The Toyota Tacoma is the most popular of the midsize/compact pickup market. They're really aren't any compact pickups any more, they're all midsize. The Tacoma was named Most Dependable Midsize Pickup in the J.D. Power & Associates 2011 Vehicle Dependability Study, and Intellichoice called it a 2011 Best Overall Value in the compact pickup segment. New Car Test Drive considers the 2013 Toyota Tacoma the best pickup in its class and the best for rugged terrain, durability and reliability.
Tacoma offers a comfortable cab, a refined ride, and quality construction. Its on-road handing is responsive; its off-road capability is proven. The Tacoma Double Cab delivers offers rear-seat comfort for two additional passengers with enough room to rival a small sedan. Properly equipped Tacoma V6 models can to tow up to 6,500 pounds.
Tacoma not only owns the segment but practically is the segment. While Toyota sells more than 100,000 Tacomas a year, the other manufacturers have abandoned the small pickup business in America due to lack of demand. The Nissan Frontier, Chevy Colorado, and GMC Canyon are reportedly going out of production, Ford finally stopped making the Ranger, Suzuki is no longer in the U.S., Dodge Dakota exited the stage years ago. The Honda Ridgeline, a much more expensive vehicle, offers carlike handling, strong performance and good fuel economy, but it doesn't offer the off-road capability or toughness of the Tacoma.
As a result, Tacoma hasn't changed much since its last major redesign for the 2005 model year. For 2012, Toyota treated the Tacoma to a new look inside and out, with new and more sophisticated audio choices. The 2013 Tacoma lineup includes a new Limited Package, featuring 18-inch chrome-clad alloy wheels, chrome grille trim, chrome rear bumper, SofTex-trimmed front sport seats with heat, metallic tone instrument panel trim, leather-trimmed steering wheel with audio controls, dual sun visors with mirrors and extenders, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror with rear camera display, outside temperature gauge, and HomeLink universal transceiver.
Pickup buyers can rejoice, however, because the 2013 Tacoma comes in a wide range of configurations to please a wide range of needs ranging from basic work truck with four-cylinder engine and 2WD to a loaded V6 4WD Double Cab Long Bed. The base Tacoma excels at durability and reliability and is among the few regular-cab pickups still available.
All Tacomas come with air conditioning. Audio systems begin with six-speaker AM/FM/CD display audio (four speakers on Regular Cab) with USB Port, auxiliary input, and Bluetooth phone connectivity; and range all the way up to a seven-speaker JBL GreenEdge system with navigation, and Toyota Entune.
Also standard on all models is Toyota's Star Safety System, which includes anti-lock brakes (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist, Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and Traction Control (TC). An Automatic Limited-Slip Differential (Auto-LSD), which uses brake intervention in place of a mechanical-type limited-slip to help reduce wheel-spin, is standard on all Tacoma models with the exception of those fitted with TRD Off-Road packages, like our test model; those will have a separate locking differential.
Toyota Racing Development, or TRD, offers myriad accessories to further improve on-road performance or off-road capability. A new TRD Baja Series features high-performance Bilstein off-road shocks, special Eibach springs, 16-inch beadlock wheels with BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A KO tires, sports exhaust and special graphics.
The Tacoma is instantly recognizable as a Toyota truck. Your first clue is the familiar, sturdy arch over the top and sides of the grille: brightly plated on SR5s, TRD Off-Roads, and Limiteds; body color on TRD Sports; and argent-painted on base models. A slightly protruding inner grille of black plastic echoes and emphasizes this Toy-truck hallmark. The trapezoidal shape leaves a small gap between grille and headlights, which is neatly bridged by the orange turn signals.
Tacoma manages to look tough and rugged without going over the top. The prominent lower air opening is framed at the top by a body-color extension of the main grille arch (again, the arch theme) and by a gray pseudo-skid plate below. It suggests the menacing mouth of a bottom-feeding fish. But in a good way. Fog light nacelles flair outward from the fish-mouth form.
Overall length of the Tacoma varies by body style: Regular Cabs are the shortest and most maneuverable, measuring 190.4 inches overall on a 109.6-inch wheelbase. Access Cab and Double Cab short-bed models have a 127.4-inch wheelbase and 208.1-inch overall length. Double Cab long-bed models are quite long at 221.3 inches overall on a 140.6-inch wheelbase. All models have six-foot beds except the Double Cab short-bed, which has a five-foot bed.
How to choose? Regular Cab models pack lots of cargo space in a relatively small package, good for maneuverability in the big city. Regular Cab 4WD models also have the best break-over angle due to their short length, and therefore offer the best capability off road. Access Cabs feature large dual rear auxiliary doors, not good for people but very good for gear. Double Cabs have long, conventionally hinged rear doors that open 80 degrees for ease of entry or loading gear. Double Cabs offer the people-carrying comfort of a sport-utility. Long-bed Double Cabs can carry more stuff but are unwieldy in tight places.
