Mar 03, 2021
To head off the immediate reaction of “Why a Toyota,” consider for a moment the immense reach that Toyota has around the world. From a tiny island nation off the coast of Korea and China, what started as a humble little car maker in 1937, Toyota (originally named Toyoda, after founder Toyoda Kiichiro) has literally cars, trucks, heavy machinery, and a variety of other heavy duty industry products in nearly every nation of the world.
As such, it goes with the territory of both market sensibility and engineering challenges that Toyota would create a truck that was tough enough, looks good enough, and can tow/haul enough to hold its own against the American Big Three car makers. And if you ever meet an engineer with a passion for what they do, they love being given proper challenges to overcome.
And so it was with Toyota, after about five years of research and development, that in 1995 it put out the Tacoma. The first generation was in response to the Mazda B series trucks, developed alongside Ford with the Ranger series, and was a compact pickup. Much like what Chevrolet and Dodge discovered, the compact market was dying out as consumers were wanting more and more of the midsize and full sized lightweight trucks.
The second generation, from 2005 to 2015, was classified as a lightweight midsize, with a selection of good, if a little anemic for a light duty pickup, engines. It sold, but not in terribly great numbers. Still, Toyota was convinced to give it one more shot, and the third generation, which has been in production since 2016, was born.
Each year adds slightly different options for each trim, but to help you better understand what you are looking at, we have broken down each trim into their basic components. These are in order of most basic to premium (SR, SR5, TRD Sport, TRD Off-Road, Limited, TRD Pro)
The SR trim is not, as many American trucks classify their lowest tier, a pure work truck. It is more along the lines of a truck that can do a lot of things, but also be great for the family. The SR trim includes:
There is a Utility Package available for the SR Tacoma, which removes the rear seat, rear seatbelts, and adds a bed liner and mounting rails if one really wants to use it as a work truck..
The SR5 is the up-spec version of the SR. While keeping the same basic truck “Core,” it adds the following features:
TRD, which stands for Toyota Racing Development, became a household name in many countries during the early 1990’s, due to Toyota’s entry into the World Rally Championship. Nowadays, it is the in-house performance vehicles and parts department of Toyota itself. The TRD Sport is where things get exciting, including things such as:
Everything from the TRD Sport trim, with the following items changed out:
The “luxury trim,” if you will. This is where all the bells and whistles are. For someone wanting to travel with leather and finely tuned suspension for the city’s bumps and bruises, this is their trim. It includes:
Much like how Ford has the Raptor and Chevrolet has the Colorado ZR2, the TRD Pro is Toyota’s dedicated top-spec off-road model, designed not as much for the city streets as it is a bumpy dirt trail through dense brush. It includes::
(2019 model shown)
The access cab size is what other brands have classified as extended cab, half cab, or other nomenclature. This cab can handle 4 adults, but the rear seats are accessed through a reverse-opening half-door behind the main doors.
(2020 TRD Pro shown)
Commonly called a crew cab, this cab has four regular sized doors, which allow easy access to either seating for four adults with the bucket seats option, or five adults with a rear bench seat option
The third generation Toyota Tacoma was officially unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show in January 2015. It drew rave “first sight” reviews for being styled similarly to the original 1995 Tacoma compact truck, but with more muscle projected. Big wheel arches, a confident grille, a suspension lift over the second generation, and a general increase in size over the second generation made it stand out and be noticed. While officially classified in all the marketing material and even by federal guidelines as a midsize, the Tacoma is much more like a slightly shrunk down full size.
The impressive part about the new look for the Tacoma was that it was much more in-line with what Americans seemed to want: good looks with reliable power and easy maintenance. There was a surge of interest after its release, and for the first full model year, 2016, it sold through over 190,000 trucks, a roughly 7% increase in sales over 2015, the last year of the second generation.
One of the major standout features of the Toyota Tacoma is that it is among the last few models of trucks, and might be perhaps the last model of truck, to still be available with a manual transmission. While that transmission is on the one model of the Tacoma that may actually need the use of clutch slip and torque-intensive gearing, the TRD Pro, it is still a three pedal, row-your-own truck. The manual originally was offered across the range as a 5-speed during 2016 to 2017, and as a 6-speed in 2017, since 2018, it is exclusive to the off-road sport truck.
