Toyota Tacoma – The History of America’s Favorite Mid-Sized Pickup Truck
Toyota Tacoma sales continue to grow year after year. Why not? They are one of the best mid-sized trucks on the market. They come from a reliable and well-trusted company, and the trucks can do everything from daily commuting, casual off-roading, aggressive overlanding, towing, and just about whatever else you can throw at it.
Where did the Tacoma start, how did it change, and how did it grow? Let’s find out with a bit of history on the trucks we’ve come to know and love.
First Generation Tacoma (1995 – 2004)
The Tacoma first came to the US market in February of 1995. The Tacoma was replacing the Toyota Hilux which was a pickup that ran in the US for decades. Japan realized that Americans and Canadians used trucks differently compared to the rest of the world. While just about every other country used trucks for utilitarian purposes, North America used them for work and pleasure. The first generation Tacoma was designed with that in mind. It was going to be focused on handling, driving comfort, and safety over utilitarian nature.
What does Tacoma mean? It’s from the Salish Indian word for the mountain that provided water to their tribe (later changed to Mount Rainier). The name suggests images of strength and power. More information on Toyota’s names can be found here.
Design work started in 1990 at Calty Design Research in California. When released, there were three engine options: a 2.4L and 2.7L four-cylinder, and a 3.4L V6. They got 26, 20, and 21 MPG respectively, and 142, 150, and 190 horsepower respectively. Four-speed automatics and five-speed manuals were available, depending on the model, two or four-wheel drive, and cab size. Extended cab models featured a 6-foot bed while crew cab models received a 5 foot 5-inch long bed.
In 1998, Toyota offered the TRD Off-Road package on select models. It included a locking differential, and there was also was an aftermarket TRD supercharger that could be added to the 3.4L V6 bringing up the horsepower to 254. The PreRunner model was also released that year.
The first generation lasted a good nine years from 1995 to 2004. During that time, there were two facelifts (1997 and 2000). The biggest mechanical changes over the years were in 1996 where the spark system changed to coil-on-plug design, and in 1997 when longer rear leaf springs were added. In 2000, the S-Runner trim package was released which included different shocks, bigger wheels, and a manual transmission.
Sales were very good for the first generation, mainly with young buyers. At the end of the generation run, sales surpassed the Nissan Frontier and Dodge Dakota, but the Ford Ranger was still ahead in the compact truck class.
One major downside to this generation (1995 to 2000) was poor rustproofing. This led to a recall of about 800,000 trucks in 2008. Some frames were so bad that they had to be replaced. Later, about 150,000 models from 2001 to 2004 were recalled due to spare tires detaching from the vehicle.
Second Generation Tacoma (2005 – 2015)
Toyota started working on the second generation Tacoma in 2000, which was launched on October 18, 2004. It was larger, approaching the mid-sized market. The engine options went down to two (2.7L four-cylinder and 4.0L V6), but transmission options went up to four! The transmissions were both four and five-speed automatics and manuals. Power went up to 159 and 236 horsepower respectively.
With that, three different cab sizes, and two different bed lengths, there were 18 different configurations that a person could order a Tacoma in. This really opened up the market to have a truck for almost any buyer.
The S-Runner was released to replace the poorly selling X-Runner. It offered even bigger (18 inch) wheels, was lowered, and had a beefier street suspension. It was not for the dirt at all, but Toyota upped its TRD Off-Road package, even more, to make up for it which included hill assist, and locking/limited-slip differentials. The beds of all the trucks were upgraded to allow more versatile use of them.
Through the second generation, there were a number of changes. 2006 made a lot of the optional 2005 features standard. 2007 and 2008 were the same as 2006 aside from some color options. 2009 offered a number of changes from added safety features, to the replacement of the mechanical differential to a new “Auto Limited Slip Differential.”
Production location had a major change in 2010. After the economic crisis in the US and GM declared bankruptcy, all joint ventures between GM and Toyota ceased. One of the changes Toyota decided to make was moving all of the Tacoma production to one location in San Antonio, Texas where they would be built next to their bigger brothers: Tundra.
More creature comforts were added in 2009 and 2010 including speakers, satellite radio, and more. Major cosmetic changes including the front bumper, headlights, grille, and hood came about in 2012 really updating the look of the truck. 2013 took the entertainment a step further with a touch screen but took certain features away such as the satellite radio unless you got a certain optional package. In 2014, the new SR trim came about.
Third Generation Tacoma (2016 – Present)
Towards the end of 2015, Toyota rolled out its generation of Tacoma that we know and love today. While much of the styling concept carried over from 2014, there were many changes that gave the current generation a far more aggressive look such as the larger grille and chiseled body lines. Gone are the days of compact trucks. The market seems to demand “bigger and better,” so the Tacoma is now officially considered a mid-sized truck.
The 2.7L carried over with the same 159 horsepower, but the V6 was changed to the 3.5L which made 278 horsepower. The five-speed manual carried over until 2017 but then was replaced with a six-speed manual. Of course, a six-speed automatic was available.
Toyota really focused on the off-road and utilitarian use of the truck this time around but didn’t detract from the luxury amenities. Better steel and more of it was used, but improved technologies lightened the overall frame weight while increasing durability. The suspension and rear differentials were changed to be the best of both worlds on-road and off.
In addition to the exterior, Toyota changed the interior dramatically with more creature comforts including a bigger touch screen, soft-touch material (replacing hard plastics), and leather options. There have also been substantial efforts to reduce cabin noise with an acoustic windshield, better-insulated doors, and more weather stripping.
Six trim levels are now available with the third generation: SR, SR5, TRD Sport, TRD Off-Road, Limited, and TRD Pro.
The TRD trims offer some really impressive features this time around. The Sport effectively replaces the S-Runner as the best model to have for on-road performance, while the TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro really crush all off-roading needs. I cover all of the models in high detail in my post about the different TRD models.
The 2020 model received a bit of a facelift and offers more entertainment features and a much desired multi-way adjustable seat. The Ford Ranger came out with very impressive features and performance numbers, so we can expect even better things from Toyota to compete.
These trucks are reliable. Mike Neal from North Carolina has a 2008 Tacoma with over 1.2 million miles on it. There is a first-generation (1997) that has 533,973 miles on it. It was recently listed for sale for $1,500. It is very beaten up, but still going strong!
A 2010 Tacoma named Polar holds two current world records for the fastest run to the South Pole. The truck was far beyond stock with a near $400,000 of aftermarket modifications. It was a great platform to start with!
Polar – Courtesy of New Altas
First Generation – Courtesy of Consumer Guide Automotive
Second Generation – Courtesy of IIHS
Third Generation – Courtesy of Autoblog
Third Generation 2020 – Courtesy of Autoblog
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