First Drive

2020 Toyota Tacoma First Drive Review | Highly competent complacency

Refreshed pickup shows its age but shows its stuff at Moab

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MOAB, Utah – The 2020 Toyota Tacoma may be a mild-sauce update of a truck whose basic design dates back to 2005, but when you look at the sales charts, it certainly doesn't seem like customers are clamoring for something all-new. The Taco is crushing its competition, recording nearly 246,000 sales last year and on its way to besting that in 2019.

By contrast, the Chevy Colorado, which itself enjoyed a 16% rise last year, was still at just 168,000 units. From there, things fall off a cliff to the Nissan Frontier (about 80,000), Honda Ridgeline (about 31,000) and GMC Canyon (about 18,000), with Ford just ramping up Ranger production.  

However, owning the segment doesn’t mean the Tacoma should get a free pass. Yes, there are a few tweaks for 2020, but this fundamentally remains the same pickup that came in fourth in our recent midsize truck comparison. The cabs, frame, engine and transmissions remain the same, and the exterior alterations consist merely of a new grille, standard LED headlights and some new wheel choices.

Most of the noteworthy changes are inside. A new, 10-way power driver’s seat applies a band-aid to the Tacoma’s longstanding issue of a too-low seating position that forces taller folks into an uncomfortable, legs-splayed-out position. But without changes to the cab dimensions, jacking the seat up exacerbates the Tacoma’s shortage of headroom versus key rivals.

Otherwise, the Tacoma’s smartly finished interior remains competitive, something that we noted in the midsize truck comparo. A new multimedia system happily replaces a much-derided unit, and now includes a larger 8-inch touchscreen (or 7 inches on the SR starter model) with newfound Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and Amazon Alexa connectivity. A new panoramic view monitor is standard on up-level versions, while the extra-off-road-focused TRD Pro models – with retuned, 2.5-inch, Fox internal-bypass shocks – offer a cool new Multi-Terrain Monitor (MTM) that lets occupants see the ground beneath their truck and the position of the front wheels. That’s useful for negotiating off-road obstacles with less need for a human spotter. As with Land Rover’s similar system, the MTM slightly delays a view from a grille-mounted camera, and stitches it together with images from side-mirror cameras, to create the onscreen view.

MTM is just another reason for the Tacoma to still shine brightest off-road, including here in Moab on the Hell’s Revenge trail, a slick-rock gauntlet that tested every inch of the Taco's ground clearance, approach/departure angles and 4x4 capability. For these Double Cab models in TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro trims, that capability includes an electronically controlled, low-range 4WD setting, a locking rear differential and Multi-Terrain Select driving modes. Toyota’s Crawl Control, now with five speed settings instead of three, continues to excel at walking the Tacoma up or down perilous grades with no need to touch the throttle or brakes, allowing the driver to focus on steering and positioning. I personally prefer the DIY method, which is half the fun of off-roading, but Crawl Control is a real confidence-booster for people who’d rather let the machine do it.

Following a full day on these daunting trails near the Lion’s Back, our convoy of bone-stock Tacomas emerged onto Sand Flats Road, none the worse for wear. The next day brought an all-day run from Moab to equally splendorous Ouray, Colorado, via Geyser Pass Road. This rugged dirt track crosses the LaSal range at 10,528 feet, with snow still hanging on in mid-July. Through it all, the Tacoma's off-road act was exceptional, perfectly complementing the outdoor scenery.  

On pavement, however, its flaws and foibles are as glaring as ever. It has a jittery ride on even modestly bumpy pavement, and poorly controlled body motions. Its automatic transmission has only six gears, versus GM's eight and Ford's 10, and obtrusively hunts for those gears even on mild grades. At least you can get a manual transmission on the various TRD 4x4 models. Its engine is also lacking in refinement and power, a 3.5-liter V6 with 278 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque. You can also get a 159-hp 2.7-liter inline-four, but unless you need to stay as close to the $26,945 base price as possible, it's best to pretend it doesn't exist.  

All of that, along with the still-unusual driving position and cramped Double Cab back seat, amount to a truck that just isn't as livable as its competition. As we found in our comparison, the Chevy Colorado and Ford Ranger are demonstrably better in many key areas, mostly due to their vastly newer designs. They're quicker, more refined, and can tow and haul more. The Jeep Gladiator is a different sort of animal, but it too scored higher than the Tacoma in our test despite a sky-high price tag (the Tacoma tops out around $44,000 for a TRD Pro Double Cab).

There are a lot of disadvantages, but there's one thing those competitors don't have: a Toyota badge. It speaks volumes to the brand's hard-earned reputation for unbeatable durability and peace-of-mind,  demonstrated ably during our drive by our intrepid guides' 2008 Toyota Land Cruiser, still going strong after 140,000 hard miles of adventure in the U.S. and Mexico. The Tacoma’s trade-in values have also become legendary: Check out what owners can get for, say, a 12-year-old Tacoma with 180,000 miles on the odometer, and it’ll blow your mind.

If I’m venturing into Moab in a 4x4 – or the gnarly off-road trails of Vermont, or the African desert – I’d choose a Toyota over a Jeep, GM, Ford, Nissan or even Land Rover. As a former Jeep Wrangler owner, I will say I loved my Jeeps, but I’d also be first to admit that they were never as reliable, overall, as Toyota FJ’s or Land Cruisers.

That familiar Toyota hat-tip aside, there’s no overlooking that the 2020 Toyota Tacoma represents a holding pattern. Yes, the Tacoma remains popular, and truck buyers are notoriously loyal. But it’s fair to ask Toyota: At what point do your own loyal customers deserve an all-new, genuinely innovative Tacoma? The latest Chevrolet Silverado shows that complacency can eventually lead to loyalty being trumped by a deluxe, innovative and creamy-riding competitor in the Ram 1500 – and that Silverado is an all-new truck.

While it seems unlikely that the Tacoma is in danger of turning over its sales crown, especially with Ranger's less-than-explosive debut, there's also not enough in the 2020 refresh to further entrench its position. Toyota executives insist that they recognize the growing competitive threat, and that they’re taking it seriously. Perhaps we’ll see how seriously soon enough.

Toyota Tacoma Information

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