All the truck anyone needs
THE GOOD
  • Baked-in capability
  • Easy to drive
  • Easy to drive
THE BAD
  • Cramped back seats
  • Cheap interior plastics
  • Expensive

In the land of midsize trucks, the Toyota Tacoma is a name that’s revered for its competent capability and rock-solid reliability.

For decades it has defined the segment, and it doesn’t seem to matter that the Tacoma has gone mostly unchanged for the better part of them. Sure, it’s now in its third generation; and, of course, there was the unceremoniously named Toyota Pickup that came before it. But the automaker’s evolutionary approach to this truck means all the important stuff has stayed the same over the years. For better or worse, there’s not much to this machine, and that goes doubly for the 2021 Toyota Tacoma Trail – a basic trim that skips most of the frills but keeps all the functionality this truck is famous for.

Practicality: 9/10

New for 2021, this Trail trim is certainly no TRD Pro – not even close. It isn’t the penultimate TRD Off-Road either, so it goes without stuff like a locking rear differential, upgraded suspension goodies, or even the fancy terrain modes that come with both of those versions of the Tacoma. And yet no truck this side of the Wrangler-based Jeep Gladiator has the inherent capabilities of this Toyota baked right in regardless of trim.

It’s all pretty basic here, with 239 mm (9.4 in) of ground clearance and a selectable four-wheel drive system with high- and low-range gearing; and yet it works well enough when adventure calls. Taking the Tacoma Trail to the same off-road area the Ford Ranger Tremor was tested on, it was only the truck’s tires – winters, in the case of this tester – that led to a few anxiety-inducing moments as they searched for non-existent traction in heavy mud. Swap that rubber for meaty all-terrains like the ones the Tremor trim rides on and there’s nowhere the Ranger can go that this Tacoma can’t follow.

That’s high praise for what’s a fairly simple truck overall. This particular trim is exclusively available in a crew cab short bed configuration that’s about as straightforward as it is popular. Payload stands at 524 kg (1,155 lb), while towing capacity is capped at 2,903 kg (6,400 lb). Both figures are more than enough for a midsize truck – any more, and it’s worth considering a larger half-ton anyway.

Comfort: 7/10

The same is true of the interior, which isn’t exactly generously sized for those considering the Tacoma for family duty or shuttling a crew to the jobsite. While cabin width is superior to anything else in the segment, it’s the rear seats that suffer most, giving up 49 mm (1.9 in) of legroom to the Ranger, not to mention a larger truck like the Toyota Tundra. The doors are large and open wide, which is handy when helping youngsters into car seats or loading the back with groceries, but growing children – not to mention adult occupants – might take issue with the amount of space available, especially during longer trips.

It’s far more satisfying sitting up front, and the chairs themselves are somewhat surprisingly supportive. The cloth upholstery they’re covered in is durable and breathable (though not quite as easy to clean as leather if, say, splattered with a little mud out on the trail; don’t ask how that lesson was learned), while they also feature three-stage heat. Augmenting those elements is a fantastic dual-zone automatic climate control system that’s quick to heat (or cool) the cabin without the fan working too hard to do so.

Styling: 8/10

Describing the interior as anything more than OK wouldn’t be fair. The space is neither attractive nor unappealing – it simply just is. Silver plastic extends across the dash, breaking up the monotony in the process, while the seats feature contrast stitching and chain-like texturing on the centre inserts.

Outside – well, it looks like a Tacoma. This is evolutionary design at its finest, and the resemblance between this latest version and the generations that came before it is obvious. In fact, a facelift introduced all the way back in 2001 set the tone for this truck and it hasn’t strayed far since. The Trail trim, meanwhile, makes the most of the simplistic styling through one of its two available colours (Cement or the Army Green of this tester) and contrast accents including black wheel-arch mouldings, dark grey wheels, and rugged-looking side steps.

Driving Feel: 7/10

Ride quality isn’t quite as smooth as the Ranger’s, with far more longitudinal stiffness to contend with out on the open road. It’s not an uncomfortable truck, though; just a traditional one. It bucks back and forth over uneven surfaces, but the drive experience is easily managed thanks to the Tacoma’s decent suspension damping and fantastic steering setup. A classic hydraulic system, it offers decent feel around town – though there is an awkward dead spot on-centre that shows up at highway speeds. Brake performance is superb, meanwhile, with a progressive pedal that offers outstanding feel as the truck comes to a halt.

Its old-school nature means the Tacoma drives a little bigger than even some modern half-tons, and it isn’t especially agile when cornering. While easily controlled and plenty responsive, it simply doesn’t slink its way around a winding road without the need to get on those brakes first. It’s not unnerving or difficult to drive – it simply still feels, um, deeply rooted in its heritage.

Power: 8/10

While a four-cylinder Tacoma can still be had south of the border, the Canadian market version is exclusively powered by a 3.5L V6. It’s a naturally aspirated unit, so there are no superchargers or turbochargers bolted to it; instead, it makes 278 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque all on its own. Those numbers don’t exactly leap off the page, but they’re more than enough in an application like this.

The engine can feel a little lethargic down low, requiring a heavy foot to get it into the meaty part of the powerband. It really comes alive around 4,000 rpm, with the kind of combustible force that feels more than adequate – and sounds like it, too.

