Ed Hellwig, Executive Editor
The latest Toyota Tacoma was, claim its engineers, designed using a "go and see" approach. By this they implied that they went where their customers were and watched them as they used the Tacoma in their daily lives. Whether it was on the job getting beat up by workmen or on the sand serving as a portable beer cooler, they wanted to see firsthand exactly how the Tacoma was used.
After sampling several versions of the new Tacoma, it seems as though Toyota may have left off the latter part of its development mantra, the part that said, "Go and see what your competitors are doing, and then crush them mercilessly with a vastly superior truck that will embarrass lesser pickups into oblivion." It may not have been quite that colorful, but there's no denying the fact that the 2005 Toyota Tacoma is far and away one of the best compact trucks ever offered to the American public.
Toyota has had a long history of selling compact trucks in the U.S. and the passion these trucks inspire among their owners is every bit as rabid as that of their domestic competitors. Since becoming the Tacoma in 1995, Toyota's compact pickup has consistently attracted some of the youngest buyers in the category thanks to sharp styling, a bulletproof reliability record and its image as the perfect complement to a pair of dirt bikes or WaveRunners. It wasn't always the biggest or most powerful truck in its class, but when it came to delivering a complete package, the Toyota Tacoma rarely let its buyers down.
Giving the Tacoma a full redesign didn't require drastic measures — just a little more of the stuff it already had, along with a few surprises mixed in, to keep it on top of its game. The all-new Toyota Tacoma does just that with a round of across-the-board improvements that boosts its standing among its peers in almost every category. Whether it's engine power, interior room or safety features, the 2005 Tacoma has more of everything than it had before and even a few things it didn't. After driving several different models in various configurations, it's safe to say that the Tacoma has everything it needs to dominate the category.
Much like their full-size cousins, compact trucks derive much of their practicality from their numerous configurations, and the Toyota Tacoma now offers more styles than ever before — 18 in all. Like most trucks in its class, the new Tacoma comes in regular, extended cab (Toyota calls it an access cab) and crew cab body styles in both two- and four-wheel drive. The Tacoma also continues with the very popular PreRunner models that offer the look and suspension of the four-wheel-drive trucks sans the actual four-wheel-drive running gear. New styles for 2005 include a long-bed version of the crew cab and the high-performance access cab X-Runner street truck.
Regardless of which body style you choose, all Tacomas are larger in most dimensions compared to the previous model. On the outside, the Tacoma is nearly half a foot longer, four inches wider and roughly two inches taller, depending on the model. Most interior dimensions have increased as well, with crew cab models demonstrating the most improvement as their backseats are now comfortable for adult passengers.
All regular and access cab models are available with either four- or six-cylinder engines, while the crew cab models use the V6 exclusively. On the low end, an all-new 2.7-liter, four-cylinder engine replaces both the 2.4-liter and 2.7-liter engines used previously. Producing 164 horsepower and 183 pound-feet of torque, the new 2.7 offers a significant boost in horsepower and torque while maintaining equivalent fuel efficiency. All V6 models now use a larger 4.0-liter engine in place of the previous 3.4-liter power plant. With 245 hp and 283 lb-ft of torque, the 2005 Tacoma trounces every six-cylinder truck in its class and nearly matches the power of the Dodge Dakota's High-Output 4.7-liter V8. Equipped with the V6 engine, the Tacoma's maximum tow rating is now 6,500 pounds — up from 5,000 pounds in the previous model.
All the trucks we drove were equipped with the big V6 engine, and it makes itself known from the first punch of the pedal. With plenty of guts down low and a willingness to spin into the upper rev ranges without getting thrashy, this engine is a terrific all-around performer. It comes mated to either a six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic, giving it all the gears it needs to make the Tacoma move out in a hurry. The base four-cylinder continues with a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic. Toyota claims that a 4x4 V6 equipped with the automatic transmission can run from zero to 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds, and we don't doubt it after our test-drive. Although the six-speed manual promises even better performance, its action is still typical of a truck — clunky and awkward through the gears with little incentive to use it more than you need to.
It's too bad that the manual is still so clunky, as the X-Runner sport model is an excellent handler for a truck. All new for 2005, the X-Runner essentially picks up where the old S-Runner left off, offering a sport-tuned pickup for those who want some utility without giving up the fun. It comes as a six-speed V6 access cab only with a lowered suspension and additional structural bracing underneath that gives the truck its name. Retuned Bilstein shocks, firmer springs and thicker sway bars are also included along with a set of 18-inch wheels and tires for added stick.
