Runner. We liked its deep-sounding (but not obnoxious) exhaust note and responsive handling. The five-speed manual transmission shifts smoothly and makes the truck more fun to drive. It makes accelerating into traffic a joy. The standard 3.4-liter V6 turns the S-Runner into a sprinter with 190 horsepower. The sport-tuned suspension setup includes Tokico gas shock absorbers, increased-rate springs, and front and rear stabilizer bars. Ride height is reduced by one inch from the standard 4x2. Though a little jouncy when empty, the ride never felt harsh, and handling was superb. As long as the weather doesn't get too slippery, the S-Runner is as entertaining as anything we've recently driven. It is so much fun that we kept searching for reasons to go for a spin. And for a tick under $18,000, it's a bargain.
We also used an S-Runner to move some furniture from Maryland to Virginia and, like all pickups, it rode better when loaded down. The lower ride height of the S-Runner is a real benefit when it's time to do some work. The bed height of the S-Runner measured 28 inches by our tape measure, a full 3.5 inches lower than a Ford Ranger 4x4 we had at the same time, and that makes a big difference when loading and unloading heavy objects.
Toyota's 3.4-liter V6 is also a good match for the optional four-speed electronically controlled transmission. This combination offers good acceleration performance for passing slow-moving semi trucks on two-lane stretches of highway.
The V6 is available for 4x2 and 4x4 models. It delivers 190 horsepower with 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 4x2 with a 5-speed manual.
Two four-cylinder engines are also available. The base Tacoma 4x2 uses a 142-horsepower 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, which compares well with competing for-cylinder models from Nissan, Ford and Mazda. The Toyota 2.4-liter is economical to run, with an EPA-estimated city/highway mileage of 22/26 mpg when matched with a 5-speed manual transmission. For 4X4 models, Toyota offers a 150-horsepower 2.7-liter four-cylinder.
There are bigger trucks on the market (including Toyota's full-sized, V8-powered Tundra), and there are more powerful trucks. But there are few 4x4 pickups that offer the combination of style, comfort, and rugged performance you find in the Tacoma Xtracab 4X4 Limited. The newly available Double Cab further diversifies the Tacoma lineup. Plus, cruising down your favorite with the S-Runner will never fail to brighten your day. Overall, the Tacoma is an impressive package.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.