Toyota Tacoma is the little truck that grew

When the Toyota Tacoma first came on the scene in 1995, it was part of a much admired set of small pickups that roamed the highways to great applause. Though it replaced the tiny HiLux, succeeding incarnations of the Tacoma have grown to the point where, despite its mid-size classification, the truck is frequently mistaken for a full-size Tundra.

Toyota has produced almost as many Tacoma variations as Baskin Robbins has flavors…or so it seems. But it has also produced a winner. How you dress up this little truck determines your price point and whether you feel like you’re driving a 4Runner Lite or a downsized “tiny” Tundra.

Although considered a mid-size pickup, there’s nothing very little about the Tundra. The 2012 got a boost with a change to a 4.0-liter, 236 hp,V-6VVT-I engine that mates to a standard 5-speed automatic transmission with on-the-fly fourwheel-drive. The standard mill is a 2.7-liter, DOHC, 159 hp, 4-cylinder, which has varied little as the baseline engine offering. Both engines benefit from electronic throttle control to boost performance and economy under the hood as well as variable valve timing for low-end grunt and mid-range torque.

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The base engine can mate to either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission. TheV-6 offers buyers the choice of sliding through six gears manually or letting a 5-speed automatic do the work. The EPA lists 16/21 numbers for the tested V-6 model, which fell right in the middle during my week of mixed miles.

Tacoma got a leading edge for 2012 with a new grille, bumper, hood with an air scoop, and headlights. Normally, such a facelift means minor changes but it really enhances the look of this truck.

On the inside is a revised gauge cluster and a center stack panel with new climate controls. If you get the Double Cab, there’s a CD stereo with satellite radio, a USB port, and Bluetooth. Another DC option is Entune, Toyota’s multimedia/concierge service.

What sets this truck apart from the runabout weekend dump runner is the TRD extra value package ($3,860) it comes with. Chief among the goodies is a more aggressive, dirt loving, P265R17 tire on 17-inch wheels, Bilstein shocks all around, a skid plate to protect the engine’s underside, a raft of creature comforts, and electronics considered standard fare in most vehicles.

The serious trucker will want the tow package ($650), only found on buys with the beefierV-6, that adds a Class IV tow hitch, 7-pin connector, trailer sway control, transmission and oil coolers, a beefed up battery, and a 130A alternator to handle it all.This setup lets the Double Cabs and Access Cabs tow up to 6,500 pounds. (For the insatiably curious, the Tundra CrewMax that towed the space shuttle was powered by a stock 5.7-liter V-8 engine, producing a maximum tow capacity of 10,000 pounds.)

Adding to the vehicle’s impressive size is the 73.5-inch cargo bed and 18-inch high wall that keeps things secure.

What’s best about this truck is its car-like creature comforts, serious off-road abilities, and intuitive feel. Sure, the high-back buckets are well-bolstered but not in a Baja hardscrabble race way; they make getting stuck in traffic on the Jamaica Way more tolerable. The half-door on the Access Cab provides just enough room to stuff in a tool box or most of the stuff you’d want in the back seat of your commuter car while leaving the pickup bed for the down and dirty detritus.

The word Tacoma is taken from the Salish Indian word for the mountain that provided water to their tribe (now known as Mount Rainier). The name suggests images of strength and power, which Tacoma provides plenty of.

Venturing down the path along local power lines, I pointed Tacoma toward some soft sand and drove until the rear wheels spun. Locking in the four-wheel-drive, I waited, the engine roared, shifted into Drive, and moved out without a whimper. It was there I welcomed the 9.1 inches of ground clearance to cross over some branches and ruts from other off-road rigs that had dug up the dirt.

Returning to pavement, the TacomaTRD resumed its refined road manners; it’s amazingly quiet for having such aggressive tires underfoot. It’s refined because Toyota notes that theTRD is a road-focused vehicle despite its having Hill-start Assist Control and Downhill Assist Control. An automatic, limited-slip differential is standard across the model line. A locking rear differential is part of theTRD package and can be activated from the cab.

Safety items that come standard on all Tacoma models include the anti-lock braking system, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, vehicle stability control, traction control, and smart stop technology.

As its Salish name implies, Tacoma’s popularity benefits from its numerous available options, its split personality, and ability to play on- or off-road, as well as its dependability, comfort, and economy.

Having pulled myself out of the power line sand and enjoyed the truck’s road manners, I’ve got a new understanding of why you see so many of these pickups on the road.