Apart from the gangly shifter, the X-Runner is an impressive performer. Although we barely probed its limits during our brief test-drive, the feeling behind the wheel is of a truck that feels well planted at every corner, predictable when pushed and surprisingly agile considering its size. The torque of the V6 motor helps give it the punch it needs to back up the handling and a standard limited-slip differential puts the power to the ground in an efficient manner. For those who intend to really push their X-Runner to the limit, Toyota is also offering a Big Brake kit that upgrades the X-Runner with larger 13-inch rotors, four-piston forged calipers, larger brake pads and steel-braided brake lines.
The X-Runner isn't the only model to offer special option packages, however, as Toyota Racing Development (TRD) also put together two additional packages that are available on V6 models only. The TRD Sport Package puts together larger wheels and tires, a retuned suspension, a limited-slip differential and several cosmetic dress-up pieces to give the Tacoma the look of a customized street truck. The TRD Off-Road Package adds retuned springs and shocks, a thicker front sway bar, oversized BF Goodrich tires, foglamps and a locking rear differential. Off-road junkies will also be happy to know that the Tacoma now offers both Hill-start Assist Control (HAC) and Downhill Assist Control (DAC) on all models (X-Runner excepted) equipped with an automatic transmission.
For those with tastes that skew toward a more mainstream truck, Toyota did its part to make the standard models more value-oriented — never the strongest aspect of the previous model. The least expensive 4x2 regular cab in now outfitted with the kind of standard features you would expect, such as antilock brakes, a CD stereo, multiple power points and a coolant temperature gauge. A revised lineup of option packages makes it easier to upgrade the Tacoma without getting lost in an endless sea of codes and constraints.
Even more impressive than the newly standard features is the overall design and comfort of the interior. With more room in every direction, the Tacoma has lost much of the claustrophobic feeling so typical of most compact trucks. The new truck's spec sheet shows impressive gains in head-, shoulder and hiproom, while its available legroom has tightened up a bit. Getting into access cab models is easier now, thanks to dual rear doors that open wider than before, while crew models are now comfortable for full-size adults in the backseat, thanks to a more relaxed seat back angle and substantial increases in hip- and shoulder room.
The design of the dashboard controls and instrument cluster mimics Toyota's 4Runner SUV, which isn't a bad thing given that it was just redesigned for 2003. There's nothing overly sophisticated about the interior design, but compared to GM's Colorado/Canyon twins the Tacoma looks like it cost $5K more. The quality of the materials sets a new standard for the class, and the seats have the kind of firm, supportive bolstering not typically found on trucks of this type.
Functionality and safety are two more areas where the Toyota Tacoma scores big. In addition to the typical stuff like a big center console and plenty of storage bins, the Tacoma also features storage under the seat in extended cab models and built-in cargo compartments behind the seat backs of crew cab models. There's also a new composite cargo bed that comes standard on all models and incorporates built-in storage units, adjustable tie-down anchors and even an optional 400-watt electrical outlet.
On the safety side, the Tacoma comes standard with antilock brakes fortified with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution for smoother stops and BrakeAssist for improved performance during panic situations. While all Tacomas get advanced dual-stage front airbags, crew cab models also offer optional full-length head curtain and front-seat side airbags. The Tacoma is also the first compact truck to add electronic stability control to the options list. An available option on all models, except the X-Runner, Toyota's Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) works in conjunction with an electronic traction control system to provide an added level of vehicle control in panic maneuvers and low traction situations.
If it seems like the Tacoma has a lot of firsts in the category, that's because it does. Toyota seems well apprised of the fact that while the compact truck category has seen little movement in the last five to 10 years, 2005 marks a rekindling of interest in this segment. In addition to GM's new compact trucks that went on sale last fall, both Nissan and Dodge are introducing all-new trucks of their own, and both are promising similar levels of power and features. While there's no doubt that Dodge and Nissan will have competitive products, they're going to need some pretty special trucks to top the Tacoma this time around, as Toyota's "go and see" approach has yielded a truck with few faults. We'll conduct a proper comparison test to see which compact truck is the real class of the class, but until then, the Toyota Tacoma looks like the clear favorite.
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