For 16 years, the Toyota Tacoma has sat atop the midsize pickup truck sales charts thanks in part to its sterling reputation and excellent resale value. Even as the midsize truck class has grown in recent years to to include a reborn Ford Ranger and new Jeep Gladiator, the Toyota continues to rule the roost with a Tacoma lineup that encompasses more than 30 configurations all offering good looks, plenty of utility and proper on- and off-road capabilities. And after spending a week with what is now a 6-year-old truck, I’m reminded again of all the things that contribute to the Tacoma’s lasting appeal.
LikeRugged stylingSmooth V6Composed ride
Don’t LikeLimited headroomNot great fuel economyGets pricey
Even though the current-generation Tacoma is getting old, it’s still an attractive rig. The blockier looks are even more beefed up on my TRD Off-Road tester with a very cool Army Green paint job and contrasting black fender trim. Throw in slick 16-inch wheels wrapped in meaty Goodyear Wrangler All-Terrain Adventure tires, black tube steps and TRD skid plates, and this truck looks more than ready to play in the dirt.
Inside the Taco, the squared-off dash continues the rugged design theme, and much of the cabin is built from acres of hard, nicely grained plastics that are easy to clean and should look good for years to come. Don’t worry, it’s not all hard plastic all the time, with key touchpoints like the steering wheel and shift knob wrapped in leather and armrests covered in padded vinyl. The front seat cushions are firm and their minimal bolstering allows them to accommodate a variety of body types.
2021 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road: A pickup for traditionalists
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As a shorter 5-foot, 6-inch person, I have zero problems with space or finding a comfortable seating position behind the Tacoma’s wheel, however, I can see why my taller co-workers have had issues here. There’s not a ton of headroom in either row and rear legroom in my Double Cab tester isn’t palatial. Again, if four or five Jon Wongs need to go somewhere, they’ll be fine. Four or five Craig Coles or Andrew Kroks, however, is going to be a different and less comfortable story.
Storage space is admirable with large door pockets, center console cubbies, a decent-sized center armrest console, mammoth glove box compartment and a pair of hidden bins below the rear seat’s lower cushions. Of course, there’s the 5-foot-long bed out back, fitted with a molded liner and tie-down bedrail that’ll surely come in handy for home improvement supply or flat pack furniture runs.
Most Tacoma models feature an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system. Base Tacoma SR models are the only ones that don’t have this screen and instead get a 7-inch unit, while goodies such as Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa are finally standard across the board. In addition, my tester comes with a JBL audio setup, navigation, Wi-Fi hotspot and Bluetooth.
Nothing special to look at, but it’s got standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto now.
The TRD Off-Road’s 8-inch touchscreen does take a noticeable second to switch between menu screens and calculate navigation routes. The menu layouts themselves are simple to work through, but far from visually riveting. My favorite aspect of the system is that Toyota maintains the physical shortcut buttons that flank both sides of the screen to easily get to the most used menus like the home, audio and map screens.
To juice up any smart devices, the TRD Off-Road has a 12-volt outlet and wireless charge pad at the base of the center console, while there are USB-A and USB-C ports in the center armrest. Unfortunately, backseat passengers don’t have any power ports within easy reach.
On the safety tech front, the Toyota Safety Sense suite of features is standard issue on all Tacomas. That includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning and auto high beams. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alerts are available as options and installed on my TRD Off-Road.
The Tacoma’s cabin has a variety of power points up front, but nothing within easy reach in back.
Rides like a truck
Toyota offers two engines in the Tacoma, with a base 2.7-liter I4 churning out 159 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque providing adequate power. The TRD Off-Road and other higher trims come with a 3.5-liter V6 making 278 hp and 265 lb-ft. The V6 offers sufficient grunt off the line but feels the most energetic from roughly 3,500 rpm on up, making easy enough work of expressway merging and passing. And when it’s time to do real work, my test truck can pull up to 6,400 pounds with a payload rating of 1,155 pounds.
Traditionalists will be pleased to know that Tacomas can be had with a six-speed manual transmission, but my tester is outfitted with an optional six-speed automatic that helps return a far-from-spectacular EPA-estimated 18 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway. In real world testing, I observed 19 mpg.
For the most part, the gearbox returns fluid, quick-enough and well-timed shifts fitting for a pickup. However, occasionally a rogue, clunky downshift happens when slowing down and getting back on the throttle before coming to a complete stop.
Bilstein shocks give the Tacoma TRD Off-Road a leg up when venturing off pavement.
The highlight to the Tacoma TRD Off-Road is all the hardware to make it handle better, well, off-road. That list includes part-time four-wheel-drive (two-wheel-drive is also available), a locking rear differential, specially tuned suspension with Bilstein shocks, Goodyear tires, hill-start assist and Crawl Control that’s essentially low-speed off-road cruise control to let drivers focus on steering through rock obstacles.
Unfortunately, the extent of my off-roading involves rolling on unpaved lots, but I can say that it isn’t half bad on road. Sure, things get choppy over bumps before the body recovers and around corners the Tacoma doesn’t noticeably flop around. The steering is direct (for a truck), the brakes are strong and grabby at first and there’s some tire noise to speak off, but all told, the Tacoma is completely reasonable for daily drives. If on-road ride quality is a top priority, maybe don’t buy the TRD Off-Road trim. Or maybe go buy a Honda Ridgeline instead.
How I’d spec it
As much as I love the looks of the Tacoma TRD Pro and the cool factor of knowing it can go almost anywhere off road, the $45,000 base price tag attached to the king-of-the-hill model is steep. Instead, I’d stick with an Army Green TRD Off-Road Double Cab with four-wheel drive and a 5-foot bed like my test truck. I’d even keep the automatic transmission since it’d be a daily driver, with a price that starts at $38,705 including destination.
This Tacoma TRD Off-Road as-tested stickers for almost $47,000.
From there, I’ll throw on a $2,790 Premium Audio and Navigation package that also includes the Technology Package for must-haves such as blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, nicer audio system and LED headlights to replace the standard Tacoma halogen setup. To further dress the outside and add function, I want the $469 oval tube steps, $499 TRD front skid plate, $160 black emblem overlays and $129 mudguards. And finally, inside I’ll pony up $169 for all-weather rubber floor mats, bringing my Tacoma’s bottom line to $42,921. Far from cheap, but it’s cheaper than the $46,894 truck pictured here.
True to its roots
While some on the Roadshow staff continue to be baffled at the Tacoma’s popularity, I think I have a good understanding of why it’s so successful. Besides reliability and resale, the Tacoma is a simple and straightforward truck. It looks like a truck, drives like a truck and offers respectable towing and hauling capabilities, while packing enough creature comforts to make it livable. Nothing more. Nothing less.