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Executive Wheels: Too Many Little Flaws

Car review: The 2018 Toyota Tacoma TRD OFFRD 4x4 double cab


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Lately the venerable Toyota brand has astonished me, and not in a good way. You see, for something like 40 years, Toyota was the gold standard – I have often said that if General Motors had built the Toyota Corolla in the 1970s it would have never declined and ultimately filed bankruptcy. What GM started to do after it woke up from its stupor of the ‘70s and ‘80s was what pretty much everyone else did: they started making cars that looked just like Toyotas and were as much like Toyotas as they could muster. Toyota, and its luxury brand Lexus, set the standards and pretty much everyone else copied it.

But lately Toyota, it seems to me, has been resting on its laurels. They still make good, very nice vehicles – and the line is still renowned for its durability and longevity – but it seems as though Toyota is no longer setting the standards. The line has gone, well, boring. I don’t have an overall negative impression of any Toyota I have driven, I just wasn’t wowed which was the normal for years and years.

Now, this Tacoma pickup truck – this is the smaller pickup in the line – is first, a case in point and, second somewhat of a Toyota anomaly. It is a case in point because it is overall a worthy vehicle, nicely made, but it is somewhat of a milquetoast vehicle. There’s just nothing special about it, which used to be a Toyota hallmark, special-ness. The anomaly is that while Toyota was the leader for many, many years in sedans, coupes, SUVs and the like, Toyota, as well as all of the Japan-based manufacturers for that matter, always took a back seat to GM, Ford and Dodge/Ram when it came to pickup trucks. Pickups were the only vehicles the Americans could get right for the last several decades. For that reason alone you’d think Toyota would go out of its way to make a pickup that would dazzle. The Tacoma is a worthy effort, but it doesn’t dazzle.

I’ve been writing a lot about this lately, but this Tacoma is another example of an otherwise competent vehicle that has little things that are annoying. Little things can become deal breakers as far as I am concerned.

The first thing that got me about this Tacoma was the headlights. After they delivered the pickup to me, I didn’t drive it until that evening when my wife and I went from our home in central Denver to Golden for a holiday celebration (the candle walk and tree lighting; very cool). Anyway, it was dark and we took I-25 to 6th Ave. up to Golden, and I noticed right off that I couldn’t see very well. The headlights weren’t bright enough. I haven’t been in a vehicle in years where I noticed this particular flaw, but it bugged me and continued to bug me through my test-drive week. This, of course, could have been a flaw on this particular vehicle only, but it points out that when someone is considering a vehicle purchase, and taking test drives, that night test-driving might be in order; there are many things about a car at night that are different than in daylight, and you don’t want to find out you don’t like something after you take delivery.

Another thing that bugged me no end was the radio. This isn’t a Tacoma thing, it’s a Toyota thing. I have experienced it many times before and I have written of it several times. Like most vehicles these days, this truck had a touch-screen for access to the vehicle menus, and radio stations when it’s in the Audio mode. The trouble is that Toyota has gone with this volume knob that I am sure they think is aesthetically pleasing to look at, but too small in reality. Every time – and I mean EVERY TIME – I went to adjust the volume, my finger also inadvertently changed the radio station to one of the other presets. It was virtually impossible to adjust the volume without hitting the screen. Almost every Toyota I have been in has this sound system design, and it’s awful. Oh, and by the way, this Tacoma had all of the modern radio/apps/smart phone hookups and the like, and they displayed it in one of those ubiquitous touch screens. But there is no AM radio. Why? FM and satellite radio, of course, but no AM. I like AM radio sometimes, and I hope this isn’t a trend.

Another buggy thing was the seating. I noticed it right off the first time I got into the Tacoma: I felt like I was seated in a chaise lounge with my feet out in front of me, instead of sitting in a chair. It was a little like driving a go-cart; it was as if the pedals were at the same level as the seat bottom. I got used to it and made the adjustment, but it felt odd.

The list of annoyances goes on. The gas mileage – and this struck me as almost self-inflicted by Toyota – is included as a real-time read-out in the dash in one of the settings, so for each trips you take it sums up your experience, and there is a bar that measures it as you are moving. The Tacoma carries an EPA rating of 18 MPG city/22 MPG highway/20 MPG combined, but the readout I got on all but one trip was well below the rating – that trip to Golden, for example, was mostly highway and the vehicle itself told me my gas mileage was 16.8 MPG.

Okay, you’re probably thinking I hated the vehicle. I didn’t. The Tacoma is a nice size (but then, every pickup manufacturer has this size) and equipped with a 3.5-liter V6 with some 278 horsepower, this vehicle had plenty of power and it handled quite well. Plus, with its four-wheel-drive configuration and tough countenance it felt like a rugged vehicle that could handle off-roading well – they didn’t put Off Road in the name for nothing. And in this double cab, four-door layout there is also plenty of room for a whole crew (5) to sit quite comfortably. My test-drive vehicle also featured a rugged bed liner that covered everything, so for hauling gear and tools and whatever this truck could obviously take a workout and still look good.

Toyota has been making the Tacoma since 1995, as a compact pickup through 2004 and then as this mid-size since. Motor Trend magazine even named it Truck of the Year in 2005, that first year after the size upgrade. Also, and this is a plus, this latest version is only the 3rd generation (since the 2016 model year) and sales have been strong throughout the run – nearly 200,000 units in the U.S. in 2017 – so the public must like the Tacoma very much.

There are six trims of the Tacoma in the line, starting with the SR that carries a base price of $25,550 for 2019 (just $150 buck more than 2018 and the vehicle is the same). My TRD (Toyota Racing Development) Off Road 4X4 Double Cab carried a base price of $36,115, and the big add-on -- $2,625 – was the TRD Premium Off Road Package, including dual zone auto climate control, leather trimmed heated front seat, Entune Premium (Toyota’s infotainment system), JBL Audio with navigation, auto headlamps, and a moonroof. For another $770 they added the Technology package with rear parking assist sonar, blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. With a few other things, and destination charges, the bottom line was $41,267.

That price is competitive with Chevy, Ford and Ram with similar equipment and these mid-size trucks are great vehicles for work and for families. But, the little things here point out the need to not only exhaustively research before buying, but also to take the vehicles on long test drives that includes night driving. What with the little things that bugged me, I’m pretty sure that if I was in the market for such a vehicle I would end up with something else.


RATING: TWO WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR)

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Jeff Rundles

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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