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Toyota Tacoma (Bill Petro/Toyota)
Toyota Tacoma (Bill Petro/Toyota)

2011 Toyota Tacoma

Toyota Tacoma turns up the charm Add to ...

There are a lot of pickup trucks in my neck of the Eastern Ontario woods so blending into the scenery was easier in Toyota's 2011 "Taco" - that's Tacoma to you non-trucky-types - than, say, the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Gullwing of a few months ago.

To attract much visual notice driving a pickup around here, it generally has to be really big, new and flashy and maybe Hemi-powered.

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Or if you're going for aural attention gratification, it should be fitted with a pair of glass packs from which most of the muffling fibreglass cotton candy has been carbonized and blown out the twin, big-bore tailpipes tucked under the tailgate.

But that doesn't mean a neat compact pickup such as the Tacoma Access Cab can't have its charms - and share of fans - as well. I knew this already, having made acquaintance with the Tacoma in the mid-1990s when it first appeared.

I recall spending a weekend off-roading in one, at times idling along in muddy water half way up to the door handles through some deep-in-the-woods slough. And later, while heading home in a paved alternate universe, booting along at the rural road limit or better and being surprised at how civilized this tough little truck was.

It was "littler" then. The Tacoma evolved from compact to more-like-mid-size status with its 2005 second-generation redesign and has become in many ways a more sophisticated device. My recent week with one reveals it hasn't lost its dual-nature character and capabilities.

Even though I didn't get this one very dirty, I'm sure it's every bit as competent in the boonies. And, as a daily driver, it remains - the high step up into the cab and jouncy ride aside - a comfortable, quiet and easy and, in its own way, fun-to-drive machine.

In utility terms, the bed out back isn't huge but a useful size for many, and the Access Cab adds the capability to carry a couple of passengers occasionally and provides secure storage for your "delicates" - the gear you don't want exposed to the elements.

The Tacoma was given a not-too-extensive styling makeover for 2009 and - as a new third-generation (sharing some of the new 4Runner SUV's mechanicals) will likely be along next year as a 2013 model - changes for 2011 were very minor.

Starting price is $21,895 in two-wheel-drive, four-cylinder manual form, and $25,995 for the four-by-four version. Stepping up to 4.0-litre V-6 power, available only with 4WD, will cost you $28,380. A Double Cab 4WD model, with real doors and a more usable rear compartments, starts at $32,645 and can climb to just less than $40,000.

The test truck was a four-cylinder four-by-four Access Cab, which came with most of the usual mid-$20K price tag level equipment - air conditioning, power windows, locks, tilt/telescope wheel, clock, an okay audio setup, stability control and three airbag systems.

Added to this was the $2,030 SR5 package, which includes leather-wrapped wheel with audio controls, 16-inch alloy wheels and some chrome trim, sliding rear window, cruise control, power mirrors, keyless entry and other odds and ends.

There's only so much you can do in styling terms with the basic pickup truck configuration, but Tacoma is as good-looking as any, and the Access Cab passenger compartment gives it better proportions than the longer four-door Double Cab version.

A big part of the unique character of this particular truck was its four-cylinder, 2.7-litre four-banger. This smooth and hard-pulling engine is rated at 159 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque and was working in the test truck's case with a five-speed manual gearbox (the optional automatic is a four-speed) that shifts with deliberation rather than deftness.

So, with a weight of 1,834 kg to motivate, it's no surprise it's not particularly quick off the mark. In fact, it's best to adopt an easy, elbow on the window ledge, relaxed driving style, although it can rowed up to highway merging speeds safely enough. I imagine the automatic is even less lively.

The one-touch part-time 4WD system's two-speed transfer case and limited slip rear differential, stiffly sprung independent front and solid axle rear suspension and high ground clearance are all it needs to maintain a reputation that has made it a popular choice - usually in used form - with serious off-roading enthusiasts. It's rated to tow 1,587 kg but don't expect it to do so with great enthusiasm.

The new Tacoma will undoubtedly be better in many ways than the current generation, but hopefully it won't be different in character.

2011 Toyota Tacoma

Tech specs

2011 Toyota Tacoma 4x4 Access Cab SR5

Type: Compact pickup truck

Base Price: $25,995; as tested, $29,720

Engine: 2.7-litre, DOHC, inline four

Horsepower/torque: 159 hp/180 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed manual

Drive: Four-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.5 city/9.2 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Chevrolet Colorado, Dodge Dakota, Ford Ranger, GMC Canyon, Nissan Frontier

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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