If you want to tow something of any decent weight, you will need a truck. Domestic manufacturers are engaged in a torque war with their diesel trucks —they’re pushing 800 pound-feet of torque and those beasts can tow more than 24,000 pounds.
But some of us may not need that much truck. The problem is that those impressive trucks are not cheap and can cost upwards of $50,000 and they are big. Maybe we just want to tow a small boat or a race car and don’t want to drive a huge truck every day to work just because we want to tow something once a month. We asked ourselves those exact questions and decided that a Toyota Tacoma was the answer we were looking for.
The Toyota Tacoma is one of the few compact pickup trucks left on the U.S. market. There was a time when almost every manufacturer offered a compact truck, but, one by one, they have all gone to truck heaven. Toyota sold more than 106,000 Tacoma models for 2010, outselling its nearest competitor by nearly two-to-one. For 2012, Tacoma shows a fresh face with a redesigned hood, grille, headlamps and front bumper, among other changes.
Our SR5 Double Cab featured a cloth interior that was perfect for such a truck. It was not over the top luxury like some of those $50,000 trucks but it wasn’t cheap plastic and metal either. The front seats were just firm enough and very comfortable even if you have to be behind the wheel all day long. The SR5 Package also includes color-keyed fender flares and front bumper, chrome grille surround and chrome rear bumper, intermittent wipers and upgraded interior features and trim, including a leather-wrapped steering wheel and automatic transmission shift lever.
Perhaps the best thing about the interior is that everything is simple and easy to use. The Bluetooth system deserves extra praise for its ease of use. You can easily talk to it and just tell it to call home and unlike many much more expensive cars, it actually works. The worst part of the interior is the heater controls, which felt cheap and low-quality, but this has been fixed on 2012 models.
The 2012 Tacoma offers a choice of two engines. A 2.7-liter DOHC four-cylinder that produces 159 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque is standard. A 4.0-liter DOHC V6 that provides 236 horsepower with 266 pound-feet of torque is an option and was the engine in our test truck.
In both engines, variable valve timing with intelligence (VVT-i) is standard which gives the engine great flexibility across the rpm range. The V6 can be teamed with either a six-speed manual or a five-speed automatic transmission. Four-cylinder models offer a choice between a five-speed manual and a four-speed automatic transmission. The five speed automatic in our truck featured well placed ratios that were well suited for towing.
If you plan on towing, you should choose the V6 Tow Package. It includes a class IV receiver hitch with the trailer wiring but most importantly it includes a transmission cooler, engine oil cooler, 130 amp alternator and heavy duty battery. With the tow package, the Tacoma can tow as much as 6,500 pounds.
We put the Tacoma through a grueling test by hooking it up to about 5,500 pounds of trailer and looked for different roads to see how it performs. First we headed to smooth, straight roads followed by roads with lots of gusty winds. The Tacoma was rock solid in these tests with no issues. The next test was driving in gridlock traffic which unfortunately is a part of life if you live in a major metropolitan area. The Tacoma never broke a sweat and with good trailer brakes it never felt overloaded.
The final test was the most grueling part. Find the longest and steepest hill and climb it. This is the only test where it didn’t score an A. Climbing the treacherous grapevine in Southern California, the Tacoma was breathing hard. It could maintain a speed of around 50 mph which was good but it was clear that it was not happy doing it. The tow package did its job though and kept the fluids cool despite the 4,000-foot climb torture test.
The only negative part of the Tacoma that we found was fuel economy. The V6 with automatic is rated at 17 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the freeway with 2WD. Compare those with the numbers that Ford offers on the F150 which is 17 mpg in the city and 23 mpg on the highway and suddenly the Tacoma does not look so economical. In fairness, we should mention that the F150 configured to get 23 mpg on the freeway can only tow 5500 pounds which is over 1000 less than the Tacoma V6. If economy is your main goal, the four cylinder is the best bet.
If you are going to tow a 6,000 pound load, you can buy bigger trucks and you can buy more expensive trucks. The Tacoma is a great all-purpose truck that can do most of the jobs and can do it well. What is really nice about the Tacoma is that it starts out as little as $16,875 and our loaded 4-by-4 was less than $30,000.
The Tacoma offers something that the other big trucks can’t match: it is fun to drive and much more maneuverable as an everyday vehicle. That last part is a big deal when it comes to commuting on the freeways of America. We are glad that Tacoma is still with us in 2012 and hope that Toyota continues improving it every year.