Tacoma comes with a composite inner bed, lighter than steel yet tougher and more durable. The bed features two-tier loading and an integrated deck rail utility system with four adjustable tie-down cleats. The rails are compatible with numerous Genuine Toyota Accessories, including cargo-bed cross bars, a fork-mount bike rack, and other useful items.
The Toyota Tacoma cabin has a familiar feel. Climate and audio controls are concentrated in a blacked-out panel (for contrast) in a slightly bulging center stack. High-contrast black trim appears on switch bezels and the inner doors as well.
The modern-looking steering wheel features a rectangular hub, dark-colored spokes at 3 and 9 o'clock, and brushed-metal-look spokes at 5 and 7. Where the bright spokes meet the hub they open up into square, black control pads for audio and other functions.
Behind the wheel is a functional three-pod instrument configuration. Like so many other brands, Toyota dabbled a few years ago with fashionably orange lighting, but the current theme uses red pointers against broad blue bands. It sure looks more high-tech; whether it's actually more readable is another matter.
An AM/FM Satellite Radio-capable head unit comes with a single-disc CD player and built-in Bluetooth for hands-free cellphone use.
V6-powered Double Cabs offer a more deluxe display audio system with all the hot digital candy, including navigation, Toyota Entune services, XM Satellite Radio (with 90-day trial subscription), HD Radio with iTunes tagging and text/e-mail-to-voice; all playing at premium quality through a JBL GreenEdge audio system with seven speakers. (GreenEdge technology helps reduce fuel consumption by lowering the electric power demand on the vehicle.)
The Toyota Entune system combines popular mobile applications and data services, with three years of complimentary access. Once a smart phone is connected to the vehicle using Bluetooth or a USB cable, Entune's features are operated using the vehicle's controls or, for some services, by voice recognition. Entune includes Bing and Pandora; plus real-time info including traffic, weather, fuel prices, sports and stocks. Also available are MovieTickets.com and OpenTable.
TRD models benefit from a water-resistant seat fabric, and all Access and Double Cabs are available with heavy-duty all-weather flooring, which we used to call rubber before carpeting became ubiquitous.
The lower dash and console are a lighter color than the main upper dash, brightening the interior; and trim rings surround the three clustered gauges. The driver's seat is height-adjustable, answering a complaint we've had in the past. Overall, the Tacoma provides the driver with a good driving position, and big mirrors afford a good view to the rear. Excellent grab handles on both A-pillars.
We found the TRD package's upgraded seats and interior nice, if costly. The sport bucket seats with driver lumbar support were made of a sturdy gray fabric and had excellent bolstering. An overhead console includes a compass and temperature gauge.
Cup holders are provided in the center console area. On models that don't have sport seats, the front passenger's seatback flips down to form a tray table or to make room for long objects, a handy feature. The switchgear is easy to operate, and everything is where you expect it to be. Big rotary knobs make it easy to adjust cabin temperature even with gloves on; the knobs are electronic, so they're easy to twist. The radio is fully integrated into the upper center stack and it's easy to operate. CDs sound good through the JBL speakers. Models with automatics come with a foot-operated parking brake, while the manual transmission models use a pull-out handbrake; a blast from the past that we could do without. However we were totally thrilled with the air conditioning, which blasts real cold real fast.
The rear seats in the Tacoma Double Cab are particularly comfortable for the class, offering good legroom and shoulder room and decent headroom. The seatback is angled back slightly, making it more comfortable than the overly upright rear seats in some other compact pickups. In a back-to-back comparison test, we found the back seats of the Tacoma more comfortable than those in the 2011-12 Nissan Frontier. (Nissan expects to launch a new Frontier soon, and that could change things.) A younger person should be okay to ride across the state in the back seat of a Tacoma Double Cab, and even adults won't complain too much on short trips. The rear windows even go all the way down.
The rear-seat area in the Double Cab is also good for carrying cargo. The seat is split 60/40. Flip the seat bottoms forward and fold the two sections down to form a flat platform for gear. It takes two hands to do this, and you first have to remove the headrests, which is a hassle, though Toyota has at least provided a place to store them. The backs of the seatbacks are hard, and form a sturdy cargo floor. It's not a bad spot for a dog, but still a big jump down. Our experience has been that none of the trucks in this class is particularly good for dogs.
Access Cab has rear seats, with the access coming on the passenger side only, but there isn't enough room for adults. The two kids we sentenced to the rear of our Access Cab are 5-feet and 5-feet, 5 inches tall, and they were okay back there for a short ride but would rather have ridden in the bed with the dog.
The Toyota Tacoma drives well and cruises nicely. It offers plenty of power from the V6. It handles well and feels relatively refined. Off-road models offer commendable capability over rugged terrain and good ride comfort, as well.
The 4.0-liter V6 engine uses dual overhead camshafts and variable valve technology (Toyota calls it VVT-i, for Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) to optimize power and torque over a broad range of rpm. In action, the V6 feels refined and delivers responsive performance. It is rated at 236 horsepower and a strong 266 pound-feet of torque.
