You don't normally associate passionate, cutting edge design with Toyota trucks. Rather, Toyota has made its reputation among buyers from a conservative tradition of high quality and good performance.
Well, Toyota must be feeling more confident these days after the success of the Tundra full size pickup because 2001 marks the introduction of two new models - the Double Cab and S-Runner - to broaden the appeal of the conservative Tacoma compact truck lineup and bring to 17 the total number of body styles offered.
We recently had the opportunity to take each for a brief spin.
First, the Double Cab.
The Tacoma Double Cab jumps into the compact crew cab fray with both feet and four full size doors.
Before the Double Cab, Tacoma buyers who needed a larger truck to accommodate more passengers would have been forced to move into a competitor's truck, like the Nissan Frontier, into an SUV, where they would have lost cargo carrying capabilities, or into a full size truck like the Tundra. Now they can stay within the Toyota compact family where Toyota expects the Double Cab to make up at least 30% of all Tacoma sales.
The Double Cab is actually quite similar at first glance to its close cousin from overseas the Toyota Hi-Lux. The Hi-Lux originally sold in the United States from 1969 to 1975 as a two door pickup but was discontinued as a nameplate after the introduction of the SR5. Outside the United States, where Hi-Lux production has continued, it has earned a reputation as a solid, commercial-grade, four door truck, especially in countries like Australia.
The Double Cab takes the 'commercial' out of the Hi-Lux and combines its four door attributes with a new design unique to these shores based on the Xtracab chassis. The Double Cab offers a longer wheelbase and bed than its foreign Toyota counterpart. In fact, at 61.5-inches, the Double Cab's bed is longer than just about every other truck in the compact / mid-size segment with the exception of the notably larger Dodge Dakota Quad Cab's 63.1-inch bed.
We tested a 4x4 Tacoma Double Cab with the SR5 Chrome trim package priced at approximately $23,000.
On the outside, the Tacoma Double Cab sports a new front end common to all Tacomas for 2001. We can't say we were all that crazy about the styling because the chrome framed 'waterfall' grille seems a little out of place compared to the rest of the Toyota truck lineup - all the other grilles run horizontally. The parking lights along the front bumper and the bumper itself have also been redone for 2001. Strong body lines along the sides provide muscle while optional 16x7-inch alloy wheels added a touch of Tundra character.
Inside the Tacoma's cabin significant improvements have been made that were long overdue. Noise levels have been reduced by adding additional insulation to the truck. The doors have been redone and look and feel much more substantial than last year's model. The HVAC controls have been overhauled to three sensible dials from the previous truck's assortment of dials, buttons and sliders and white faced gauges add to the instrument panel's contemporary looks. We wish the clock and passenger airbag cutoff switch would swap positions so it would be easier to glance at the time while driving. The Double Cab's dash also includes a button to lock the rear differential on demand for any precarious off-road situations. The diff can only be locked while in 4x4 mode on the 4x4 truck or while moving at 5mph or less in the Pre-Runner version.
Though we didn't get to drive off-road or test any of its four wheel drive capabilities, the Double Cab performed with typical Toyota aplomb.
Our truck had the 3.4-liter DOHC 24-valve V6 engine. While its 190 horses are quite adequate for the smaller Xtracab model, the heavier Double Cab seems to be missing a little oomph, especially relative to archrival Nissan's Frontier Crew Cab and its new 210 horsepower supercharged engine.
The Toyota's build quality really shines on the road where there is nary shake, squeak or rattle. Even at speeds up to 60 mph road noise seemed to barely penetrate the cabin - quite good for a 4x4 truck with its larger wheels and tires.
Ride quality revealed the Tacoma still retains much of its pickup heritage even though its front half looks like an SUV. The passenger compartment quickly offers a bouncy ride on poorly maintained roads. If we had our choice we would have liked to have driven the Double Cab with the optional Toyota Racing Development Off-Road package. The TRD Double Cab comes equipped with Tokico shocks and larger front stabilizer bar. Its firmer suspension would probably have provided better handling. Even without the TRD package, the Double Cab's class leading ground clearance provides a commanding view of the road and extra margin during off-roading.
Overall the Double Cab's longer bed, large amount of interior room and superior fit and finish add up to a strong offering in the compact crew cab segment.
Next we drove the 2001 Tacoma S-Runner.
The S-Runner is the sleeper hit of the Tacoma family of trucks. We were even surprised to see it because the S-Runner has been somewhat lost in the shadow of the Double Cab.
Call it a Chevy S-10 Xtreme fighter, the S-Runner is pitched right at the same audience the Xtreme has done so well to address. Aimed at young truck enthusiasts the S-Runner features a 1-inch lowered suspension and Tokico shocks containing low-speed valves to reduce body roll. Also, like the Xtreme, the S-Runner arrives with a color keyed exterior and choice of stepside or fleetside bed. For fans of the dark side, Toyota Racing Development offers a dealer installed body kit that would make Darth Vader proud to add with its aggressive chin and side skirting. Though not as wide as the Xtreme's 16x8-inch wheels, the S-Runner's 16x6.5-inch five spoke rims still look sharp and offer lots of traction clad in Bridgestone P235/55R16 Potenza tires.
Starting the S-Runner's V6 up you immediately become aware of the great exhaust note Toyota worked hard to create for the truck. Though it does nothing for performance it sure sounds cool.
A five speed manual ensures the S-Runner will stay strictly in the hands of enthusiasts - its short throws and V6 power offer quick starts and great performance at a bargain basement price. If you really want to play with power, you can order an optional dealer installed TRD supercharger kit for the S-Runner which will really turn this truck into a genuine streetfighter boosting horsepower to 260 horses! At $2800 though this is an option for the well-established enthusiast.
We spent less time in the S-Runner than in the Double Cab but we enjoyed the ride and handling much more.
The interior is well appointed with the updated instrument panel and comfortable seating that includes power lumbar support for the driver. One item sorely missed on the S-Runner was an optional third door on the Xtracab. You can order an S-10 Xtreme with this option and it makes for a much more pleasant experience when stowing gear behind the back seat.
Priced at under $20,000 we expect the S-Runner to be more popular than Toyota expects once it gains exposure in the marketplace.