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2013 Toyota Tacoma Test Drive Review
At a time when pickups are becoming almost as refined as modern automobiles, it is almost refreshing to drive something completely old-school like the Tacoma.
The 2013 Toyota Tacoma leads a shrinking midsize pickup class in terms of size and capability, but as the latest crop of full-size trucks becomes more fuel-efficient without any loss of hauling and towing ability, the real benefit of selecting a smaller model is a lower price tag. On this front, the Tacoma delivers, saving Toyota truck buyers thousands of dollars while returning better fuel economy compared to the bigger Tundra. However, unless Toyota invests in the 9-year-old Tacoma soon, especially with regard to improving gas mileage, new full-size models from competing companies are likely to further erode its appeal.
Look and Feel
Remember when small pickup trucks were so popular that even Volkswagen sold one that was based on the Rabbit? Those days are long gone, and for the 2013 model year, the only ones left are the Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon, Honda Ridgeline, Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma. Of this quintet, the members of which are no longer actually small, the Tacoma is the biggest and most popular model, but it might also be the truck that best exemplifies why some companies have gotten out of the compact pickup game.
While a Tacoma is no longer a small truck, it’s not as big as a full-size rig. Compared to our Tacoma Double Cab PreRunner Limited test vehicle, a Toyota Tundra CrewMax is much, much larger. It can haul more, it can tow more, and it can carry more people in greater levels of comfort. Appropriately, a Tundra also costs thousands of dollars more than an equivalent Tacoma. And price is where the Tacoma and its remaining competitors demonstrate their clearest advantage over a full-size truck, especially now that models like the new 2014 Chevy Silverado average 18 mpg with a V8 engine and 4-wheel drive.
Speaking of price, for 2013, the Tacoma is offered in Regular Cab ($17,625), Access Cab ($20,415), and Double Cab ($22,525) styles with rear-wheel (RWD) or 4-wheel drive (4WD) and a choice between a 4-cylinder and a V6 engine. A sport-tuned model called the Tacoma X-Runner is also available, available only with a V6 engine and a manual transmission. If that sounds good to you, know that 2013 is the last year for this low-volume variant.
Our test truck is the Tacoma Double Cab PreRunner with the V6 engine and a 5-speed automatic transmission. A PreRunner provides the look and raised suspension of a 4WD model, but is equipped with RWD. A Limited Package added $7,345 to the base price of our truck, and with the extra-cost floor mats, the final price tag came to $33,444, including a destination charge of $860.
Our Silver Streak Mica Tacoma looked good, but not great. The Limited Package gets rid of all the ugly black plastic covering much of the exterior and adds a set of appealing 18-inch chrome wheels, but I definitely prefer the scooped hood and special 16-inch wheels with B.F. Goodrich rubber that come with the Toyota Racing Development (TRD) Off-Road Package.
Inside, my test truck offered a mix of inexpensive plastic, quality switchgear and Sof-Tex leatherette seating that did a decent job of mimicking leather. Nothing about the cabin infers luxury, but most of what the driver sees and touches imparts a sense of quality, even if that quality relates to its ability to withstand abuse rather than deliver upscale refinement.
Toyota has not redesigned the Tacoma since the 2005 model debuted nearly a decade ago. As a result, this aging midsize truck doesn’t drive as well as most modern full-size trucks, though it certainly does perform better than expected in many situations.
My test truck contained a 4.0-liter V6 engine generating 236 hp at 5,200 rpm and 266 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. That’s not much for a truck engine of this size, and though its power peaks relatively high in the rev range, the 5-speed automatic transmission is calibrated to make the best of the available motive force. As a result, the Tacoma can handle a trailer weighing up to 6,500 pounds and carry up to a best-in-class 1,535 pounds of payload.
The Tacoma’s automatic is programmed to upshift quickly under part-throttle acceleration, but kicks down rapidly to deliver maximum power when the driver punches the gas. The transmission also provides plenty of engine braking on downgrades and holds a lower gear while climbing hills. As a result, my 4,185-pound test truck effortlessly ascended from sea level to 1,000 feet of elevation at 80 mph. No big deal? The gain in altitude occurred over the span of just a few miles, and I had my family aboard plus a bed full of beach gear.
According to the EPA, my Tacoma test truck should have averaged 19 mpg in combined driving. I got 17.8 mpg instead. That’s not good, but it’s better than what an F-150 with a 3.7-liter V6 engine returned for me earlier this year, and the Tacoma also beats the bigger Tundra’s thirst for fuel by a significant margin.
As for my testing, I found the Tacoma to be a lazy driving companion, though its character is not out of line with what one might expect of a pickup. Acceleration is loud and leisurely. Transmission shifts are occasionally harsh. The ride can be choppy at the same time that the 18-inch tires pummel pavement irregularities into submission. The steering is heavy, slow and vibrates with seemingly every bump in the road, but works well when driving on dirt and in ruts. The brakes feel strong, secure and occasionally over-boosted. Wind noise is an issue at speeds over 60 mph.
And yet, because the Tacoma is a real truck and isn’t trying to be anything else, these unrefined characteristics can endear it to its owner. At a time when pickups are becoming almost as refined as modern automobiles, it is almost refreshing to drive something completely old-school like the Tacoma.
