2021 Toyota Tacoma Review: Unrepentantly Raw, Rugged, and Unrefined
Old-school engineering principles meet new-school technology in the '21 Tacoma.
Originally published on July 21, 2021
As America's appetite for bigger and more extravagant trucks continues to grow, the 2021 Toyota Tacoma remains rooted in its core quality: reliability. A Tacoma promises to serve as a dependable pickup truck, and it broadcasts that objective from the moment you lay eyes on it.
You can buy a 2021 Tacoma in Access Cab (extended cab) or Double Cab (crew cab) styles with a short (5-foot) or standard (6-foot) cargo bed. A four-cylinder or a V6 engine is available, along with a manual or automatic transmission. Tacomas are rear-wheel drive unless you specify the optional four-wheel drive system, and depending on the configuration, the truck offers numerous off-roading technologies.
Trim levels include SR, SR5, Limited, TRD Sport, TRD Off-Road, and TRD Pro, and base prices range from about $27,000 to about $45,000, including destination charges. For 2021, new SR5 Trail Edition and Limited Nightshade Edition versions debut, Toyota Safety Sense is standard equipment, and a new TRD Lift Kit is available. Lunar Rock is an exclusive new paint color for the TRD Pro.
The Tacoma’s rugged style, legendary reliability, and practical nature help ensure segment dominance in sales and popularity. Still, this same focused scope of purpose could lead to owner disenchantment. Areas of improvement include less than efficient operation, seats that are focused on utility over comfort, and on-pavement driving dynamics that are most rewarding off road. Furthermore, Tacoma's towing and payload ratings fall short of best in class.
For this review, Toyota lent us a TRD Pro in that new paint color. With options, the test truck’s price rose to nearly $50,000.
COMFORT PROVES ELUSIVE
Toyota differentiates Tacoma trim levels by using different grille patterns, unique wheel designs, chrome or body-color exterior trim, hood scoops, skid plates, overfender protection, and more to distinguish them. Each version of the truck has its own bold look, and they all convey strength.
Plastic is the dominant interior surface, which helps protect against damage and facilitates easy clean-up. Buttons and knobs are the rule rather than the exception, and round air vents provide a bit of style and continuity to the dashboard. Logic governs control placement and operation, resulting in a refreshing simplicity to the cabin.
Drivers face an oversized steering wheel that requires plenty of muscle to turn at low speeds. The Tacoma TRD Pro test truck had a ten-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, but finding a seating position that offered long term comfort proved challenging.
Rear passengers will find a taller seating position, but this also means headroom isn’t as generous. That may not be an issue, though, because there isn’t much legroom to accommodate taller riders. Rear air conditioning vents are also missing.
Toyota provides good in-cab storage space, and the scratch- and dent-resistant sheet molded composite cargo bed supplies an adjustable deck-rail tie-down system. Some models include a 120-volt power outlet in the cargo bed. The test truck had optional tie-down rings and a deployable step to make it easier to step up onto the tailgate and into the bed.
TACOMA OFFERS THE TECH YOU WANT, WITHOUT UNNECESSARY EXTRAS
Though it looks and feels like a back-to-basics truck, the 2021 Tacoma features many of the modern technologies people seek.
Every version of the Tacoma has either a 7-inch or an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system with hands-free calling and music streaming, smartphone mirroring, home digital assistant integration, satellite radio, and two connected service packages. Safety Connect is free for one year and equips the Tacoma with automatic collision notification, among other features. Wi-Fi Connect provides a Wi-Fi hotspot and includes a free three-month trial and 2GB of data.
From there, depending on equipment, the Tacoma offers a premium sound system, wireless smartphone charging, navigation, a voice recognition system, and expanded connected services, including remote engine starting, service reminders, a concierge service, and more.
Toyota equips the infotainment system with physical knobs for volume and tuning, and buttons to access main system menus. Versions with navigation have excellent natural voice recognition technology.
Standard safety equipment includes Toyota Safety Sense-P (TSS-P). This package equips the truck with forward-collision warning, pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, and automatic high-beam headlights. Blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic warning, and parking sensors are available on many trim levels.
In use, TSS-P proves smooth and accurate, but the lane departure warning system’s persistent, aggressive beeping gets old fast.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the Tacoma an overall rating of four stars out of five. The Tacoma is ineligible for a “Top Safety Pick” rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) due to its marginal rating on headlights. It gets an “Acceptable” rating for the front-seat passenger in the small-overlap, frontal-impact collision test, and a “Marginal” rating for its standard halogen headlights on lower trim levels.
