The growth of the compact pickup class parallels the expansion of Toyota and Nissan (Datsun at the time) into the U.S. market in the late 1960s. Toyota’s Hilux was the standard-bearer — a short-bed, rear drive mini-truck with a four-speed manual transmission and a tiny 1.5-liter four-cylinder. It was basic transportation with a cargo hold attached, nothing more. Toyota sold thousands.
By 1975, it was clear that consumers here, and worldwide, wanted more and Toyota was only too happy to build a better model that included more creature features plus a larger 2.2-liter engine with a five-speed manual. A long-bed version was added, but four-wheel drive did not appear until 1979, a full 10 years after the Hilux’s debut. In 1981, Toyota partnered with Winnebago to build camper versions of its modest compact truck.
By this time, Datsun’s version was also making strong inroads into this growing market, while Ford and Chevrolet had approached other Asian automakers to get their own versions of these small pickups. By 1982, Chevy and Ford had their own creations, the S-10 for the bowtie brand, and the Ranger for the blue-oval folks. Sales rapidly expanded, again.
During the 1980s there were less significant gains in the class as more competitors spread sales over a wider spectrum. Improvements continued, refinement gains accelerated and the small trucks started to reflect a greater sense of virtue. Margins, however, were thin and the automakers preferred selling full-size trucks, essentially using the smaller engines featured in compact trucks to help them reach the EPA mileage standards imposed. Buyers got deals.
As the truck/SUV explosion marched through the 1990s, compact truck sales started a slow decline, even as Dodge and Honda joined the fray with what many considered midsize alternatives — the Dakota and the Ridgeline. Ford’s Ranger had climbed past the Toyota and Nissan small trucks to own the top sales spot, but the Ranger was heavily discounted each year — a loss-leader for Ford. GM’s Colorado and Canyon small trucks were not as vital — or relevant — as they had once been, again leaving Toyota and Nissan as the two benchmark nameplates in the compact truck segment.
In 2006, truck sales reached their peak. Toyota’s second-generation Tacoma, the direct descendent of the original Hilux and the following Toyota “truck,” sold over 178,000 units — the most Tacomas ever sold in the U.S. market.
In 2011, Toyota dealers sold over 110,000 Tacomas — more than double the third-place Nissan Frontier, and handily more than the Ford’s Ranger with 70,000 units. But that’s it for the Ranger; production has ceased as Ford has apparently abandoned both the long-in-the-tooth Ranger as well as the F-100-series truck that was planned to replace it.
Dodge also has shut down production of the slow-selling Dakota, while GM continues to waffle on the Canyon/Colorado series, one month saying it will continue with development for the next generation model, the next month planning on closing the Louisiana plant that makes these trucks as well as former Hummer H3s. Honda’s Ridgeline, arguably one of the more innovative trucks in the whole segment, continues to get zero marketing support with sales trundling along at the bottom of the pack.
For many truck consumers, it seems inexplicable that the manufacturers have not brought their diesel-powered compact trucks to this market. More engine torque, the greater fuel economy promised by a smaller vehicle, plus added range are virtues that would seem right on target for many American truck buyers. Alas, not even Toyota has plans to add a fuel-stretching diesel Tacoma to its lineup, despite selling these versions elsewhere in the world.
While a diesel-powered Tacoma would be a great option, the current truck comes in 60 different combinations of trim, powertrain and cabin configurations. Now built in San Antonio, Texas, alongside its Tundra sibling, the Tacoma is available in regular cab, extended Access Cab (shown here), plus the five-passenger Double Cab model. Bed lengths are 5-foot or 6-foot, while rear drive is standard and a four-wheel-drive setup strictly designed for off-road or snow conditions is available. Pricing starts at $17,125 for an entry-level regular cab, 2WD, short bed with a manual gearbox. A similar Access Cab model is $19,915, while a Double Cab would start at $22,425 so equipped.
Power comes from two well-established Toyota motors. A 159-horsepower 2.7-liter four-cylinder is standard in several trim variations, while a 4.0-liter 236-hp V-6 is available. Toyota also offers a supercharged version of this engine — with 306 hp — as a dealer-installed option with a full factory warranty. Transmissions range from a four-speed automatic/five-speed manual for the four, to five-speed automatic and six-speed manual for the V-6.
