By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Have you noticed? Mid-sized trucks are getting pretty scarce.
Dodge dropped the Dakota. GM has put the kibosh — for the moment, at least — on the Chevy Colorado (and its GMC twin, the Canyon).
Ford — like GM, like Chrysler (through its Ram spin-off) only sells 1500-series and larger trucks these days.
That leaves The Two: Nissan’s Frontier and the Toyota Tacoma, subject of this write-up.
They’re similar — but also different in a few key areas. They may also be on the Endangered Species List — but we’ll talk about that later.
WHAT IT IS
The Tacoma is a mid-sized pick-up, one notch down from the Tundra in dimensions and capability. It’s available in three cab styles: two-door (and short wheelbase) regular cab and four-door Access and Double cab (long — and longer wheelbase) with your choice of five foot or six-foot beds and four or six cylinders under the hood.
Base price for a short wheelbase regular cab with 2.7 liter four cylinder engine and 2WD is $17,875. A four-wheel-drive Double Cab (four full-sized doors) with four-wheel-drive and the optional 4.0 liter V-6 engine starts at $26,905.
The Tacoma’s sole direct competition at the moment is the Nissan Frontier, which starts at $17,990 for a 2WD King Cab and runs to $30,590 for a 4WD SL Crew Cab with V-6.
For 2014, the Tacoma offers the latest version of Toyota’s Entune suit of apps — available with Yelp and Facebook Places in addition to Pandora radio.
The sporty-themed X-Runner package has been dropped, but a new SR package takes its place. It includes contrast color fender flares, fog lights and black-anodized 16 inch “Baja” wheels. The Limited package introduced last year — which includes easy-clean SofTex leather seating and a pair of high-performance seat heaters — is also available.
More cab/bed options to choose from than Frontier — which is not currently offered in short-wheelbase (and shorter overall) two-door/regular cab form.
Toyota lets you buy 4WD with the four-cylinder engine — Nissan requires you buy the V-6 to get 4WD.
Tacoma comes with more standard equipment, including AC and a limited-slip axle. These are extra cost on the Frontier.
Simple, sturdy, functional. No over-elaborate techno-crap.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Dated-for-2014 four-speed automatic (paired with four-cylinder engine; the V-6 gets a more up-to-date five-speed automatic as its optional gearbox).
Traction control that doesn’t want to let you decide when it ought to be on — or off.
Gas mileage with the optional V-6 is not much better than you’d get in a larger, more useful full-sized truck — including some with a V-8. (The same goes for the Frontier, by the way.)
UNDER THE HOOD
The Tacoma’s standard engine is a 2.7 liter four with Toyota’s variable valve timing and lift (VVTi) system that makes a rated 159 hp — just slightly stronger than the Frontier’s standard (and smaller) 2.5 liter, 152 hp four. The larger-displacement Tacoma engine makes a bit more torque, too — and more importantly, makes it a lot lower in the RPM scale: 180 ft.-lbs. at 3,800 RPM vs. 171 ft.-lbs. at 4,400 RPM. In a truck especially — where bottom-end grunt is what you’re after — this is a significant advantage.
Score a point for the Tacoma.
The Tacoma four’s higher hp (and more readily accessed torque) may be why Toyota offers this engine with 4WD — whereas all four-cylinder Frontiers are RWD only.
Score another point for the Toyota.
You can choose either the standard five-speed manual transmission to go with the 2.7 liter engine or — optionally — a four-speed automatic. This transmission is a bit dated relative to the five speed automatic available in the Frontier (and most everything else these days) but nonetheless, the 2.7 liter Tacoma manages to beat the 2.5 liter Frontier on fuel economy: 19 city, 24 highway vs. 17 city, 22 highway for the 2WD Frontier. With the five-speed manual, the 2WD Tacoma rates 21 city, 25 highway — vs. the 2WD/five-speed Frontier’s 19 city, 23 highway.
Both trucks offer an upgrade V-6, available with either a six-speed manual or a five speed automatic.
Both V-6s are the same size (4.0 liters) too.
This time, however, the Frontier is a bit stronger: 261 hp and 281 ft.-lbs. of torque vs. 236 hp and 266 ft.-lbs. of torque.
But — ace in the hole — the Toyota is a comparative lightweight. Just 3,335 lbs. at the curb for the base 2WD regular cab model vs. 3,708 lbs. for the Nissan King cab 2WD.
Thus, despite its V-6 being a bit less powerful, the Tacoma is nonetheless the quicker truck: Zero to 60 in about 7.5 seconds (2WD, manual transmission) vs. about 8 seconds flat for the 2WD V-6 Frontier with manual transmission.
