Auto Evolution: Perfectly Compact, Practical, and Reliable – The Toyota Tacoma Story

Toyota Tacomas have become synonymous with reliability and practicality. What many affectionately call the “taco” evolved into a truck loved as much as the Mexican snack it shares its nickname with. Despite bearing Toyota's stellar reliability rating, the Tacoma's history still had its share of unsavory moments, think bad taco nights, and emergency bathroom breaks.
Toyota Tacoma history and evolution 11 photos
Photo: Toyota/Edited
First generation Toyota TacomaFirst generation Toyota TacomaFourth Generation Toyota TacomaFourth Generation Toyota TacomaSecond Generation Toyota TacomaSecond Generation Toyota TacomaSecond Generation Toyota TacomaThird Generation Toyota TacomaThird Generation Toyota TacomaFourth Generation Toyota Tacoma
Pickup trucks might not be something everyone wants, but they certainly represent something everyone needs: getting things done. When Toyota released its pickup truck to the American market, it was able to do just that, doing its job in the most straightforward way it could. It was affordable, practical, and, most of all, reliable, but what it didn't have was... a name. Since it functioned like a pickup, Toyota simply called it the Toyota Pickup. But hey, if Hyundai can get away with being as descriptive by calling their early sports car the Hyundai Coupe, why can't Toyota, right?

The Japanese automaker kept its truck's semblance of a name for over 20 years until the Pickup finally earned itself an actual nameplate in 1995. This was when Toyota Tacoma history was made, with its first generation representing everything people loved about the original pickup and more. Like indulging in tacos, owning a Tacoma throughout its numerous generations could result in quite a temperamental experience. At times, these trucks displayed the trademark Toyota reliability owners have come to expect. In other instances, they basically crumbled, rendering them useless, and nobody enjoys wasted Tacos, right? Here, we 'taco' 'bout what made this ubiquitous pickup good, bad, and everything in between.

First-generation Toyota Tacoma (1995 to 2004)

First generation Toyota Tacoma
Photo: Toyota
The original Tacoma was the first Toyota Pickup truck to be designed and made in America. It was only fitting to be named after a monumental active volcano in Washington. Like its namesake, the Tacoma stood out from the rest as one of the best-selling pickup trucks in the country. The Tacoma not only earned Truck of the Year awards on multiple occasions, but it also garnered a legion of dedicated fans in the process. Such favorable reception led to Toyota selling nearly 1.5 million units within the US alone.

Tacomas were getting so popular that the company kept producing its first generation for almost ten years, only making a few aesthetic changes and safety improvements in lengthy intervals. It underwent two facelifts, with the second facelift dropping over five years later, never to happen again for another half-decade. Power-wise, the Toyota Tacoma engine choices ranged from a 2.4-liter straight-four putting out a decent 142 horsepower to a punchy 3.4-liter V6 rated at almost 200 horsepower. Of course, Toyota knew it needed to showcase more than its renowned reliability to beat the competition; the automaker eventually ended the original Tacoma's production in 2004 to make way for a bigger, better, bodacious Taco.

Second-generation Toyota Tacoma (2005 to 2015)

Second Generation Toyota Tacoma
Photo: Toyota
While the first-generation Tacoma's solid Toyota reliability rating didn't require much fixing to begin with, that doesn't mean it no longer had any room for improvement. This is where the second generation comes in, making Toyota Tacoma history by being its longest-running production model yet. The Tacoma successor sported a sharper front fascia, enlarged headlights and grille, and lighter yet sturdier sheet-molded compound (SMC) deck, resulting in a tougher, meaner, and more potent pickup truck. The second-gen Tacoma engine size was increased to a 4-liter V6 generating 240 horsepower.

For a decade, Toyota continued introducing a series of meaningful improvements to the Tacoma, making it the best-selling compact pickup truck in America by 2008. Unfortunately, several units suffered from debilitating rust problems that made these vehicles brittle enough to literally break in two. This forced Toyota to settle a whopping $3.4 billion class action lawsuit, offering to cover frame repair expenses for all the affected Tacos from 2005 to 2010.

Such legal hurdles didn't stop the Japanese carmaker from ending the second-generation Tacoma's production run with a bang, though, as it unveiled its ultimate TRD Sport variant in 2015 – a race-ready performance upgrade straight from the factory. After such a lengthy production run, it was only a matter of time before Toyota cleared its taste buds of rust by introducing the next Taco on the menu.

Third-generation Toyota Tacoma (2016 to 2023)

Third Generation Toyota Tacoma
Photo: Toyota
Just when you thought Toyota would be contented with merely facelifting its second-gen Tacomas for another decade or so, the third generation arrived on the scene. The improved Tacoma was given better ride comfort along with all the technological benefits of the modern era. Top-of-the-line Tacos offered an ensemble of new mouth-watering flavors (read: features) such as wireless charging, Android Auto/Apple Carplay, Panoramic View monitors, a new Crawl mode, moonroofs, and more. Aside from incorporating larger, more responsive infotainment screens, the new Tacoma also featured Toyota's Safety Sense (TSS), which provided additional safety features like collision prevention and driving assistance.

Despite the high-end Mk 3 Tacoma engine size packing a smaller displacement 3.5-liter V6, it still ramped up the horsepower to almost 280. Towing capacity was also bumped to up to 6,800 lbs. But underneath, it's basically the same practical compact truck, albeit with a handful of modern touches. Yes, that means the second generation's less desirable characteristics were also carried over in the form of more Toyota Tacoma recalls.

Over 220,000 units were plagued with issues ranging from potential oil leaks to faulty anti-corrosion coating. Another 75,400 units were susceptible to a recall involving problematic child seat anchors improperly installed on certain Tacomas from 2022 to 2023. Looks like it's time to whip up another Taco again.

Fourth-generation Toyota Tacoma (2024 onward)

Fourth Generation Toyota Tacoma
Photo: Toyota
When Toyota unveiled the 2024 Tacoma, it emphasized that the new model wasn't just another refresh but an entirely different off-roading monster. Enter the fourth-generation Tacoma, a truck the automaker deems the "ultimate adventure machine." Considering the 2024 Tacoma engine choices comprising two 2.4-cylinder four-cylinder turbocharged motors, the new Toyota pickup has become more practical and less prone to guzzling gas.

Compared to its chunky V6 engines in the past, these forced induction + hybrid electric counterparts have enough oomph to transform this fourth iteration into the most powerful Toyota Tacoma ever made so far. Its standard configuration produces as much horsepower as the highest trim level of its predecessor, while the optional i-Force Max model bumps those figures up to 326 horsepower.

Four-wheel disc brakes, coil spring multi-link rear suspension, electric power steering, and a seven-percent truck bed volume increase are all welcome additions to the Tacoma family. In hopes of burying the nameplate's infamous structural integrity woes, the new mid-sized pickup was reinforced with high-strength steel and aluminum to bolster its frame's durability. That said, these Tacos have been demonstrating for decades how less can be more, better, even.

The entire Toyota Tacoma history highlights an evolution that continued growing without straying too far from its core principles: being a simple, practical, and reliable solution that gets the job done. Sounds just like a certain Mexican snack! Now, is it Tuesday yet?
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About the author: Kyle Encina
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Kyle still remembers the times when people read magazines, after all that's what sparked his passion for cars and tech. In 2016, he's turned that passion into a journalism career fueled by a unique view afforded by his mix of philosophy and business degrees.
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