The Toyota Tacoma is the number one midsize truck in America. It accounts for nearly half of all sales, and it’s not hard to see why. This versatile vehicle looks and feels at home on offroad trails, just as much as it does picking the kids up from school. The Tacoma also has a reputation for rock-solid reliability, albeit some rust issues in the earlier generations.
It’s not a very old truck, either. The Tacoma has made quite the splash in just three generations of manufacturing. However, it evolved from the lineage of the Toyota Pickup which was available to the Japanese market starting in 1968, and the US market starting in 1972. A 1985 SR5 Toyota Pickup even received some Hollywood screen time in the movie Back to the Future.
First Generation Toyota Tacoma
The first generation Toyota Tacoma hit the American market in 1995. It was available as a regular cab or an extended cab pickup with three engine options including 2.4-liter and 2.7-liter four-cylinder engines and a 3.4-liter V6 motor. These engine options could be paired with either a four-speed automatic transmission or a five-speed manual. These two and four-wheel drive trucks sold quite well, especially to younger buyers.
There was a minor facelift to the truck in 1997 which updated the grille and headlights. Improvements were also made by switching to coil-on-plug ignition, increasing suspension performance, and adding a passenger-side airbag. A performance Toyota Racing Development (TRD) off-road package was offered beginning in 1998. The TRD package included typical off-road features such as a locking rear differential. Then another facelift took place in 2000 when a crew cab was offered for the first time.
The first generation ended in 2004, but it wasn’t until 2008 that major issues with the first generation of trucks forced Toyota to issue a recall. This issue was triggered by widespread frame corrosion. Trucks from 1995 through 2004 that suffered from rust holes in the frame would either be repaired, replaced, or bought back by Toyota.
Despite the rust issues, sales continued to increase. By the end of the first generation, the Tacoma had beat out the Nissan Frontier and Dodge Dakota in sales, and it was on the heels of the Ford Ranger.
Second Generation Toyota Tacoma
The second generation Toyota Tacoma first appeared at the Chicago Auto Show in 2004. The transmissions were updated and options expanded to include a four-speed automatic, five-speed automatic, five-speed manual, and six-speed manual. A new V6 motor boasted more power and a corresponding increased towing capacity of 6,500 pounds.
Newer models included handy bed features such as tie-down cleats, a deck rail system, and storage boxes. TRD models also included a 115-volt power outlet. Other new features of the TRD trim included Down-Hill Assist Control (DAC) and Hill-Start Assist Control (HAC). These options made starting and stopping on hills easier, which can be helpful in off-road driving situations.
2008 marked the beginning of Tacoma trucks coming standard with Toyota’s Star Safety System. This safety package included stability control, traction control, side airbags, head restraints, and side curtain airbags which were automatically deployed by a rollover sensor. The truck earned five-star crash test ratings across the board, except for the rollover category where it received four stars.
A major change took place in 2009 when Toyota announced it would relocate Tacoma manufacturing from Fremont, California to San Antonio, Texas where both of its trucks- the Tacoma and the Tundra- would be manufactured. The move brought about 1,000 new jobs to the area. In addition, the Tacoma received a facelift which updated the grille, swapped conventional tail lights for LEDs, and made audio system upgrades available.
More updates were made in 2012 when the front bumper, grille, headlights, hood and interior were all restyled. The very next year, a touch screen head unit became standard. The popularity of crew cab pickups caused the demand for standard cab pickups to dwindle and Toyota dropped the standard cab option starting in 2015.
Toyota was haunted again in 2016 by frame rust issues from a previous generation. The company again agreed to inspect, repair and replace rusted frames. This time the settlement was for trucks from 2005-2010.
Third Generation Toyota Tacoma
The third, and current generation of the Toyota Tacoma, made a huge splash when it hit the market in 2015. The truck had been completely restyled with a more aggressive design. The bigger grille and slim, projector headlights gave the truck a mean look. The drivetrain was totally revamped with a new 2.7-liter inline-four motor or an optional 3.5-liter V6. These could be paired with either a five or six-speed manual transmission, or a six-speed automatic. These new powertrains were more powerful and more fuel-efficient. However, towing capacity increased only slightly from 6,500 pounds to 6,800 pounds. Upgrades were also made to increase frame strength, reduce weight, improve suspension, and decrease cabin noise. The interior was redesigned to be more luxurious and aesthetically appealing.
TRD trim levels received multi-terrain select modes for rock, rock and dirt, mogul, loose rock, or mud and sand. TRD Pro trim levels also received a crawl control feature which is similar to cruise control for off-road use. The crawl control feature controls acceleration and braking at low speed which can be useful for allowing the driver to focus on steering while navigating difficult obstacles. Additionally, crawl control can help get a driver unstuck from deep mud or sand. Unlike normal four wheel drive systems, the crawl feature can send power to individual wheels, depending on where power is needed. This exacting control can allow a driver to get out of some situations where a tow truck would otherwise be necessary. The crawl control feature is also an optional feature available on regular TRD models.
Toyota Safety Sense™ became standard on all Tacomas starting in 2018. These features include lane departure alert, automatic high-beams, stability control, traction control, and Smart Stop Technology®. Many of these Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) features use hardware that is incorporated into the windshield, such as RADAR and LIDAR sensors. 2020 also brought about a minor facelift when a new grille was added. More notably, the stereo headunit received an upgrade and is now compatible with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa.