Toyota Tacoma Models and Years Guide: Which Should You Buy?

The Toyota Tacoma is a real-life example of a Tonka truck. Tougher than a shovel, more useful than a Swiss Army knife, the Tacoma is the midsize truck beloved the world over. Body on frame construction, a live rear axle, and a stout 4WD system make this the truck of choice for an offroad build, or even daily driving in rough conditions.

In this article, we’ll go over every generation of Tacoma, explain attributes, common problems, and their readiness to modify, and finish off with a recommendation of which Toyota Tacoma Models and Years you should buy. Let’s get started.

1st Generation Tacoma(1995-2004)

The first-generation Tacoma is the best known and certainly one of the most popular in the offroad community. The Tacoma actually began as the Hilux, then came to the USA and became the Toyota Truck, then Tacoma. This is a no-frills, live axle pickup with cloth seats and stout differentials; no leather seats for you.

Power for the 1st gen is delivered from a trio of engines: a 2.4 liter 4 cylinder with 142 hp, a 2.7 liter 4 cylinder with 150 hp, and a 3.4 liter V6 with 190 hp. All three engines were designed during the reign of Genghis Kahn and will exist long after the Earth turns into a dead rock floating through the ether. They’re reliable.

One keynote is that in 1996, Tacoma switched from distributor to coil on plug ignition. Reliability did not suffer, but it is something to keep in mind when buying a 1st gen. There’s nothing bad with distributors, just something you may not expect.

Fuel economy with all three engines is 26, 20, and 21 mpg, respectively. If you want a Tacoma that sips petrol like a baby mouse, then the 2.4 liters 4 cylinder is your huckleberry, with 4WD or without. If you want a 1st gen Tacoma and 4WD, then you want the TRD package from 1998 and onward; that model had a locking front differential and the option of a TRD supercharger.

Couple that with the manual transmission and you have a brilliant rock crawler. There is also a huge aftermarket following for this truck, anything you want to modify, there are parts for it. One important thing to note is that only the SR5 1st gen Tacoma had a locking rear differential; the rest have limited-slip models.

Now for the bad part: Rust. Rust problems with the 1st generation Tacoma are pretty bad; 800,000 trucks were recalled due to frames being too rusty. However, Toyota does have a recall where they will replace your Tacoma frame if it is rusty enough and falls under the recall. Despite that, it is still a great truck and nearly unstoppable offroad.

Towing capacity with the 1st gen Tacoma is a solid 3,500 pounds with the 2.4 and 2.7 liters 4 cylinders, while the 3.4 liters V6 Tacoma can tow a maximum of 5,000 pounds. Being as this truck was created in the 90s, you won’t find blindspot monitoring, pedestrian detection, or even radar cruise control as standard

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2nd Generation Tacoma (2005-2015)

The 2nd generation Tacoma is one of the most common pickup trucks you will see on the road today, right up next to the Ford F-150. It launched in 2004 as a 2005 model year, with the most common engine choices being the 2.7 liters 4 cylinders and 4.0 liter V6, hooked to your choice of manual or automatic transmission. The manual has long thrown like a tractor and gear engagement like stirring cement, the automatic is a chunky unit that could pull a battleship if need be.

Locking differentials are reserved for the TRD-Offroad package; all other 2nd gen Tacomas have limited-slip differentials. If you like your trucks to have leather seats so plush they still moo, you’re out of luck here; leather seating was not an option for North American Tacomas from the factory. You can even have lane departure warnings; that just vibrates the steering wheel like a massage tool gone berserk to let you know you are lane drifting.

Reliability is Tacoma’s strong suit; it is not the most powerful truck out there, but it will be around long after everything else crumbles to dust. The 4 and 6 cylinder engines have no real problems with reliability, although the 2nd generation Tacoma is too big for the 4 cylinder engine.

