In the market for a (cough) compact (cough) pickup? Get a Tacoma!
“Why is that?”
It’s a Tacoma!
“Yes, but what’s so special about it?”
OMG are you a complete moron?!? It’s a Toyota Fucking Tacoma!
This may be an oversimplification of the reality, but it’s not far from the truth. The Toyota Tacoma, for the last three generations, has been the go-to pickup for buyers looking for THE BEST small pickup. Even before it was given the name of Washington’s second-largest city in the Puget Sound area, the trusty Toyota Pickup, globally known as the Hilux, has been a staple of simple, reliable, utility-focused, transportation.
An inattentive driver hit my car and their insurance paid for me to drive this 2019 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road while my vehicle was being repaired. I put 550+ miles of City/Highway/Country/Twisty/Dirt/Mud/Sand driving on it before handing it back to the rental agency.
This is the 4th year model of the latest generation that was released in 2016. Unlike the extreme changes made from the 2004-2005 model years, the 2015-2016 change was much more subtle. Many body panels were shared. The overall size and shape was essentially unchanged. Trims and options were quite similar as well.
The biggest change to this new generation was in the powertrain. Moving away from the 4.0L V6 and 5 speed Auto to a 3.5L V6 and 6 speed Auto looked like a no-brainer....at least on the surface. (2.7l engines were available in both generations, as is/was a 6 speed manual transmission) The 4 Liter 1GR-FE made 237HP and 266LB-FT of torque. In 2005, these were pretty respectable numbers. The way this motor delivered power felt appropriately truck-y, with torque down low but enough ooomph up top to keep up with freeway traffic. The motor proved to be quite reliable, if a bit thirsty. The 5 speed auto was nothing to brag about, but it was fine for truck duty.
Eleven years later, as more fuel efficiency techniques trickled into vehicles of all types, it wasn’t a huge surprise that Toyota shrunk the engine, added direct-injection, and configured it to run on the Atkinson cycle...when it made sense to do so, at least. Known as the 2GR-FKS, this motor put out 278HP and 265TQ in Tacoma-guise. On paper that looks pretty good. 41 more horses and only ONE less torqueses.
Unfortunately, the peak numbers don’t tell the whole story. The extra horses don’t show face until near the top of the powerband, and while the one fewer torque can’t really be felt, the GIGANTIC dip in torque in the middle of the powerband (where torques go to die), is felt. And it’s felt a lot. Where are you driving most of the time? Mid-Range. Where does it feel dead? There. Floor the throttle from a stop and you feel some initial torque, then it dies off, feeling very non-linear, then it comes back and screams up top. There’s plenty of oomph up there and it’s welcome on occasion, but I would gladly trade 10 peak horsepower for a linear powerband that doesn’t feel dead right where you have it all the time.
This curiously awful powerband could be helped somewhat by an intelligent transmission. There’s 8 and 10 speed autos today that make magic happen. The 6 speed auto in the Toyota doesn’t know what it wants to do. It constantly tries to put you in that shitty rev-range that makes the truck feel like it’s struggling for life, then when it realizes it’s about to die the transmission says, “oops, sorry...here’s a different gear!” It’s always slow to figure this out, and frustrating to boot. The “ECT” button on the dash helps a bit, I suspect at the expense of fuel economy, but it’s a button you basically HAVE TO PUSH every time you hop in the truck.
For me, the engine and transmission combo are frustrating, especially since the old ones felt better in every situation short of an all out drag race. You might argue that trucks don’t need to have linear motors, they just need to do truck stuff. You aren’t wrong, but the experience leaves a lot to be desired. If it was my $40,000+, I wouldn’t be OK with it.
There MUST be a huge benefit to make up for the drive-ability sacrifices. Fancy port and direct injection. The modified Otto cycle variant (Atkinson) found in ultra-efficient vehicles such as the Prius. And of course, more gears. Fuel economy is sooooo much better. Right? The 2015 version of this truck was rated at 17 City and 21 Highway. The 2019 that I was driving is rated at 19 City and 24 Highway. That is a fairly large improvement based on specs alone.
