Although Toyota is best known for its reliable compact cars and the contribution those cars made to car culture and the global automotive market, it has been manufacturing pickups since 1968. And a good number of those Toyota pickup trucks are among the most reliable, useful, and beloved pickup trucks ever made.
Toyota now offers the compact Tacoma and the full-size Tundra. Both can be had with four doors, 278 horsepower, and 265 pound-feet torque. If you need more than that, you’ll have to get the Tundra. If you don’t care as much about power as you do about fuel economy, the base Tacoma has 159 horsepower and gets 23 miles per gallon on the highway.
Those are the big mechanical distinctions, but there are a lot of options and other characteristics to mull through. In terms of overall ranking, the Tacoma is the better truck. With an overall score of 8.5 (to the Tundra’s 7.3), it ranked fourth out of five compact pickups in our 2016 rankings, while the Tundra ranked fifth out of six full-size pickups.
What test drivers liked most about the Tacoma was its off-road capability, predicted reliability, and infotainment system. Auto journalists wrote that the Tacoma was composed and endlessly capable off road, with an optional crawl control feature does some of the work for you. The TRD Off-Road package was extra popular with auto journalists, with some saying the TRD Tacoma is the best compact off-road truck on the market.
The Tacoma can tow 6,800 pounds and haul 1,620, enough to handle the pulling and hauling needs of most weekend warriors. But, no, the Tacoma is not a work truck. Reviewers appreciate the soft-touch materials of its interior and the responsive touch screen and sharp graphics of its infotainment system. A JBL audio system and Qi wireless charging system sweeten the ride even further. Heated front seats and a power moonroof are available, and a GoPro window mount comes standard. The Tacoma is a truck for having fun.
If strength and size are more important than sportiness and gadgetry, the Tundra may be a better option.
Like the Tacoma, the Tundra doesn’t get very good gas mileage, scraping by on 17 to 19 miles per gallon on the highway and 13 to 15 miles per gallon in the city. Those are uncompetitive numbers in the current market. What it has going for it is the off-road capability and the same good infotainment system of the Tacoma, plus a lot more space, especially in the rear seats of the Double Cab and Crew Cab models.
The base Tundra comes with a 4.6-liter V8 engine making 310 horsepower and 327 pound-feet of torque on regular unleaded. The only other engine available is also a V8, but it’s 5.7-liter that makes 381 horsepower and 401 pound-feet of torque. Other manufacturers are offering turbocharged V6s and even turbocharged four-cylinder engines in their full-size trucks now. Auto critics generally thought Toyota should be offering something of that sort as well, especially considering the fuel-economy woes. In any case, that power is routed through a six-speed automatic transmission.
Test drivers loved the smoothness and power of the 5.7-liter V8. Several said the Tundra’s driving dynamics were reminiscent of a classic truck. Whether that was considered good or bad was in the eye of the beholder. Steering is light, on the edge of being over-boosted, with a firm ride and touchy brakes.
Where the Tundra excels is out on the … tundra. Test drivers say that even without a locking rear differential, the Tundra swallows up ruts and muddy embankments with the best of the off-road trucks. The TRD Pro trim package is for the most serious off-roaders, but the TRD off-road package is available with other trim packages. Some critics note that the off-road package softens the rigid suspension of the base model, making for a more comfortable ride.
The Tundra is a good tower and hauler, critics say. Properly equipped, it will tow 10,500 pounds and haul 2,060. It doesn’t do that as gracefully as some of its competition, according to test drivers, but it is still a truck that pulled the Space Shuttle over a bridge, so competence is not an issue.
Inside, the Tundra is spacious and practical. Trims run from minimalist and utilitarian all the way up to luxurious, depending how much you want to spend. Regardless of trim package, the technology is there. Reviewers say Toyota’s Entune system is better than anything Ford or GM has, with a large touchscreen plus auxiliary jacks and a USB port. In the four-door packages, six adults can ride comfortably, with plenty of small-storage spaces for their stuff.
The factor that hurt Toyota’s pickups most in our rankings was their substandard fuel economy. For an average everyday commuter vehicle, there are better trucks on the market. But for a work-hard, play-hard sort of lifestyle, the Tundra and Tacoma are both capable performers that are expected to last a long time.