Even though the first Tacoma debuted in 1995, its heritage goes back to the 1964-1967 Stout. Due to its distasteful looks and its spartan equipment levels, not to mention it was significantly slower than competing American trucks, the Stout barely sold in the three years it was produced. The Hilux replaced the Stout in 1969, but due to its reliability, better performance and quality, sales started to grow. The Hilux soldiered on for three generations until in 1976, Toyota changed the name from Hilux to Truck (or Pickup). As Toyota continued to grow in fame and sales, the Truck became regarded as a competitive product that always received praise from the car magazines and consumers. The Toyota Truck lasted till 1995 before being replaced by the Tacoma. While the Truck sold well, it never really catered to the American tastes, and Toyota felt that the Tacoma would change that. This time, instead of being built in Japan, the Toyota built the Tacoma in America, and the name Tacoma was chosen as it was thought to appeal to the American market. Toyota prioritized refinement and performance, while staying true to its promise of dependability. In the late 1990s when consumers were buying more SUVs and trucks than ever, Toyota’s timing couldn’t have been better. In 2001, the Tacoma received a facelift, and more variants were added. Even in its last year, this generation of the Tacoma still sold well before being redesigned in 2005.
Back in the 1990s in North America, cars were designed to be functional, engineering wise and design wise. This applies to the Tacoma. Front and back, it is simple with big headlights that coincide with a grille, and the rear consisting of slim taillights and a chrome bumper. The chrome strips on the front bumper look like an afterthought. The side profile is the most interesting aspect of the Tacoma. A line starts from the front bumper and stops at the door handle. Then that line resumes at the rear fender. The big chunky tires and its high ground clearance give it a tough appearance. The interior is purely functional with a ordinary layout. Inside and out, it conveys the appearance of a truck.
Toyota engineered the Tacoma to drive better than its rivals, and it shows. It still drives like a truck, but it is maneuverable like a Camry. The steering’s light weighting aids parking, and it makes piloting this truck easier than expected. Even though it is light, the steering is devoid of any kickback from harsh bumps. It does lack feel, but it is precise. PreRunner versions came with a stiffer suspension. The ride is stiff with pronounced kicks from road imperfections, and it never really settles down. While noticeable, the ride quality is tolerable, and the stiff suspension aids its handling. It remains stable and secure for a truck, and the tires provide decent grip. Go on a dirt road, and the Tacoma takes dips and small crevices in its stride. During cornering, it remains solid, and the steering is always quick to respond. Its ground clearance allows for some moderate off roading which it does well. In normal driving, the Tacoma drives decently, but push it, and Toyota’s engineering prevails. I wouldn’t exactly call it sporty, but it is relatively fun to drive. Even though this Tacoma has been criticized for its tendency to flip over, it does not feel like it. Comparing this to a puppy who loves to wag its tail is a sensible analogy. It takes some effort, but the Tacoma’s rear end slides out into a controllable slide, and the quick steering allows for hasty driving.
This generation of the Tacoma debuted with three engines: a 142 horsepower 2.4 liter four cylinder, a 150 horsepower 2.7 liter four cylinder, and a 190 horsepower 3.4 liter V6. With the V6, it feels light on its feet. It is not powerful or fast, but the Tacoma makes good use of its horsepower. It feels strong off the line although the power tapers off at high revs. But its midrange grunt makes it ideal for merging or overtaking. The four speed automatic works efficiently with smooth shifts and quick gear changes. A five speed manual transmission was available. Fuel economy is decent at 19 mpg overall.
Considering its age, the Tacoma provides decent insulation from the road although there is some wind noise and engine thrum. The V6 thrums a bit, but it is tolerable, and the engine note is distinctive.
In true Toyota fashion, the fit and finish is superb with decent attention to detail and sturdy surfaces. The controls work well, and they are an easy reach from the driver, and the gauges are easy to read. Thanks to the steering’s tilt feature, finding a comfortable driving position is easy. However, the cloth seats feel a little too firm for my tastes. I feel that on a long trip, I would not be entirely comfortable, and I would have to keep moving around in the seat to get comfortable. Even though it looks like it has two additional doors, it does not. With the running boards, access is adequate, but getting in the back is troublesome as the front seats do not move far enough. Although it would look like the back is inhabitable for two people. I strongly advise against sitting back there unless you are small because it is uncomfortable. Trust me, I know. My five friends and I all went for a midnight McDonald’s run in this truck, and unfortunately for me, I was in the back with two people. I have never felt more claustrophobic in my life. The bed’s size should accommodate most people’s needs unless they require heavy lifting, and the rear window has a handy portion that slides open. Visibility is decent, and the controls are well lit at night, although cabin storage is limited.
I am one of those people who believe that cars of a specific category should adhere to that category’s purposes. While the Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram are nice, I find this Tacoma more interesting. It is a honest to God trustworthy truck. Even at 204 thousand miles, it is still running strong. I appreciate that it is not trying to be something that it is not. It is not flashy or luxurious, and it does the job. It is reasons like these that I favor older trucks than the new ones. When I drive the Tacoma, I am aware that I am driving a truck, and because of that reason, I am able to revel in its virtues. It is not surprising that this generation consistently outsold its rivals from Dodge, Chevrolet, and Nissan. When it came to building trucks, Toyota had to catch up quickly as its American rivals were more established and popular in this segment. But the Tacoma is proof that Toyota has succeeded in building a compact truck.