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2019 Toyota Tacoma Test Drive Review
Live with a Toyota Tacoma, and it will become a member of the family, a faithful companion, and a trusted partner that’s ready for just about anything.
Unapologetically unrefined, the 2019 Toyota Tacoma is a truck, pure and simple. It doesn't try to be anything else, and its raw honesty, at first unappealing, becomes its most endearing trait. Over the course of a week of testing, I went from eagerly anticipating to sadly dreading its departure. Clearly, there’s a good reason it's the best-selling midsize pickup in America.
Look and Feel
Toyota differentiates the various Tacoma trims with unique grilles, wheels, hoods, and finishes. They all look as though designers used nothing but a T-square, a level, and a knife: solid blocks of metal detailed with carved character lines, flared fenders, and a provocatively protruding nose. The end result is a ruggedly handsome rig.
Inside, hard and durable plastic is the rule rather than the exception; the Tacoma reflects function over form. Stylish details exist, such as the truck’s geometric upholstery patterns and equally spaced dashboard air vents. Otherwise, the Tacoma has simple analog gauges and an old-school control panel complete with knobs and buttons that are large enough to use while wearing gloves.
Toyota sells the 2019 Tacoma in extended-cab (Access Cab) and crew-cab (Double Cab) styles. You can get a Tacoma with a short or a long cargo bed, with a 4-cylinder or a V6 engine, and with rear-wheel drive (RWD) or 4-wheel drive (4WD). In order of most affordable to most expensive, trim levels include SR, SR5, TRD Sport, TRD Off-Road, Limited, and TRD Pro.
Equipped with Limited trim—which comes in only Double Cab, short bed, V6, 4WD specification—my test truck had a base price of $40,865. Add a set of floor mats, cargo bed D-rings, and the $1,120 destination charge, and the grand total amounted to $42,184.
Most Tacomas have a direct-injected, Atkinson-cycle, 3.5-liter V6 engine under the hood. It produces 278 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 265 pound-feet of torque at 4,600 rpm. All Tacomas equipped with a V6 engine are ready for towing with heavy-duty cooling, trailer wiring harness connections, Trailer Sway Control, and a receiver hitch. The maximum tow rating is 6,800 pounds, depending the version of the truck.
A 6-speed automatic transmission with a Sport mode and a manual shift gate delivers the power to the rear wheels. The part-time, shift-on-the-fly 4WD system is easy to use, and, in conjunction with the automatic, Toyota equips the Tacoma TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro with Multi-terrain Select and Crawl Control. This is a sophisticated off-road traction system with ultra-low-speed cruise control that manages acceleration and braking while the driver focuses on steering.
The TRD-named versions of the truck also offer a 6-speed manual gearbox with 4WD. It includes a clutch-start cancel switch that allows a driver to start the truck in first gear without pressing the clutch. This helps to extract the Tacoma from difficult situations while off-roading.
Limited trim does without the TRD extras. Nevertheless, it proves capable enough for all but the most hard-core off-roaders, thanks in part to its 9.4 inches of ground clearance.
On pavement, acceleration is strong enough, the transmission behaving in sluggish fashion unless you stab the accelerator with emphasis or flick the gear selector into Sport mode. According to the EPA, my test truck should have returned 20 mpg in combined driving. On the test loop, it got 18.9 mpg. During my entire week of testing, it averaged 20.1 mpg.
Steering is slow to respond and vague on-center, which is great in the boonies but not on boulevards. On one local freeway flyover ramp, the Tacoma waggled over the undulating sections of the bridge, the oversized steering wiggling like a strand of al dente pasta in my hands.
When it comes to the Tacoma, the words “ride” and “quality” do not belong together. This truck bounces and skitters its way down the road, at once dismissively impervious yet exaggeratedly reactive to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. You don’t really need to worry about lousy pavement passing beneath the wheels, but you’re well aware of it.
My test truck’s brakes—discs in front and drums (!) in the back—shuddered under prolonged use on hot summer days. With less than 5,000 miles showing on the odometer and little evidence of previous abuse, this was disappointing. It was the only aspect of the Tacoma’s driving characteristics that made me think: Maybe this Toyota isn’t as indestructible as it looks and feels.
You can’t buy a Tacoma and expect it to drive like a Camry or Highlander. This is a truck. It drives like one. That is as it should be.
If you want to avoid future chiropractic visits, get a Honda Ridgeline.
Form and Function
If you’re tall, getting into a Tacoma is remarkably easy. You just slide right in, lifting your legs unusually high because, while this truck sits high off the ground, the cab is unexpectedly squat.
If you’re small, getting into a Tacoma is remarkably hard. That’s especially true when the rocker panels are dirty, and the various step rails that Toyota dealers sell likely won’t help. Such is the cost of ground clearance.
Once you’re in, you’ll find wide and flat front seats that manually adjust four ways, plus a lumbar-support knob for the driver. Storage is literally everywhere, so you should have no trouble finding places to stash your stuff.
Next year, most versions of the 2020 Tacoma will get a 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat. That change should help in the comfort department, though I found the 2019 Tacoma’s driver’s seat acceptable during a nearly four-hour slog across Los Angeles. All I really missed was a front-seat ventilation option to help repel the 90-degree heat, though the Tacoma’s air conditioning is exceptionally effective.
Like most midsize trucks, the Tacoma’s backseat feels cramped. However, the bottom cushion sits high off the floor, and the front seatbacks are softly padded. There isn’t much space under the front seats for boot-wearing folk with big feet. And there are neither air-conditioning vents nor USB charging ports.
Exiting the driver’s seat is a hassle if your legs are long. There isn’t much clearance space under the steering wheel, so you need to keep your right leg low and swing it out of the truck as your left leg drops to the ground, almost jumping from the cab. Or maybe that was just me.
Around back, the Tacoma’s short 5-foot bed has a plastic liner, an LED light, and a 120-volt/400-watt power outlet. At 19.1 inches from floor to sill, the bed isn’t deep. It beats the Jeep Gladiator’s shallow cargo box by 1.6 inches. Maximum payload capacity, depending on configuration, is 1,540 pounds.
A Toyota Tacoma is no technological showcase, and that’s part of what makes it so appealing. Still, I could have used Apple CarPlay while navigating unfamiliar territory.
Equipped with the Tacoma's top infotainment system option for 2019, my test truck’s navigation system could not find a specific address (2525 East Warner Road in Tustin, California). Instead, it asked me if I wanted directions to the road. “Fine, whatever, just get me into the general area, and I’ll find my way,” I thought. After all, a huge ex-Marine base blimp hangar is easy to spot amidst suburbia. Editor's note: Google Maps finds such a hangar at 2525 East Warner Avenue, rather than "road," which might explain the nav system's confusion.
Once directions were set, I looked at the navigation map and the planned route and thought: “No, that can’t be right.” I whipped out my iPhone, asked Siri for directions, and got myself on the right path.
The good news is that for 2020, Toyota will add Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa compatibility to the Tacoma. The screen size also grows to 8 inches across. The bad news is that it most likely will still look and work like the parts-bin component found in the 2019 Tacoma.
With a rather small 7-inch display and stubby volume and tuning knobs that are unusually resistant to twisting and are finished in a slippery gloss black, the Tacoma’s infotainment system is entirely out of tune with the truck’s cabin. Unlike with the rest of the controls, you’re not going to be able to use it with gloves on.
The available 6-speaker JBL sound system, however, delivered a decent audio experience.
To its credit, Toyota equips every 2019 Tacoma with its Toyota Safety Sense suite of driver-assistance and collision-avoidance systems. They include adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, sway warning, and automatic high-beam headlights. Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert is available for most versions of the truck.
As is true of the Tacoma’s infotainment system, these driving aids are not the most sophisticated examples of the technology currently in Toyota’s arsenal, but they are effective. That said, I wasn’t a fan of the lane-departure warning system’s beep, which prompted me to shut it off.
In crash testing, the Tacoma fares well, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Headlight performance and LATCH anchor access rate as Marginal, and the Double Cab versions get an Acceptable rather than Good rating for small overlap, frontal-impact, front passenger protection. The IIHS hasn’t assessed the Access Cab in this latter test.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the Tacoma Double Cab a 4-star overall rating for crash protection. It has not rated the Access Cab.
Overall, these results are on par with other midsize trucks, with the Honda Ridgeline the only competitor that performs better.
A Toyota Tacoma is a cost-effective midsize truck, and not just because the automaker provides free scheduled maintenance for the first two years or 25,000 miles.
Sticker prices are aligned with those of the Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, and GMC Canyon before accounting for rebates and incentives. The Honda Ridgeline and Nissan Frontier are better bargains, while the Jeep Gladiator is not.
Aside from free maintenance and competitive prices, the Tacoma is legendary for its indestructibility and is known to hold its value over time. The implied promises of quality, reliability, and future worth make choosing a Tacoma over other midsize trucks an easy decision.
And while it might seem like a crude and uncivilized beast, its sheer competence and unpolished character make it thoroughly likable over the long haul. At first, you think there’s no way you can live with it on a daily basis. It doesn’t take long, however, to feel like there’s no way you can live without it.
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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