The thing about those specs....I certainly couldn’t replicate them. My first tank averaged 16.1 MPG. This did include some hoonery, but the majority was commuting. The second tank I drove it more normally and for the most part it was all commuting. I averaged 17.8MPG. That’s quite a ways below even the city rating on this truck. 15% below the “mixed” rating, even. Huh. A quick search of the Interwebz and it would seem my 17.8 is pretty close to average on this truck. with a few MILLION miles logged, the average for this sub-model is 18.3MPG.
Tired of these nerdy numbers yet? Well too bad because I’ve got some more data points for ya. Using the same tools to research the previous generation, with even more millions of miles of averages, It would seem that 17.5MPG was the average with that old 4.0 and 5 speed automatic.
In my hands, this craptastic engine “tuned for economy”, returned 1.7% better mileage than the previous version, in real world use. Apples to Apples averages via internet it was a 4.5% improvement. That’s a far cry from the 10.5% improvement in mixed driving that Toyota and/or the Illuminati promised.
Jeebus, this is a goddamn truck. You just spent a bunch of time whining about engines and doing basic math most truck-owners can’t. That ain’t the point of this here vehicle.
Fine. Here’s more shit nobody cares about.
The brakes: They’re not that great. I don’t care if it has drums in the back if it all works. This thing stops but I didn’t have much confidence nor was there pedal feel. Brake dive was significant.
The steering: Pretty accurate for a truck, no slop, though lacking much feel. Good enough for me for what it is.
The suspension: The bilsteins felt pretty rough on the street. It wasn’t punishing, but it wasn’t supple either. Handling was surprisingly neutral and body roll wasn’t excessive. It wasn’t until you left the pavement that the suspension really shined. It soaked up ruts, ran over sticks and rocks, and if it were to catch air...I’m not saying it did...but if it did....I think it would soak it up pretty well.
The truck bed: I still love the composite bed these trucks have. With plenty of tie-downs and the adjustable system, it’s easy to secure your big bags of dicks you’re hauling around. Well...this is the short bed. Maybe medium bags of dicks. Or big bags of small dicks. Maybe a big bag of soft dicks? Trucks stuff. Speaking of soft things, the tail-gate is soft open.
The interior: The dash looks chunky and manly and the controls are easy enough, but there’s some randomness to where some buttons end up. Doesn’t feel overly cohesive. Shit-tons of cupholders. Literally seven just for front passengers. You get thirsty after loading up all those bags of dicks. It makes sense. Material surfaces are all basically hard plastic. Nothing feels good to touch. Should I make another dick joke? Nah. The seats aren’t particularly supportive and unfortunately my 6'3" frame doesn’t fit in the truck properly. I either hit my knees on the steering wheel column or I can’t reach the steering wheel. There’s a serious lack of adjustability in both the seats and the wheel (tilt/telescope). The only position that kind of works, has my head precariously close to the roof. This isn’t a truck for grown-ass men. Which really goes with the theme of compensating that it evokes. But I digress. The backseat was even more uncomfortable than the front and my passengers were very cramped. This isn’t a great family vehicle.
So I totally hated the truck. Obviously.
Except I didn’t. Every time I took it onto some mud-filled dirt roads and locked the rear differential, I turned into a goddamn Baja 500 madman. I crossed a few streams that were created thanks to flooding in parts of So-Cal (yay rain!). I almost got stuck a few times without 4wd but never actually did. I giggled and laughed. I did my best Tanner Foust drifting and made my wife upset (she always thinks I’m gonna hit trees). I taught my kids how to do donuts in the mud. It was a hoot.
I loved this thing. But it’s just not practical. Fuel mileage sucks. Every crossover handles better and fits more stuff. The truck bed itself was short and limited....and really, most people don’t use the bed on a daily basis except for people that use their trucks for their profession. Because all the truck’s storage is technically outside, using this to get the groceries is pretty crummy too (better not have anyone sitting in the back!). The engine was awful, transmission frustrating. It wasn’t comfortable or fun to drive where the roads are paved. And if it was MY vehicle, I might wince every time I felt the frame shake and twist from impacts off road.
What this truck did for me was prove just how wasteful and thoughtless, most Americans are. They think they want (or need) these things, they spend far too much of their salary on them (and even more to fuel them), and rarely use them for what they’re for. It’s a rolling compromise. A toy you never play with.
But I still loved it.