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Buying a Used Toyota Tacoma: Everything You Need to Know

In the realm of compact and midsize pickups, the Toyota Tacoma name is legendary, which is why buying a used Tacoma might seem like a no-brainer. The Tacoma has always had a rather youthful appeal, and its abilities as a light-duty compact truck equal its off-road chops. The Tacoma spans a number of years and variations, some with near-perfect records for reliability, resale, and overall owner satisfaction, but others with dubious issues that don’t always come up when the conversation turns to the Tacoma’s bulletproof reputation.

As with all things mechanical, the Tacoma is not perfect, and there are many areas where this venerable Toyota is outperformed by its competition. That said, just be well-informed about your future purchase, and don’t automatically assume that all Tacomas are created equal.

Which Toyota Tacoma Should I Buy?

There are technically only three generations of the Toyota Tacoma. The first began in 1995, but the Tacoma has undergone numerous changes across the years. Before there was a Tacoma, there was the Toyota Truck, which by the 1970s had caught on big with the public. Over time, the Toyota Truck grew in size and popularity. It reached its pinnacle around the mid-1980s when it was the in truck among young, import-loving buyers. Most of these trucks, built between 1989 and 1994, are now little more than rust buckets or photo album memories — but if you can find one in good shape, they have a reputation for going 200,000, 300,000, and even 400,000 miles. This generation of truck is also very attractive and helped set Toyota’s truck design language for the next few decades.

The Tacoma officially came to life in 1995 as a replacement for the Toyota Truck.

Though the two looked similar, the Tacoma was superior in ride comfort, power, technology, and safety. The Tacoma’s interior was very upscale and light years ahead of the Ford Ranger and the Chevrolet S-10, which were aging. The new truck was instantly successful with the off-road crowd thanks to its impressively high payload, rugged 4-wheel-drive design, and generous approach and departure angles. The lineup consisted of a standard cab, an extended Xtracab, and a shortened crew cab that Toyota called the Double Cab. Toyota also made a 2-wheel drive model called the PreRunner, which had the lifted ride height and wheels from the 4×4 model but not the 4×4 system.

Throughout this generation, Toyota offered various trims with added features, but every trim used the same frame, suspension, and engines. The powertrain lineup consisted of a 142-hp 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, a 150-hp 2.7-liter 4-cylinder, and a 190-hp 3.4-liter V6. TRD, Toyota’s racing development team, produced an aftermarket supercharger for the V6 that boosted the horsepower to 254 and gave it 270 lb-ft of torque. For the most part, we think the V6 works best in the Tacoma, giving it the power it needs to pull, haul, and off-road. But the miserly fuel economy of the 4-cylinder trucks is hard to ignore — if you go that route, pick the 2.7-liter.

Now for the bad news. This generation held up fairly well from a mechanical point of view, but rust issues took a heavy toll on its reputation. It got so bad that Toyota had to extend the rust and corrosion warranty to 15 years and unlimited miles for 1995-2004 Tacomas. The issue was excessive rust in the frame and in the leaf springs. In many cases, Toyota either replaced the truck’s frame or repurchased the vehicle. There were also several recalls during this time — most of the related to build quality. It’s important to note that for this generation of Tacoma, production was moved to the joint Toyota/GM facility in Fremont, California, and to Mexico.

Even with its many issues, a used Tacoma in this range is still going to be pricier than a comparable Ford, Chevrolet or Nissan pickup. A look a few examples from the Autotrader classifieds shows that a 2002 Tacoma Double Cab with between 125,000 and 150,000 miles sells for between $8,000 and $13,000, depending on the trim and its features. Adding 4WD pushes the price up a few thousand dollars.

On the second go-round in 2005, Toyota made the Tacoma larger and built it better, officially upgrading it from a compact to a midsize pickup. Toyota paid particular attention to improve the Tacoma’s safety, which raised some of the worst side and front crash test ratings into the best side and front crash test ratings. Its configurations were renamed the Regular Cab, the Access Cab, and the Crew Cab, the latter two getting roomier to better accommodate rear-seat passengers. The second-generation Tacoma offered 5- and 6-foot beds and even more options, including a new 4.0-liter V6 touting 236 hp. This engine, along with the truck’s new frame, gave the Tacoma a max payload rating of 1,650 pounds and a max tow rating of 6,500 pounds. In an attempt to appeal to urban-dwelling customers, Toyota created the Tacoma X-Runner.

