2018 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road Review: A Rugged Pickup Truck for Carpocalypse Now

Welcome to Critic’s Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today’s edition: the 2018 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road.

There’s nothing like an off-road drive for a little post-apocalyptic roleplaying. Up there in the mountains, away from the smoggy tendrils of civilization, it’s easy to imagine yourself a lone survivor plunging through the wilderness. And after giving it a fair amount of thought, I reached the following conclusion: After the nukes fall, all that will remain are the ruins of our cities, cockroaches, and people selling 10-year-old Toyota Tacomas for $25,000.

The Tacoma has a well-earned reputation for being a stupendously reliable, no-nonsense midsize pickup truck that can bend the forces of depreciation to its will. It’s also known for not changing a whole lot in the two decades since the model first rolled out of the factory—from the available six-speed manual transmission to its rear drum brakes, the Toyota Tacoma remains one of the more honest, workmanlike trucks you can buy today.

Depending on your perspective, this next bit is either a weird anomaly or a foregone conclusion. Since the latest generation was introduced in 2015, the Tacoma has exploded in popularity at the same time that sedans have plummeted. Toyota sold nearly 200,000 Tacomas last year amidst the ongoing carpocalypse—a record—and sales this year have outpaced 2017. It’s even outselling the Toyota Highlander right now. So what gives? Is this a case of crossover fatigue? Is it a side effect of cheap gas? Is the Tacoma really that good?

17.6 feet of off-road fury.

To find out, The Drive borrowed a 2018 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road for a week of adventures around our West Coast bureau in Los Angeles. And I learned that when it’s time to rebuild civilization, our future will probably ride on the back of this humble midsize truck.

The Pros

  • For those who just want a pickup, pure and simple, it’s hard to argue with the package Toyota has created here. Introduced in 2015, the latest model utilizes a high-strength steel frame paired with a rugged body. You can’t slice a katana without hitting someone with a strong opinion on Toyota’s front-end design language, though I think this is one of the better interpretations in the lineup. The high-clearance off-road bumper on the TRD model certainly helps. But the whole thing exudes a capable, confident eagerness that’s missing from much of the competition. 
  • Plus, you can still pair a six-speed manual transmission with the more-powerful V-6 engine, which puts out 278 horsepower, 265 pound-feet of torque, and can tow 6,400 pounds.
  • To create the TRD Off-Road trim, which is a step below the full-bore TRD Pro, Toyota added Bilstein shocks tuned for off-road use, a skid plate, a locking rear differential on 4WD models, and the company’s “crawl control” feature that takes over the throttle and brakes on tough trails. Automatic transmission models also get a multi-terrain drive mode dial to calibrate things like wheelspin and throttle response even further. All that stuff works great, but it’s the Tacoma’s 9.4 inches of ground clearance, solid rear axle, and Kevlar-reinforced Goodyear Wrangler tires with tons of sidewall that really serve up the confidence to venture forth. You’ll probably find your limits before it does—it’s pretty unstoppable, as long as you don’t do something like this.

Kevlar-reinforced Goodyear Wrangler tires are fine for casual exploring.

  • With that in mind, the Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road just might be one of the best bases for building an overlanding or expedition rig out there. Toyota will gladly sell you a Tacoma TRD Pro for about $8,000 more, which has fancier Fox internal bypass shocks that can take more of a beating, a touch more ground clearance, and a few more tech options. But you can’t get the manual transmission on the Pro, and since the Tacoma aftermarket is essentially limitless, you could easily buy an TRD Off-Road with a stick and replace the suspension with something tougher for around the same price. But really, the stock Bilstein shocks are more than enough for casual weekend exploring.
  • And that’s really what the Tacoma is all about: just getting out there a little more. Even if you prefer not to pretend that the modern world has collapsed, it’s a vehicle that begs to see the view from the top of that mountain, or where that dirt road leads over the horizon. These photographs were taken at the Hungry Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Park, which is about an hour and a half north of Los Angeles. Had I no reason or ability to go there, would I have ever seen the beautiful contrast between a dry, golden valley and the snowcapped peaks above, or drunk in the crisp, fresh air that it made me feel like I hadn’t breathed in weeks? I left at 8 a.m. and was home by 1 p.m. Better than brunch? You bet.
  • The Tacoma TRD Off-Road makes its bones in being, well, capable off-road, but there are still a few key modern comforts that make it more livable day-to-day than in the past—things like the standard touchscreen infotainment system, a wireless charging pad, and a backup camera with parking sensors. The double cab interior on my tester is a simple, functional space, with seats that are more comfortable than they look. And Toyota added a new suite of standard driver assist features this year that vaults the Taco to the top of the safety pack, including adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking.