Form and Function
People buy pickup trucks because they have stuff to haul or tow, and a properly outfitted Tacoma is better at this than its primary competitors. To be perfectly fair to Nissan, however, a Frontier tows just as much as a Tacoma and falls short in terms of payload by only 11 pounds. Our Tacoma test truck included handy adjustable tie-down cleats on the bed rails and tie-down hooks in the bed, a 3-pronged power outlet in the bed wall and a sliding rear window that could come in handy for carrying longer and flexible items.
Expanding on these capabilities, my test truck’s Double Cab offered a 3-passenger rear bench seat with a 60/40 split-folding design. The bottom cushions flip up and forward to accommodate taller items and to reveal under-seat storage bins. The rear seatbacks fold down to provide a flat plastic load floor for when keeping things dry and secure is preferable. Note that when the rear seatbacks are folded down, the rear cab wall offers hooks for plastic grocery bags.
Up front, the Tacoma is equipped with a large center storage console, a big glovebox, a coin box to the left of the steering column, a dashboard cubby to the right of the steering column and a sizable bin forward of the shifter that can be configured for cupholders as desired. The door panels offer bottle holders, and rear seat occupants are treated to dual cupholders mounted over the rear air vents.
Comfort levels are adequate. The front seats sit relatively low to the floor and don’t have height adjusters, so if you prefer a taller driving position like I do, then you’re out of luck. Plus, they face a rather tall dashboard, making it seem like outward visibility is restricted. Our Limited test truck had a manual lumbar support adjuster for the driver, though, as well as meaty handgrips mounted to both windshield pillars, helping shorter and younger people to clamber aboard.
While a Tacoma Double Cab is a long truck, the rear seating area is not generous. Taller adults are likely to find a shortage of headroom, though this was not a problem for me. Legroom is also tight, but thanks to soft front seatback trim and a firm bottom cushion with good thigh support, the Tacoma’s back seat is more comfortable than might otherwise be deduced. Getting in and out is also tough for the longer limbed members of the species, due to how the rear doors are configured with respect to the seating.
Interior materials are appropriate for a vehicle as likely to be used for work as it is play. You wouldn’t quite hose a Tacoma out, but the simple plastic surfaces are easy to dust and wipe clean. I also liked this version of Toyota’s Sof-Tex leatherette, as it felt more durable and less sticky than what I’ve experienced in other models, and it featured a more realistic leather patterning.
My test truck came with Toyota’s Display Audio system, a 6.1-inch touchscreen infotainment system surrounded by radio knobs and hard keys used to select menus. Installed in the Tacoma, I find this system easy to use, though the level of accuracy required to get the screen to respond on the first try might aggravate people with stubbier fingers than mine.
Pairing to the system’s Bluetooth function is simple, and streaming Pandora Internet radio or an iTunes library is no trouble at all. Our test truck also had satellite radio, as well as an Entune Apps Suite with real-time traffic and weather reports, sports and stocks news, and more. The premium JBL Audio system sounded good, too, and the navigation system proved easy to program.
What our Tacoma lacked was Toyota’s Safety Connect telematics system, which includes such features as Automatic Collision Notification, an Emergency Assistance button, a Stolen Vehicle Locator service and more.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the 2013 Tacoma gets a Good rating in the moderate offset frontal-impact test, the side-impact test and the rear-impact injury prevention test. The truck’s roof crush strength measures Marginal, preventing the Tacoma from earning a Top Safety Pick designation this year.
In testing conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), every version of the Tacoma receives a 4-star overall crash-test rating. Look closer, however, and you’ll see that the Access Cab model appears to provide the greatest overall safety, with a 4-star rating in the frontal-impact test, a 5-star rating in the side-impact test and a 4-star rating for rollover resistance. Comparatively, Regular Cab models get a 4-star side-impact rating, while Double Cab models receive a 3-star frontal-impact rating.
Until Toyota redesigns the Tacoma, these results are unlikely to change. In the meantime, the truck can be upgraded with a reversing camera that shows what’s behind the tailgate on a small screen embedded into the rear-view mirror. It sure would be great if Toyota offered Safety Connect on the Tacoma.
If you know you’ll never need to tow more than 6,500 pounds or haul more than 1,535 pounds of payload in the bed, a Tacoma makes sound financial sense for its lower price tag. It also gets better fuel economy than the larger Toyota Tundra, though that truck isn’t known for its stature as a fuel-economy champion among big pickups. Additionally, if you stack the Tacoma up against its primary competition, the Toyota includes free scheduled maintenance for 2 years or 25,000 miles and receives the highest possible depreciation rating from ALG at 5 stars.
However, a Tacoma is not the paragon of reliability that most buyers likely expect. The truck didn’t rank among the top 3 models in its class in the most recent J.D. Power dependability study, and Consumer Reports gives the 4-cylinder models a better-than-average rating, while Tacomas with a V6 engine rate merely average.
It would also appear that Toyota knows it has the dominant truck in the midsize class and doesn’t really need to give discounts. Although this review is written near the end of the 2013 model year, there are no significant lease deals available for the Tacoma and no cash-back rebate programs.
What does this mean for truck buyers? It might be wise to investigate a discounted full-size truck with greater towing and payload capacities, a roomier cab and a bigger cargo bed, even if it gets lower fuel-economy ratings. And remember, a full-size truck might even match the Tacoma in terms of EPA ratings.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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