Toyota's 4.0-liter V6 works well with the 5-speed automatic transmission. And that's our first choice for this truck: The V6 and automatic. The automatic is super smooth and very responsive, quickly downshifting when you mash the throttle, and it offers five ratios to better keep the engine at its most efficient rpm.
The 6-speed manual transmission is easy to shift, but first gear is a very low ratio, leaving a broad stretch to second. The 6-speed gearbox requires long throws but takes downshifts well. It's a good, solid truck transmission, without a lot of room for error; you have to press the clutch pedal all the way to the floor when shifting gears or you'll hear a crunch.
The automatic delivers comparable gas mileage, according to the latest EPA estimates, with 17/21 mpg City/Highway vs. 16/21 for the V6 and manual with 2WD; and 15/19 for the V6 and manual with 4WD.
The TRD Sport Package stiffens the ride and handling with a suspension that's more firmly tuned, mostly by the Bilstein shocks. But it's not too firm. And it's not as much of a hot rod as the X Runner. After the shocks, 17-inch alloy wheels and wider profile tires, which definitely improve cornering, the TRD package contains mostly cosmetic things. TRD stands for Toyota Racing Development, but if you expect extra speed you'll be disappointed. The V6 engine has the same good power. It's easy to peel out and lay down a chirp when upshifting to second gear, even with the wider tires that come with the TRD package. And the excellent torque makes it easy to cruise in 5th and 6th gears, without needing to downshift to accelerate.
The 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine gets better mileage than does the V6 and runs on Regular gas. As with the V6, the four-cylinder benefits from VVT-i and dohc, which means it's a modern, sophisticated engine. It is rated at 159 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque, which is about average for the class. EPA estimates for a Tacoma with 2.7-liter four-cylinder are 21/25 mpg with 2WD and the 5-speed manual, and 19/24 mpg for 2WD with the 4-speed automatic.
Handling is quite good on curvy roads. The Tacoma feels steady in sweeping turns and suffers from surprisingly little body roll, or lean, in hard corners. The Tacoma feels big on the road when compared with older compact pickups and, in fact, it is relatively large.
Size can be a detriment when parking, and a long-bed Double Cab can be a challenge in tight parking situations due to the amount of space it requires to turn. The Tacoma Double Cab long bed requires 44 feet to complete a circle, while a Double Cab short bed needs a little over 40 feet. For this reason, we recommend the short bed unless you really need to carry something that won't fit in it. A base Tacoma Regular Cab boasts a turning circle of less than 37 feet.
On pavement, the 4WD and TRD Off-road models seemed smooth and refined. Off-road, a 4WD TRD model is smooth and highly capable. The TRD suspension is excellent on rough, rugged terrain. It handles well on rough dirt trails, something we learned while charging up a ski run at Alyeska. It never bottomed on the rough terrain even when we pushed it well beyond socially acceptable standards. The Tacoma TRD also easily handled an off-road course that featured steep ascents and descents, moguls, and a log step. In short, we'd feel comfortable tackling just about any terrain in a Toyota Tacoma. And it doesn't just get there; it does it in relative comfort. The Tacoma doesn't seem to generate as much head toss as earlier 4WD compact pickups, an important consideration when driving long distances over rugged terrain, because you don't want to arrive to your backcountry camp fatigued from driving.
Switching into 4WD and 4WD Lo is as easy as twisting a rotary knob. It works very well, for the most part.
The Tacoma's brakes are smooth and easy to modulate, and they can bring the truck to quick halt without drama. The rear brakes are drums, however, less desirable than the rear disc brakes that come on some of the other pickups in this class. The available TRD Big Brake system uses floating 13×1.25-inch directionally vented rotors, forged aluminum four-piston fixed calipers, larger pads with higher coefficients of friction, and braided steel brake lines.
The 4Runner X-Runner is a lot of fun to drive and handles like a sports car. It corners flat and generates lots of grip in the curves. We pushed it hard up a hill climb and were not able to reach its cornering limits. It tracks well and is very stable in tight corners even when spinning the inside rear tire under full throttle. The ride is firm, however; we didn't care for the feel of the clutch pedal, the steering was vague on-center, and there was that aforementioned inside rear-wheel spin. Wind noise seems higher in the X-Runner than in the other models. But much of this is nitpicking. This is a tight, sporty truck, and probably the best of the genre. There's no cowl shake. The exhaust sounds cool. If you want a truck that can hang with a sports car, the X-Runner is the ticket.
The Toyota Tacoma is a superb midsize pickup. The Tacoma features a comfortable cab trimmed with quality materials. The 4WD models offer crisp handling, a nicely balanced ride quality, and excellent off-road capability. The TRD Off-Road models are terrific trucks for rugged terrain. The X-Runner drives and performs like a sports car.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough contributed to this report.