EPA mileage estimates range from 16 mpg to 25 mpg, depending upon powertrain and cab. Tested Access Cab with 4X4 and the V-6 is EPA rated at 16/21-mpg and returned 20.4 mpg during its visit.
These fuel mileage numbers are not that much better, if at all, than today’s conventional full-size pickups. Perhaps a diesel would make a lot more sense?
This conundrum grows when pricing enters the picture. Compact pickup trucks used to be significantly less expensive to buy than full-size trucks. But as with every vehicle class, buyers have asked for more — more features, more standard equipment, more safety.
The automakers are only too happy to oblige, hence a Tacoma that lists for $32,159 with an interior that seemed rather — basic. Hard-plastic surfaces abound, the driver’s seat adjusted manually, there are no automatic headlamps, no one-touch lane change activation, no push-button ignition, and no fancy nav system.
Our Barcelona Red Tacoma did, however, offer Sirius satellite radio in an upgraded stereo package as well as outside temp, compass and back-up camera — all nestled into a small screen on the rear-view mirror. The Tacoma’s comfortable thick-rimmed steering wheel felt almost perfect in your hands and delivered a respectable level of ‘feel’ not common in trucks. A bit more tilt/telescoping action of the steering column, however, would have surely aided this impression as the Toyota’s seating position forces legs close/arms correct, or arms stretched/legs comfortable.
With the Access Cab you get two rear mounted jump-seats suitable for small children or friends you don’t intent to keep. The seat bottoms fold up to provide a decent level of interior cargo space, while the headrests fold down to improve the view rearward. Opposing suicide-style rear doors provide access; the windows in these doors do not open.
Toyota’s TRD — Toyota Racing Development — package adds a lot of features that you can’t buy separately, so, you have to buy this whole list of components to get some things that you may really want.
Pluses of the TRD package: bed-mounted 115-volt outlet is handy for power tools and camping adventures, plus the enhanced interior makes one wonder how plebian the Tacoma might be without modest features such as dual sunvisors, map lights, cruise control and remote entry.
On the flip side, the Tacoma’s TRD package also includes Bilstein shocks and larger 17-inch tires and wheels — the off-road sport suspension — that exacts a stiff toll in day-to-day driving. Unless you really need this suspension for regular off-road duty, the Tacoma’s rural road ride would be better served with the stock suspension setup.
And like the diesel question, is it time for this vehicle to offer a fully independent suspension? Wouldn’t ride dynamics improve and overall comfort be greater? Considering that the majority of crossovers, cars, and other vehicles ride atop an independent rear suspension, with good tow ratings as well, Toyota could gain an edge by equipping the Tacoma with this supple chassis arrangement too.
Other contradictions include a plastic bedliner that allows any unsecured loads to ricochet about the bed as you drive. I suppose that’s why there are several bed-anchor points as well as movable securing points along the bedrail.
Stealing a page from Ford, Toyota offers an optional hideaway step ($300) to improve access to the bed. Push down with your foot and voila the driver’s side step is ready for action. The optional side steps ($469) did not prove to be as useful.
The Tacoma’s V-6 delivers abundant power, the cabin is quite comfortable for extended travel and the vehicle is composed and stable on placid surfaces. Reconfigured with different options and equipment the Tacoma might be a better value and seem less of a compromise truck, less like it was trying to be all things to every buyer.
There is a certain macho image to the Tacoma’s large tires, TRD hood scoop and beefy proportions, styling that has helped the Tacoma climb to the top of the segment for youthful males and off-road proponents. It is a solid offering in the traditions of Toyota and will readily provide years of faithful service. Just make judicious options list selections.
There is no challenger currently in the market that will steal the Tacoma’s top position. Perhaps the market has seen the Tacoma’s strengths and elected to leave this segment to Toyota alone.
In the end, one is left with the impression that the Tacoma is a really good compact/midsize truck that could be great with some more investment in its future.
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