Christian Wardlaw | April 22, 2020
When Toyota last redesigned the Tacoma for the 2016 model year, it faced few competitors. Credible alternatives included the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, while the decade-old Nissan Frontier was a favorite of budget buyers.
Today, the 2020 Toyota Tacoma faces off against those trucks, plus the Ford Ranger, Honda Ridgeline, and Jeep Gladiator. In spite of this added competition, last year Toyota sold twice as many Tacomas as Chevrolet did Colorados, which was the second-place finisher in the midsize pickup truck sales war.
For 2020, Toyota makes a few changes to help keep the Tacoma fresh. Highlights include new grille and wheel designs, new infotainment systems, and after years of waiting for one, a power adjustable driver’s seat. These changes could help lift the truck’s ranking in the next J.D. Power Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study.
For this review, J.D. Power evaluated a Tacoma TRD Off-Road Double Cab equipped with a standard bed, four-wheel drive, an automatic transmission, the TRD Premium Off-Road Package, carpeted floor mats, bed cleats, a bed mat, a bed step, and bed D-rings. The price came to $44,274, including the $1,095 destination charge.
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2020 Tacoma, it is helpful to understand who buys this midsize pickup, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.
When compared to all midsize pickup truck owners, Toyota Tacoma owners aren’t dramatically different in terms of demographics and psychographics.
According to J.D. Power data, slightly more women report owning a Tacoma (16% vs. 15%). And while their median age isn’t much lower (54 years for the Tacoma vs. 57 years for the segment), half of Tacoma owners identify as members of Generation X or Y (vs. 42% for the segment). Tacoma owners also earn less money, with a median annual household income of $93,696 (vs. $95,548).
Tacoma owners are less likely to agree that they prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company (41% vs. 55%), and both quality and reliability are more important to people who pick the Toyota. J.D. Power data shows that 64% of Tacoma owners strongly agree that quality of workmanship is a first consideration when choosing a vehicle (vs. 59%), and 75% of Tacoma owners strongly agree that reliability is a first consideration (vs. 69%). Otherwise, Toyota Tacoma owners express similar sentiments about vehicle ownership to those of all midsize pickup truck owners.
People who own a Tacoma say their favorite things about the truck are (in descending order) the exterior styling, interior design, driving dynamics, visibility and safety, and climate control system. Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Tacoma are (in descending order) the storage and space and the infotainment system (in a tie), seats, engine/transmission, and fuel economy.
In the 2019 APEAL Study, the Tacoma ranked fifth out of six midsize trucks.
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2020 Toyota Tacoma measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the APEAL Study.
Tacoma owners like the way this truck looks, so Toyota leaves well enough alone for 2020. New grille, headlight, and wheel designs are the only changes – and they aren’t applied universally to every version of the truck.
The TRD Off-Road test vehicle had all three, the handsome chain-link grille, machined-face wheels, and LED running lights giving the already rugged pickup a more industrial and technical appearance. Naturally, the Cement gray test model looked even better with mud splashed on its lower extremities.
After exterior styling, interior design is a favorite with Tacoma owners. Anchored by four round air vents, and with the exception of the new 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system, the dashboard is old-school, containing lots of evenly-spaced knobs, buttons, and switches. Frivolity is absent. Sensibility rules.
Because the Tacoma sits high off of the ground, entry and exit are easier if you’re taller. My better half had trouble getting in and out, though my youngest child didn’t complain at all. She is the most limber member of the family, though.
In the past, one of my main complaints about the Tacoma was with its low driving position. That’s solved for 2020 thanks to a 10-way power adjustable driver’s seat that is standard with SR5 trim and higher. However, now I find myself ducking my head more when entering and exiting the cab.
My kids liked riding in the Tacoma because the rear seat cushion sits up high providing a clear view out. Taller adults, however, will be unhappy with the amount of room for heads and legs. The power sliding rear window was a hit with the kids, too, though brilliant spring sunshine made the lack of rear air conditioning vents all the more noticeable.
Like everything else in the Tacoma’s interior, the climate controls are easy to find, understand, and use. And, aside from gripes coming from the back seat (“I’m too hot”), the Tacoma’s air conditioning system effectively cooled the truck on our region’s first 85-degree day of 2020. Opening all of the windows, including the power sliding back glass and sunroof, also worked to quickly dispense the heat.
Perhaps the most significant change to the 2020 Tacoma is the new infotainment system. Standard across the board, with a 7-inch screen in the base SR trim and an 8-inch screen in all others, this setup includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa, and SiriusXM satellite radio with a free 3-month trial. Toyota also tosses in a year of free Safety Connect service, and a 3-month/2GB data trial of Wi-Fi service.
Upgrades, depending on trim and package, include HD Radio, navigation, improved voice recognition, a JBL premium sound system, and enhanced connected services with variable free trial periods.
Sourced from the Toyota parts bin, the infotainment system’s comparatively dainty knobs and main menu buttons look a bit out of place inside the Tacoma. But the system itself represents a big upgrade. Screen glare can be a problem, and the truck’s bouncy and busy ride quality means that a steadied hand is most effective when using the touchscreen. Fortunately, the dynamic voice recognition system is mostly excellent, failing just one of my numerous standard voice-prompt tests.
