2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road review: Rough around the edges
The Toyota Tacoma is a mystery to me. Fans of this truck are legion -- it's been the best-selling midsize pickup for around a decade and a half -- yet every time I test one it leaves me scratching my head because the steak never lives up to the sizzle.
Yes, I know, the Tacoma's blue-chip resale value and unimpeachable reputation for long-haul quality are cornerstones of its enduring popularity. But there are some aspects of this machine that completely spoil the experience for me, like the awkward driving position and ponderous on-road feel.
Take a seat
If you're on the taller side, you will not be terribly comfortable behind this Toyota's wheel, as both the seat and ceiling are too low. Even when fitted with a leather-trimmed, 10-way-adjustable chair, it basically feels like you're plopped on the floor. With the backrest angled rearward more than I'd like, my head is still practically touching the roof. Front and rear, a 2020 Ford Ranger is vastly more comfortable.
Tacoma engineers were kind enough to include a tilt-and-telescoping steering column, something you'd think would improve things, but no dice. Since the wheel only moves around an inch and a half in any direction, the travel is so limited it renders this feature almost useless.
Don't expect a wellspring of comfort in the Tacoma's backseat, either. According to the spec sheet, my TRD Off-Road tester, which is fitted with the larger crew-cab body and a 5-foot-long cargo box, has 32.6 inches of rear-seat legroom, which makes it pretty cramped for adults. The Tacoma feels noticeably snugger than a similar crew-cab Ranger , far more than the 1.9-inch difference between the two would suggest.
A sturdy, well-made cabin
The Tacoma may be less coddling than its Ford counterpart, but its interior has some advantages. This Toyota's cabin is nicer all around, with a more rugged design, better materials and superior secondary controls. My truck's squared-off dashboard is dressed up with bright-red trim and a swath of soft plastic on the passenger side that's treated to an attractive crosshatch pattern. The dual-zone climate-control system, which on this model is included with a few other things in the $4,285 TRD Premium Off-Road package, is far more finger-friendly than the Ranger's setup. On top of all that, everything feels sturdy and built for the long haul.
Storage space is reasonably good inside the Tacoma. The door pockets are large, there's a smattering of cubbies on the center console and the rear seat's divided lower cushion flips up to reveal some hidden bins. This truck's optional, $169 all-weather floor mats are highly recommended. Made of a durable rubber material, they should keep the carpeting safe from mud and slop for years to come.
My tester's integrated 8-inch infotainment screen is easy to reach, being mounted at just about the perfect height on the dashboard. A touch-enabled display of this size is standard on nearly every version of the Tacoma except the entry-level SR model, which makes do with a 7-incher. Apple CarPlay, Amazon Alexa compatibility and even Android Auto are standard across the range.
Handling audio, telephony and other functions is an infotainment system that's as familiar as it is unremarkable. This arrangement moves at its own pace (read: it's kinda pokey) and the menu layout won't win any awards for intuitiveness or good looks, but it's at least adequate for the job. Pinch-to-zoom on the available navigation system's map, however, is surprisingly responsive.
As for other tech, Toyota Safety Sense-P is standard on all Tacomas. This includes automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning and automatic high beams. Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert is optional, though lane-centering is not offered.
Toyota's implementation of adaptive cruise control works as intended, matching the speed of surrounding traffic and maintaining a safe following distance. It's smooth and quite responsive. Per usual, the lane-departure-alert system is a little annoying, reminding you every so often of how bad you are at driving. Fortunately, it's easy enough to disable.
How 'bout that hardware?
Two engines are available in the Tacoma, but TRD Off-Road models only come with the up-market offering. Mostly smooth, this 3.5-liter unit feels like any other naturally aspirated V6 available today, meaning there's not a whole lot of low-speed grunt (torque tops out at 265 pound-feet) but it really wakes up from around 3,500 rpm and beyond. Horsepower is a class-competitive 278.
Passing maneuvers are a breeze in this Tacoma, but I'd be hesitant to tow or haul anywhere near its limits as the engine would likely get out of breath in a hurry. With 45 more lb-ft of twist on tap, the Ranger's boosted four-cylinder feels far more potent, especially down low.
Speaking of using the Tacoma to do, you know, actual work, my tester can drag up to 6,400 pounds. Its maximum payload rating is 1,175 pounds. Both figures are competitive, though less than that Ranger I keep bringing up can handle.
Depending on the trim, you can get a Tacoma with a six-speed manual transmission, something that should be celebrated. Of course, an automatic gearbox, one with the same number of ratios, is also offered. For better or worse, this is the transmission my test truck is fitted with, and it can be a bit inconsistent. Sometimes it's perfectly smooth, while other times, particularly when you're deep in the throttle, upshifts can be a bit hammering. It's also reluctant to drop gears, requiring a healthy prod to summon a downshift.
Another weakness is this truck's throttle response, which is sometimes dead at initial tip-in. Fortunately, there's an easy fix for this: Just hit the ECT Power button on the center stack. This puts the truck in a different driving mode and basically makes the accelerator pedal far more linear. It also seems to keep the transmission from being a gear too high most of the time.
In mixed use, I averaged 19.5 miles per gallon in this Tacoma. That's a pretty unspectacular score, as I've done a couple mpg better than that in full-size trucks before, ones that are far more spacious, comfortable and powerful than this Toyota. At least that real-world figure is in line with the EPA's numbers. According to the government agency, this machine should return 18 mpg city, 22 mpg highway and 20 mpg combined.
As its name implies, the Tacoma TRD Off-Road comes with loads of equipment designed to make it a talented little mountain goat. Naturally, this includes a part-time four-wheel-drive system, though you can also get the Off-Road model with rear-wheel drive, which makes no sense. While not quite as capable as the Tacoma TRD Pro, this variant still features special suspension tuning with Bilstein shocks. It also comes with a locking rear differential for added grip in challenging conditions; hill-start assist, which keeps the truck from rolling backwards on inclines; and something called Crawl Control. Think of this last item as off-road cruise control. With five different driver-selectable speeds, it keeps the truck moving at a slow, steady pace so you can focus on steering around obstacles, not operating the pedals.
All that off-road hardware gives the Tacoma a firm on-road ride, but it's not unbearable. The body always maintains its composure, unlike a Ranger FX4, which practically floats around like a buoy in nor'easter. This Toyota's brake-pedal feel is also superior, nice and firm without being grabby. In comparison, the Ford's is soggier than a wet loaf of bread.
The Tacoma's handling is secure but also weirdly laborious. It takes actual arm strength to turn the steering wheel at parking-lot speed, like clench the rim with both hands and grunt. In today's world of power-assisted everything this aspect of the truck feels totally out of place.
It ain't cheap
The 2020 Toyota Tacoma is offered in six trim levels, from the base SR model up to the top-shelf TRD Pro. In the middle of this range is the TRD Off-Road variant. This truck starts around 35 grand, including $1,120 in delivery fees, but -- and I hope you're sitting down -- my tester checks out for a lot more than that, specifically $47,364. Yep, nearly 50-large for a midsize pickup that's mediocre at best. For such an outlay, I can think of at least a dozen other vehicles I would much rather have than this Toyota, from a Bullitt Mustang to a Jeep Gladiator to an Audi A5.
After spending time in this pickup truck, I still don't understand why it's so popular. The Tacoma is ponderous and uncomfortable, plus its fuel economy and performance are totally unremarkable. Unless you're a diehard Toyota fan, for the amount they charge, you're better off getting something else.