The Toyota Tacoma is the most popular compact pickup in the U.S. market and has been since 2005. Or call it a mid-size, as the Tacoma and its competition are hardly compact anymore; it's still Number One. Along the way the Tacoma has collected its share of awards. Moreover, New Car Test Drive considers the 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 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, many manufacturers have abandoned the small pickup business in America. Nissan Frontier remains and all-new Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon models have been introduced, but Ford Ranger and Dodge Dakota have exited the stage. 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.
For 2014, the Tacoma adds Toyota's Entune as standard equipment on all four available audio systems. Entune is a media-savvy technology that links with your smart phone and allows you to access its apps through the Tacoma's audio controls. Accordingly, all Tacoma audio systems now come with a 6.1-inch touch screen, where, incidentally, the view from the optional backup camera is now also displayed, rather than in the rear-view mirror as before.
Also new for 2014 is the SR Package, which lends a sporty, monochrome look with color-keyed overfenders, door handles, bumpers, grille surround and mirrors; plus smoked headlight lenses and black-finish 16-inch Baja wheels.
Or choose the top-of-the-line 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 outside temperature gauge and HomeLink universal transceiver.
The 2014 Toyota Tacoma comes in a wide range of configurations to meet 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, Bluetooth phone connectivity and now Entune; and range all the way up to a premium JBL GreenEdge system with navigation, Entune, and App Suite.
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 (TRAC). 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 package; those have conventional, mechanical-locking differential.
Toyota Racing Development, or TRD, offers myriad accessories to further improve on-road performance or off-road capability, including a comprehensive Off Road Package featuring high-performance Bilstein off-road shocks, locking rear differential, advanced ATRAC traction control and other electronic off-road assists, an engine skid plate, tow hook, many luxury and convenience items and special graphics.
The 2014 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 the new SR; 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, with red pointers set against broad blue bands. It sure looks high-tech; whether it's actually more readable than other color schemes is another matter.
An AM/FM radio head unit comes with a single-disc CD player and built-in Bluetooth for hands-free cellphone use. For 2014, even this base unit adds a 6.1-inch touch-screen display and Entune; 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. (And Entune services require no subscription.)
Access Cabs and Double Cabs can upgrade to Entune Audio Plus ($680), which adds HD Radio with iTunes tagging, SiriusXM, and HD Traffic and Weather (with a 90 day trial subscription); or to Entune Premium Audio ($730), with navigation plus the Entune App Suite, which includes Bing, iHeartRadio, MovieTickets.com, OpenTable, Pandora, Yelp and Facebook Places; plus real-time traffic, weather, fuel prices, sports and stocks.
V6-powered Double Cabs can opt for the Entune Premium setup plus a JBL GreenEdge audio system with seven speakers ($2,330). GreenEdge technology helps reduce fuel consumption by lowering the electric power demand on the vehicle.
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, at least those few remaining on the market. 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. 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. 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. Both engines run on regular gas.
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 so many other vehicles these days.
The Toyota Tacoma is a superb midsize pickup. The 2014 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.
NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough contributed to this report.