The Tacoma is set for a refresh, and it's clear why
2023 Toyota Tacoma SR5 Trail review with The Road Beat
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman
Toyota's Tacoma pickup is one of the best-selling vehicles in the United States, but after spending another week in one, I'm left scratching my head as to why. Full disclosure, Toyota has unveiled a completely refreshed Tacoma this past month, and after seeing the new model, it becomes quite clear just how in need this truck was of a redesign. However, to Toyota corporate, they didn't have to change a thing and it'll continue to sell. As one of the laziest carmakers in the world, it is at least reassuring that Toyota cares enough to put some effort in, even if there's so little present in this current truck.
Despite my negative feelings towards this small truck, there are a few things the Tacoma does well. For example, the interior exhibited no rattles, with the truck on the whole giving the impression of supreme solidity. Perhaps one of the main reasons why the Tacoma is so well-regarded and revered by consumers is the reputation it has established as one of the most dependable and reliable vehicles ever in the history of the automobile. If I had to cross the remote deserts of somewhere like Namibia (where the latest Mad Max was filmed), I would show no hesitation nor doubt that a Tacoma could make it with literally zero fuss. In other words, in a life or death situation, a Tacoma can be counted on.
Which brings me on to the other strength of a Tacoma: they're pretty capable off-road. Models like this Trail version, with aggressive tires, the TRD Off-Road, or the top-dog TRD Pro model, are all quite good when the pavement ends. They're not up to the levels of a Jeep Wrangler or Gladiator due to a lack of ground clearance and a 4-low with a less aggressive gear reduction, but they're pretty impressive on their own. Aftermarket modifications are abundant in choice and selection for Tacomas as well in case you want to go crazy and drain some money into one. Up in my hometown of the Northern California foothills, a place where the Rubicon Trail is just an hour away, I see a number of lifted and kitted Tacomas (and 4Runners, too) on a regular basis. And another big selling point is, when equipped right, like this Trail with its cool bronze wheels and tires, the TRD Pro grille, they look dang cool, and I think its the basic shape that plays a big hand in their desirability and as a truck to desire.
So it's dependable and capable, with lots of aftermarket aspirations and options, but this is where the buck stops. Underneath the looks and luster of its legend, it's just not a good vehicle in 2023. The interior is shamefully low-rent, with hard and cheap plastics everywhere (some with flimsy and sharp edges) in a cabin that appears to be from 2010 at first glance. I recently tested a Corolla Hybrid, and the overall quality of the interior is beyond that of this nearly twice as expensive Tacoma. It's not just the cloth seats, those are fine, but it's everything else that is so far behind the times. The center display is reminiscent of an on-sale Best Buy aftermarket unit. On the bright side, at least it doesn't rattle and has modern safety tech and Bluetooth integrated now.
The engine and transmission are woeful, being vastly underpowered and with a six-speed automatic transmission that shifts slow and rough. To put this into perspective, to maintain speed on the freeway up about just any hill, the Tacoma requires a big downshift into fourth gear, where it makes an awful and strained noise unbecoming of a modern V6 engine; Many four-cylinder units in other cars are smoother than this V6, a unit that has no place in any truck. To top things off, I averaged a dismal, outrageously terrible, 16.5 MPG during my week with the Tacoma. I'm sorry, but full size trucks with V8 engines get the same or even better. Shoot, even the Tundra with the base twin-turbo V6 got better mileage in the same driving conditions and routes.
On the road, the ride is rough at low speeds, bouncing around over rough pavement, and it's quite noisy from wind blasts. The steering has some feedback, but it does see-saw left and right as if you're controlling a boat, taking effort to keep straight at speed. Some might like the old-school driving behavior of the Tacoma, but if you want an experience that's true to form and a real off-road machine, why not commit fully to a Jeep Gladiator? It might have a lot of the similar detracting qualities, some even more-so, but it's a truck that doubles down on the off-road part. Gladiators also have a satisfyingly manual transfer case verse the electronic one found in Tacomas for that extra level of interaction.
If you want a compact pickup, something like the Honda Ridgeline or fantastic new GMC Canyon/Chevy Colorado would be smarter choices due to their impressive civility and performance. The interior and power of the Canyon/Colorado in particular blows the doors off the current Tacoma, and there's even an off-road-esque ZR2 with fancy Multimatic spool-valve dampers that are advanced beyond the Bilstein shocks and suspension that a TRD Pro comes on. The forthcoming Tacoma, especially in the silly-named Trail Hunter spec, does bring some modern suspension tech, but we will have to wait and see just how it performs. As for what is available right now today at your local dealer, a Tacoma is so far behind its competition as a new vehicle.
With advanced rivals and the replacement model inbound, I simply cannot recommend this truck to anyone based on its merits, or lack of. If you're shopping for a new truck, the Tacoma is one of the worst on paper and only offers plus points in the way of a strong build and classic looks. I guess the visuals and legend of the truck goes just that far enough, though, to warrant this as one of the best-selling new vehicles in the country. I feel like I'm insulting Tacoma buyers and drivers, and it's weird because I know Tacoma drivers who absolutely love their trucks - I just don't know why they do. Somewhere, underneath the surface, there are some intangibles that keep people going back to them. I for one am excited, genuinely, for the new Tacoma because of my belief that it will move the game on significantly and prove the Tacoma to be worthy of its stellar sales numbers. Whether it does so enough will left to be seen.
2023 Toyota Tacoma SR5 Trail review
As-tested price: $45,783
Pros: Dependable; Classic looks
Cons: Cheap interior; woeful powertrain