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True compact trucks are almost extinct in the U.S. market. With the exception of the Ford Ranger, most of the entry-level trucks available are mid-sizers, or almost full-sizers by some standards. The Toyota Tacoma is one of them. Like the Nissan Frontier, the Toyota Tacoma serves those who don't need the hardcore hauling and towing ability of the full-size trucks but still require the day-to-day durability of a pickup.
There's not a whole lot to say about the Tacoma's styling; it's a traditional compact truck design, with a little added flair on the outside, paired with the chunky, down-to-business look that nearly all Toyota trucks have had in recent years. Inside, entry Tacomas can look a little drab inside, though the top trim levels have an interior that uses more matte-metallic panels and upgraded upholstery that has more in common with the Camry and Avalon sedans. Regular Cab, Access Cab, and Double Cab editions of the Tacoma are offered, with standard or long-bed (LB) lengths, with four- or six-cylinder engines, and they all have the same styling, albeit with different levels of stretch for the cab and bed.
Provided you're not trying to move too quickly—or pull or haul much of a load—the base 159-horsepower, 2.7-liter four-cylinder will manage well enough (and for 2011, Toyota has expanded the number of four-cylinder Tacoma models). The 4.0-liter V-6 that's offered on the rest of the lineup provides a completely different personality, as it produces 236 horsepower and an even more noteworthy 266 pound-feet of torque—enough to move the Tacoma quickly even when you have a heavy load. The five-speed manual transmission, which shifts smoothly but has long throws; both the four-speed automatic that's optional with the four-cylinder and the five-speed automatic that's standard on V-6 models are responsive.
Overall, ride and handling are a little disappointing in the Tacoma—even among pickups, which typically do trade off some ride comfort and nimbleness for heavy-hauling ability. The steering is good and communicative, but the ride, on each of the several Tacomas we've sampled, has been hard and choppy—to the point that on pockmarked city surfaces the tires simply lose contact with the road. And maneuverability in the Tacoma doesn't seem any better than that of a full-size truck.
Perhaps the best way to judge the Tacoma's performance, since it's not very impressive, is by towing and payload. The Tacoma's payload is well into the 3/4-ton category, depending on the model, and its tow rating goes up to 6,500 pounds.
Compared with full-size trucks, the Tacoma disappoints for interior roominess and seating comfort, but compared with other mid-sizers like the Nissan Frontier it's competitive. That said, even though Double Cab versions have the space for four adults (two kids in back for Access Cabs, which have smaller back doors and seating), the rather skimpy, short and flat seats in front won't win you over for longer trips.
The 2011 Tacoma model line covers a wide range of needs in base form, especially if you're willing to add a few options, but two specialized models, the PreRunner and X-Runner, are focused for tough terrain and look the part. Especially for those who want an off-road able truck that really looks the part, there's a lot from which to choose. The PreRunner adds a higher-riding suspension, locking rear differential, and other appearance cues. The X-Runner gets wider wheels and tires; a lowered, sport-tuned suspension; and an X-braced frame (hence the name), along with extra interior conveniences. There's also a TRD Off-Road Package or, on top of that, new T|X and T|X Pro packages, which add 16-inch black bead-lock wheels, BFGoodrich Rugged Trail tires, black tube side steps, a stainless steel exhaust tip, and exterior graphics.
While the equipment list has lots of hardware for work and recreation, today's truck shoppers expect an almost carlike level of interior comfort and features; but in that respect, the features are a little sparse—as well as dated. Bluetooth hands-free connectivity still isn't offered on much of the lineup, and there's no factory navigation option whatsoever.