Somewhere between the proud homeowner and carefree apartment dweller lives the best of both lifestyles. Who wants to throw money away on a rented apartment or deal with the hassles of home ownership? Enter the townhouse: smaller bills and fewer hassles than a full-size home with more usability than a mere apartment. Just like a townhouse, the mid-size pickup combines attributes of rigs both big and small. And ever since its inception, the Toyota Tacoma has been living large in the mid-size pickup penthouse.
Too bad Toyota forgot the first rule of pickup design: it’s gotta look like a truck. A decidedly cab forward A-pillar flirts with Corolla owners looking to trade up, while asymmetrical fender blisters flow into the Double Cab's sheetmetal to create a pregnant manatee silhouette. Multiple grille textures confuse, while a non-functional hood scoop says "poser" better than any decal-laden hatchback. While the PreRunner's aggressive offroad stance and beefy 16" rims bulk up the look, nothing conceals the bulbous tailgate with its jawless rear bumper. Topping the decidedly un-trucklike presence are girly door handles that operate with a light and flimsy action. Dude, where's my truck?
The almost-truck theme continues within. The interior's car-based door handles aren't working man friendly. A motorcycle-influenced gauge cluster takes the sport-truck theme to places it's never been before– and should never go again. The cabin's blizzard of textures and finishes is schizophrenia in-car-nate. The door's furry polka-dot cloth relaxes like a tall glass of warm milk; a durable, while the breathable netted seat fabric provides an extreme hit of Mountain Dew.
Of course, this approach has its advantages. Ignore the hodgepodge of dashboard polymers (faux Lexus here, Band Aid there) and peep the convincing metal effect trim, numerous storage compartments and tender leather-wrapped wheel. Aside from the dead plug on said tiller; Toyota did a commendable job hiding non-functional items from discriminating eyes. It's a pickup after David Beckham's heart: small and posh.
Four adults fit into the Tacoma's Double Cab frame with ease. At the same time, the mid-size Tacoma boasts parking lot slalom skills no big truck can touch. The business end also impresses: a plastic bedliner with integral 115-volt power supply makes the Tacoma PreRunner a first-round draft pick for tailgate parties. Fill with cargo and the Toyota hauls with the confidence of a seasoned bird-dog on the hunt.
Hit the road sans cargo and the choppy-riding Tacoma sends mixed messages. Pickups are no stranger to chassis flex, but the Tacoma's latest redesign keeps the clapped-out turnip truck's legacy alive. Feather the go pedal and jumpy throttle mapping means there's less thrust from the 24-valve engine than initial reports indicate. Sucking high-octane fuel in its full throttle wake, the 4.0L V6 makes a respectable 266lb-ft of torque after 3800 revs, but 236hp at a sky-high 5200 revs mean honest truck grunt is not the Tacoma's strong suit. Put it another way, this mill feels more at home in a lighthearted passenger car chassis, not a burly truck frame. The powertrain's saving grace is a quick-witted, trigger-happy five speed automatic that usually keeps the narrow powerband in its sweet spot.
Foot flex the pedals in a corner and the Tacoma rewards with confident street moves, even with the off-road prowess of the PreRunner package. Modest grip from the stubby M+S tires nets predictable understeer, with responsive steering and disciplined suspension tuning. While the Tacoma's composed demeanor rarely upsets, the stoppers need re-thinking: rear drum brakes and mushy pedal feel disappoint both on paper and in practice.
Highway cruising is both quiet and comfortable for one so boxy and tall, with a JBL tuned system providing quality sound for all but the rabid, subwoofer crazed hip-hop fan. The audio aura is most welcome, as the door-mounted tweeter grille sings an off key, buzzy tune with the stereo off. Quality control snafu aside, is there really a place for the Tacoma in the market?
Given the full-size pickup's manufacturing economies of scale, our Tacoma's as-tested price of $28,800 fails to prove that less is more. The Tacoma seemingly trumps a full-size in efficiency, but in the real world, a high-octane diet and moderately smaller proportions translate into less bang for the buck.
While the small(er) truck market has a loyal following with company fleets, these models sport white paint, crank windows, rubber floors and four pot motors with manual transmissions. Give retail customers what they demand and the Tacoma's value proposition flies right out the door. Make no mistake; the Tacoma PreRunner is a good pickup. But Toyota's upmarket mid-size offering forgot its humble origins; whether or not the Tacoma has a significant value proposition over a "real" truck is a question for the customer and entire mid-size genre.
[Toyota provided the vehicle reviewed, taxes, insurance and a tank of gas.]