Another very popular feature of the Tacoma range is that it has a full suite of off-road and go-faster parts from TRD. The most popular of these is the much loved TRD lift kit, which was introduced in 2019 as a 2020 option of all of the trucks. This kit includes Bilstein shocks, TRD springs, TRD red dust boots, a “Tuned By TRD” graphic, and a small ECU tune. The kit adds nearly 2 inches to the truck, and is 100% covered by the vehicle warranty if ordered as part of a new truck.
For the first full model year, the Toyota Tacoma was offered with a choice of two engines. The base engine is known as the 2.7L 2TR-FE inline-four, and develops 159 HP and 180 lb-ft of torque. The other engine is known as the 3.5L 2GR-FKS Atkinson-Cycle V6, which produces 278 HP and 265 lb-ft of torque.
As noted above, the option of a 5-speed manual transmission or a 6-speed automatic was presented for every trim, bed, and engine combination. Toyota has a company philosophy of “kaizen,” literally “continual improvement,” and a fierce belief in driver involvement in the operation of their vehicles. While the manual transmissions made up for less than 5% of all sales in North America and Mexico.
On the upside, the Toyota Tacoma was named the Best Midsize Truck Of Texas in its first model year, briefly dethroning Chevy despite the classification of the Tacoma still a point of debate. The award was given by the Texas Auto Writers Association after an annual event known as the Texas Truck Rodeo. The Tacoma proved to be the better handling and more off-road capable truck over its only real competition, the Chevy Colorado.
Being a first model year, 2016 saw a couple of decently important recalls. The first relates to models that had the optional 4x4 drive train, where the rear differential was mounted slightly differently than in 4x2 drive trains. This slight repositioning allowed for the rear differential carrier to flex, letting differential fluid leak from the rear axle housing in very rare instances.
The other recall, far more serious, was in relation to the 3.5L V6. During first year maintenance visits, it was discovered at multiple Toyota service centers that nearly a tenth of all Tacoma’s were reporting a fault code for their crank position sensors. Upon manual and visual inspections, no incorrect crank positions were observed, but during simulations, it was discovered that the sensor could, if driven over 100,000 miles, could fail, and would likely cause an engine seize or stall. All sensors were replaced during the next scheduled dealership servicing free of charge, and for those that maintained their own vehicles, a request-and-replace TSB was issued.
The 2017 Toyota Tacoma received only minor updates, without much especially noticeable.
The only truly major introduction to the lineup was the TRD Pro sport off-road version. For this introduction, the double-cab-short-bed size was the only available spec. It came with the 3.5L V6, a full set of TRD tuned suspension with cooperation from FOX Racing, a whole slew of off-road bash plates and skid plates underneath over the mechanicals, and, for the 2017 introduction, an included GoPro dash mounted holder. The TRD Pro could be had with a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic.
The V6 crank sensor recall carried over into 2017, the year when it was first issued after confirmation of the possibility of sensor failure during simulations. A minor recall for a wide array of Toyota vehicles, including the Tacoma, was issued for the brake booster vacuum pump, part of the ABS system. During manufacturing, it may have been machined to a slightly incorrect specification, and could cause a loss of vacuum assist under extreme conditions.
The biggest update for 2018 was the introduction of the third engine for the Toyota Tacoma. It still carried the 3.L 2GR-FKS Atkinson-cycle V6 name, but had a dual valve control system attached, and came with 24 independently controllable valves. As such, it is known as the2GR-FKS (24). This engine uses Variable Valve Timing - intelligent Wider Intake (VVT-iW) and Variable Valve Timing - intelligent Exhaust (VVT-i) to control both the intake valves and exhaust valves respectively.
While the 2GR-FKS (24) produces the same 278 HP and 265 lb-ft of torque, it has a much higher compression ratio than the standard 3.5L V6 and has different sized bore and stroke compared to the base unit. The reason for this is that the non-VVT-iW version of the engine, with the lower compression, became one of the base engines for the high-performance Lexus IS350, and while the planned turbocharged version of it never materialized for the IS350, it was still able to be tuned to produce over 310 HP in the lightweight sports car.
What the 2GR-FKS (24) allows, however, is a much tighter level of control on the Atkinson-cycle power generation of the engine, meaning less fuel is needed per injection, meaning it directly translates to better fuel economy and better power-per-cylinder combustion. It truly is a next-generation technology inside the engine, with only some hypercars like the Koenigsegg Gemara or the Ferrari SF90 getting independent, per-valve control. However, both of those cars are producing exceptionally high horsepower and the valve control is used more for eeking out every shred of horsepower instead of fuel economy.