The Cons

  • In the dirt, the Tacoma is aces. On-pavement is a different story. Body-on-frame trucks in this segment (Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon, Nissan Frontier) aren’t known for their handling prowess—or for being much fun to drive on the road at all—and the Tacoma doesn’t do much to stand out on that front. The softer suspension of the TRD Off-Road lends itself to a diving nose under braking and body roll in the corners, while the transmission was far too quick to downshift under light acceleration on the highway. Zero-to-60 mile-per-hour times generally mean very little in terms of real-world use, but you won’t be surprised to learn the Tacoma does it in 7.3 seconds. It feels slow and slightly underpowered—though having more control over the gears in the manual transmission probably helps.
  • Its simplicity is also a double-edged sword on the inside, which doesn’t do a great job of straddling the line between simple and dated. Look to the new Jeep Wrangler for an analogous example—there are ways of doing a functional, rugged interior without it feeling like something designed last decade. There’s a lot of black plastic, you can’t get full leather or power seats on the TRD Off-Road, and there’s still no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto available. Is that worth $40,000 to you? For some, that’s not what you’re paying for. For others, the view from the driver’s seat will leave you flat.

That backup camera came in handy.

  • But honestly, what might hurt the Tacoma the most for potential buyers is just how small the cabin feels. The high floor helps ground clearance but cuts interior leg and headroom, and you can’t adjust the seat height. Rear seat passengers in the double cab have the least amount of legroom in the class at 32.6 inches, and it also feels oddly tight from the front row as well. Yet from behind the wheel, it oddly drives like a larger truck than it is—unless you get the double cab and long bed, in which case, it’s actually big. So it’s really the polar opposite experience of a crossover like the Toyota Highlander, which is designed to feel massive on the inside but carry itself like a small sedan.
  • Just say no to plastic body cladding. I get that it’s more functional here than on a lot of other cars, but it’s also going to age poorly on a truck otherwise engineered to survive the end times. 

The 2018 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road, Ranked

Performance: 4/5

Comfort: 3/5

Luxury: 2/5

Hauling people: 4/5

Hauling stuff: 4/5

Curb appeal: 3/5

“Wow” factor: 3.5/5

Overall: 3.5/5

Ready for work—or fun.

The Bottom Line

So back to our essential question: Why is the Toyota Tacoma so dang popular all of a sudden? As with many existential queries, the answer is a swirl of reasons. Part of it is that, as Counting Crows once opined, you don’t really know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. [Don’t you dare give the Counting Crows credit for Joni Mitchell’s genius, you son of a bitch. —Ed.] Just about every major manufacturer used to make something hardy and off-road focused like the Tacoma (if not necessarily a pickup), but nearly all of them faded away over the last 20 years as people turned to crossovers. But it would appear the market overcorrected and squashed out a few too many rugged 4x4s; survivors like the Toyota 4Runner, Tacoma, and the Jeep Wrangler have enjoyed record sales over the past few years, while other manufacturers are making no secret about their desire to get back in on the “authentic” off-road truck game.

Cheap gas has certainly helped boost its popularity, but that too isn’t the sole reason for the Tacoma’s success. Its EPA fuel economy numbers sit at about 20 miles per gallon combined, which is neither low enough to make it a real detriment nor high enough to draw in people who are looking for a fuel-efficient rig. And sales have continued their climb in the last few months even as gas prices are creeping up to a three-year high.

Yes, California is lovely this time of year.

So what we’re left with is the Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road standing on its own merits. Yes, you can go elsewhere to find a nicer cabin, a smoother ride, and a more luxurious experience—all of which become more important to more people with each passing year. What you can’t find is the combination of real off-road chops, legendary reliability, and a six-speed manual transmission seen on the Taco. There are certainly flashier ways to play in the dirt—but when the bombs start to fall, is anyone going to be looking at you anyway?

For purple mountain’s majesty…

The 2018 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road, By the Numbers

Price (as tested): $36,115 ($40,505)

Powertrain: 3.5-liter V-6 engine; 278 horsepower, 265 pound-feet of torque; six-speed automatic transmission; rear-wheel-drive with part-time four-wheel-drive and low range; electronically-locking rear differential

Fuel Economy: 18 mpg city/23 highway/20 combined

Curb Weight: 4,425 pounds

Payload Capacity: 1,175 pounds

Towing Capacity: 6,400 pounds

Ground Clearance: 9.4 inches

Amount of money spent on a day-use off-roading permit to escape the smog of Los Angeles: $5

This is the kind of truck that begs for a trip off the beaten path.

Rear (L) and front (R) Bilstein suspension systems. Note the drum brakes out back. If it ain’t broke…

So curious about what other press cars this mid-1980s California license plate has graced.

Peaks and ovals.

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