By Eric Peters
If you miss reasonable-sized trucks – what 1500 series trucks used to be before Codpiece Fever overtook the country – you might want to have a look at a “mid-sized” truck like the 2017 Tacoma.
Would you be shocked, Geraldo-style, to discover that a 2017 Tacoma Access Cab with a six foot bed is about the same overall length as a 1998 Chevy Silverado 1500 regular cab with an eight foot bed?
The ’98 Silverado regular cab with the eight foot bed was 213.4 inches long overall. A 2017 Tacoma Access Cab with a 6 foot bed is 212.3 inches long overall (and rides on a 127.4 inch wheelbase vs. 131.5 for the 1500 Chevy).
Not much difference, footprint-wise, between the two.
Now have a gander at the specs of a new Chevy Silverado 1500:
A 2017 regular cab 1500 with the long bed is 224.4 inches, bumper to bumper – almost a foot longer than its 1998 counterpart.
The new truck seems even more bloated than that, though, because of the idiot trend of skyscraper high bed walls that have made it almost impossible for even a six-foot-three man – me – to touch the floor of the bed without getting on his tippy toes. Or standing on a milk crate. If you caught my review of another 1500 – the ’17 Ford F-150 (here) – you will know all about the step ladder Ford builds into the tailgate of its truck, which tells you just how out-of-hand things are in the 1500 segment.
Anyhow, the point is – a “mid-sized” truck like the Tacoma is about the same overall package as a “full-size” truck used to be. If they sold these things in regular cab versions and with an eight foot bed, they’d be virtually the same package – and as useful for work – as a full-sized trucks used to be.
WHAT IT IS
The Tacoma is Toyota’s mid-sized pickup and like the models it competes with – the Nissan Frontier, the Chevy Colorado (and its badge-engineered GMC twin the Canyon) and the soon-to-be-re-introduced Ford Ranger – it’s about the same size overall as a circa 1990s-era full-size truck.
Like its rivals, the Tacoma comes only in two four-door configurations – Access cab and Double Cab, the latter having four full-size doors, the former having two smaller rear doors – with either a five foot or six foot bed.
Unlike some of its rivals – the Nissan Frontier, for one – you can get 4WD with the base four cylinder engine. With the Frontier, you have to buy the V6 to get 4WD.
Toyota will also sell you a manual transmission with either engine – the base four or the optional V6. The Chevy/GMC pick-ups are automatic-only when equipped with the optional V6 (though you can get 4WD with the base four).
Base price for the ’17 Tacoma is $24,320 for a 2WD Access Cab SR trim with 2.7 liter four cylinder engine, five-speed manual transmission and six foot bed. With 4WD, the same trim/cab SR stickers for $25,845.
A top-of-the-line TRD PRO 4×4 with the V6 and automatic transmission stickers for $42,960.
The Nissan Frontier’s prices start out lower – $18,390 for a base 2WD S trim King cab with manual transmission – but to get into a 4WD version, the price rises to $27,320 – which is several thousand dollars more than the base price of a 4WD Tacoma.
A top-of-the-line Z71 crew cab with 4WD, the 3.6 liter V6, automatic transmission and six-foot bed stickers for $35,930.
Uniquely – for the moment – the Chevy (and its GMC-badged clone, the Canyon) are available with a turbo-diesel engine. But it looks like Ford will also offer a diesel engine option when the Ranger returns to the U.S.market sometime later this year as a 2018 model.
Manageable size – including a bed you can touch without standing on your tip toes (or a milk crate) and climb into without needing a step ladder.
Available with 4WD – without the up-sell to the V6.
Available with a manual transmission – with the standard four or the optional six.
Minimal mileage penalty for going with the V6.
Very able off-roader.
Starting price is high relative to rivals, especially the Frontier (assuming you don’t need 4WD)
Base four is on the cusp of too small for a truck this big (same applies to the Frontier and Canyon).
No regular cab/long bed option (same negative applies to the others, too).
Second row headroom is tight due to tall floorpans and low roofline.
UNDER THE HOOD
The current crop of mid-sized (almost full-size, if you go by recent historical standards) pick-ups still have small truck engines.
The Tacoma’s is a 2.7 liter four that makes 159 hp and 180 ft.-lbs. of torque. It’s paired with either a five speed manual or (optionally) a six speed automatic.
Go 2WD or (also optionally) 4WD.
Nissan – kind of cheesily – stopped offering 4WD with the four cylinder-powered Frontier even before the Frontier went mid-sized (in 2005), so it’s not entirely because the engineers felt the 2.5 liter four wasn’t strong enough to haul around a mid-sized (and so, even heavier) 4WD Frontier.
It was probably to up-sell people who needed 4WD into a more expensive V6-powered Frontier.
So, kudos to Toyota for not doing that.
And to GM – which also lets you buy the four cylinder versions of the Colorado/Canyon twins with 4WD.
Their fours, by the way are the strongest four of the bunch: 2.5 liters, 200 hp and 191 ft.-lbs. of torque.