Getting the torque to the wheels in this Trail trim is a six-speed automatic transmission, though the Tacoma can still be bought with a six-speed manual. And in fairness to the auto ’box, it’s good enough at its job, never hunting for a gear when passing or merging or getting caught flat-footed at inopportune times on the trail. There’s also a sport mode that adjusts throttle mapping to a more eager tune, plus opening up the ability to manipulate gears manually – handy off-road or when hauling.

Fuel Economy: 9/10

No midsize truck is especially miserly, so don’t expect single-digit fuel consumption here. (The diesel-powered Gladiator‘s official ratings register at a shade less than 10.0 L/100 km, for anyone interested.) According to Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), an automatic-equipped Tacoma like this one should burn 13.0 L/100 km in the city, 10.5 on the highway, and 11.8 combined. That’s slightly better than the gas-powered Gladiator, as well as the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon twins under V6 power, and a little worse than non-Tremor versions of the Ranger.

A week-long evaluation that covered 550 km of mostly highway driving with some city – and, yes, even some trail time – mixed in saw the final tally settle at 11.3 L/100 km. That’s precisely what the Ranger Tremor and its meatier tires managed on a nearly identical regimen.

User Friendliness: 9/10

One of the Tacoma’s defining traits is the simplicity with which it operates. The ultimate get-in-and-go truck, it will feel comfortable and familiar to anyone who climbs inside – even first-timers. That’s because it’s laid out in a way that limits learning curves and is about as approachable as they come.

There’s no push-button start in this trim; a key slots into the ignition the old-fashioned way. The switchgear for climate and utility features are like toddler toys, with big buttons and knobs that are clearly labelled and well within reach of either front seat. Even the controls on the steering wheel look like they’d be right at home on some primitive piece of electronics.

The head unit doesn’t fare quite as well, with tiny buttons and scroll wheels surrounding an eight-inch display; and the interface itself is about as basic as possible. But both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connections come fitted as standard, providing far friendlier ways to interact with the touchscreen while providing access to maps, music, messaging, and phone calls.

The accessory running boards fitted to the Tacoma Trail proved cumbersome during testing, their low-hanging steps serving as sadistic shin punishment for this 6-foot-3 author, but the large door openings make climbing aboard a breeze. That they’re finished with equally big windows means outward visibility is outstanding, while the height-adjustable driver’s seat levels the playing field for users of varying height.

Features: 7/10

The Tacoma Trail isn’t exactly rich with content, but it has the basics covered. There’s an eight-way power-adjustable driver’s seat to go with a four-way manual passenger chair, but both feature three-stage heat and are wrapped in that decent cloth upholstery. There’s also Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connections, and even satellite radio – a feature not often found at the bottom of the lineup like this.

Toyota’s also taken to tossing some accessories at this trim like those side steps and some movable tie-down cleats along the bedsides, though both can be added to any Tacoma model. There’s also a 120-volt household outlet in the bed – handy for at the jobsite or the campsite – and a small enclosed storage compartment next to it, though it doesn’t lock.

Safety: 7/10

The Tacoma’s safety equipment is another sign of its age, with standard and available items that aren’t exactly cutting edge. Of course, the basics are covered, with airbags and a back-up camera that’s mandated in modern vehicles by the federal government, as well as traction and stability control. But advanced equipment is limited to forward collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, auto high-beam headlights, adaptive cruise control, and lane-departure warning. That means no lane-keep assist or blind-spot monitoring, though the latter is available on pricier trims.

In fairness to the Tacoma, competitors like the Canyon and Colorado twins offer even less advanced safety stuff, while the Gladiator’s list is all options-based and lane-keeping isn’t offered. More glaringly, though, all of that good stuff is standard in a similar Ranger, including lane-keep assist, with only adaptive cruise coming by way of options – and all of it can be had for less money.

Value: 7/10

The Trail trim is the cheapest way to get the Tacoma with a crew cab and a short bed bolted to the back – a popular configuration for a truck like this – and carries an asking price of $45,950 including an $1,840 freight charge. That’s more than a similarly equipped Ranger, which starts at a shade more than $40,000 before tax, as well as a Chevrolet Colorado Z71 ($42,998), or even the GMC Canyon AT4 that’s slightly more adventure-prepped right out of the box ($44,198).

The Verdict

Of course, none of those rivals has the trio of intangibles that truly set the Tacoma apart. This is a truck that’s renowned for its capability, reliability, and overall sensibility – key traits that, much like this midsize pickup itself, have stood the test of time and then some.

The 2021 Toyota Tacoma Trail is a fairly stripped-down take on this best-seller, and yet it feels like all the truck anyone could need. There’s surely some sticker shock that comes with a fairly basic midsize pickup ringing in at more than $50,000 with tax, but what it lacks in elegance it makes up for with all kinds of confidence at work or play.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 3.5L   Model Tested 2021 Toyota Tacoma Trail
Engine Cylinders V6   Base Price $44,110
Peak Horsepower 278 hp @ 6,000 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 265 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm   Destination Fee $1,840
Fuel Economy 13.0 / 10.5 / 11.8 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $46,050
Cargo Space N/A  
Optional Equipment
None