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My other problem was the slow steering response on older Toyotas. The latest rack-and-pinion has a steering ratio of 17.4:1, much quicker than the old recirculating ball that had a steering ratio of almost 24:1. The overall steering feel is now more precise and certainly easier to counter steer when skating on sand or a muddy lake bed.

More horsepower and additional gears give the Tacoma more of a rally-like attitude when hitting the desert roads. I found the 6-speed easy to shift under rugged conditions. The gear ratios are well suited to this type of driving and match up well with the 3.73:1 axle ratios. Low-end response is spirited, giving generous flexibility to gear selection.

The transfer-case Low ratio is 2:57:1, but the 6-speed has a lovable 4.17:1 First gear ratio, giving the Tacoma a competent crawl and hill-descent ratio of 39.97:1. The Tacoma has a clutch-start-cancel switch, allowing the driver to start the engine in gear and help climb out of difficult situations (I’ve used it before when the engine drowned in a water crossing but didn’t need it on this trip). The transfer case engaged smoothly when using the electronic control. Traditionalists prefer the security of a manual shift, but the customer tells Toyota they like a modern dash-mounted switch. I’ve only been stuck off-road once when an electronically controlled transfer case (not a Toyota) wouldn’t shift out Low when we reached the end of the trail. After 30 minutes of trying every possible solution, we were lucky enough to reboot the system by disconnecting the battery. Given a choice on any 4x4 I buy, I would rather have a manual transfer-case shifter.

One feature the old Tacoma had over the new models is tire choice. You could order 31-inch-tall tires with very aggressive tread. That provided great ground clearance and mud-slinging ability that was welcomed by hard-core off-roaders. They were also noisy and expensive to replace when cut on sharp rocks. The Tacoma TRD package give you P245/75R16 BFG tires that are mud and snow rated. They don’t fill up the wheel wells quite like the old 31-inchers but they do offer a better on-road ride, and ground clearance is a respectable 9.4 inches.

Some other off-road notes:

  • The Tacoma TRD package includes an electronic locking rear differential. Flick a switch on the dash and the rear end locks up. It’s designed for speeds under 5mph but it does work. I tried it a couple times on a rather slippery slope and gained enough traction each time to make it over the crest.
  • The parking brake is a pull-type on the right side of the steering column. I prefer a console-mounted hand lever for easier starts on an incline. But at least it’s on the right side.
  • The TRD package includes a bed-mounted 115-volt outlet to power accessories while on the trail, such as a compressor to air up tires. The inside of the bed is made from composite materials and is tough enough to haul dirt bikes or an ATV to the desert. It also features molded-in storage compartments. There’s also a standard deck rail system with 4 tie-downs.

In summation, it’s tough to find a better all-around off-road package in a compact pickup than what the Tacoma offers. I haven’t spent much time in the new Nissan Frontier with the Nismo equipment. The Frontier certainly has the engine power and some strong off-road credentials from the past. I’m looking forward to getting the underside dirty and making a few comparisons. In the meantime, I also want to get some serious seat time in the new Tacoma X-Runner. Like I said, Toyota is doing everything right with its downsized trucks.

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