Car Review

One old-fashioned reason makes the 2021 Toyota Tacoma iconic

The Tacoma has been around for a half-decade and is showing its age in a few spots — but it is a cult icon for a reason.

It's easy to see why the Toyota Tacoma has been the best-selling midsize truck in America for more than a decade.

For one, it's been around for a long time, while most of the competition (Ford Ranger, Jeep Gladiator, Chevrolet Colorado) has come and gone and come back again over the years.

For another, Toyota really knows how to make a reliable pickup. Head out west to Colorado, and you'll see the Tacos, new and old, everywhere. It rivals the venerable Subaru Outback as the unofficial car of folks who want something bulletproof-reliable and eminently practical.

The Toyota Tacoma is one of the most capable off-road pickups you can buy.Toyota

I've driven several Tacomas over the years and come away impressed every time, both because of its impressive lineup of features and its sheer pigheadedness when it comes to certain types of new technology.

Under the hood, for example, is a 3.5-liter V6 making 278 horsepower and 265 lb-ft of torque. It has all manner of clever tricks to improve fuel economy like variable valve timing and using something called an Atkinson Cycle. And all that gives it a fuel economy of 18/22/20 in the Tacoma TRD Pro that I reviewed.

Having terrible fuel economy is a Toyota truck staple, but thanks to hundreds of thousands of fuel-sipping hybrids that the company sells, it can balance the scales. Not that Tacoma owners seem to mind. They want something that's going to get them to the top of the mountain and back again, every time.

The TRD Off Road package comes with a load of goodies including upgraded suspension, off-road tires, and more.Toyota

Then there's the interior. I like the Tacoma interior because I feel like I can dump an iced coffee in here and wipe it down with some Clorox wipes, and you wouldn't know the difference. But the buttons on the dashboard look like they're from the last century.

“I like the Tacoma interior because I feel like I can dump an iced coffee in here.”

With some truckmakers putting enormous iPad-sized touchscreens in their rigs, the Tacoma's gigantic industrial buttons and knobs might seem old-fashioned. But that's just the Tacoma — and those knobs work great while wearing gloves. And Taco owners don't seem to care.

Another thing that Tacoma owners don't care about is clumsy on-road handling and an automatic transmission that can generously be called unrefined. They also don't mind the cramped cabin, especially in the second row.

To call the Tacoma interior dated is a bit of an understatement, but it gets the job done.Toyota

But when it comes to off-road chops, boy is the TRD Pro — my test unit last week — a champion. The TRD Pro starts at $46,780, and my version was optioned up to $50,545 thanks to a $699 graphics package, a $140 rubber bed mat, a step to climb into the bed more manageable, and more.

The off-road-focused TRD Pro package includes FOX shocks, skid plates, a lifted suspension, and off-road-focused tires. It's wildly capable and ready for nearly any off-road mission thanks to a much-improved approach (35), departure (23.9), and breakover angles (28.5) — though it suffers in day-to-day driving.

This is particularly humorous since many people buy the TRD Pro (and the less-expensive but still capable TRD Off-Road) package for the look more than the capability. The Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is the same way.

The Tacoma exterior is ruggedly attractive.Toyota

People are happy to pay extra for an excellent off-road capable look, even if it worsens the actual driving experience. See every lifted redneck pickup truck that never leaves the pavement for more.

But perhaps the most commendable thing about the Tacoma is all the standard safety features that Toyota stuffs into every pickup that comes off the line. It's awkwardly called the Toyota Safety Sense P and includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure alert, automatic high beams, and adaptive cruise control.

Some of these features — adaptive cruise control — are barely offered on competitor vehicles, or they're buried at top trim levels. They're standard on the Tacoma, which is huge. It's 2021, and if Toyota can install them on this aging truck, there's no excuse for other carmakers not to make them standard on their brand new rigs.

There are few trucks more capable from the factory than a new Tacoma TRD Off Road.Toyota

There's also creature comforts like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay (although not wireless), USB ports, a wireless phone charger, and an ok-but-not-great JBL stereo.

I loved my week with the Tacoma, even with the kludgy transmission and splashy suspension on the road. It's forgivable given how fantastic the rest of the truck is. From the look to the performance to the sturdy buttons on the interior, just about everything on the Tacoma is lovable, even if imperfect.

It's easy to see why the Taco is so popular, and if I were on the market for a capable midsize pickup, it would be at the top of my list.

One Cool Detail: Crawl control mode

Jordan Golson

To assist with its off-road creds, the Tacoma includes a locking rear differential and a crawl control mode, both of which are activated from an overhead control panel (it’s just like you’re an aircraft pilot!).

Crawl control can be turned on when in 4-Low, and it lets you choose a set cruise control speed from 1 to 5 miles per hour, and the car will do whatever it needs — applying brakes to individual wheels or by applying power — to maintain that speed. It means you can leave the pedals alone and instead focus solely on steering, something that’s useful for particularly tricky off-road trails.

Subscribe to PRNDL, Jordan Golson’s car reviews newsletter, free on Substack. This review is also published in the North State Journal.

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