The V6 is the best engine for this generation, with plenty of power and zero real issues. A note, it still has rear drum brakes. They are perfectly fine and last a long time with little fade. Unfortunately, the frame rust issue still plagues the 2nd generation Tacoma, although not nearly as bad as the 1st gen.

Towing capacity is a stout 3500 pounds with the 2.7 liter 4cylinder and automatic transmission, rising to 6500 pounds with the 4.0 liter V6 and the optional Tow package, which adds extra coolers, connectors, and a trailer sway controller.

Modifying the 2nd generation Tacoma is a pastime undertaken by many. There’s a huge aftermarket following, and because so many were made, you will have no trouble finding parts to replace broken pieces. Want to build an overlander rig? Here you go. If you want to buy a Tacoma, you should seriously consider the 2nd gen; the 3rd generation Tacoma did not change much beyond the body style.

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3rd Generation Tacoma (2015-Present)

The 3rd generation and current Tacoma is essentially a reskin of the 2nd generation Tacoma. You still have a body on frame, 4WD truck with a live rear axle, and drum brakes. Power still comes from a 2.7 liter 4 cylinder or 3.5 liter V6, coupled to a manual or automatic transmission.

If you like your Tacoma to be more of a Bentley, you’re in luck; leather seating and heated seats are options. You even get lane departure warnings. Locking rear differentials are standard on TRD models, all others make do with limited-slip differentials outback.

Reliability is baked into every Tacoma from the start; change your oil and be nice, and you’ll have many years with this truck. The engine to have whether you are offroading or towing is the 3.5 liter V6; again, the Tacoma is too big for the 2.7 liters 4 cylinders.

You’ll get much better driveability and fuel economy with the 3.5 V6, simply because you are not working the engine as hard. As with the 1st and 2nd generation Tacomas, you have the occasional rust issue, but not entire frames rusting away as with the 1st gen.

The 3rd generation Tacoma is very much a lifestyle vehicle. As such, it will do moderate offroading right from factree, but you will need to do modifications such as a regear, lift kit, and bigger tires before you touch down at Moab or venture into the backcountry. This is not to say you can’t offroad your Tacoma.

If you need to haul a trailer, then you will be limited to 3500 pounds with an automatic transmission 4 cylinder, and 6800 pounds with the 3.5 liters V6 and Tow package, which adds beefier transmission and power steering coolers, along with trailer wiring connectors and a sway controller.

To be fair, the 3rd generation Tacoma is a great truck, but it is more expensive than the 2nd generation Tacoma, without much more capability, while being the same truck underneath. However, if you have to have the latest truck, then the 3rd gen Tacoma will serve you well.

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Toyota Tacoma: Which one should I buy?

Out of the three Tacoma generations, the 2nd gen is the best for the money. It’s basically the same truck underneath as the brand new 3rd gen while being less expensive. Less luxurious, but less expensive and just as utilitarian. It also is bigger and tougher than the 1st gen Tacoma, making it the sweet spot.

Frequently Asked Questions

Question: Is my Tacoma good for towing regularly?

Answer: Depends on what you want to tow. A small jetski trailer will be no problem. If you are regularly towing more than 4,000 pounds, consider getting a bigger truck like a GMC Sierra.

Question: Which generation of Tacoma is the best for modifying?

Answer: Probably the 1st generation. It has a large aftermarket following, it is small and light, and it is very reliable, even when modified to the max.

Question: Can I put a plow on my Tacoma?

Answer: You could, but it is not designed for that kind of stress. Some plows are small enough to put on a Tacoma, but it is simply not heavy duty enough to be a consistent plow truck.

Toyota Tacoma Models: Verdict

Out of the three generations of Tacoma, the 2nd generation is the best. It has more power and capability than the 1st generation Tacoma, while not being plagued by the same frame rust issues. It is basically the same truck as the 3rd generation Tacoma, just less aggressive looking and expensive. Buy the 2nd generation Tacoma; stock or modified, it will do you right.

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