Off-road performance is probably the single most identifiable hallmark of the latest Toyota Tacoma. Its X-Runner and PreRunner models, not to mention TRD-tuned specials, cater to the trailblazers who'd much rather be driving on anything other than pavement.
It's less happy when it is on pavement, though, while the other remaining mid-size truck, the Nissan Frontier, fares much better.
The basic Tacoma stocks a four-cylinder engine, and it's seen by some as a substitute for a commuter car. Gas mileage isn't wonderful, though, and in our view, the 159-horsepower, 2.7-liter four just doesn't have enough refinement or fuel economy on tap to justify anything other than its very low base price. It's also strapped to either a five-speed manual, which is fine, or a four-speed automatic with widely spaced gears, which is some of the reason fuel economy is relatively low.With 236 horsepower and an even more noteworthy 266 pound-feet of torque, the 4.0-liter V-6 provides a completely different personality--with enough torque off the line to move the Tacoma quickly even when you have a heavy load. The five-speed manual transmission in either model shifts smoothly but has long throws; the five-speed automatic that's standard on V-6 models is responsive, but the engine runs out of steam at highway speeds, turning in more ambient road noise than rapid acceleration once it's cruising at 75 mph.
Ride and handling tend to be low points for the Tacoma, which tends to be thrown off course by bumpy surfaces more than other trucks its size. You typically do trade off some ride comfort and nimbleness for heavy-hauling ability, but the ride can be jarring here, and maneuverability isn't much better than that of a full-size truck. But the steering is a positive; it's good and communicative.
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.
We'd steer you to the countless specialty publications for lengthy discussions of the Tacoma's tuning and off-road capabilities; its four-wheel-drive hardware ranges from a simple locking center differential to highly specialized setups with increased ride heights, knobby off-road tires, special shocks, and skid plates to protect its transfer case. Its customization possibilities go well beyond the usual light off-roading you'll find even in the SUV class--and if you're shopping a Tacoma purely as a dirty weekend plaything, you've probably cataloged the options and features you have in mind already.