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If you want a compact truck, it might be a good idea to raise your hand now. Although the Tacoma is here to stay for the foreseeable future, it's one of few compact models remaining in a seemingly dwindling corner of the market; and with the discontinuation of the Ford Ranger this year, the Tacoma is one of the few models offered in basic, short-wheelbase form. Even it has sized up over the years; it and rival models like the Nissan Frontier and GMC Canyon could be considered mid-sizers in some respects. And to us, there's still very much a place for trucks like the 2012 Tacoma, which serves those who don't need the hardcore hauling and towing ability of the full-size trucks but still require day-to-day workhorse durability.
The Toyota Tacoma hasn't changed significantly in many years. And while it's carried into 2012, the proportions of the grille have been stretched just a bit, and the bumper and lower dam area have been contoured to look more aggressive--with the net effect painting the front end as a bit taller than wider than before, even if it isn't. Otherwise, at least on the outside, the Tacoma continues its relatively traditional compact-truck design, with a little added flair, paired with the chunky, down-to-business look, with flared wheel wells, that nearly all Toyota trucks have had in recent years. Inside, Toyota has toned down the matte-metallic onslaught of the outgoing model and blacked out the center-stack area, around audio and climate controls, leaving brightwork around the steering wheel and vents. Likewise, it's thrown out the orange-red lighting and replaced it with a cool-blue backlit look, in line with what's been introduced in new models like the 2012 Camry.
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.
As for interior comfort, it's all relative. 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
For 2012, the Tacoma gets some much-needed audio-system improvements, with the standard system incorporating built-in Bluetooth hands-free connectivity, plus a USB/iPod port. The base system now has six speakers, and even that is satellite-radio capable. Also new to the Tacoma line is the Entune system, which packages navigation functions, text-to-voice capability, voice commands, HD Radio, Bluetooth audio streaming, and real-time traffic and weather, among other features.
Outside of these changes, the Tacoma's model line largely carries over, offering a basic pickup package for those looking at the base model, ranging all the way up to two specialized models, the PreRunner and X-Runner, which are focused for tough terrain and look the part--as more nimble, or rough and ready, than full-size rigs. For those who want an off-road able truck that really looks the part, it's all here, though. 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. Also available is a TRD Off-Road Package that brings special badging, plus an off-road suspension with Bilstein dampers, fog lamps, and a transfer-case skid plate.