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Toyota Tacoma Double Cab stingy on space, spendy at the pump

Toyota’s midsize pickup is the old workhorse on the block these days, having hung around while Chevy and Ford went off in search of greener pastures. Does it stand up to the rest of the pack?

The 2020 Toyota Tacoma gets some infotainment and safety upgrades, but otherwise resembles the 2016, its last redesign.
The 2020 Toyota Tacoma gets some infotainment and safety upgrades, but otherwise resembles the 2016, its last redesign.Read moreToyota

2020 Ford Ranger XLT SuperCrew 4x4 vs. 2020 Toyota Tacoma TRD 4x4 Double Cab: Good things in small packages?

This week: 2020 Toyota Tacoma

Price: $45,288 as tested. $1,670 for Advanced Technology Package; $485 for LED headlights; more below.

Conventional wisdom: Car and Driver likes that it is “great for off-roading, rugged and reliable, packed with driver-assistance tech,” but not the “crew cab’s tiny back seat, automatic gearbox is uncoordinated, interior quality is disappointing.”

Marketer’s pitch: “Play harder.”

Reality: Still Tacoma-y after all these years.

Catching up: Last week we tried out the new (for 2019) Ford Ranger, which was a fun ride and had excellent fuel economy.

» READ MORE: 2020 Ford Ranger offers big things in a small package

What’s new: The Tacoma gets some infotainment and safety upgrades but remains pretty much the same since the 2016 model year.

A real test: I begged mightily for the fleet company to meet me at my mom’s place when we visited up north in July. I knew that the chance to drive one vehicle 100 miles one way (the VW Atlas) and return in this one would give me a great perspective.

I didn’t know how right I would be.

On the road: The Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport takes SUVs to sporty extremes, and makes the roads more fun and enjoyable than they otherwise would be.

The Tacoma takes all of that right back out.

Consider — it’s a super tall, small truck floating around on giant balloons for tires. So it requires a ton of energy just navigating simple curves and keeping it between the lines.

But, like the frog who doesn’t notice the slowly boiling water, Mr. Driver’s Seat adapted to his environment and within a few days found the Tacoma somewhat enjoyable.

But it’s still bouncy on rough roads. Really, we should not let our vehicles do this to us.

Up to speed: The 3.5-liter V-6 in the test model creates a whopping 278 horsepower, and this powers the truck admirably. It reaches 60 mph in 7.1 seconds, according to a Motor Trend test of a 2016.

But nothing about the Tacoma made it a rollicking good, high-speed time like the Ranger.

Lesser Tacomas are powered by a 2.7-liter four that creates just 159 horses. I doubt that’s the recipe for fun.

Shifty: The gearshift is standard Toyota — it looks like a shiftable automatic, but really it’s just a fancy gear selector. And it’s just a 6-speed, kind of retro.

A manual transmission is available only in this (upscale) trim level, so yay Toyota! I had a stick a few years back and loved it.

The Tacoma performs nicely on real mountains, but it feels shifty and indecisive on Southeast Pennsylvania’s rolling hills.

Driver’s Seat: The seats come covered in leather and are heated, thanks to the $4,285 TRD Premium Off-road Package, which also adds automatic climate control, Premium JBD audio, and more. They’re a fairly comfortable perch, though a hair firm.

The gauge layout is simple but attractive enough and easy to read.

Friends and stuff: The back seats function as a threat. “Be good, kids, or we’ll take the Tacoma to Grandma’s.” The rear suffers poor legroom and headroom, the headrest is in the way, and the setback is too straight. But, bright side, foot room is dandy!

There’s a little bit of storage underneath, too.

The 6-foot bed feels a lot shorter than it is somehow. I didn’t just have my usual compost heap drop-off — branches you can just pile higher and higher — but I also had building materials to take to the landfill, so maybe this was more noticeable. The space just disappeared in a hurry — the bed seemed especially shallow.

Consider that I recently put 1,100 pounds of detritus into the Sturgis Family Sienna, but just 450 in the Tacoma, according to the Lanchester scale.

Product info says the Tacoma can carry up to 1,620 pounds and tow up to 6,800, less than the Ranger on both counts.

Play some tunes: The infotainment system functions as most Toyotas', volume on left, tuning on right, buttons for functions, and a touchscreen that’s not too hard to get around.

The Premium JBL Audio sounds pretty good, maybe an A- — which is really good for a Toyota.

Keeping warm and cool: Dials control the temperature and another controls fan speed. Heat source is a toggle switch in the middle of the fan button. Super simple.

Round vents are easy to direct and twist off.

Fuel economy: I averaged about 18 mpg in mostly country driving, and that’s about the best you’ll get out of a four-wheel-drive pickup truck these days. Feed it whatever.

Where it’s built: San Antonio, Texas

How it’s built: Consumer Reports predicts the Tacoma’s reliability to be a 3 out of 5, a tick below the Ranger.

In the end: If you need rugged off-road capabilities or a stick shift, the Tacoma is your choice. But the Ranger combines so much more fun and comfort with better economy, that would be my vote.