Compact truck shoppers in 2011 will find that their choices have slimmed to a few key models, and many of the offerings from the domestic brands are no longer as competitive as they used to be. The Detroit labels have focused their resources on the more popular full-size trucks, leaving their compact trucks to stagnate with minimal updates or even discontinuing them altogether.
But not everyone wants to drive a big honking truck. There is a substantial size difference between a compact and a full-size pickup, and you can tell the difference when you're behind the wheel. Full-size trucks are harder to park, might not fit in your garage and consume more fuel — especially if you opt for the V8 engine. A compact truck might be all you want, and since it has nearly the same capabilities as a full-size truck in so many respects, it might be all you need.
Though the compact truck market has dwindled, the good news is that the best truck in this class is still alive and kicking. The 2011 Toyota Tacoma Double Cab V6 4x4 provides an excellent balance of size, fuel economy and interior refinement.
The general consensus among the Edmunds editors is that the current compact truck market is basically a two-horse race between the Toyota Tacoma and the Nissan Frontier. The Ford Ranger happens to sell more than the Frontier, but the Ranger is smaller and has not had a redesign in more than 10 years. The Chevrolet Colorado and Dodge Dakota can be ordered with V8 engines, which provide additional towing capacity, but neither truck's interior is as well appointed as the Tacoma's.
This 2011 Toyota Tacoma V6 Double Cab 4X4 we tested came with a 4.0-liter V6 engine that produces 236 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque. It is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. During our instrumented testing, the Tacoma went from zero to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds — slightly above average for trucks in this class. The V6 is a breeze to drive around town, but this heavily optioned four-wheel-drive model still weighs 4,277 pounds, so it's no wonder that we felt that this engine could use a bit more power for getting up hills or for passing on the highway.
The Tacoma's brakes brought the truck to a halt in 126 feet and were able to withstand a number of hard stops without fading. But while the brakes performed admirably on the track, the brake pedal felt spongy and required a bit more effort than we felt comfortable with, a reminder that this is a pickup and not a car, as truckmakers are wary of quick response in a heavily loaded vehicle.
If you like to go off-road, the Tacoma is more than capable. The TRD Off-Road package features Bilstein dampers, a locking rear differential, BF Goodrich tires, a skid plate beneath the engine and a host of cosmetic parts like smoked headlights, TRD decals and color-keyed bumpers. This package works well, and it also gives the Tacoma some visual credibility against full-size pickups.
When equipped with the V6 tow package, the 2011 Toyota Tacoma can tow up to 6,400 pounds (6,300 pounds if you have the optional 6-foot bed). A full-size truck can tow more, though you have to wonder if you need 9,000 pounds of towing capacity in a personal truck.
Despite the fact that this Tacoma had been outfitted with off-road equipment, we found the ride quality good enough for everyday driving, a reminder that pickup trucks are far more comfortable than most people suspect. The ride is lively but never harsh, and we enjoyed the truck's alert personality compared to the remote, carlike personality that full-size pickups have these days.
Our test vehicle came with a cat-back exhaust (it fits downstream of the catalyst) as part of the T/X Pro package. While the exhaust adds a bit more power, it also adds a substantial amount of noise, as do the Tacoma's off-road tires.
It is easy to find a good driving position thanks to the tilting and telescoping steering wheel. Similarly, the front seats are comfortable, spacious and offer numerous adjustments. Surprisingly enough, there is enough legroom in the backseats of the double cab for tall passengers.
The stereo system has a simple and intuitive layout. The buttons are easy to reach and have additional controls on the steering wheel to skip songs or adjust volume. The climate controls feature the classic yet effective three-dial setup. Pairing your phone via Bluetooth requires a trip to the owner's manual, but works well once set up. You can also set up a few of your contacts with voice prompts for quick dialing.
There is plenty of room in the 5-foot cargo bed (a 6-footer is optional) and it doesn't take a stepladder to access it since the walls of the cargo bed don't tower over your head the way they do in a full-size pickup. Storage is limited within the cab, however. Aside from the glovebox, there are only a center console and small pockets in the front doors. For comparison, the Dodge Dakota has rear seats that fold away to reveal storage crates, while the Nissan Frontier has a dual-level glovebox.
As is the case for most trucks, rear visibility is adversely affected by the tailgate and small rear window. The good news is that pickup trucks can now be had with back-up cameras, although the Tacoma's system integrates the screen into the rearview mirror, so visibility isn't great.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2011 Toyota Tacoma is a good-looking truck. Its swollen fenders and large trapezoidal grille give this pickup an aggressive look. Our test model also was equipped with an attractive set of 16-inch "beadlock-style" wheels as part of the T/X Pro package.
The Tacoma's interior is filled with hard plastics, but this is par for the course among compact trucks. That said, the Tacoma actually has one of the nicer interiors relative to its competition. The center stack has a silver finish that makes all the difference when compared to the drab black plastic found in other compact trucks.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2011 Toyota Tacoma is a good example of what these compact-class trucks offer in comparison to full-size trucks. It looks great, drives in a lively and entertaining way and gets good fuel economy. It is also available in an amazing number of cab, cargo bed and powertrain configurations just like a full-size truck, from the cheaper two-wheel-drive chassis powered by a four-cylinder engine that costs about $16,000 to this elaborate four-wheel-drive model with a V6, a double cab and an off-road package that costs more than twice that.
It's true that a compact pickup does give up some utility to a full-size pickup — notably payload volume, payload capacity and towing capacity. But for a private owner, this theoretical margin of performance isn't something we use often. The assets of a compact-size pickup — its practical dimensions, fuel-efficient performance and enjoyable dynamics — are things that you can enjoy on a daily basis.
Lastly, the 2011 Toyota Tacoma is the only compact truck that comes with free maintenance as part of the Toyota Care program. The Nissan Frontier may have the better V6 and the Chevrolet Colorado has an available V8, but the Toyota Tacoma is the most well-rounded among these compact trucks.
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