What is it?
2020 Toyota Tacoma First Drive
Same Taco, New Toppings
It's a bit early for a full redesign, so it's no surprise that the 2020 Toyota Tacoma is in large part a continuation of the third-generation truck that dates back to 2016. But it's still worth waiting for. Toyota's engineers have deployed several targeted improvements aimed at making it a better daily driver, and all of them move the needle.
The new power driver's seat is 10-way adjustable, which means that the driving position can be altered in terms of height, seat bottom angle and lumbar support. AppleCarPlay and Android Auto have been added to the touchscreen audio system, which also uses a larger screen and a more straightforward control layout. There are extra USB ports, brighter LED headlights (with cool sequential turn signals), a new grille, and thicker side windows to dampen wind noise better. The transmission's shift calibration has been tweaked to reduce gear hunting.
This truck's reputation rests on its off-road prowess, which is more than just marketing hype intended to lure those who like the idea of outdoor adventuring but never quite get around to it. Those types of buyers are certainly among those who are drawn to the Tacoma. And if they could bear to risk scratching their prized possession, they'd discover there's not much it can't do right off the showroom floor — especially the TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro models. But even here Toyota hasn't rested on its laurels. These models can now be equipped with a forward- and side-looking camera system to help the driver spot obstacles that are otherwise hidden from view by the truck itself.
Why does it matter?
This latest-generation Tacoma, which debuted in 2016, has been dogged by a few flaws that diminished its daily driving experience. That didn't seem to stop Toyota from selling all the Tacomas it could build. But the competition in the midsize truck competition is getting increasingly fierce. This year's changes enhance the Tacoma's appeal, especially if you're the type of truck buyer who has little interest in going off-road.
What does it compete with?
The Tacoma's closest competitors are the Chevrolet Colorado and the Ford Ranger. Both are more focused on general use and slightly better at towing and hauling than the Tacoma. Beyond them, the segment is bookended by the Jeep Gladiator and the Honda Ridgeline. The Gladiator excels off-road and is the only convertible pickup you can buy, but it is quite expensive. The Ridgeline, on the other hand, is the logical and comfortable choice for those who need a truck and aren't overly concerned about ultimate rock-crawling ability. Finally, there's the Nissan Frontier. It's quite dated but can appeal as a value-oriented choice.
How does it drive?
The Tacoma steers confidently and feels stable and composed in most circumstances. The ride is reasonably smooth, but it can feel unsettled and skittish on broken pavement. None of this is any different from the Tacomas that came before it.
What's new is the behavior of the powertrain, but the difference isn't earth-shattering. The 3.5-liter V6 engine doesn't make any more power and torque than last year, so it still feels sluggish in certain situations. But the shift points of the six-speed transmission have been recalibrated to hold lower gears longer, particularly when cruising the highway. The upshot is less gear hunting on gentle upgrades and when driving into headwinds.
What's the interior like?
We've never been huge fans of the Tacoma's driving position, which suffered from the truck's high floor and the seat's very basic fore-aft and recline adjustability. The new 10-way power driver's seat (standard on every V6-powered Tacoma) changes that dramatically. Tall drivers can drop the seat more than a half-inch lower than before, and shorter ones can raise it about 1.5 inches higher. What's more, it's also possible to tilt the seat bottom to optimize thigh support. Though this doesn't sound like much, this seat makes a big difference. Our main remaining wish is for more telescopic steering adjustment.
The other main enhancement this year is the introduction of a new touchscreen audio system. The screen itself is larger and clearer, and we like how the menu shortcuts are now physical buttons instead of indistinct touchpads. Best of all, it now supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration. Toyota has also designed the touchscreen so that you can mix and match smartphone audio and map sources with the factory built-in ones. In most vehicles, engaging Apple CarPlay or Android Auto locks out any other integrated system.
Other aspects of the interior carry over intact. The design and materials are pretty much the same. Getting in and out is still a bit more of a step up than it is with other trucks because of the Tacoma's off-road-oriented design philosophy.
We weren't able to confirm the effects of the brighter and broader LED headlight beams because we didn't drive at night. We also have to take Toyota's word on the noise-reduction effects of the thicker side glass because we didn't cruise at higher freeway speeds in windy conditions.
How is it off-road?
As ever, this truck's very design shows that Toyota is truly dedicated to making the Tacoma excel on rocky terrain. The basic approach, departure and breakover clearance angles are generous. And the lack of a front airdam on TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro models gives them even better approach clearance ahead of their front tires. The lower eyes of the rear shock absorbers are tucked tight against the rear brakes where they're out of harm's way.
We drove the 2020 Tacoma on challenging trails in Moab, Utah, and in the high mountains outside of Ouray, Colorado. Even regular Tacomas can tackle obstacles that would surprise you. The TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro models can get through especially challenging spots because they have a lockable rear differential, a configurable traction control system with multiple terrain modes, and a crawl control system. The four-wheel-drive system has low range, of course, and it is easy to tiptoe carefully over rocks because the powertrain's throttle response is precise and delicate in this mode.
None of that is different from last year. What's new is a trail camera system that consists of grille-mounted forward-looking and mirror-mounted downward-facing cameras. These can be activated in low range, and there's an Auto setting that makes them come on whenever your speed drops below 5 mph. We found them to be invaluable when cresting a rise or dropping over a ledge. The image also contains tire steerable guidelines that show where your front and rear tires will go among the obstacles presented on the screen. We got used to it so quickly that we missed the system immediately whenever we swapped into a 2020 Toyota 4Runner, which lacks this system.
How practical is it?
As before, the Tacoma's bed is made of a composite material that is its own bedliner. It comes with six fixed tie-down eyes, four tie-down cleats that can be repositioned along the rails, and two storage compartments. Some versions are equipped with a 120-volt, 400-watt power outlet. The bed sides are easy to reach over, and the tailgate is damped. But the Tacoma's actual payload rating does lag behind some of its competitors. Its maximum tow rating of 6,800 pounds does, too, but it's still an appropriate figure for a midsize pickup.
Inside, the Tacoma crew cab's rear seat folds forward to provide a flat and secure load surface that stands at a convenient height. The folding procedure is a bit fussy, but the result is superior to all but the Jeep Gladiator. The front seat area contains a few small cubbies and decent-size door pockets, but it's nothing special.
What else should I know?
We're big fans of the Tacoma TRD Pro, but it is considerably more expensive and can be hard to find on dealer lots. Those looking for off-road performance will find the TRD Off-Road the better value because it comes with the same locking rear differential and advanced traction and crawl control systems. Aside from comfort features and some special logos, the main items missing on the hardware side are the Pro's advanced Fox shock absorbers, heftier front skidplate and unique wheels. But it is possible to buy equivalent gear from the aftermarket to set it up the way you want it and still pay less than you would for a TRD Pro.
We've always admired the Tacoma. But it missed out on our highest ranking because daily-driving factors such as its driving position, entertainment system, engine power, and transmission calibration weren't where they needed to be. The 2020 Toyota Tacoma doesn't have a more powerful engine, but it has been noticeably improved in the other areas. It may not be enough to climb into the top spot, but the refreshed Tacoma is now much easier to recommend.