Toyota Tacoma
By Ron Kiino

WE LIKE: The modernized cabin and Entune infotainment system.

WE DON'T LIKE: What's with the subpar brake feel, lack of power, and so-so mpg?

Through October 2011, Toyota sold nearly 89,000 examples of its Tacoma compact pickup, making it far and away the hottest seller in its segment. The next hottest? The Ford Ranger, which, at 57,058 sold, seems comparably icy to the scalding Toyota. In fact, within the struggling, relatively diminutive compact-truck field, the Tacoma accounts for about 37 percent of all sales, which means Toyota is struggling the least. And consider this: The Honda Ridgeline, our 2006 Truck of the Year, sold just 7356 units through October. Ouch.

Let's not forget that the aforementioned Tacoma sales are not representative of the truck seen here, the freshened 2012 model that went on sale last fall. Although this updated 2012 appears very similar to the 2011, it nonetheless boasts new front styling, a reworked interior, and improved audio systems, including Toyota's Entune. So while Toyota didn't make monumental changes to its compact, the truth is, it didn't really need to, as the Tacoma has the sales to prove it's top in class. Still, to be Truck of the Year, to really raise the bar, even in a stagnant field of aged entries, the Tacoma needed to take major, not minor, action.

I'm referring mostly to the Tacoma's hardware. As in years past, the Tacoma soldiers on with a 2.7-liter, 159-horsepower I-4 paired to a five-speed manual or four-speed auto, and a 4.0-liter, 236-horse V-6 teamed to a six-speed manual or five-speed auto. Cab configurations remain regular, access, and double, and drive options stay two- or four-wheel drive. Nothing new here.

Our test example was a $34,635(as tested) Double Cab 4x4 V-6 with the $4145 TRD Off-Road Package, which added Bilstein dampers, an electronically controlled locking rear differential, BFGoodrich all-terrain tires, and such off-road wizardry as Hill Start Assist Control and Downhill Assist Control. During evaluation, the Tacoma was lauded for its manageable, easy-to-maneuver size as well as its excellent seating position and ergonomics. Sad to say, we didn't like much more. The great seating position failed to rub off on the seat comfort, which most deemed too soft and unsupportive. The interior, otherwise well-laid-out and attractive, was dinged for cheap-feeling materials that lent a "Corolla build at a Camry price" sensation.

While quick when given full throttle (0-60 in 7.4 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.9 at 85.7 mph), the Tacoma felt lethargic under normal driving. "You have to have the thing floored constantly to get it to go anywhere," says Febbo. And when we conducted payload and trailer testing, the Tacoma felt the most hampered and affected. Noted Lieberman, "Power feels like it's been halved and the vibrations seem to have increased fivefold." Jurnecka observed: "This is the only truck in the group that I feel like I need to drive very gingerly with payload in the bed."

The only participant with rear drum brakes, the Toyota also exhibited poor, grabby brake feel as well as the noise of stepping on a soaked sponge whenever applying initial pressure to the pedal. Then there's the Tacoma's fuel economy: Its EPA rating of 16/21 mpg city/highway is marginally worse than that of the F-150 EcoBoost, which weighs 1357 pounds more.

The current-generation Tacoma debuted for 2005 and won our coveted Truck of the Year prize. Seven years later, Toyota hasn't made any significant changes, save for a revised front end and interior that do little to save the day. Toyota's small trucks used to blow the competition away; now, they seem OK with simply being one of the best. Maybe when the Tacoma gets its swagger back, and nets livelier, more fuel-efficient powertrains, it'll fare better.

2012 Toyota Tacoma
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front engine, 4WD, 5-pass, 4-door truck
BASE PRICE $17,685
ENGINE 4.0L/236-hp/266-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 5-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4292 lb (56/44%)
0-60 MPH 7.4, 9.2*, 17.2** sec
QUARTER MILE 15.9 sec @ 85.7 mph, 17.1 sec @ 81.8 mph*, 21.4 sec @ 66.1 mph**
30-70 MPH 6.0*, 11.4** sec
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 128, 134 ft*
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.8 sec @ 0.56 g (avg)
ENERGY CONs, CITY/HWY 211/160 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 EMISSIONS 1.08 lb/mi
TOWING KEY *With 906-lb payload, **With 4875-lb trailer