There's a reason the Toyota Tacoma is the best-selling mid-size truck in America – it's stylish, capable, and relatively affordable (depending on which trim you go for). But even as the Tacoma soldiers into 2021 with minimal changes compared to other trucks like the Honda Ridgeline, Ford Ranger, and GMC Canyon, which adopt more noticeable updates, this truck is still a solid choice in this segment for a number of reasons.
Toyota handed us the keys to a 2021 Tacoma TRD Off-Road for the week – arguably the sweet spot in terms of available trims. This model comes standard with an electronic locking rear differential, optional four-wheel drive, and a heartier suspension and tire setup. Only the range-topping TRD Pro model is tougher, but that version starts at $44,175 compared to our truck's more affordable $37,890 asking price.
Brandon Turkus, Managing Editor
- Favorite Thing: An Unfussy Truck
- Least Favorite Thing: Stockholm Syndrome Seating Position
At risk of sounding like an old fogey, today’s trucks are too damn plush. So-called luxury pickups, with astronomical starting prices and feature sets that would make even the most ambitious engineer blush, are now the norm.
With that in mind, the relative simplicity of the Tacoma is refreshing. It’s a simple, semi-brutish thing with rubbery steering and a firm suspension. As my colleagues will note, it’s rather uncouth on the road, but I think that’s part of the appeal. The Tacoma never argues that it’s anything more than a competent pickup truck.
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Key to that competence is a stout V6 engine and a mostly innocuous six-speed automatic transmission. The 3.5-liter engine is strong enough, with adequate low-end torque that provides capable push through most of the rev range – it lacks the verve of a modern, turbocharged engine, but who cares? This is a truck, not a race car. The gearbox, meanwhile, engages quickly off the line and responds promptly when downshifting. Sure, some shifts are a bit too obvious and the gas engine doesn’t sound especially nice, but again, it feels like a truck, goes like a truck, and sounds like a truck.
Accepting that is key to the Taco’s appeal, but there are still some real oddities. One of the strangest is the seating position. The seatback is short and sits very upright, while the low bottom cushion splays the driver’s legs out. The long-legged will brush their knees against the steering wheel, which doesn’t telescope and has such limited tilt function the column may as well be fixed. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, although it also faded into the background after a few days.
Jeff Perez, Senior Editor
- Favorite Thing: Voodoo Blue Paint
- Least Favorite Thing: Lacking On-Road Refinement
I could put together a laundry list of things I like about the Tacoma, ranging from the off-road abilities of this TRD model to the abundant features found in the cabin. Even the addition of standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are a big plus. But I'd be lying if I said that my favorite thing wasn't the optional Voodoo Blue paint – it's such a cool look for this truck. The bright hue gives the already stylish pickup an even bolder expression, especially when paired with the TRD Off-Road model's two-tone 16-inch wheels.
Honestly, the Tacoma offers some of the best colors in the class across the board, not just Voodoo Blue. There's also a handsome Barcelona Red Metallic and a sharp Army Green once reserved for the range-topping TRD Pro, as well as a tough-looking Cement Grey that debuted on the truck for 2020.
But one thing the Tacoma still lacks in 2021 is basic on-road refinement, and that starts with the powertrain. The naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 offers 278 horsepower and 265 pound-feet, paired to optional four-wheel-drive in this case with a six-speed automatic gearbox. But the setup feels very lethargic compared to some others, and the six-speed automatic isn't the crispest out there.
And while the Taco's flexible suspension and off-road tires excel on the tough stuff, the combo makes for a loud, harsh ride in normal driving situations. This isn't a truck that you can toil away in comfortably for hours at a time.
Clint Simone; Associate Editor, Video Producer
- Favorite Thing: Perfect Size
- Least Favorite Thing: Uninspiring Engine
There’s just something great about a midsize pickup, right? Today’s truck market is full of absolute behemoth machines like the Ram TRX, Ford F-150, and others that seem to steal the majority of attention. But maybe for the first time ever, the midsize truck class is ripe with wonderful options. Of them, the Tacoma remains a standout favorite, and for good reason.
Despite being relatively compact compared to a full-size pickup, the Tacoma holds its own in the space department, Both the bed and cabin are generously portioned. Those traveling in the second row don’t get the short end of the stick either, with plentiful legroom and decent headroom. On the road, the Tacoma feels perfectly maneuverable, which means more in the context of downtown Miami streets. It’s tall but not massive, long but not overbearing, and narrow enough to stay in tight lanes without issue. This is one of my favorite trucks to drive, and most of that is due to just how manageable it is to live with as a daily driver.
The Tacoma remains a standout favorite, and for good reason.
Not all of the driving experience is bliss, though. Jeff already pointed out a few of the truck’s powertrain flaws and I’m here to corroborate them. There’s a reason rivals such as the Ford Ranger are turning to turbocharged four-cylinder engines. Downsizing and adding forced induction end in better power and more efficiency.
Toyota is generally pretty averse to turbocharging, and I wonder how much longer that will last. Yes, the Tacoma’s 3.5-liter V6 will last until the end of time, but it’s slow and unengaging compared to the Ranger’s standard engine. The Taco’s 278 horsepower is just fine, but it loses out pretty big in the torque department with only 265 pound-feet on offer. This means that getting onto a highway takes more work than you’d like and longer throttle application.
Gallery: 2021 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road: Driving Notes
2021 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road