The Canyon/Colorado with the 2.5 engine get to 60 in about 9 seconds flat, give or take (depending on cab/bed and whether you go with 2WD or 4WD). The other two somewhere between the low and mid nines.
You can remedy The Slows (and be able to tow more than about 3,000 lbs., the max with the four) if you go with the optional V6s available in all these pick-ups. The Tacoma’s optional 3.5 liter, 278 hp V6 falls in the middle, power-wise, between the Nissan’s 4.0 liter, 261 hp V6 and the GM twins’ top gun 3.6 liter, 308 hp V6.
With the sixes, these trucks can get to 60 in the low-mid sevens – and pull twice as much as they can with the four. The Tacoma’s maximum trailer rating – with the V6 – is 6,800 lbs.
Still, there is something to be said for the simplicity – and accessibility – of an inline four. It is easy to get at either side of the engine (with the V6, it’s not) and fewer parts means fewer things that will need getting-at as the miles roll by.
Which brings up something else.
The Tacoma’s four is not direct injected.
Not yet, anyhow.
The GM trucks’ engines are. Bet your bippie the 2018 Ranger’s will be, too.
DI – in which the fuel is sprayed directly into the cylinders, via a super high-pressure (3,000-plus PSI) injector through a hole inside each cylinder, very much like a spark plug for fuel – has become pretty common because it improves both power and economy.
DI is more complex (two fuel pumps, very high pressure) and because the fuel is sprayed directly into each cylinder, there is a tendency for carbon to build up on the back of valves; in a PFI-fed engine, the solvent action of gas passing over the surface of the valves keeps the carbon crud in check. With DI engines, carbon fouling at relatively low mileage has become such a problem (cleaning sometimes requiring partial disassembly of the engine, to get at the crud) that several manufacturers are adding a separate PFI circuit in addition to the DI system, just in order to deal with the DI system’s “crud problem.”
No such worries with the Tacoma’s four.
The V6, though, already has both DI and PFI.
Despite not being direct-injected, the smaller engine’s mileage isn’t awful:
The direct-injected GM twins’ 2.5 liter fours deliver 19 city, 26 highway for the 2WD-equipped version with manual transmission; 19 city, 24 with 4WD and the automatic. It’s not a big whoop difference at the pump – but might be a big whoop difference in repair/maintenance costs eight or ten years down the road.
With the direct-injected (and PFI’d) 3.5 liter V6, 2WD and the six-speed manual, rated mileage is 17 city, 21 highway; with the automatic and 4WD, 18 city, 23 highway – slightly better mileage, in case you didn’t notice, because of the automatic’s efficiency advantage.
During a week-long test drive of a V6/automatic Double Cab,I averaged 19.4 MPG – a good showing for a 4WD truck with serious off-road capability (and tires).
The GM trucks with the V6 rate 18 city, 25 highway with 2WD and 17 city, 24 with 4WD. Again, not a big whoop.
Same goes for the Canyon/Colorado’s available diesel, incidentally. It rates 22 city, 30 highway with 2WD and 20/28 with 4WD. It’s a slightly bigger whoop – but bear in mind that GM will only sell you the diesel on the higher-trim/crew cab versions of their trucks, all of them starting well over $30k – and then wants another $3,700 or so for the Duramax diesel. It’s worth buying – maybe – if you need to tow.
But not to save money on fuel.
Size does matter.
For good and for not-so-good.
On the good side, the Tacoma is manageable – like 1500s used to be. It fits comfortably within the lines (on the road and in parking lots) whereas current full-size trucks fit just barely. You don’t feel as though you’re going to smack outside mirrors every time you pass someone coming the other way – and you don’t need to crawl out of the sunroof to get out of the thing when you park at the mall because you can’t open the freakin’ doors because you only have four inches of clearance between you and the next car over.
It is surprisingly maneuverable in close-quarters driving, too – with a pretty tight (40.6 foot) turning circle – which is almost ten feet tighter than a current 1500. It’s also tighter than its same-sized rivals, the Frontier (43.5 feet) and the GM twins (41.3 feet).
On the not-so-good side, the base four is on the precipice of Too Small for a truck this size.
As a frame of reference, my ’02 Frontier – smaller by about 25 percent and lighter by more than 500 pounds than the current mid-sized par – could use more engine. And its four cylinder engine is about the same size and makes about the same power as the Tacoma’s four.
My Frontier’s four has just enough power – with none in reserve – to haul the truck around with me on board and not much in the bed. But with a load of firewood (roughly, the extra 500 pounds the Toyota’s carrying around) and a passenger in the cab up front . . . it’s kind of like trying to tread water while wearing backpack full of bricks.
The current 1500s have engine to go with their size (and weight). This – and one other thing, which I’ll get to in a minute – are their chief advantages over mid-sized trucks like the Tacoma and its rivals.
Even their standard sixes have V8 power, or nearly so. And their available V8s make so much horsepower (the Chevy Silverado offers a Corvette-sourced 420 hp 6.2 liter V8) that they are as quick as muscle cars (0-60 in less than 6 seconds for the Chevy) even with a load of firewood in the bed.
