Review: 2010 Toyota Tacoma 4x2 PreRunner is a troubled fish in a shrinking pond

2010 Toyota Tacoma 4x2 PreRunner – Click above for high-res image gallery

There was a time when pickup trucks came in three sensible sizes; small, medium and large. That's changed in recent years, as most pint-sized trucks have grown substantially to maintain distance compared to the similarly inflating half-ton pickup truck segment. The Toyota Tacoma is no different, as the second generation of the popular pickup is eight inches wider and over a foot longer than the 1995 Taco. And don't even try comparing the latest Tacoma to Marty McFly's stellar 1985 Toyota Pickup in the Back to the Future films, which could almost fit in the bed of a modern heavy-duty.

But while the Tacoma has adjusted to fit the growing whims of U.S. truck buyers, sales have dropped anyway. Over the past three years, nameplate sales have plunged by over 60 percent, and 2010 isn't looking any better. Has the Tacoma – last redesigned way back in 2005 – become long-in-the-tooth, or are car buyers simply turning away from the mid-size truck? We spent a week reacquainting ourselves with a TR5 PreRunner Double Cab to find out.

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Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Shunk / AOL

The Tacoma isn't infinitely configurable like most full-size trucks, but it can still be had in an impressive 18 configurations – plenty for this segment. Our tester arrived nearly loaded with four full-sized doors, the PreRunner package, Class-IV towing hardware and the $4,335 TRD Sport Extra Value Package, which includes P265/65R tires wrapped around 17-inch alloys, Bilstein shocks, satellite radio with Bluetooth and a backup camera with its screen located in the rearview mirror. Our tester was a 4X2, but the PreRunner bolt-ons imbue this Tacoma with the look and swagger of a true 4X4.

Most pickups don't attract much attention, but the Tacoma in our driveway commanded a surprising amount of ogling, courtesy of its over-the-top Speedway Blue Metallic paint and a Subaru-esque (non-functional) front hood scoop. But while we're quite certain that our $30,438 tester garnered a few stares, we're still not sure they were all favorable. The front end's design remains a bit obtuse for our tastes, with too many oddly intersecting lines and busy shapes around the grille and headlamps, with the decoy hood scoop only accentuating the problem.

The opposite is true in the rear, as the cargo area in our tester was limited by a short box at 60.3 inches in length that's also a bit shallow at 18 inches deep. Combine the puffed-up front end, prominent asymmetrical fender flares and the diminutive bed with over 208 inches of Speedway Blue real estate, and the resulting proportions are somewhat awkward. Thankfully, a long bed model with over a foot of extra capacity (73.5 inches total) is also available, and it helps balance out the Taco's visuals. While the box fitted to our tester was on the small side, we found the liner with its deck rail system and four adjustable tie-downs both rugged and useful.

Between the Taco's stem and stern is a Double Cab for a driver and up to four passengers. Since it's still quite a bit smaller than a full-size pickup, rear seat legroom is less than ideal, while limited shoulder and hip room makes it difficult to fit three adult passengers in the back. Front row occupants have much more room, though, with well-bolstered, comfortable seats and well-placed knobs and switchgear.

Like most trucks of its ilk, the Tacoma isn't blessed with high-end interior materials. What you get instead is a typical array of hard plastics and inhospitable touchpoints. Perhaps we've been spoiled by the nicer materials in the Tundra, but we didn't find much to get excited about in the cabin. At least the controls are straight-forward and ergonomically friendly. Build quality isn't exactly stellar, sadly. In one instance, a plastic panel behind the driver-side door handle somehow popped out, revealing a shiny screw charged with holding the door assembly together. In all, the interior is an area where the Taco is looking and feeling its age.

When it comes to pickups, there are a couple things we've come to expect: less-than-ideal living quarters, and perhaps surprisingly, a bit of fun behind the wheel. See, when you're not hauling peat moss and pulling stumps, pickups enjoy a few key similarities with sports cars: rear-wheel drive and big, torquey engines, which can't help but be entertaining no matter what size vehicle you're thrashing. And since our tester came equipped with the optional 4.0-liter V6, we were looking forward to the Tacoma fitting this bill quite nicely. Sadly, it wasn't to be.

The Tacoma has yet to receive the 270-horsepower version of Toyota's biggest V6. Instead, the creaky old 236-horsepower mill producing 266 pound-feet of torque still rests under our tester's bonnet. AOL Autos claims a 0-60 time of 7.4 seconds for the Tacoma, but our seat-of-the-pants-o-meter indicates viscous acceleration and a drop in serotonin levels. We're guessing part of the blame lies with our tester's hefty crew-cab configuration and PreRunner gear, but it was 2WD, so we can't imagine how labored it would feel toting around 225 additional pounds worth of four-wheel-drive system. Too bad, because the Tacoma is otherwise pleasant to live with on a daily basis. It sits on a firm yet compliant chassis, steering is solid (if a little muted) and an elevated height makes the Tacoma drive like the bigger truck that it's become.

Critically, fuel economy is another downer, as the truck's 17-mile-per-gallon city and 21 mpg highway EPA ratings aren't much better than you might expect from a full-sized pickup. And while we're on the subject, our tester's $30,000 price tag puts the Taco in the same price range as a well-equipped Tundra or perhaps a Chevrolet Silverado. Sure, the Taco can tow up to 6,500 pounds and it serves the trucking needs for many who prefer a pickup bed behind the cabin, but this is the Tacoma's dilemma – and indeed that of the entire compact and mid-size pickup market.

What were once small, less capable trucks have grown so much in size and weight that their value has been blunted, especially as exponentially more development money has been spent by automakers looking to make their full-size pickups as capable, hospitable and fuel-efficient as possible. And why not? The big bruisers sell in larger volumes and are disproportionately important both to their parent company's CAFE scores and bottom lines.

When the Tacoma first hit the market 15 years ago, it won over buyers with a bigger bed, expressive looks and improved performance compared to rivals like the Chevrolet S-10, Dodge Dakota and Ford Ranger. But with the S10 long dead (and its replacement, the Colorado nearly so), the Dakota doddering along and the Ranger operating on life support for more than a decade, it appears the Taco and its fellow Japanese rival, the Nissan Frontier, have won the mid-size truck title by default. That's a good thing for Toyota, because the Tacoma needs an improved powertrain, better fuel economy and more refinement to provide truck buyers with a palatable alternative to today's half-ton pickups.

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Photos copyright ©2010 Chris Shunk / AOL

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