The 2021 Toyota Tacoma isn’t the best midsize truck on paper. In fact, it came in dead last when we compared four different midsize pickups a couple of years ago. Its interior is middling at best in both quality and size. You can’t haul or carry as much as most other midsizers. Optimistically speaking, ride and handling is merely average. Trick tech isn’t saving it, either. And yet, despite this litany of complaints, the Tacoma continues to demolish the entire midsize truck segment in sales.
Toyota’s long-running reputation of making trucks that last forever is surely contributing strongly to the Tacoma’s sales success. But also, take a look at this muscular little truck. From an entry-level SR5 to the TRD Pro, there’s no obvious miss in design and styling. Toyota nailed this truck’s look, and that automatically gives it a leg up on less attractive competitors. It has the go-anywhere demeanor that (if current design trends are any indication) is what truck buyers are looking for today. Add a couple different engine and transmission options — hurrah for the manual — to the fold, and you have a Tacoma for just about every midsize truck buyer one could dream up. See, now the Tacoma’s sales superiority is starting to make a bit more sense.
What’s new for 2021?
The tradition of adding a new special color every year for the TRD Pro continues with the addition of Lunar Rock (in top gallery) to the color palette. This replaces Army Green, but unlike previous you, this special color lives on as it's now available on some non-TRD Pro models.
There are also two new special edition versions for 2021. The first is the Trail Edition (above left), which is based on the SR5 trim and comes with extra equipment catering to folks who camp, fish and hike frequently. The second special edition is the Nightshade Edition (above right). This one is based on the more luxury-oriented Limited grade and adds fully blacked-out exterior trim and interior accoutrements.
What are the Tacoma interior and in-car technology like?
Midsize trucks are not known for being luxury cruisers, and the Tacoma, perhaps more than most in the segment, has a cabin that sticks to its functional, somewhat spartan roots.
While higher-trim Tacomas offer plenty of features, they’re packaged into an interior that leans hard into the truck's rugged, off-road focus. There are some soft-touch materials; everything is screwed together well and the power-adjustable driver seat corrects the awkwardly low driving position that still remains in Tacoma trims without it. Nevertheless, there’s no mistaking the back-to-basics feel. This is especially true when compared to its rivals from Ford, Jeep, and Chevrolet — though neither the Ranger nor Colorado could ever be described as premium either.
This is perhaps most noticeable when you look at the steering wheel, which boasts large buttons reminiscent of an off-brand video game controller. This theme extends to other interior switchgear, all of which looks and feels robust, but does not impress when it comes to material choices or design sophistication. It’s chunky, blocky and simple, perhaps exactly what truck buyers in this segment want.
The infotainment system is good enough, but doesn’t do much beyond provide the fundamentals. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay were much-needed additions that were added to the suite last year, and they dress up an otherwise drab — but functional — multimedia interface. Toyota’s graphics remain pretty tired, but the functionality beneath them is better than ever.
How big is the Tacoma?
The Tacoma follows the basic footprint of the midsize truck segment. Access Cab models are fitted with a 6-foot bed, but the Double Cabs can be paired to either a 5-footer or the 6-foot one that's known as the long bed. A pair of key rivals, the Ford Ranger SuperCrew and Jeep Gladiator, don't have a long-bed option. Both beds are just 41.5 inches wide at the wheel wells, so they won’t fit a 4’ x 6’ piece of plywood lying flat. The Tacoma's overall length is similar to that of its rivals.
Inside, you'll find unusually low-mounted seats. Specifically, the driver seat doesn't have standard height-adjustment and the resulting splayed legged seating position drew constant complaints during our midsize truck comparison. At least higher-trim models now get the "luxury" of a power-adjustable driver seat, but headroom and visibility in the short cab can still be an issue.
The Tacoma Access Cab model doesn't realistically offer enough space in the back seat for adults to travel in any semblance of comfort (and you really shouldn't put children back there, either). However, that's typical for the segment. The real point of comparison, then, is the Double Cab. Though it adds a whopping 8 inches of legroom compared to the Access Cab, it's considerably less spacious and comfortable back there than the Ranger, Gladiator, Colorado/Canyon twins and the Honda Ridgeline. If you're looking for the most family friendly midsize truck, this isn't it.
What are the Tacoma fuel economy, performance, towing and payload specs?
Toyota offers two engines in the Tacoma. The base engine is a 2.7-liter inline-four producing 159 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque. While torquey, it is outshined by GM’s 200-horsepower 2.5-liter unit – other competitors don't offer such a low-power base four-cylinder. Fuel economy is rated at 20 mpg city, 23 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined with rear-wheel drive (4x2) and 19/22/20 with four-wheel drive (4x4). A six-speed automatic is standard here.