This quasi-sport truck featured the 4.0-liter engine and a 6-speed manual transmission, but it had 2WD and a lowered suspension. It was impressive enough to be named Motor Trend’s 2004 Truck of the Year. The Tacoma gained more technology in these years, including such features as downhill assist, hill-start assist, a locking rear differential, and more off-road packages with improved bracing and suspension parts. In 2009, the Tacoma got some major safety upgrades, including Toyota’s Star Safety System, which added side-impact and head-curtain airbags. Later, Toyota replaced the limited-slip differential and the locking rear differential with an open electronic design that used the ABS to simulate the same response. In 2010, Toyota moved Tacoma production to San Antonio, Texas.

If you’re looking for an all-purpose pickup with a heavy emphasis on off-road adventuring, the best-used models run in the 20122015 range. The Tacomas in these years got a major makeover, with better styling and more upscale interior options. The X-Runner could be fitted with a TRD supercharger that bolted right on and increased the V6’s horsepower to 304. After 2015, the Regular Cab model went away and the TRD Pro Package was added. This setup was the ultimate in OEM off-road equipment and included Bilstein shocks, a 2-inch lift, a TRD exhaust, 16-in TRD bead-lock style black alloy wheels, a hood scoop, and unique TRD paint and trim details.

As with the previous generation, pricing for a second-generation Tacoma is going to be on the high-end of the used pickup market, even with high mileage. A few examples we found include a 2005 Toyota Tacoma 2WD Access Cab PreRunner with 200,000 miles listed for $9,000, a Tacoma 4WD Double Cab with 75,000 miles listed for $23,000, and a 2015 Tacoma with the TRD package and 6,000 miles listed for nearly $30,000.

The current-generation Toyota Tacoma came to be in 2016.

Styling became more familiar, with strong links to the larger Tundra and the 4Runner. The 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine remained on the base trucks, but a new 3.5-liter V6 engine putting out 278 horsepower replaced the 4.0-liter engine. Manual and automatic transmissions remained in the lineup, as did optional 4WD. The frame and body were made stronger and lighter, and, Toyota having learned their lesson, treated from top to bottom in rust-resistant materials.

There are just six trims:

  1. SR
  2. SR5
  3. Limited
  4. TRD PRO
  5. TRD Sport
  6. TRD Off-Road

If you’re looking for a low-mileage used Tacoma with modern convenience features like a touchscreen infotainment system, more safety upgrades, and more room, this is the Tacoma to seek. However, it should be noted that the early models in this generation were plagued by many issues, which severely lowered the truck’s Consumer Reports and J.D. Power ratings.

Most of these issues were resolved with software upgrades and don’t show up on the 2018 and newer models. If you are looking for the latest in driver assistance technology, look for a truck from 2018 or later. These models will include pre-collision braking with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning with sway warning, automatic high beams and adaptive cruise control.

The Toyota Tacoma received a nice facelift for the 2020 model year. This update included a refreshed exterior and new standard and available tech features. Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, and Amazon Alexa became standard on every trim. There were also larger touchscreens available, an available surround-view monitor and multi-terrain monitor, and — finally — an optional power-adjustable driver’s seat. The 2020 update helped to keep the Tacoma more competitive against more modern rivals.

Expect to pay top dollar for a newer Tacoma; late-model Ford Rangers and Chevrolet Colorados offer newer designs, features, and abilities for less money.

Is the Toyota Tacoma really as good as everyone says it is?

Mechanically, the Tacoma has always been as sound as its reputation proclaims. With the exception of a few early years where 4-cylinders saw head gasket issues and cracked exhaust manifolds, the Tacoma has a very good track record for reliability and low repair costs. Where the truck falls down, of course, is in the generations plagued by rust issues. However, Toyota has taken extraordinary steps to remedy the problem. Most trucks that were affected should have been repaired or they’re otherwise free of the issue.

