The verdict: Class-leading sales continue to gloss over its flaws, but how much longer can Toyota go without modernizing the Tacoma?
Versus the competition: It’s hard to think of a single thing the Tacoma does better than its competitors … except sell.
I’m on the record saying I still find old-school — or even downright old — vehicles enjoyable to drive even as competitors modernize; driving a 1997 Toyota 4Runner for more than a decade will do that to a person. But even I had a hard time finding something enjoyable about driving the Toyota Tacoma, a 2021 pickup truck that really shouldn’t feel like a vehicle more than 20 years its senior.
The Tacoma’s not all bad, but using one as a daily driver made me wonder just how much longer Toyota can keep getting away with giving the Tacoma special editions and new paint colors but no meaningful upgrades. The automaker just gave the full-size Tundra pickup a complete redesign, and the Tacoma needs to be next in line.
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The Tacoma competes against traditional body-on-frame mid-size pickups like the Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, GMC Canyon, Jeep Gladiator and Nissan Frontier, as well as the unibody Honda Ridgeline. Whether the newer, smaller unibody Ford Maverick will also give the Tacoma a run for its money remains to be seen.
Power for the Tacoma I drove came from a naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V-6 that makes 278 horsepower and 265 pounds-feet of torque. A smaller 2.7-liter four-cylinder is also available. Our test vehicle had a six-speed automatic transmission, but a six-speed manual is also available.
The V-6 is noisy and sounds strained under hard acceleration. Power is available for passing and merging, but it doesn’t come easily. The Tacoma can lose steam in higher-speed driving once the revs settle, and the transmission won’t always kick down willingly to get going again.
Interestingly (and frustratingly), the automatic transmission displayed some aggravating behavior while using the Tacoma’s adaptive cruise control. In situations where it needed to accelerate to maintain a desired speed, the transmission would kick down from 6th to 4th, reach the set speed, then hold 4th gear. The lower gear and commensurate higher rpm were noisy and annoying. Sometimes the Tacoma would return to a higher gear on its own, and sometimes I had to employ a quick touch of the accelerator to remind the transmission a higher gear would be better. Manual shift mode could fix this problem fairly easily by letting you shift back up, but it’s available only when driving in Sport mode, which limits the transmission to four gears — leaving you once again stuck in 4th on the highway.
Ride and handling aren’t much better. We’ve always said the Tacoma is happiest off-road, and like most of the rest of the truck, that hasn’t changed. Unladen and on pavement, the ride is stiff and bouncy, though having some weight in the bed helps a little. The TRD Off-Road includes an off-road-tuned suspension, which in other trucks often means a plusher — if wobbly — ride. Here it’s just rigid. Steering is vague and uncommunicative, and the amount of play in the steering is shocking, even while cornering. At least it will keep you from overcorrecting while rock crawling.
The Tacoma’s brakes also leave a lot to be desired. There’s a substantial amount of initial bite — so much I felt like I narrowly avoided getting rear-ended a few times — but after that a significant amount of pedal travel is needed to apply additional stopping power. I can see how that initial bite would be useful in low-speed off-roading situations, when it could stop the Tacoma quickly before disaster strikes, but on paved roads it mostly just annoyed me. One nice thing Toyota does, however, is not put incredibly knobby off-road tires on off-road-focused trucks, as if the automaker knows most of the truck’s miles will be driven on pavement. The payoff is less noise and improved road feel, but serious off-roaders will likely go for aftermarket tires.
With four-wheel drive, the 3.5-liter V-6 and six-speed automatic, the Tacoma has EPA-rated gas mileage of 18/22/20 mpg city/highway/combined. The same powertrain with rear-wheel drive is slightly more efficient, at 19/24/21 mpg. The four-cylinder Tacoma is just barely more efficient.
However, while the Tacoma is far from efficient, it’s not much less so than similarly equipped competitors. To get greater efficiency from a pickup truck, buyers will have to consider different types of powertrains, such as diesels (available in the Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon and Jeep Gladiator, as well as every full-size pickup except the Tundra) or hybrids (available but not yet rated by the EPA in the Tundra, as well as Ford’s F-150 and Maverick). I was frustrated by the lack of range available to me on a full tank in the Tacoma, but it’s not an outlier in this department.
When properly equipped, towing capacity for the 2021 Tacoma maxes out at 6,800 pounds (in a RWD extended-cab model with a towing prep package). The crew-cab TRD Off-Road we tested can’t pull more than 6,400 pounds. Payload capacities vary depending on equipment: Our test vehicle could handle up to 1,155 pounds, but other models go as high as 1,685 pounds.
The Tacoma’s interior is fairly basic, lacking in frills and advanced tech. There’s an 8-inch touchscreen equipped with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, plus a total of three USB ports (one for data, two for charging only). The display itself looks old, and it shows that age in its lengthy response times. While using Apple CarPlay, for example, advancing through songs too quickly caused a message to appear on the touchscreen informing me I needed to wait while it was “gathering data from my iPod” (I was using an iPhone 12 because it’s 2021). I’ve seen delayed responses from wireless versions of CarPlay before and chalked it up to wireless signal issues, but this was a first for me when using a wired connection. I can’t say for certain that the fault lies with the Tacoma and not my phone or my choice of USB cable, but it’s something to look out for if you check out a Tacoma.
As for the rest of the interior, the seats are fairly comfortable, though the leather upholstery didn’t feel very high-quality, and there’s lots of hard plastic. Of course, it’s a truck, so that’s not really a bad thing, but if you want more luxury, you’ll be better off looking elsewhere.
The driver’s seating position feels a bit strange. We’ve previously described it as feeling like you’re sitting on the floor despite its relative height, and that holds true in the 2021 Tacoma. Neither the seat nor the steering wheel feels very adjustable, and I struggled to find the right combination throughout my time with the Tacoma. The backseat of the Tacoma crew cab (Toyota calls it a Double Cab) didn’t really fit my 6-foot-1 frame, either; I needed more legroom and headroom.
The Tacoma comes standard with a host of advanced safety tech as part of Toyota’s Safety Sense suite, including forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection. Adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and automatic high beams are also standard.
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the Tacoma did fairly well, acing all crash tests except the passenger-side small overlap front test. Its headlights also received mixed ratings depending on trim level. It earned a four-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is typical for the class.
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Toyota has a sterling reputation when it comes to reliability, and the Tacoma in particular seems to hold its value fairly well. Given how little I enjoyed driving our test vehicle, I’m guessing it’s compelling for buyers to know that a new truck’s $48,000 sticker price (about what the Tacoma we drove cost) might not face a significant amount of depreciation. Also, while it’s not as true as in a Jeep, there is some cachet in driving a Taco around town.
If you need a truck for work, however, there are more capable and affordable alternatives out there. There are more capable off-road options, too, though they won’t be more affordable. Here’s hoping that, now that Toyota has finally gotten around to redesigning the Tundra, the Tacoma won’t be far behind.