The Toyota Tacoma took the US market by storm in 2015, becoming the biggest-selling mid-sized pick-up truck in that market.
And let’s face it – it’s quite a market. Nowhere else on the planet buys as many mid-sized utility vehicles; Thailand is close, and Australia – though we love our utes – falls well short.
For some context: Australian sales of this type and size of vehicle, which is near identical in dimensions and intent to the Toyota HiLux and Ford Ranger that dominate our charts, made up 174,660 units in both 4x2 and 4x4 guises Down Under in 2015.
In America alone last year the Tacoma sold 179,562 units. And that was 50.3 per cent of all mid-sized truck sales, easily bettering the Chevrolet Colorado (84,430), Nissan Frontier (62,817) and GMC Canyon (30,077).
So yeah, it’s kind of a big deal.
As such, we decided to spend some time in the big-selling Tacoma on a recent trip to the US to see if it deserves such success.
The version we tested was the Tacoma TRD Sport model, in 4x4 spec, with its price listed at US$33,730 plus on-road costs -which, given the rough end of the exchange rate that Australia is currently copping, equates to $49,170 plus costs.
This version is equipped with the five-foot tray (1.52m), though there’s a six-foot tray (which is actually a bit longer than that, at 1.87m). No dual-cab versions of the HiLux have a tray that lengthy unless you get a cab-chassis, which isn’t available in the US.
Australian buyers have a clear taste for diesel in their utes, with almost every 4x4 model on sale in the segment missing out on a petrol variant. There is, however, a HiLux SR5 with a 4.0-litre petrol V6 engine, which sells to about 0.5 per cent of buyers.
In the US, quite surprisingly, there is no 4.0-litre offered, which seems a little strange. Instead, the Tacoma is sold with a 3.5-litre V6 petrol engine only. Yep, no diesel engine of any type, despite that fuel currently running cheaper than petrol in some states of America. Oh, and no V8, either – there used to be one, but not any more.
That V6 is a relative of the one seen in the Aurion in Australia, with a little more power in this application. It has 207kW of power at 6000rpm and 360Nm at 4600rpm, which seem decent figures. In fact, the 4.0-litre engine we get has a deficit of 18 per cent, with 175kW, but a little extra torque, with 376Nm.
But when it comes to the drive experience, the Tacoma is begging for more pulling power.
The issue mainly comes down to the six-speed automatic gearbox, which is fussy and lazy at the same time. If you’re cruising on a level highway it is fine, but encounter a hill or need to hurriedly make an overtaking manoeuvre, and the transmission’s shortcomings are all too clear.
It hesitates to choose a gear under sudden acceleration, and during some long steep climbs (if you’ve driven from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, you know what we’re talking about here) the gearbox couldn’t choose what needed to happen.
That said, after several hundred miles of driving, both on busy highways and in and around buzzing cities, the Tacoma’s fuel use display was showing at about 20 miles per gallon, or 11.8 litres per 100km. Not bad, really.
We didn’t use the Tacoma to cart anything other than luggage, but the towing capacity for the Tacoma can go as high as 2.9 tonnes (the standard capacity is only 1585kg).
The tray capacity is low, too, with just 533kg of payload usable in this specification, but there’s a brilliant adjustable tie-down rail system as well as four fitted hooking points, and a 110-volt/400-watt power outlet.
That said, the rear suspension – with four leaf springs – is designed more to coast over bumps than to haul a tonne of stuff.
And it does coast – or, more correctly, float – over bigger ones, while the big 17-inch alloys shod in Toyo Open Country 65-profile rubber tend to pick up a lot of the smaller, sharp-edged bits of road and share them with those in the cabin, too, pitter-pattering somewhat. It was, however, comfortable enough on the concrete patchwork freeways of California, and fine for a truck with an empty tray (that is to say, it was much more comfortable than a HiLux with an empty tray).
The steering of the Tacoma was acceptably responsive at speed, and reasonably easy to use around town at parking speeds, too, with a nice amount of resistance. But while it may have TRD Sport stuck on the tray, this isn’t a sporty vehicle to drive, with noticeable understeer and plenty of body lean in corners.
We didn’t take it off-road, though with an identical switch on the fly four-wheel-drive system to that employed in the HiLux, and with an auto-locking rear differential and 238 millimetres of ground clearance, it certainly has potential.
The interior is arguably more masculine in the Tacoma than it is in the new-generation HiLux, with chunkier lines dominating the dashboard whereas the vehicle we get is more car-like in its execution.
There is excellent storage through the cabin, with four bottle holders up front, a pair in each door, a couple for the back seat occupants and even more in the back doors.
The integrated media system is placed flush in the Tacoma as opposed to the tacked-on tablet appearance in the HiLux, though they are the same systems for the most part. The Tacoma, however, has a slightly different interface for its navigation system, as you access it through the Apps section rather than having a dedicated Nav button.
That means a bit more fiddling to get between screens, but we had bigger issues than that due to the fact the system kept shutting itself down. No less than four times, the screen went blank, restarted and then resumed operating after about 10 seconds.
There is reach-adjustable steering (though just like the HiLux, a couple more inches would be welcome) and the vision from the driver’s seat is adequate. However, the HiLux has a more car-like driving position, which means you don’t need to watch your knees as you swing in to the pilot’s position, where you do indeed need to do that in the Tacoma. You sit more knees-up in the Tacoma in both rows, too.
Rear row space could be better, given the size of the vehicle, with taller adults likely to feel a bit hemmed in for knee- and shoulder-room.
The Tacoma can be had with optional parking sensors, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert, and while the first item on that list is available in Australia, the latter two aren’t.
There is a standard-fit reverse-view camera on Tacoma, as well as Qi wireless smartphone charging for phones equipped with that technology or fitted into an appropriate case – no ute on sale in Australia has that. Other tech highlights include an auto-dimming rear-view mirror with compass (great for those maze-like US highways), and smart key entry with push-button start.
The 2016 Toyota Tacoma is good at plenty of things, but, on first impressions, masters none – apart from finding masses of buyers on the promise of serious toughness. It seems it and the HiLux are pretty similar after all, then.