Why the weight disparity? Remember: The Tacoma is available in a short wheelbase regular cab (two-door) layout while Nissan only sells the Frontier in the larger, longer wheelbase — and thus, heavier — four-door (King and Crew cab) layout.
Though both the Tacoma and the Frontier are technically mid-sized, the regular cab version of the Tacoma is more than a foot shorter overall than the Frontier King cab and so, is closer to a compact-sized truck’s dimensions and weight.
That said, don’t look to either the Tacoma or the Frontier as end-runs around ExxonMobil. At least, not when equipped with their optional V-6 engines.
The V-6 RWD Tacoma with the more fuel-efficient five-speed automatic only manages 17 city, 21 highway; with 4WD that dips to 16 city, 21 highway. Manual-equipped models are worse. Meanwhile, a regular cab Ford F-150 with a 302 hp, 3.7 liter V-6 rates 17 city, 23 highway with RWD — and 16 city, 21 highway with 4WD.
To be fair, the V-6 Frontier is even thirstier: just 15 city, 20 highway with RWD and 14 city, 19 with 4WD — on par with the V-8s currently available in full-size/1500-series pickups.
Both trucks have identical tow ratings with either engine: 3,500 lbs. max with the four and 6,500 lbs. when ordered with the V-6. This is a nice split-the-difference between a two-weak car or crossover (1,500-3,500 lbs. max being the usual) and a too-much/too-big full-size truck.
ON THE ROAD
On smooth paved roads, the Tacoma’s body-on-frame construction very effectively dissipates and mutes the outside world. It has that reassuring heavy-solid feel that you get only with a full-frame layout.
But on washboard gravel roads, axle hop can be pretty severe if you’re trying to operate at a pretty decent clip (the Tacoma’s rear wheels hang off leaf springs bolted to a solid axle; they cannot articulate independently). You can drive a unibody, car-based FWD/AWD crossover like the new Mitsubishi Outlander I recently reviewed (see here) much faster on a bad gravel road without it feeling like the thing is shaking itself to pieces. But on the other hand, if you have to deal with more than just gravel . . . then a real-deal truck like the Tacoma will go places something like the Outlander ought not to even think about.
On-road handling is surprisingly good for a vehicle with a leaf-sprung, solid axle rear, 8.1 inches of ground clearance (more than the Frontier’s 7.6 inches) and tires not exactly made for autocrossing.
The regular cab/short wheelbase Tacoma (109.6 inches vs. 125.9 for the Frontier King Cab) also feels more agile — and is without question easier to park/maneuver.
Don’t forget you’re driving a truck, though.
And remember that truck-type 4WD is not a handling enhancement. It is a traction-enhancer that’s supposed to be engaged only when there’s snow on the pavement — or when you’re off the pavement and in the grass or dirt or mud. Otherwise, you risk damaging the system and minimally, will wear it (and the tires) out more rapidly.
Either engine in either truck is more fun with the available manual transmission — especially the six-speeds that come with the sixxes. But the Nissan has the edge when it comes to the automatics. The more modern five-speed that comes with either Frontier engine trumps the functional but out-of-date four-speed automatic you get in the base four-cylinder Tacoma.
The head-scratcher is why Toyota doesn’t offer a five-speed automatic with its four — given the probable fuel-economy advantage this would confer. If the 2.7 liter Tacoma with the four-speed is as or slightly more fuel-efficient than the 2.5 liter Frontier with the five-speed, I think it’s a good bet that the 2.7 liter Tacoma with a modern five-speed automatic would be significantly more fuel-efficient than the 2.5 liter Frontier. And that would be a big selling point these days — as well as a big help, CAFE-wise.
AT THE CURB
While the Frontier only comes in four door cab form (two full-size doors and two rear-hinged mini doors or four full-sized doors) the Tacoma can be ordered in regular (two-door) and Access (two full-size, two rear-hinged mini doors) and Double Cab (four full-size doors) cab styles. Wheelbase length also varies from the regular cab’s almost-compact-sized 109.6 inches to 140.6 inches for a Double Cab long bed.
All beds come with an integrated/moveable tie-down system. There are built in storage cubbies- and an available 400 watt inverter — just the ticket for tailgating parties. You can also order a drop-down step ladder — though accessing the Tacoma’s bed is not difficult for normal-sized adults.
Big item: The Tacoma comes standard with AC — an extra cost option (you have to buy the S Preferred Package) in the Frontier. Toyota also gives you a standard limited slip axle, a composite plastic bed liner, 6.1 inch LCD display, a decent four-speaker stereo with CD player and Bluetooth wireless capability, USB hook-up and a tilt-telescoping wheel.
Here again, many of these items — such as a CD-playing stereo — are not included in the base trim Frontier.