In spite of its traditional rather than electronic transmission shifter and a console-mounted parking-brake lever, the Tacoma offers good storage solutions for the driver and front passenger.
The glove compartment is huge, three cup holders are ready to accept beverages, a square receptacle easily holds a smartphone stored upright, and the test truck includes a Qi wireless charging pad. Bins in the lower door panels accept a range of items, too. However, the storage bin under the center armrest is merely adequate in size.
Among competitors, the Tacoma’s bed size is average. Though it appears to be shallow, it ranks mid-pack among midsize trucks. A sheet molded composite lining is standard, while tie-down cleats and hooks cost extra. The test truck also had a 120-volt/400-watt AC power outlet and a new-for-2020 LED bed light.
In addition to a higher driving position, should you want the added visibility it provides, the 2020 Tacoma offers new camera-based visibility enhancements.
Available from TRD Sport trim up, a new surround-view camera system helps the driver to see around the truck. Called a Panoramic View Monitor, the camera feed shows what’s to the front, side, and rear of the Tacoma on the infotainment display screen.
Optional for the TRD Off-Road and standard with the TRD Pro, a new Multi-Terrain Monitor camera debuts for 2020. Useful during off-roading, it shows the driver what’s happening at the surface and supplies a “projected path” video clip to help navigate difficult terrain.
All 2020 Tacoma models have a standard Toyota Safety Sense collection of advanced driving assistance systems. They include adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, and automatic high-beam headlights. In addition to these features, the test truck included a blind spot warning system with rear cross-traffic warning.
During testing, those elements of the ADAS that I experienced suggested they would be effective driving aids. Should a collision occur anyway, testing performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) indicates the Tacoma is a safe truck. The front passenger protection rating in a small overlap frontal-impact collision is rated Acceptable instead of Good, but otherwise the Tacoma earns high marks.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the Tacoma an overall rating of 4 stars rather than 5 stars. This is due to several 4-star crash-test results in both frontal- and side-impact assessments.
Another noteworthy Tacoma safety feature is Safety Connect service. Free for the first year of ownership, Safety Connect includes automatic collision notification, an emergency call button, and quick access to roadside assistance when you need it.
Compared to other aspects of the truck, Tacoma owners are dissatisfied with the engine and transmission. That could be due to the standard 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine that comes in the SR and SR5 trim levels.
Making just 159 horsepower and 180 lb.-ft. of torque, the 4-cylinder engine could struggle to motivate a vehicle weighing a minimum of 3,915 pounds. Plus, it comes only with a 6-speed automatic transmission.
A more rewarding 3.5-liter V-6 engine is optional for those trim levels, and standard starting with TRD Sport trim. It generates 278 hp and 265 lb.-ft. of torque, and depending on trim level, offers a choice between a 6-speed manual gearbox and a 6-speed automatic transmission. You’ll want this engine to take advantage of the 6,800-lb. maximum towing capacity or the 1,400-lb. maximum payload rating.
The TRD Off-Road test truck had the V-6, the automatic transmission, 4-wheel drive, and a locking rear differential. It proved strong and torquey, if somewhat loud under acceleration. This isn’t a fast truck, though, and it certainly is a thirsty one in spite of its direct fuel injection and Atkinson-cycle engine technology.
How thirsty is a Tacoma TRD Off-Road with 4WD? I averaged no better than 17 mpg, unloaded, and without any passengers. That’s a far cry from the EPA’s estimate of 20 mpg in combined driving.
If Tacoma owners aren’t happy with the powertrain or fuel economy, they certainly like the way this truck drives. Which is like a truck.
On pavement, the ride is busy and often jittery. Steering input is more a suggestion than a command. The TRD Off-Road’s P265/70R16 tires fold over and howl if you take a corner too fast. And thanks to the Tacoma’s yester-tech rear drum brakes, the brake pedal is touchy and difficult to modulate for smooth, consistent stops.
And yet, this is all a part of the Tacoma’s charm. It doesn’t drive like a car, an SUV, or even many other trucks. Instead, it’s a throwback to the days when pickups were simple and designed for hard work and harder play instead of commuting and weekend do-it-yourself projects.
In the dirt, the Tacoma TRD Off-Road is an especially good time, though in spite of its TRD-tuned Bilstein shocks I thought the suspension tuning was on the soft side. That prevents taking rougher stuff with any amount of speed, and even over pavement dips this version of the Tacoma can feel like it’s bottoming out if you’re going too fast.
Still, aside from the brakes, all of the Tacoma’s true truck traits serve to endear this machine to its owner. It definitely has a distinct driving personality, and if you want a genuine truck, such rough-and-tumble traits are a part of what you seek.
Refinement is not the name of the Toyota Tacoma’s game. Built to withstand years, or even decades, of abuse, the 2020 Tacoma is what trucks were like before consumers started using them as daily drivers. If you want to be happy with your midsize pickup truck purchase, it is important to understand this and set your expectations accordingly.
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