For 2018, no new recalls were issued. The standard level TSBs were issued, relating to either software in the truck or electrical upgrades that were covered under warranty, such as a new ballast system for the headlights, or an ECU flash after a few months of the new 3.5L V6 24-valve engine being around.
The big news for the Tacoma in 2019 was that the previous year had seen nearly a quarter million Toyota Tacoma’s sold in the USA alone. The combination of trims, easy maintenance, and decent towing functionality made the truck a very popular choice. However, all was not good in Tacoma-land, as some options bowed out before the 2019 models hit dealership showrooms.
For those of us that love the manuals, the 6-speed manual became available only on the TRD Pro. All other trims received the 6-speed automatic, no matter which engine you chose to go into your truck. As well, the popular Barcelona Red Ceramic and Cement Grey color options were replaced with Midnight Black Metallic and Cavalry Blue.
On the other hand, the previous year’s sales put the North American Toyota factories in Baja, Mexico and San Antonio, good ol’ TEXAS, into overdrive, as the flood of orders did not seem to be stemming at all. It was even driven to the point that the factories had to option in workers for Saturday morning shifts, which cost a pretty penny but got the trucks out of the door at a pace that had never been seen at the North American plants.
Apart from the manual transmissions disappearing from all but one trim, and the discontinuing of some colors, 2019 was otherwise a quiet year in terms of changes. As the old adage goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” And with almost 250,000 trucks sold in 12 months, something was definitely not broken.
In fact, it was so completely not broken that 2019’s sales eclipsed the 2018 sales, coming in just 2,000 sales short of the actual 250,000 mark. If Canada’s sales were to be rolled in, and the USA and Canada are the best of neighbors, so why not, the Tacoma sold 260,000 units, almost on the nose.
In terms of recalls, a minor one regarding an incorrect spec master brake cylinders was issued, and was estimated to affect only about 500 trucks. This recall was made as the supplier had manufactured them to the Toyota Corolla spec, not the Tacoma spec, for a day before they realized their mistake. Unfortunately, due to the speed of production, some of the cylinders had already been put in trucks and delivered.
The 2020 and up model years of the Toyota Tacoma have suffered the same fate as many 2021 models, namely that due to the global pandemic, any planned major changes have been pushed off to the 2022 model year. However, the Tacoma did have a planned model refresh that arrived in August 2019 for the 2020 model year.
This refresh spruced up the exterior, as well as adding a new style of daytime running LED lights that reduced the strain on the trucks electronics with a new ballast module and more efficient LEDs. The biggest changes, however, were inside.
In the SR5 and above, in addition to Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, Amazon Alexa Auto was added, allowing one to connect their smartphone to the new Bluetooth 5.0 capable infotainment system and ask Alexa questions or give voice commands for some features. In the Limited trim with a double-cab specified, an all new 360 panoramic ground view camera was added as standard. This allowed the driver to check all around the truck before reversing out of a parking space or, if off-road, tie it into the terrain management system to adaptively adjust the rear differential and other off-road abilities in the 4x4 spec.
The only major recall in 2020 and beyond has been a non-compulsory recall, meaning it’s up to the owner of the truck to request it, involving fuel pumps on the TRD Pro and TRD Off-Road trims. The fuel pump, if sufficiently bashed around and treated roughly, could incorrectly sense a reduced flow rate, which it will interpret as a fuel leak and kill the engine. This could be dangerous if in a precarious position off-road.
|Trim||Years||MSRP||Engine||Tow Rating (lbs)||Review|
3.5L V6 (2016+)
3.5L V6 VVT-iW (2018+)
|3,500+||Car & Driver 2016 first-look review|
|TRD Sport||2016+||$33,160+||2.7L inline-four|
3.5L V6 (2016+)
3.5L V6 VVT-iW (2018+)
|6,800+ (V6 with tow package option)|
|TRD Off-Road||2016++||$34,415+||2.7L inline-four|
3.5L V6 (2016+)
3.5L V6 VVT-iW (2018+)
|6,700+ (V6 with tow package option)|
3.5L V6 (2016+)
3.5L V6 VVT-iW (2018+)
|TRD Pro||2017+||$44,175+||3.5L V6 (2016+)|
3.5L V6 VVT-iW (2018+)
|6,400+||Car&Driver 2020 review|
Only one major, model wide recall of significant importance was issued in 2017 for 2016 and 2017 Toyota Tacoma’s with the 3.5L V6 engine:
As of this writing in 2021, no sensors have been reported as actually failing, at least according to any federal institution that would have such data displayed online, such as the NHTSA or the AMA.
