Full-size pickup trucks are a popular slice of Americana. Ford's F-150 sold 434,920 units in 2010, making it the best-selling vehicle of any size in the United States. However, with fuel-price volatility front-page news once again, some folks are rethinking strategies. For those in need of a roomy pickup bed to carry out lighter-duty chores, compact pickups remain a tantalizing option.
Over the past decade, compact pickups have gained a growing following thanks to roomier cab configurations and greater engine selections. Not long ago, the only cabin offering consisted of a one-row, bench seat. The addition of access and double cabs allows compact work trucks to double as family transport. Compact pickups have evolved into a mid-size status with these roomy additions.
While names like Ford's F-150 and Chevrolet's Silverado dominate full-size truck sales, the compact truck sales leader is none other than Toyota's Tacoma.
Tacoma burst on the scene in 1995. A larger second-generation effort with more bells and whistles arrived in 2005. Throughout the years, Toyota offered an array of compact pickups sporting an assortment of names, but Tacoma zeroed in on the needs of North American buyers. Changes for 2011 are minimal. Front grilles are updated in most trims and air conditioning is standard in all models, including regular cab. Satellite radio is standard in models featuring six-disc CD changers and Double cabs offer an Extra Value Package. As with most 2011 Toyota and Lexus models, a brake override system is added in response to the massive 2010 recall involving brake pedal issues.
During the 2011 Chicago Auto Show, Toyota constructed a 50,000-square-foot interactive drive course with gravel, mud mounds and logs inside McCormick Place where 22,000 show goers rode along and experienced first-hand the power and agility of Tacoma and other Toyota trucks. Good tuneup for Chicago's soon-to-arrive construction season.
In 2006, Toyota opened a new plant deep in the heart of pickup country to build its full-size Tundra pickup. Choosing San Antonio Texas as Tundra's new home was seen as a friendly in-your-face challenge to Domestic full-size segment leaders Ford and General Motors. In 2010, Toyota added Tacoma production to the San Antonio assembly line.
As with full-size pickups, Tacoma offers a wide variety of mix and match opportunities. Three cabin configurations are available: regular cab (seating for three), rear-hinged access cab (seating four travelers) and double cab (five riders welcome). Trim levels include base, pre-runner and X-runner. Two-wheel rear drive or part-time four-wheel drive is available in all cabin configurations. X-runner trims are two-wheel rear drive exclusively. Two engine selections include a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine delivering 159 horses with 180 lbs.-ft. of torque or when more oomph and low-end grunt is desired, a 4.0-iter V-6 with 236 horsepower and 266 lbs.-ft. for torque. Regular cabs are solely four cylinder. The 2.7-liter is available with five-speed manual transmission or four-speed automatic. The V-6 offers six-speed manual or five-speed automatic. The powertrain warranty is good for five years or 60,000 miles.
A TRD (Toyota Racing Development) off-road package available in many V-6 models includes: off-road-tuned suspension, locking rear differential, 16-inch alloy wheels, hill start assist control, downhill assist control, front tow hooks, fog lamps, sport seats with lumbar support, sliding rear window, leather-wrapped steering wheel , six-disc CD changer with XM Satellite Radio and 90-day free subscription and dual sun visors with extenders.
Toyota supplied a decked-out 4 x 4 double cab with V-6 power and TRD package. Starting price was $27,025. Toyota's TRD off-road package added $4,850, the V-6 tow package $650; other nuances brought the bottom line to $33,722 including a $810 destination charge. The lowest-priced version, a rear-drive, regular cab with five-speed manual, starts at $16,365.
By comparison, Ford Ranger starts at $18,655 for an inline four cylinder delivering 143 horsepower and 154 lbs.-ft. of torque. Chevrolet's Colorado (starting at $17,045) offers three powertrains: a 2.9-liter four cylinder delivering 185 horses, a 3.7-liter five-cylinder cranking 242 horses and a 5.3-liter V-8 generating 300 horses.
Tacoma's bed depth measures 18 inches while the width checks in at 53.4 inches. Our double cab included a five-foot bed; a six-foot version is optional. Regular and access cabs include the larger six-foot bed standard. Composite liners are included.
The V-6 engine coupled with automatic transmission generated 16 miles per gallon city and 20 mpg highway. For better numbers, opt for the four-cylinder with five-speed manual delivering 21 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. The 21.1 gallon tank requires 87-octane regular fuel. Double cab's maximum towing capacity with the V-6 towing package is 6,400 pounds. The towing leader is the Access cab V-6 and accompanying tow package which handles up to 6,500 pounds. Ranger by comparison is 5,800 pounds with 4.0-liter V-6 and towing package. Maximum towing capacity of the five-cylinder Colorado is 5,500 pounds and 6,000 pounds for the V-8.
Tacoma's welcoming interior is by no means bare bones. Three, deep-set gauges with an extended brow along the top to shade the sun makes up the instrument panel. A small digital odometer rests along the bottom of the center speedometer. A cruise control appendage gets out from the four-spoke steering wheel at 5 o'clock. Grab handles on the inside "A" pillars make stepping up into Tacoma easier. The attractive, two-tone interior includes three easy-to-grab dials controlling ventilation functions. Above the sound system with decent sized, buttons and dials operates in tandem with secondary steering wheel controls. The non-partitioned, single unit glove box is capable of holding sizable documents.
While power mirror controls are found on the dashboard left of the manually tilt-and-telescope steering column, power windows and locks are on the driver's door. Three cup holders are available to front seat riders in addition to beverage holders molded into the doors. Our 4 x 4 included an electric-controlled transfer case dial to switch from two-wheel high, to four-wheel high and low gear. Cloth seats tend towards firmness over subtleness.
In back, 60/40 cushions flip forward revealing under-seat storage bins. If back row cargo room is needed, seatbacks fold flat once headrests are removed. When prone, three adults can fit in reasonable comfort for long durations. Theatre-type seating provides slightly less headroom for back-seat riders. Double cabs include rear-seat heater vents.
Tacoma's front grill now shares a family resemblance with its larger Tundra stable mate. For 2011, Toyota's circular logo gets housed inside a trapezoidal-like frame. Square, headlight housing flanks the long, narrow grille. Side view mirrors are without safety blinkers. Eight exterior colors are offered.
Traveling south on I-355 into Will County, the smooth ride was joined by some apparent wind noise, although Toyota's insulation expertise prevents many engine sounds from seeping into the cabin. Passengers in back found the ride surprisingly un-bumpy. Tacoma's brake pedal has more spongy play than many rivals.
Tacoma traditionally enjoys good resale values and high dependability ratings. A recent J.D. Power and Associates Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS), covering 2008 model year vehicles, ranked Tacoma tops in mid-size pickups. Ranger, Dakota and Colorado have their work cut out. Japanese rival Nissan builds the compact Frontier pickup and its automotive twin, Suzuki's Equator, but sales pale in comparison to Tacoma.
At a glance
Price as tested: $32,772
Engine: 4.0-liter V-6
City/Highway fuel economy: 16/ 20 mpg
Torque: 266 lbs.-ft.
Wheelbase: 127.4 inches
Curb weight: 4,155 pounds
Assembly: San Antonio, Texas