Nominally mid-sized (but almost full-sized) trucks like the Tacoma, meanwhile, still have engines meant for – or more appropriate for – compact-sized trucks.
This isn’t to say avoid the four. Just test drive it – cab occupied, bed loaded – before you commit. Unless you don’t plan to drive it much with passengers – or loaded with heavy stuff in the bed except every now and then. In which case, the four may suit.
The V6 gives you a margin. Reserve power.
Something left untapped.
Another reason to consider the V6 is its superior torque production, especially at low engine RPM. This is important not just for towing but also for off-roading, especially rock crawling and mud-fording. These activities require leverage, which is what torque is by another name.
The optional six-speed automatic is programmed to shift for economy (Because Uncle, Because CAFE) but there is a manual/sport mode you can use to override Uncle. Otherwise, it tends to upshift as early as possible and forced downshifts under full throttle aren’t exactly ferocious.
For a more enjoyable experience, go with the six-speed manual. It eliminates the soft/too-soon shift programming, put its all under your control. You lose a few MPGs because the automatic is the more efficient conduit – but if 2-3 MPG either way mattered much to you, you probably would not be shopping for a pick-up.
This truck does not feel tipsy in the curves. That almost 1500-length (and wheelbase) helps spread the weight around. Big sidewall tires (16 inch, 245/265 size) and isolator biscuits in between the steel frame and the body give the ride quality that big American sedans used to have, before they all went front-wheel-drive and unibody and riding on gnomesayin’ 19 and 20 inch “rims.”
One really impressive thing about this truck is the way it absorbs washboarded/rutted gravel roads. Axle hop is almost nonexistent, even with an empty bed.
TRD PRO versions get uber-beefy Fox coil-over/internal bypass shocks up front and remote reservoir staggered shocks in the rear, along with heavy duty leafs, skid plates and knobby all-terrain tires.
The Tacoma’s got the best squat of the bunch, if you ask me. It is wider (74.4 inches vs. 72.8 for the Frontier and 74.3 for the GM trucks) and has a lower roofline.
It looks all hunkered down – but it’s also jacked up.
It has high floorpans relative to the others in this class, which is why it has more standard ground clearance – 9.4 inches, even for the 2WD versions – than the others in this class (the GM twins have 8.4 inches, the Frontier 8.6 inches).
You sit up higher and have a conning tower view of the road ahead.
But because the roofline is fairly low, headspace is a bit less than in the others – 39.7 inches for the driver and front seat passenger vs. 39.9 in the Frontier and 41.4 in the GM trucks. Still, it’s plenty for even a very tall guy (me) to drive (and ride in) without brushing his head against the headliner. It feels cozy more than cramped – even with the sunroof.
The sense of width is enhanced by a long, horizontal dash pad, very handsomely and functionally laid out – with manual rotary knobs for most functions and secondary/redundant controls on the steering wheel for when you’re not wearing gloves. The center console has rubberized and spill-friendly surfaces – but the center console storage bin is smallish and you only get one USB port and one 12V power point.
The most appealing thing about this truck,though, is that you can easily see into the bed – and get at things in the bed – without standing on a milk crate. You don’t need a step ladder to climb into the bed, either.
This makes it much easier to use the bed – except for one thing:
The beds are all short.
Take your pick of the five footer or the six footer. No eight-footers are available because the truck isn’t available in a regular cab/two-door configuration.
Tragic, because if you could buy a regular cab/extended cab Tacoma with an eight foot bed, you’d have a truck that could do most of the work of a full-sized truck, without having to buy one of today’s Super Sized 1500 trucks. Which is probably why they don’t sell a regular cab/long bed version of the Tacoma.
So that they can sell you a long-bed Tundra.
Same goes for Nissan and GM. Maybe Ford will break bad and offer the 2018 Ranger in regular cab/long bed form.
And with a diesel, too… .
Toyota will sell you a very neat factory-designed three-piece folding tonneau cover for the bed. You can raise up just the rearmost section to access/load stuff back there.
You can also order “overfenders” – flares, basically – that accentuate the truck’s wide-track/low-roofed but still jacked-up stance.
“Qi” wireless sail fawn charging is available, too.
The available three-stage seat heaters get hot even on days that are pig-bitin’ cold.
One of the very few things I found to gripe about is that the knob for the volume control for the optional JBL premium audio system is positioned directly adjacent to the LCD touchscreen display’s channel pre-sets. Sometimes, when turning the volume up or down, my fingers glanced the touchscreen and changed the station while trying to change the volume. I “fixed” this by learning to use the secondary/redundant volume control buttons on the steering wheel – which by the way has a nice beefy feel to it, too.
You can get a Frontier for less – but the 4WD version will cost you more (and it’s not as off-road capable).
Or a Canyon/Colorado – if you don’t mind the DI four and are ok with the automatic-only V6.
It’ll be interesting to see what Ford brings to the table a few months from now.
But for now, it’s easy to see why so many people take home Tacos.
Eric Peters is the automotive columnist for the Southern Arizona News-Examiner. Visit his website for all things automotive at ericpetersautos.com.
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