Why does the Toyota Tacoma cost so much more than other midsize pickups?

The Tacoma has an excellent reputation as a trouble-free pickup with strong reliability ratings and resale value. They’re also in high demand in the used truck market and can therefore fetch a higher premium.

How much can a Toyota Tacoma tow and haul?

With the 4-cylinder engine, the first- and second-generation Tacoma models can tow about 3,500 pounds and carry payloads up to 1,600 pounds. With the V6 engine, the trailer rating increases to 5,000 pounds, and the payload rating increases between 1,600 and 2,000 pounds, depending on the model. The current Tacoma V6 is tow-rated up to 6,800 pounds with a max payload of 1,540 pounds.

What kind of safety record does the Toyota Tacoma have?

The first-generation Tacoma was not known for its great crash-test results. Even though some models had airbags, the front- and side-impact protection was only average. The same holds for other compact pickups of this era, so this issue isn’t specific to Toyota. Tacomas from 2005 and later do much better, with 5-star ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They also earn Good ratings in the moderate-overlap front crash and side-impact tests from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The latest Tacoma, with Toyota’s added driver-assist and accident prevention systems, scores very well on the same tests.

What Are Some Known Issues With the Toyota Tacoma?

As mentioned above, rust and corrosion were the biggest issues in the Tacoma’s early years. Trucks made between 1995 and 2004 suffered from frame and bed rust, but many were covered under Toyota’s extended warranty. The warranty would either fix or replace the vehicle’s frame. Second-generation models, made between 2005 and 2011, saw a massive 680,000 vehicle recall for corrosion issues. These issues could cause the rear leaf springs to fail. Other issues in this generation include problems with the front wheel bearings and in the front differential on 4×4 models.

The 2016 and 2017 models suffered some teething issues out the door, namely problems with slow or delayed transmission shifts, faulty camshaft sensors, and stalling issues with a wide-open throttle. Toyota resolved most of these problems with simple software upgrades. There was also a recall related to leaky differentials for 2016-17 model year vehicles.

How Does the Toyota Tacoma Stack Up to the Competition?

Used Toyota Tacoma vs. Ford Ranger

Early-model Rangers, up to the 2012 model year, were not as reliable as the Tacoma, but they offered a few more engines and trim levels. The Ranger is a good off-road truck when properly equipped, but it can’t tow or haul as much as a Tacoma can. The newest Ranger, introduced in 2019, is a formidable challenger to the Tacoma, but it only comes with one engine option: a turbocharged 4-cylinder.

Used Toyota Tacoma vs. Used Chevrolet Colorado/S-10

In the early years, between 1995 and 2004, the S-10 was Chevrolet’s compact pickup. It was nowhere near as reliable or powerful as the Tacoma, and it didn’t hold its value as well. After 2006, the Chevy Colorado became the midsize truck to compete with the Tacoma. Its reliability and capability ratings weren’t as good as the Tacoma’s, either, and, stylistically, it wasn’t as attractive. But it offered a V8 and a diesel engine option. Trucks from 2015 and later are much more competitive, offering some features and options not available on the Tacoma.

Used Toyota Tacoma vs. Used Nissan Frontier

Although it’s not as popular as the Tacoma, the Nissan Frontier has been a pretty good truck over the years. It has good ratings for reliability, power, and features. However, it hasn’t kept up with the times, making a newer-model Tacoma more desirable. In the off-road category, the Frontier Pro-4X does pretty well and can be easily modified with numerous aftermarket parts.

Is the Toyota Tacoma a Good Vehicle?

Its issues with rust aside, for most generations the Tacoma is a very good truck. The 4- and 6-cylinder engines are noted for easily hitting the 200,000-mile mark with minimal fuss, and the transmissions and 4×4 systems are equally robust. You’ll pay a bit more for a Tacoma over a comparably equipped Ford, Chevy or Nissan truck, but in the long run, a Tacoma will probably serve you better, cost less to maintain and sell for more money when it comes time to let it go. Find a Toyota Tacoma for sale

Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as... Read More about Joe Tralongo

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