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2020 Toyota Tacoma First Drive

The Toyota Tacoma pickup truck has been around in some form or another since 1995, and it’s been the best-selling midsize pickup for 13 years running. But as America’s smaller truck segment heats up with newcomers like the Ford Ranger and Jeep Gladiator, the Tacoma can’t just rest on its laurels.

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Thankfully, the Tacoma receives a number of updates for 2020. And while they don’t radically shake up the Tacoma’s formula, these new-for-2020 niceties make the midsize truck easier to live with than ever before.

First and foremost, the Tacoma gets a small but necessary tech upgrade. Base SR models use a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system, but all other Tacomas get an 8-inch head unit, all of which finally support Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as Amazon Alexa. The rest of the multimedia system carries over without any major updates.

Elsewhere in the cabin, the 2020 Tacoma gets a power driver’s seat on all trims but the base SR. You might not think that’s a big deal, but people have been asking for this for ages.

The Tacoma’s biggest updates are actually found outside, where most models get a new grille and headlight design. The top-shelf TRD Pro, however, retains its older grille with big “Toyota” badging across the middle. That said, the TRD Pro gets new LED headlamps with sequential turn signals, which freshens up the otherwise-carryover front fascia. Around back, the Tacoma’s taillights receive small design tweaks.

The Tacoma TRD Pro adds a new Army Green color to its palette, and it definitely looks better dirty than clean. This is an assessment I can make with confidence, following three days of off-roading in the Tacoma TRD Pro and TRD Off-Road models, where these trucks took me from the rocks of Moab, Utah, to the gorgeous mountain passes of Ouray, Colorado.

Both the TRD Pro and TRD Off-Road Tacomas have Toyota’s Multi-Terrain Select function, with options for Mud and Sand, Loose Rock, Rock and Dirt, Mogul and Rock. Out in Moab, it’s the last of those modes that I use most, and it helps mitigate wheel spin pretty well on slick rocks, helping to give me as much traction as possible. In fact, I only find myself having to engage my rear differential lock a few times.

These Tacoma models also come with a five-level Crawl Control system, which can keep the truck at a steady speed while off-roading. Unfortunately, the system is so loud in its action that I find myself turning it off after just a short while.

Despite that newly adjustable driver’s seat, it’s still kind of hard to get a sense of where your wheels are in the Tacoma — the long hood is the most prevalent thing I see out the windshield. The good news is, the TRD Pro and TRD Off-Road models get a new Multi-Terrain Monitor that displays a video of what’s happening underneath the truck. The bad news, however, is that the video resolution is pretty terrible. A high-definition camera would be a huge help here.

The Tacoma TRD Off-Road will take you to almost everywhere, but the TRD Pro should be your pick for super-serious off-roading. Compared to the TRD Off-Road, the Pro has a 1-inch lift at the front suspension and a 1-inch wider track overall. Its 2.5-inch Fox internal bypass shocks are a little bit better than the Bilsteins found on the TRD Off-Road, too.

Both of these TRD trucks come standard with the Tacoma’s 3.5-liter V6 engine, which is good for 278 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque. A 2.7-liter, four-cylinder engine is the standard option on the lesser SR and SR5 trucks, but with only 159 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque, it’s downright anemic compared to the V6.

The V6 engine has plenty of torque to help me slowly manage off-road obstacles, but on the highway, it shows its weak points. Mind you, naturally aspirated engines always suffer at higher altitudes, so I’ll cut the V6 some slack since my time on the highway starts at an elevation of 9,300 feet. But the six-speed automatic transmission isn’t doing the truck any favors, either. It constantly hunts for the right gear, and the only way I can get it to settle down is by shifting into Sport mode for a modicum of control. But therein lie some more issues.

Sport mode is a bit of a misnomer. When I move the gear-shifter to the left to engage this mode, the transmission displays a “4” in the gauge cluster, which looks to mean you’re in fourth gear. But this isn’t actually a gear indicator, it’s a gear limiter. The transmission will shift itself, but only through the first four gears. You can ‘upshift’ to select fifth, but again, the transmission will work on its own, but without sixth gear. It’s a bit confusing, but with fewer gears to choose from, the transmission isn’t as eager to shift, especially on these steep, mountain roads.

The Tacoma has a number of driver-assistance technologies standard across the board, including precollision braking with pedestrian detection, high-speed adaptive cruise control (meaning it only works above 25 mph), lane-departure alert and automatic high-beam headlights. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert join the party on Limited and TRD Pro trims, and are available as options on the TRD Sport and TRD Off-Road models.

When properly equipped, the Tacoma can haul 1,600 pounds of payload and tow 6,400 pounds. That’s not bad, considering the bones underneath this truck are seriously old. But if top-notch capability is a must-have for your midsize truck, the Ford Ranger beats the Toyota in both payload and towing, while the Jeep Gladiator just about matches the Taco’s payload and can tow up to 7,650 pounds.

Regardless of its shortcomings, the Tacoma is still a super-solid midsize truck. It looks great, has a more robust tech roster than ever and these trucks have proven to be hella reliable. There’s also a ton of aftermarket support, should you want to upfit and customize your truck for serious off-road adventures.

We’ll have final pricing data soon, and the 2020 Tacoma is expected to hit dealers in September. It might not be all that different as it heads into 2020, but considering the Tacoma has been a sales star for more than a decade, I can’t blame Toyota for not straying too far from that recipe for success.

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