Additional technology includes the camera-based Panoramic View Monitor and Multi-Terrain Monitor systems. The Panoramic View Monitor provides a top-down panoramic view of the Tacoma and its surroundings, depicted on the infotainment screen. It also shows what’s directly on either side of the truck. The Multi-Terrain Monitor adds a ground-level view of what’s directly in front of the truck.
TACOMA SHINES WHERE THE PAVEMENT ENDS AND ADVENTURE BEGINS
Although Toyota offers a 159 hp, 2.7L four-cylinder engine in the most affordable versions of the Tacoma, most of them have a 3.5L V6. This engine generates 278 hp at 6,000 rpm and 265 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,600 rpm.
Similarly, while a 6-speed manual transmission is available in a few versions of the truck, most Tacomas use a six-speed automatic transmission to drive the rear or all four wheels. An automatic limited-slip rear differential is standard, and an electronic locking rear differential is available with the Tacoma TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro.
Depending on the configuration, and based on Toyota’s claims, a 2021 Tacoma will tow up to 6,800 lbs and haul as much as 1,440 lbs of payload.
In addition to the available part-time 4WD system, the Tacoma’s maximum ground clearance measures a generous 9.4 inches. With the manual transmission, the TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro have a clutch-start cancel switch that allows the driver to launch the truck on a hill without using the clutch pedal. With the automatic transmission, Hill Start Assist Control is standard.
Choosing the automatic also makes these versions of the Tacoma eligible for Multi-Terrain Select and Crawl Control. Crawl Control is a low-speed cruise control that maintains a selected single-digit speed while the driver focuses on steering the truck over challenging terrain like mountains. Multi-Terrain Select is a traction system that adjusts power delivery depending on the chosen driving mode. With the manual transmission, the Tacoma supplies Toyota’s braking-based Active Traction Control (A-Trac).
Choose the TRD Pro, and the Tacoma includes all of this equipment plus an off-road suspension with special shocks for high-speed performance in the dirt, lightweight TRD 16-inch alloy wheels painted black, Kevlar-reinforced all-terrain tires, a front skid plate, and a sport exhaust system.
In the dirt, the Tacoma TRD Pro seems unstoppable. Every vehicle has its limits, of course, and they are high for this version of the truck. Our greatest challenge during testing was getting the lengthy Tacoma turned around when necessary. Otherwise, whether taking well-worn trails at higher speeds, climbing rutted hillsides, churning through mud, or picking a path up a rock-strewn mountain, the Tacoma delivered impressive capability.
This type of driving, however, comprised a small portion of our travels during the week-long test. On pavement, piloting the Tacoma TRD Pro is less of an adventure. Tire noise is high while fuel economy is not with an observed 16.5 mpg of gas mileage. The steering is vague and the turning radius is large. The rear drum brakes are an outdated - albeit reliable - throwback to Tacomas past. As such, smooth brake pedal modulation is hard to achieve.
The ride is busy, and surface bumps, cracks, and holes unsettle the TRD Pro at speed, especially when you encounter them in a curve. The tires are at their best in the dirt, limiting this Tacoma’s on-pavement grip. Surprisingly, they don’t whir as loudly as expected.
As a daily driver, the Tacoma TRD Pro compromises its daily driver prowess. But as a weekend adventurer, it will take you places you never knew existed.
TACOMA BRINGS MODERN INFOTAINMENT AND SAFETY TECH TO UP ITS GAME IN COMPETITION
However, the Tacoma TRD Pro is not the only contender when it comes to off-roading talent. Chevrolet offers the accomplished Colorado ZR2 with an available diesel engine, and Ford has the new-for-2021 Ranger Tremor with turbocharged power. To a lesser extent, the GMC Canyon AT4 (also new for 2021) offers more capability than previously demonstrated by this truck. And the redesigned 2022 Nissan Frontier PRO-4X promises increased talent over the rough stuff than the old Frontier.
The 2021 Toyota Tacoma is unapologetically raw and unrefined, yet it includes all the modern infotainment and safety technologies that even hard-core truck owners have come to expect. It trades on a well-earned reputation for delivering decades-long durability and holding its value over time, ceding ground to competitors when it comes to towing, hauling, and efficiency.
And, of course, the Tacoma looks like it can go to the ends of the earth and back again.