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Is the Modern Toyota Tacoma as Good as the Original Toyota Truck from the '80s?

When considering reliability and durability, there exists no greater legacy in the automotive space than that of the humble Toyota Truck. From previous owners recounting tall tales of fantastical achievements during previous ownership, to big-budget television adventures set on destroying one, the little Japanese pickup has earned its place among automotive icons. More than that, however, the Toyota Truck cemented the Toyota brand as a safe, long-lasting, well-informed choice among competitors. Thousands of Tacomas, Tundras, 4Runners, and Sequoias have undoubtedly found homes thanks to the collective memory America has for the Toyota Truck. 

1985 Toyota Truck

Legacy, sometimes, has a way of overstaying its welcome though. With over thirty years separating the Toyota Truck from the modern Tacoma, is there any reason to think that the performance of a manufacturer three decades prior has any bearing on a modern offering? Is the Tacoma still as safe a buy as the Truck was—or has Toyota rested on its laurels for too long? 

  Toyota Truck with vintage graphics

A Quick History Lesson

Before that question can be answered, understanding what made the Toyota Truck a legend would be helpful. First off, when anyone refers to the Toyota Truck, they are in fact referencing the Toyota Hilux. The Hilux was a global model, originally released in 1968. In North America, it replaced the Toyota Stout in 1969. In 1975, the Hilux name was dropped altogether for the US, changed to simply "Toyota Truck."

Toyota Truck at Radwood

In the 1984 model year, Toyota released the fourth generation of the Toyota Truck for the US, and it was this model that would ultimately catapult the model from import under-dog to legend for American consumers. Earning a prime spot in Back to the Future in 1985, the Toyota Truck became the vehicle to have, bolstered by an already impressive history of durability and reliability. 

Back to the Future Toyota Truck

Bulletproof Power

So what was it about the fourth generation that set it up for invincibility? The truck was offered in both regular and an extended Xtracab version for extra space. It could be purchased in either 2WD or 4WD guise, with early models having solid front axles. Although a diesel model was offered briefly for the US, the motor that matters in regards to legacy is the venerable 22RE. Significantly reworked in 1985, this motor would become legendary for durability, respectable fuel efficiency, and good low-end torque. In 1985, a turbo version was offered to compete with Nissan’s V6, and while it was a fine offering, it wasn’t the main player. 

22RE Toyota Engine

Paired with a W56 5 speed manual or A340F 4 speed, power delivery was efficient and reliable. There was certainly no intention of sportiness with these options, but for trucks that were built for utilitarian purposes, there were few complaints. With minimum upkeep, these transmissions have provided decades of use and hundreds of thousands of miles for many examples. 

Toyota Truck towing Boat

Built to Last

Outside of the powertrain, the Toyota Trucks were not complex. This was decades before the introduction of complicated interiors or fussy suspensions. The parts were built to function at a basic level, and were built to last. 

Toyota Truck Press photo

The Modern Toyota Truck

Fast forward to the modern era, and the Tacoma is now in its third generation. Having replaced the Toyota "Truck" in 1995, the Tacoma became the entry level Toyota pickup for American buyers. Overall, the Tacoma has largely added to the legacy of the Truck, consistently earning awards for reliability, and earning the trust of anyone from the single-cab 2WD handyman owner, to the off-road enthusiast with a TRD 4WD model. 

3rd Generation Toyota Tacoma

The modern Tacoma is offered in an Access Cab or a full four-door Double Cab with either 2WD or 4WD. Engine offerings are either an I4 2TR-FE or a V6 2GR-FKS. While the Tacoma is the only vehicle in the US that currently utilizes the four cylinder 2TR-FE, it is shared with many other RWD Toyota utility vehicles globally, including the Land Cruiser Prado, Hilux, and HiAce. 

Toyota Tacoma Overland build on Nitto Trail Grappler tires

Modern Powertrains

Equipped with dual VVT-i in 2015, the 4 cylinder is otherwise a rather basic motor in a world where competitors utilize hybrids, turbos, and direct-injection. Much like the 22RE, it has proven to be durable, efficient, and powerful enough to handle light truck duties. The only transmission choice is a AC60 six-speed automatic that’s also shared with the V6. While more complex than the A340F, it has proven to be a reliable workhorse transmission in the Tacoma application. 

Toyota Tacoma V6

The Tacoma’s V6 is a slightly more modern engine, able to selectively use both direct and port injection. The engine is shared with much of the Toyota line-up, including the Camry, Sienna, and Highlander, as well as any Lexus with the 350 moniker. Simply put, this engine is everywhere. That being said, the complexity of the dual injection system is something to be aware of. While there haven’t been any widespread problems, time will tell if the pursuit of more modern technology will affect longevity. The V6 is still offered with a six-speed manual, the RA60, with no notable widespread problems. 

Toyota Tacoma Off-Road Setup with Nitto Trail Grappler tires

Some Things Never Change

In regards to suspension, the modern Tacoma is sold with relatively old-school options, not unlike the Toyota Truck. Simply put, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The truck even retains drum brakes in the rear. It would seem that many of Toyota’s engineers are still content with erring on the side of durability and reliability when necessary.

Toyota Tacoma Off-Road Flex

And so, in the modern era, is the Tacoma as wise a choice as the invincible Toyota Truck? Considering the core parts of the truck, the Tacoma is still a vehicle seemingly built with simplicity and durability in mind. As more and more competitors offer modern technological solutions, the Tacoma soldiers on with older, simpler tech. Now, stepping inside a Tacoma, an owner is greeted with modern amenities (unless you need to change the seat height), and time will tell if the enhancements made to ICE and active safety stand the test of time.

Toyota Tacoma Interior

Final Verdict

The Toyota Truck was released into a market flooded with vehicles recovering from the malaise-era of the 1970s and '80s market. A vehicle making it to 100k miles was an achievement, and a truck, especially an import, that could perform in both a utilitarian or off-road setting reliably was notable. We live in a significantly different world. All vehicles are better these days, which honestly can be traced to the standards that brands like Toyota achieved in the '90s. While the modern Tacoma may not seem to be a bastion of invincibility these days, it isn’t because it is less reliable, more so that everything is more reliable than ever. That’s not a bad thing. That being said, the Tacoma is still the safest choice in the mid-size segment. It has stayed number one for a reason; some of it is because of that legacy, but much of it is being able to stand behind that legacy year after year with proven performance and no shortage of eager buyers.

Toyota Tacoma Off-Road Overlander

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