The upgrade is a 3.5L V6 that makes a much healthier 278 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque. The six is also one of the weaker offerings in the segment, but not by much. Despite the wide gap in power, there’s not much difference in fuel economy between the upgrade V6 and base inline-four. When equipped with the standard six-speed automatic, the V6 returns 19/24/21 with 4x2 and 18/22/20 with 4x4. The TRD Off Road and TRD Pro can be equipped with an optional six-speed manual that returns 17/20/18.
In its most towing-friendly configuration (V6, 4x2, Towing Prep package), the Tacoma maxes out at 6,800 pounds of trailering. Its GM, Ford and Jeep competition typically offers around 7,500 pounds or more, but the Honda Ridgeline lags behind the Tacoma at 5,000 pounds. Nissan’s new 2022 Frontier is just barely outpaced by the Tacoma at 6,720 pounds.
Maximum payload capacity is achieved with the four-cylinder 4x2, which can haul 1,685 pounds, and with this, it compares more favorably to the segment. The popular configuration of Double Cab V6 4x4 with an automatic can haul 1,155 pounds with the regular bed. Going with the 4x2 adds a couple hundred pounds of capacity up to 1,285 pounds.
What’s the Tacoma like to drive?
The Tacoma is comfortable enough on the open road, and with the V6, has adequate acceleration for highway merges and passing. However, that engine is noisier and coarser than those of rival trucks and the six-speed automatic tends to hunt/find itself in the wrong gears (and has fewer gears from which to choose than rivals have). The manual six-speed gearbox available on V6 models is pleasant as truck transmissions go, but doesn’t do much to make the experience more engaging. Both the throttle and brake tuning is difficult to adapt to, as both become abnormally touchy after an initial deadzone making it difficult to drive the truck smoothly.
TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro models can be a bit bouncy and harsh on poor surfaces due to their beefed-up suspensions, but they’re tolerable on iffy roads for enthusiasts who want the extra go-anywhere capability. And go anywhere they most certainly can. Both come with terrain-specific drive modes, an electronic locking rear differential, and heavy-duty drivetrain cooling. Automatic models even get an auxiliary transmission cooler. All 4x4 models get a two-speed transfer case, TRD or otherwise. Toyota released a TRD Lift Kit for V6 4x4 models this year, too, in case you wanted to take your non-TRD Pro even further off-road.
In general, the Tacoma is just more rugged and truck-like than its competitors. Off-road, that's a good thing, and many are bound to find this ruggedness adds character. However, from its ride quality and handling precision, to its interior space and comfort, the Tacoma just isn't as livable or pleasant to drive as a Ford Ranger, Chevrolet Colorado or Jeep Gladiator. That's a key reason it came in last in our midsize truck comparison (see below).
What other Toyota Tacoma reviews can I read?
We test the Tacoma against the midsize pickup segment newcomers.
More information about the changes made for 2020 plus our off-road driving impressions
Our review of the Tacoma with its newly-available TRD Lift Kit fitted.
Toyota offers the Tacoma in increasingly rugged off-road variants. What are they like to live with?
How much is the 2021 Toyota Tacoma price and what features are available?
Speccing out a pickup truck can be tricky, to say the least. Even the Tacoma, which is available in relatively few configurations compared to some full-size offerings, comes in over 30 different variants before you even start adding options.
There are simply too many permutations to list them all here, but suffice it to say that with the exception of the TRD Pro and Limited models, you can build your Tacoma pretty much the way you want. The shorter Access Cab is available only with the long bed; Double Cabs can be optioned with either. The Limited and TRD Pro are available only in Double Cab configurations, and the TRD Pro can only be had with four-wheel drive. TRD Sport and TRD Off Road models are available in 4x2 “Prerunner” style if that’s to your liking.
Here's the basic model lineup and pricing for the 2021 Tacoma, but you can find a full breakdown of these trim levels' features, specs and local pricing here on Autoblog.
TRD Sport: $34,255
TRD Off-Road: $35,510
TRD Pro: $45,270
What are the Tacoma safety ratings and driver assistance features?
The Tacoma offers plenty of standard active and passive systems, especially for a midsize truck. Toyota’s “Safety Sense P” system includes pre-collision braking with pedestrian detection, lane departure warning, automatic high beams, and radar-assisted cruise control. The adaptive cruise system can easily be toggled off for those who prefer the old-fashioned variety.
Rear cross-traffic alert, blind spot monitoring, and parking sensors can all be added with packages available on the SR5, TRD Sport and TRD Off-Road models. Higher trims get them bundled in.
Models that have been crash tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received a four-star overall rating with a four-star frontal rating and five-star side rating. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave a Top Safety Pick nod to the 2020 Double Cab model, but it’s been taken away for 2021 due to standard headlights that only received a “Marginal” rating — it would require an “Acceptable” or better to earn the TSP award back. In this case, Toyota didn’t fit worse headlights for 2021; the IIHS simply changed its standards.
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