A common refrain on internet comment sections is “why can’t (car company) just make (old model vehicle) with the most basic loadout of modern amenities?” Trucks are just getting more gigantic, more needlessly decadent, more complicated, more outwardly aggressive, and way more expensive. For those who wonder why they don’t make them like they used to, may I introduce you to the 2023 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road, a brand new classic truck.
This truck was last updated in 2015, which already makes it pretty long in the tooth, but that was little more than a refresh. It’s been running on the same bones since 2005, which makes it ancient in the car world. Toyota gave it a facelift, updated the engine for better fuel economy, revised the interior, sprinkled on a handful of contemporary creature comforts… and that’s pretty much it. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
In this era where modern trucks are actually just luxury cars masquerading as symbols of masculinity, with their decadent “King” and “Crew” cabs and short little beds that can’t haul a sheet of drywall, our Tacoma rocks up to the plate with an old fashioned “Access Cab,” complete with tiny folding jump seats in the cramped rear that I haven’t seen since the 90’s. There’s suicide doors to ease access for getting your stuff in and out of the rear, which is for all intents and purposes just a cargo area, because you’re not putting anyone you actually like back there. There’s no crew, you’re not a king, you’re just trying to get the job done.
In lieu of limousine luxury, you get a six foot bed – meaning this relatively small truck is automatically more useful than every other press truck I’ve had to date, and it’s some thirty-odd thousand dollars cheaper, and it fits in an underground parking garage downtown. Said bed has little in the way of tricks; you get some movable tie-downs, and a 400 watt power outlet. No steps, no split tailgates, no speakers, no rulers, no gimmicks. It’s a pickup truck bed, not a hotel.
The un-fanciness continues in the cab of the Tacoma, where it presents as gloriously basic, but actually does provide some meaningful niceties. Materials are simple, durable, and feel like they’ll last, but won’t exactly impress anyone. The seats are cloth, but the driver’s seat is powered with adjustable lumbar, and both are fitted with powerful heaters. The only real glaring omission is the absence of a heated steering wheel – one of few modern niceties I really appreciate.
Tech wise, you get an eight-inch touch screen with a basic infotainment system that works fairly well, with good phone integration, voice support, and useful navigation. It’s low resolution and fuzzy, but it’s easy to figure out, and works well in conjunction with its physical shortcut buttons and knobs for volume and tuning, and it now has (…wired) Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. It even has fancy-pants radar cruise control, ooh la la. It doesn’t have blind spot monitoring though, but visibility is more than good enough to make do without, and after all, that’s the whole truck’s vibe.
Speaking of, it doesn’t have an automatic transmission, either, and it’s so much better this way. The Tacoma is one of the last pickups on the market that gives you the option to row your own gears, it’s that old school. Said manual shifter transforms the whole experience of the truck, making it very apparent from the get-go this is a work truck that takes some work to drive. Throws are long-ish and notchy, clutch take-up is long and a little heavy, and the secondary vibrations and shudders make it very tricky to be glass smooth, making it all the more rewarding when you get the rhythm right. Wonderful.
On the road, the Tacoma feels every bit like the twenty-ish year old truck that it is, not all in bad ways. Like, yes, okay, the chassis does have a lot of shudders, shimmies, and vibrations. The firm Bilstein shocks that come with the Off-Road package are hard and will crash violently over big bumps, with the occasional rear end bounce to keep you on your toes. Wind noise is apparent but abrasive, and road noise is only isolated by sheer virtue of being so far away from it, with 9.4 inches of ground clearance.
But having said all that, it drives in a way that only an older truck can. It’s not exactly the most delicate, precise instrument, but it’s wonderfully talkative and satisfying to wield. The steering is on the slower side and feels a little ponderous – you know, like a truck – but it’s one of the last hydraulically actuated steering racks on the market and as such, is thoroughly feelsome. Similar is the chassis, whose taut suspenders and penchant for transmitting shimmies also telegraphs exactly what the truck is doing at any given moment; what it lacks in refinement is made up for with reassuring communication. It all feels very right.
The brakes feel very right too, with a firm feel that’s more befitting of an old BMW than a work truck. The 3.5L V6 is joyously mechanical, and feels suitably old school in all the right ways, producing 278 horsepower over a smooth, linear torque curve with a brawny exhaust bark. It’s hiding some clever engineering tricks to aid fuel economy, like the ability to convert to an Atkinson cycle on the fly, or the ability to swap between direct and port fuel injection. We saw an average of 14.5 L/100kms in our mixed testing, but routinely saw a trip average dip below 10L/100km. It’s definitely not bad, but it’s also comparable to the much bigger, much more powerful trucks with more modern powertrains.
If all this neo-classic goodness sounds appealing to you, and you’re in the camp that’s willing to pay $43,990 for a vehicle that’s measurably worse than all of its competitors but also immeasurably more charming, get on it now, as this is the last year for this Tacoma before it sees a total redesign. It’s gonna be hard for Toyota; a big chunk of the Tacoma’s charm is that it’s a living fossil, and it will be interesting to see how Toyota balances that against the march of progress. It’ll inevitably be larger, likely with a much more aggressive schnoz in line with the Tundra, and it’ll probably drop the V6 in favor of a turbocharged four cylinder like everyone else, and the 6 speed manual will probably fade away along with it. I’d love to be wrong about this, but I doubt I am. This is (likely) the end of the line for the last honest pickup.
Those that say it’s too small, or not capable enough are probably the same fools that have never gotten their truck dirty, let alone hauled anything more than groceries from Costco. This is all the truck 99% of people could possibly need, and nothing more. All the posers that spend eighty grand (or more, easily) on massive monuments to toxic masculinity are fooling themselves, as this Tacoma will trounce them all on a jobsite, or a trail, by sheer virtue of the fact that it has a real bed and will fit places. The 2023 Tacoma TRD Off-Road is the real deal, purest, most distilled truck recipe there is, and it is perfect if you need your truck to function, not flex.