If you take nothing else away from this review of the 2020 Toyota Tacoma, please let this sink in: The trails we traversed during three days of hardcore off-roading in Utah and Colorado were typically populated by heavily-modified trucks (primarily Jeep Wranglers, Toyota FJs, and the like) with big lifts, wheels, bumpers, and multiple suspension upgrades. We were doing everything those mean machines were over the same terrain—sometimes even more—in showroom-stock Tacomas and 4Runners in TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro trim.
We rolled across some of the best trails the southwest has to offer, from Hell’s Revenge in Moab, Utah, to Ouray, Colorado. And for the grand finale, we joined a flotilla of decked-out FJ Cruisers on the FJ Summit run to Engineer’s Pass, culminating with a photo op at Odom Point, Colorado, some 12,800 feet above sea level.
By now you may be asking yourself what Toyota did to the 2020 Tacoma to make it perform so well under those harsh conditions. The answer? Not much. As with other Toyota models, the Tacoma finally gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility (with Amazon Alexa thrown in as an added bonus). Grilles and taillights have been modified, and some trims get new wheels. All models except the SR and 4-cylinder SR5 get a new 10-way power driver’s seat, which greatly improves the Tacoma’s driving position. One nifty new detail is the sequential front turn signals. The whole light illuminates, then goes dark from the inside out—an ingenious way to get around the Fed’s stodgy lighting standards.
Given our agenda, we were most intrigued with the Tacoma’s Multi-Terrain Monitor, new for the TRD trims. It’s a set of cameras that show both sides of the vehicle as well as what’s under the nose. It comes in handy when you’re on inclines so steep that the windshield shows only sky. It’s better than no camera at all, but we wish the monitor’s resolution was higher; it indicates the presence of the trail but reveals little detail about its composition. In other words, it helped us avoid driving off the edge of a cliff—frighteningly easy to do on our route—but picking a good line still required getting out of the truck to take a gander.
Our time on the trails reminded us that significant off-road chops were already baked into the 2020 Tacoma. Its live rear axle offers plenty of articulation, and there were only a couple of brief occasions when we found ourselves with fewer than four tires touching the pavement. The Tacoma’s 3.5-liter V-6 with 278 horsepower offers all the off-idle torque we needed, even in the thin mountain air. The skid plates are plenty durable, something we discovered when our co-driver misinterpreted our spotter’s hand signals on Hell’s Revenge. And while the TRD Pros have the added benefit of slightly-increased front clearance and all-terrain tires, the TRD Off-Road trucks were just as capable despite their more street-friendly rubber.
Size matters over terrain this treacherous, and the Tacoma’s narrow width gave us some breathing room on the cliff-edge portions of Engineer Pass. (We felt bad for the poor sap who decided to try the climb in his F-150.) And despite a somewhat long wheelbase—at 127.4 inches it’s nearly a foot and a half longer than the 4Runner—the turning circle still felt very tidy. In fact, we were able to negotiate some tight switchbacks in a single turn, whereas the heavily-modified Wrangler Unlimited ahead of us had to back-and-fill.
The 2020 Tacoma also offers some electronic off-roading aids, but these don’t all work as well as we’d like. Toyota’s Crawl Control is supposed to be a better answer to hill descent control; it distributes power and braking to each wheel and is designed to work on both upgrades and downgrades. Unfortunately, when you’re facing downwards, it doesn’t work as well as other hill-descent systems: Set to the lowest of its five speeds and it bucks and shudders quite worryingly, setting up a back-and-forth weight transfer that could surely bite one in the backside on loose gravel. As for the uphill portions, when confronted with a big rock, the TRD Pro we tested wouldn’t feed in enough throttle to climb it, though the Toyota engineer riding with us suspected this could have been an issue with our pre-production truck. We also found the throttle a bit touchy for delicate, low-speed work. We’d like to see Toyota re-map the throttle in 4-Low to provide a bit more precision.
One feature we really liked, though, was the Tacoma’s electronic-locking rear differential. We left the diff open for easy turns, and on those rare occasions when the Tacoma scrambled for traction, we’d just hit the lock button and away we went.
Engineer’s Pass dumped us out near Silverton, where we switched the Tacoma back into two-wheel drive for the highway drive back to Ouray. The drive was a bit of a downer—while we appreciated the improved seating position and the ability to (finally!) use Apple CarPlay, we were reminded of the Tacoma’s unsettled ride, especially in TRD Pro trim. The Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 does everything the Taco TRD Pro will do off-road, if not more, and it rides a lot more comfortably—and while Toyota has yet to announce final 2020 Tacoma pricing, as of 2019, the Chevy ZR2 is less expensive.
During our trip, we also got some seat time, both on-road and off, in a 2020 Toyota 4Runner, which gets the same stereo improvements as the Tacoma, along with more USB ports and active safety features. Toyota is one of the last manufacturers making a truly off-road-ready SUV, and judging by the number we saw on the trails, hard-core trail fanatics know this. It’s every bit as competent and capable off-road as the Tacoma, with a tighter turning circle and a significantly more comfortable ride. As much as we respect the Tacoma, when we return to Engineer Pass (it’s now on your author’s list for a getaway with the spouse), the 4Runner will likely be our vehicle of choice.
While Toyota’s intention on this trip was to highlight the changes to the 2020 Tacoma, what really struck home was what hasn’t changed—the fact that the Tacoma is still a rock-solid truck, tough as nails and engineered to crawl with the best off-roaders. While we’d like to see some more investment in the truck’s off-road electronics, overall we’re glad the engineers and product planning gave it a light touch.
2020 Toyota Tacoma Specifications
|ON SALE||Late summer|
|ENGINE||3.5L DOHC 32-valve Atkinson cycle V-6; 278 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 265 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, 4WD pickup truck|
|EPA MILEAGE||20 mpg (combined)|
|L x W x H||212.3 x 75.2 x 71.6 in|
|0–60 MPH||7.7 sec|