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While compact pickups have largely vanished from the U.S. market, the Toyota Tacoma soldiers forward. The Ford Ranger has exited the market, and the GMC Canyon and Chevy Colorado compact pickups are taking a transition year off--leaving the Tacoma as one of the few not-full-size trucks sticking it out. Toyota's even invested more in the future of the Tacoma, moving it from a California production site (now home to Tesla) and setting it up in Texas alongside the full-size Tundra.
The Tacoma's had a big fan following for years, but it's not entirely clear why, when the basic versions are considered. Off-road specialty and aftermarket versions aside, the standard-issue Toyota Tacoma isn't as refined, as stylish, or as capable on pavement as the Nissan Frontier, its chief rival. But for those who truly don't need something full-sized, the Tacoma's a workhorse, with a reputation for durability that's at least the equal of the Nissan's.
The Tacoma's looks haven't changed much since a 2005 redesign. The grille's a bit more pronounced, and the headlamps are tapered a bit more into a more amped-up front bumper. Elsewhere, it's purely business, without the flair that the Frontier has--and that the Frontier's cousin, the Suzuki Equator, sharpens with its own front-end look. The Tacoma's just more chunky, more disjointed, and behind the front pillars, more plain and traditional. In the cockpit, Toyota's improved the texture and appearance of the plastic trim in recent years, and the Tacoma's cabin gets the nod over the Frontier's if only for that slightly elevated sense of quality, enhanced by the backlit gauges and touches of brightwork.The base 159-horsepower, 2.7-liter four-cylinder can manage basic chores well enough, so long as you're riding solo and not towing or hauling much. We'd choose the five-speed manual, and leave off the hefty four-wheel-drive system; the four-speed automatic's gears are too widely spaced for quick acceleration or good fuel economy. The 4.0-liter V-6 on the preferred versions of the Tacoma has a completely different personality: it makes 236 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque, which is more than enough to hustle the Tacoma around quickly, even when you have a heavy load, though things get a little breathless past 75 mph or so on the interstate. The five-speed automatic that's standard on V-6 models is a responsive gearbox, too.
It's the Tacoma's road manners that disappoint the most. Even among pickups, which typically trade off some ride comfort for heavy-hauling ability, the Tacoma feels numb and lifeless in urban environs. The ride is hard and choppy; on pockmarked city surfaces the tires simply lose contact with the road. Maneuverability in the Tacoma doesn't seem any better than that of a full-size truck.
The best way to judge the Tacoma's performance, since its street handling not very impressive, is by towing and payload and off-road capability. 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. The Tacoma's a beloved canvas for the off-road community, with everything from a basic four-wheel-drive system and a locking differential to skid plates, huge knobby tires, and off-road suspensions available from Toyota as a model or as an accessory.
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. 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 cheapest model, ranging all the way up to two specialized models, the terrain-focused PreRunner and the street-smart X-Runner. 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.