Why The Toyota Tacoma Trail Edition Is The Best Off-Road Taco

Test Drive / 12 Comments

Toyota has found the Tacoma's off-roading sweet spot.

The Toyota Tacoma is one of America's favorite trucks for a series of reasons. The midsize hauler is neither too small nor too big to drive daily; it has Toyota's strands of reliability DNA baked into its core and can be configured to suit most pockets, wants, or needs. While we wait for an all-new 2023 model, Toyota has made a few changes to the truck's trims. It's still available with the base model's 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine or the throatier and more accomplished 3.5-liter V6 making 278 horsepower. But new to the options list is the budget-friendly off-roading Trail Edition, so when Toyota dropped an example of the new Tacoma variant with us, we viewed it with interest and planned some trails to drive. What transpired was an appreciation for going back to basics.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright

What's Added To The Trail Edition?

A truck is a truck is a truck, so the only real area designers can express their creativity is with the whole front end and the taillights. Toyota gets that, and this generation of Tacoma's face is instantly recognizable. If you're noticing something is different on the Trail Edition, though, you are right. It comes with the TRD Pro's "Heritage-Inspired Grille," the front air dam has been removed, and it's fitted with the skid plates from the lesser-specced TRD Off-Road model. The Trail Edition also gets a 1.1-inch suspension lift at the front that's balanced out with a 0.5-inch lift at the back. Getting on our hands and knees, we could see the lift comes courtesy of longer coil springs for the front and an added spacer in the leaf springs at the rear.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
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The Relentlessly Reliable Drivetrain

While the SR5 trim level that the Trail Edition is based on can be had with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder edition providing a modest 159 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque, the Trail Edition has to be optioned with the more acceptable V6, four-wheel-drive, and the double-cab configuration. That naturally aspirated V6 makes a much more useable 278 hp and 265 lb-ft. It may be a little thirsty compared to more modern turbocharged units, but it's as reliable as Swiss clockwork and as rugged as you want in the desert in the middle of summer or in Alaska through the depths of winter. The Trail Edition is also four-wheel-drive only and benefits from a locking rear differential and Toyota's unexciting but dutifully reliable six-speed automatic transmission. As the Trail Edition has the V6 engine, it automatically comes with the Tacoma Tow Package and a rating to pull 6,400 pounds.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright

Pure Off-Road Fun

The Trail Edition lacks a lot of features of the top trim TRD models, and that's where the beauty lies here. Despite many off-road adventures in Toyotas for fun days out and a little camping, Crawl Control or Multi-Terrain Select are costly features that we've yet to feel the need to rely on - as effective as they may be for hardcore adventurers undaunted by heavy rain or snow. For us and the vast majority of Tacoma owners that like to get their truck dirty, a lockable rear diff, a set of off-road-biased tires, and the increased approach angle (34 degrees) afforded by losing the front air dam will be plenty. The improved 23.6-degree departure angle is also a welcome upgrade, especially when we were exploring the steeper trails of Johnson Valley in California.

The Trail Edition did exactly as intended and dealt with every kind of trail we found with confidence and sure-footedness. That was all tested with steep, slippery, pebbled trails, deep ruts, and rocky areas to pick through. A few times we needed to lock the rear diff, and when we ventured across soft sand, the conclusion was that airing down a set of more aggressive tires would be the smarter upgrade over a locking front diff.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright

The Only Downside Isn't A Steep One

The Tacoma has never been in any danger of winning awards for its manners on the pavement. With the Trail Edition's lift, it's hard to tell if you are using more steering wheel inputs to keep it in a straight line, but you still are. The lift does give the Tacoma more compliance on the road than the standard suspension, but the now-extra compression on the springs doesn't help. On balance, it is a little better in comfort up front. The steering is still vaguer than it should be for a midsize truck and requires constant attention around town. While the overall experience of driving the Tacoma on the road isn't unpleasant, it's not exactly relaxing either. But, we've yet to describe any Tacoma as being relaxing on the road.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright

A Nice Surprise In The Back

The SR5 interior is just about what we want in a truck that's going to get used for truck things. Inside is a 10-way adjustable driver's seat and durable cloth seating throughout the cabin. The leather trim is nice and all that, but we prefer the cloth when you get right down to it. However, our favorite Trail Edition addition is the pair of lockable storage bins in the truck's bed. They are long and useful, and the driver's side bin is insulated so it can also act as a cooler.

Back in the cabin, the eight-inch multimedia touchscreen supports Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Amazon Alexa. This is hooked up to a six-speaker sound system. While not the most sophisticated setup, Toyota has now made sure everyone has the connectivity they want upfront.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright

Why Is It So Special?

What Toyota has done with the Trail Edition is put together the perfect recipe of only what is needed to go and enjoy some off-road adventuring - and priced it appropriately. The bottom line is that we enjoyed the more basic and mechanical driving experience off-road in the Tacoma. The suspension came into its own along with the extra ground clearance and approach/departure angles, and again, we were reminded why we love Toyota off-roaders despite their tendency towards annoying road manners. We didn't miss the TRD Pro's tuned Internal Bypass FOX shocks for comfort and ability for enjoyable off-roading, and it's a savage off-road enthusiast that needs things like the TRD Pro's machine-forged upper control arms.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright

Essentially, the Trail Edition is a $3,765 package to an SR5 optioned as a double-cab with a five-foot bed, the V6 engine, and all-wheel-drive. As-built, the $41,285 price tag (including the $1,215 delivery charge) puts it in the Tacoma lineup below the $50,505 TRD Pro. To us, that makes the Trail Edition the real everyman's midsize off-road truck. From there, we would add some rock rails for added protection when getting deeper into narrow canyons, but that's about it. The only thing we could ask for is the option of a locking front diff, but at that point, you may as well go for the TRD Pro and have the bells and whistles that could come in handy in the harshest of conditions. As off-road hobbyists rather than hardcore enthusiasts, though, we would rather invest in a set of extra wheels to swap out with dedicated off-road tires.

CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright
CarBuzz / Ian Wright

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