As much a part of the American landscape as diners, drive-ins and, uh, dives, the pickup is as ubiquitous patrolling the beaches of Southern California as it is slogging through traffic on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago. It is a quintessential symbol of Americana, both here and in the eyes of those abroad.
So it might come as some surprise that the best-selling midsize pickup in North America last year - by a wide margin - was offered by an import brand: The Toyota Tacoma
. So hot is the Tacoma, in fact, that its 2009 sales of 111,824 units outsold Ford's Ranger, Nissan's Frontier and Dodge's Dakota
But that midsize label is somewhat misleading; there really is no such thing as a compact pickup any longer. Perhaps Mahindra will fit that spot if and when the Indian pickups arrive
What is it?
Now about midway through its second generation, the Tacoma handily outsells its larger Tundra brother. Built at the joint Toyota-General Motors NUMMI facility in Northern California until earlier this model year, Tacomas now roll off the line in San Antonio next to Tundras.
Toyota offers a plethora of trim, body and powertrain combinations, but our tester, provided to us by Toyota's Gulf States distributor, was outfitted in one of the most common configurations as a two-wheel-drive, four-door crew cab riding on the tall TRD Sport PreRunner suspension. It featured the range-topping 4.0-liter V6 also seen in the Tundra and 4Runner, mated in this application to an optional five-speed automatic transmission. Our tester included one of four available TRD packages - the Sport Extra Value Package that, for about $3,800, included a JBL audio system, color-keyed exterior trim, sport seats and a sport suspension with Bilstein shock absorbers, in addition to a handful of convenience upgrades.
What's it up against?
In addition to the aforementioned models - the Ranger, Frontier and Dakota - Tacoma competes with GM's Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon
twins. Realistically, the V6-powered, four-door Tacoma really only goes up against the Frontier and Dakota, both of which are offered in similar configurations.
This part of the market revels in being low-tech. Consider that the Ranger more or less dates back to the Reagan era, yet it was the second-best seller last year, and the picture becomes clear. Nonetheless, the rugged Tacoma offers lots more comfort than most of its rivals, as well as an available locking rear differential and gobs of ground clearance with its TRD package.
How does it look?
Less a little less conventional than most of its rivals, the Tacoma Double Cab wears its extra length reasonably well. Quirky peaked fender flares and a busy front grille give it a unique style, while the TRD package's hood scoop has become something of a character trait for Toyota's performance line. The tall-rider look and snub-nose front give the Tacoma somewhat of a bulldog-like stance, which seems appropriate given its "man's best friend" pickup nature.
The PreRunner trim package made our two-wheel-drive Tacoma look everything like its four-wheeler siblings by sitting high on tall P265/65-17 BFGoodrich tires and eschewing silly running boards. Sure, the step in height might bother the vertically challenged, but it helps the comparatively little Tacoma look and feel less like a toy pickup and more like a real alternative to full-sizers.
And on the inside?
Although the relatively small front seats are fairly low to the ground, we found the Tacoma's interior to be quite comfortable and roomy. Those low seats force an almost sports car-like seating position - one we've seen on Toyota's similar 4Runner SUV - but at least they offer good comfort and surprising lateral support.
The dashboard isn't covered in the finest plastics you'll find, but everything is sufficiently durable and price-appropriate. Large gauges are easily visible through the almost passenger-sedan-like four-spoke steering wheel, while Toyota-typical switchgear rests on the center stack. Nothing is out of place or hard to find, although the single third cup holder located aft of the console-mounted automatic transmission lever was a head scratcher. It occupies a lot of real estate for something that only repeats a task best handled by the twin drink-carriers in front of the gearshift.
When equipped with the optional automatic, Tacoma fortunately swaps its antiquated umbrella handle-style parking brake lever in favor for a more common extra pedal. Toyota doesn't sell a ton of Tacomas with the stick any more, but if you're a row-it-yourself type, you'll want to re-familiarize yourself with the goofy tug handle.
Climb in the back and you'll find sedan-like comfort and good legroom. Again, the seat bases are awfully low to the ground, but the Tacoma Double Cab offers solid long-distance comfort for four or even five.
But does it go?
Offering a decent 236 horsepower and 266 lb-ft. of torque, the Tacoma's optional 4.0-liter V6 boasts variable valve timing and LEV-II certification. Not only that, it offers the bulk of its torque down low in the rpm band and gear ratios spaced for performance, meaning it feels much faster than it really is. From a complete stop on dry pavement, we had no problem chirping the Taco's rear tires thanks to the combination of power and the light load of an empty truck bed.
On the highway, it was mostly the same story. Although the five-speed automatic was occasionally reluctant to summon a lower gear, the engine generally provided a solid rush of passing power that belied the inevitably portly 4,200 lbs. curb weight of this pickup.
The Tacoma's variable assist rack and pinion steering was reasonably communicative by entry-level pickup standards. While lacking the precision offered in some fresher full-sizers - Dodge Ram and Ford F-Series, for example - there was little play and effort was generally consistent.
Thanks to its large tires, the Tacoma rides softly over pretty much any terrain. It exhibited most of the side-to-side bouncing we've come to expect from pickups with ladder frames, empty beds and rear leaf springs, but a full bed quelled things for the most part. On the highway, the Tacoma proved a much quieter and more comfortable companion than the Dodge Dakota we sampled not long ago
. In fact, despite its power and cylinder defecit, the Tacoma never felt significantly less capable than the Dodge.
Fuel economy during our testing averaged around 17 mpg in mixed driving - about par for the class, but not really any better than we've seen in some V8-engined full-size pickups. Our test truck was rated at 17 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway.
Why you would buy it:
You don't need the capacity of a full-size truck and want something a little more maneuverable.
Why you wouldn't:
Your budget stretches to a full-sizer and you don't need to worry about parking in congested areas where the little Taco works well.
Leftlane's bottom line
We definitely understand the appeal of a midsize pickup: Easier on the wallet and handier around town than a full-sizer, they just make great sense for so many users. Yet with fuel economy gains more a figment of the imagination than anything else, we can't really argue with those who opt for the bigger option either.
The Tacoma is getting up there in age, but in this less-than-competitive class, it's unquestionably the segment leader.
2010 Toyota Tacoma SR5 PreRunner
base price, $23,675. As tested, $28,763.
TRD Sport Extra Value Package, $3,793; Tow hitch, $495; Destination, $800.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.