Toyota also offers more in the way of available equipment — both factory and dealer add-on.
For example, you can order a Toyota Racing Development (TRD) high-performance cat-back exhaust system for the V-6 (with the T/X and T/X Pro off-road equipment) and if you’re really serious about off-roading, there’s a Baja package that includes bead-lock wheels with mondo BF Goodrich TA KO tires in LT265/70-16 sizes, 60 mm Bilstein off-road shocks and the suspension rejiggered for an extra 1-1.5 inches of wheel travel.
And Nissan hasn’t got anything comparable to the Tacoma’s Entune suit of apps (seven of them, including Facebook Places, Yelp, Bing, MovieTickets.com, Open Table and Pandora radio capability).
Nissan offers just Pandora.
Overall, the Tacoma is simply the nicer, more versatile — and better-equipped — truck.
It’s also the more authentically mid-sized truck — at least, in regular cab form.
The two-door Tacoma is more than a foot shorter overall than the Frontier King cab: 190.4 inches vs. 205.5 inches. That’s a difference of 15.1 inches. Or, from an other perspective, the Frontier King Cab is only 7.7 inches shorter overall than a regular cab 1500 series F-150 full-size truck. The regular cab Tacoma is almost two feet shorter (22.8 inches) than an F-150.
That’s no small difference.
I own two of the old model (1998-2002) compact-sized Frontier — and I miss compact-sized trucks. The current Frontier King Cab is so close to full-sized it might as well be full-sized. The Tacoma regular cab, though still larger than a compact like my ’98 and ’02 Frontiers, isn’t too large. It doesn’t eat up most of the available real estate in the garage — and it’s easier to park on the street, too. Also, if you’re an off-roader, you’ll appreciate the abbreviated dimensions.
The Frontier is a very capable truck, but in the woods — and on narrow trails with little to no room to maneuver — smaller can be better.
It’s nice that Toyota still offers the regular cab layout — and a reasonable-sized pick-up.
Never forget: It’s a truck.
Not a car.
Not a “crossover.”
You are dealing with a vehicle built on a ladder-type frame made of heavy steel girders, with the body bolted on top of that (rubber biscuits in between). A solid axle hangs from leaf springs out back.
Beefy coil springs up front.
This is not necessarily bad — just different. Horses for courses. The Tacoma is built to be able to do things a car (and car-based “trucks” like the Honda Ridgeline) can’t do — or shouldn’t try to do. Like jerk a stump out of the ground or drag a fallen tree that weighs a few thousand pounds out of the woods using a chain around the trunk with the other end hooked to the truck’s frame hard points. Do not do this with a crossover.
It is almost impossible to hurt a solid rear axle — because there’s not much to hurt. There’s a massive metal casting shackled with U-bolts to heavy-duty leaf springs. Other than the shocks, which you’ll have to replace every now and then, the bed will probably rust off before the rear axle or the leafs give you any trouble. Change the lube every few years, maybe grease the bearings; that’s pretty much it.
The front end is almost as tough. Put the transfer case in 4WD Low and (gently now) nudge a leaning stone retaining wall back into place. You won’t hurt nothin’!
Well, probably not.
Or, pull the front end sheetmetal back into shape after taking out a deer at 60 MPH with a come-along, a sturdy tree — and 4WD Low in reverse.
That’s the sort of stuff you can do with a truck — and which you’d be well-advised not to try doing with a car, or a car-based vehicle.
I laud the Tacoma’s superb seat heaters (included with the Limited package) which get hot enough that you sometimes need to turn them down. That’s exactly what you want when it gets cold outside. If the heaters barely get warm in the summer, they’re not gonna do much for you in the winter.
I also love the location of the oil filter (V-6) models which is mounted on top of the engine, off to the right — where it is readily hand-accessible. Toyota thoughtfully designed the mount to be mess-free, too. It’s got a drain hole and everything.
I jeer the Tacoma’s (all current Toyota’s) traction control system, which can’t be turned off unless you first slow to at least 25 MPH — and which turns itself back on automatically once you’re over 40 MPH — whether you want it on or not. Most people who buy trucks know how to drive
Leave the always-on (or comes back on) traction control to the powderpuff crossover league.
The last item isn’t Toyota’s fault, but bears mentioning. The rear seat headrests (mandated by the federal government) are so damn huge and tall they obscure rearward visibility to a dangerous extent. Your backseat riders may be less likely to get whiplash in the event someone rear-ends your truck. But you’re also more likely to wreck your truck because you can’t see a damned thing behind you.
Luckily, you can pop them out.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There are fewer choices these days in the mid-sized truck category, but Toyota gives you more options — and a better deal for your dollar.