This compact truck talked to us. One of the first things I heard it say (clearly) was, “Hey, I was meant to have the 6-speed manual gearbox!”
Really? I opened up a dialog: So what’s wrong with this electronically controlled, adaptive ECT-I 5-speed automatic? With the on-demand 4-wheel-drive, a 2-speed transfer case and a limited-slip rear differential? Especially with the horsepower and torque of the available V-6?
At this the Tacoma seemed to sulk a bit, and occasionally threw balky downshifts under deceleration that would have embarrassed a driver with a clutch.
I pointed out that only five percent of American car buyers now order manual transmissions, but then it occurred to me: The Tacoma was inviting me to go off-roading! That’s where all this power and high-riding, high-tech hardware would prove itself!
But no. Shut up, I explained; I can’t return you all battered and beat up. Toyota would never loan me a Camry again! On second thought . . . no, forget it. We’re going to stay on the pavement, we’re going to let the computer select gears for us, and we’re going to enjoy it. Never mind that a clutch and gearbox would suit your hardball mechanical nature quite nicely.
And we did enjoy it. Driving this truck is like stomping around in high-cut hiking boots, maybe a custom-fit pair of Russells. Surprisingly comfortable, that is, even though the Tacoma feels like it can bull through snowdrifts, cross raging rivers and leap tall buildings in a single bound. (This one’s red, but there’s no big “S” on the doors.) On paper the heavy-duty Sport suspension seems to promise an uncomfortable ride, but in reality it’s not jarringly stiff, just eager and athletic. Imagine those hiking boots with springs hidden in their soles.
The suspension is part of a $3,860 TRD Sport Extra Value Package that also includes alloy wheels and a hood scoop as well as a long list of features such as intermittent wipers, cruise control, storage consoles, power wing mirrors, lumbar-support seats, a rearview camera and so on that we now take for granted even in economy hatchbacks. It turns out this really is a truck, not a suburban poser, and it can be stripped down to the essentials (including a 4-cylinder engine and rear-wheel drive) or tricked out like a specialty toolbox. The US Army paints its Tacomas desert camo and puts machine guns on them. And even this uptown version has an actual metal key that must be slotted and twisted to fire the engine; no poufy pushbutton ignition here. Tacoma pickups, by the way, have been built in the US for almost 20 years.
A bare-bones Tacoma starts at about $18,000. In addition to the TRD goodies, the $32,559 sticker price of our Tacoma Access Cab V-6 4X4—to give it its full name—also included a towing package with a transmission cooler and heavy-duty alternator and battery plus a rear sway bar, hitch and electrical connector. The small wing doors on each side of the Access Cab open from the front to reveal two back seats that will accommodate six-footers. The truck bed is still more than six feet long. There’s also a Double Cab version, with full doors and a 5-foot bed, as well as a regular-cab model.
Back to our dialog: Once we got the transmission discussion behind us, the Tacoma was as communicative as a good sports car. Gauging grip on snow or dirt was intuitive. Like everything else, the Tacoma has grown over the years but its still-compact dimensions made it easy to put the truck where it needed to be. And a sort of live-rubber-ball springiness made it feel as though it had been grown whole in a test tube, not hammered together from thousands of bits and pieces. It put me in mind of a radio-controlled off-road buggy my son had when he was a kid—an indestructible thing that could be dropped from any height, flipped in somersaults, spun like a top and bounced off obstacles. It’s no wonder the notoriously perverse BBC Top Gear crew felt compelled to try to destroy one of these pickups. They failed, we should note.