There are multiple minor recalls and service bulletins, as per usual mostly relating to small updates, new electrical parts to improve reliability and reduce energy used, and minor issues that did not warrant a full recall. Primary among these was the recommended ECU flash with the new VVT-iW V6 in 2018 to further improve valve control and fuel efficiency.
There are no known critical issues with the Toyota Tacoma. It is well documented that throughout the years, Toyota has shown a propensity to massively over-engineer their engines and vehicles, to the point that no realistic situation would develop that would cause any reliability issues (with the engines at least).
This is famously demonstrated with the iconic 2JZ-GTE inline-six that was the engine for the fourth generation Toyota Supra in the 1990s, which came from the factory with 280 HP, but was engineered to be able to handle up to 1,000 HP through forced induction on stock internals. The same engineering prowess is applied to the 2GR-FKE V6, as it comes in the Tacoma at 278 HP, but in the 2018+ Lexus IS350 at over 310 HP, and can be supercharged or turbocharged to over 500 HP with only minor engine modifications.
One of the great things about trucks is that you can pretty much build one to fit your exact needs, or find one for sale that will do as good a job as a built one! However, there are as many uses for a truck as there are trucks to be used, so we’ve broken them down into generic categories.
For the first time in a long time, there really is no “minimum spec” trim that is suited to the work environment. The SR trim does have the option to have the Utility Package applied, which removes the rear seat in the access-cab spec and adds a bed liner and attachment rails system to tie down loads.
As such, we would have to recommend the SR trim as the best option for a work truck, and the SR5 as possibly an upgrade for a tradie that doesn’t get too dirty practicing their trade.
If you need to use the realistically quite short bed for pure hauling, the SR5 wins out in the 4x2 configuration. Its payload maximum is 1,685 lbs, and has a tongue load of 660 lbs, so you can rest assured that as you pile up the items you’re hauling, unless they weight over 600 lbs individually, the tailgate will not snap off on you
This is the only area where the Toyota Tundra, the Tacoma’s bigger full size lightweight pickup, is the better choice for heavy duty items. For the Tacoma, the recommendation has to go to the TRD Sport in 4x4 spec with the 3.5L V6 engine. A maximum towing load of 6,800 lbs means that pretty much anything needed for day to day work or transportation of pleasure crafts such as speedboats of ATVs is all in a days work for the Tacoma.
While everyone has a different idea of what the ideal daily driver is, our preference here is definitely for the TRD Sport.
It is not a stretch to see its benefits over the SR5, as well as not nearly being as “fat” as the Limited. With the sport, you get dual-zone climate control (a must in Texas), the 120V/400W inverter AC plug in the truck bed, comfortable seats, great infotainment, and suspension that is designed to take pretty much anything your throw at it, off- or on-road, with poise and grace.
On top of that, with the VVT-iW engine option, you get great in-city fuel mileage of 20 MPG, with 23 on the highway and 22 combined, while still enjoying all 278 horses that the engine provides.
Two trucks from the Tacoma lineup make it into our recommendations. The first, unsurprisingly, is the TRD Off-Road. It does what it says on the label. It is a Tacoma. Tuned by TRD to go off-road. Game, set, match.
The other recommendation, if off-roading is more of a sport and you don’t mind getting your baby a little muddy, is the TRD Pro. A direct competitor to some other sporty off-road models, it holds its own well enough, and with it being equipped and tuned by TRD, you are actually getting some of the brightest off-road racing minds working on your spec.
Remember, TRD came to prominence with the Celica WRC and the awesome Celica GT-Four in the 1990’s in the World Rally Championship. And they still continue to this day through the Toyota Gazoo Racing Team, participating in everything from the Baha 1000, the World Rally Championship with the Yaris WRC, and the Dakar Rally with a race-spec and heavily remodeled off-road racer based on the Tundra.
Autodigg is a privacy-centric platform that enables Car Buyers to buy Cars 100% online from local Car Dealers while staying Anonymous, including financing and insurance quotes from leading vendors.
© AutoDigg 2023. All Rights Reserved.