2020 Toyota Tacoma freshened; bigger changes ahead for America’s top-selling compact pickup?

2020 Toyota Tacoma

What changes will make the 2020 Toyota Tacoma different?

Freshened styling, extra comfort and convenience features, and enhanced off-road hardware are the first significant changes since this third-generation Tacoma debuted for model-year 2016.

The model-year-2020 updates for America’s best-selling compact pickup truck amount to a carefully considered midcycle freshening just in time to counterpunch the introduction of two tough new competitors, the Ford Ranger and Jeep Gladiator.

Bigger changes of may be just around the corner, however. The next-generation Tacoma will share its underpinnings with Toyota’s full-size Tundra pickup, according to industry publication Automotive News. Specifics about the common platform and what if any mechanical features would be shared were still secret, Automotive News reported in April 2019. But it said the new pickups could be introduced during 2020, as 2021 models. It also said both trucks would offer some form of electrified powertrain, with possibilities ranging from something as simple as a small, power-boosting electric motor to a full plug-in-hybrid system.

Platform sharing would make economic sense, allowing Toyota to stop devoting exclusive resources to the slow-selling Tundra while letting revenues from the hot-selling Tacoma support development and production of both. The new, shared frame would be adaptable enough to be sized for both the compact Tacoma, which competes with such pickups as the Ford Ranger and Chevrolet Colorado, and the full-size Tundra, which counts the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado among its rivals.

In any event, the next-generation Tacoma is likely to be larger than today’s model. Pickups have grown dramatically in size (and price) over the past two decades. Today’s Tacoma is longer overall than the 1993-1998 Toyota T100 pickup, which competed in the full-size class.

Buyers don’t seem to mind. Tacoma is far and away the top seller in its class. Sales climbed 25 percent for 2018, nearly double those of its closest competitor, the Colorado. And despite the long-awaited debut of the Ranger and Gladiator, Tacoma’s torrid pace is continuing in 2019, with sales up 8 percent through the first quarter.

Note that driving impressions in this review are based on road tests of the 2019 Tacoma. We had not tested the 2020 in time for this review, but we can draw some subjective conclusions based on official information about the ’20 Tacoma released by Toyota in February 2019.

Should I wait for the 2020 model or buy the 2019?

Wait for the 2020 because it has some meaningful style and technology updates. Granted, it’ll cost more than a ’19. But with demand still strong, Toyota isn’t apt to offer significant incentives on 2019 Tacomas, even as the freshened ‘20s start arriving on dealer lots.

Tacoma’s broad model lineup carries over for 2020. It consists of the contractor-grade SR, the mainstream SR5, and the street-themed TRD Sport. For off-roading, there’s the TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro, and for flagship amenities, the Limited.

All but the TRD Pro and Limited come as the Access Cab two-door extended cab with a 6-foot-long cargo bed. Every ’20 Tacoma will again be available with the Double Cab four-door crew-cab with a 5-foot bed. A 6-foot bed is available on the Double Cab SR5, TRD Sport, and TRD Off-Road.

SR and SR5 come standard with a four-cylinder engine. Optional on those grades and standard otherwise is a V-6. Depending on trim level selection, you can choose from rear-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive (4WD). The 4WD system comes with low-range gearing for off-road use but is a part-time setup that should not be left engaged on dry pavement.

Is the styling different?

Yes. All 2020 Tacomas feature new grille and wheel designs. They don’t drastically alter the truck’s looks, however. Tacoma retains a distinctive, tough-truck appearance versus the more urbane styling of the Ranger and the Colorado and its sibling, the GMC Canyon.

The ’20 Tacoma TRD Pro grade deserves special mention for its unique design cues. It reprises lightweight 16-inch wheels on Kevlar-reinforced off-road tires, decorative and functional underbody skid plates, and TRD Pro badging both on the outside of the vehicle and stitched on the front-seat headrests.

Tacoma’s uncomplicated personality extends to the interior as well. Everything is well laid out and highly functional, from the large, clear gauge cluster to the audio/infotainment and climate interfaces. The latter systems are upgraded for 2020 and all grades include satellite radio, Apple CarPlay, and Amazon Alexa integration. Tacoma will also be one of the first Toyota vehicles to get support for Google Android Auto. A surround-view camera is a new feature that’s available on TRD Sport and higher models.

Tacoma’s weak link is passenger room and comfort. The seats are close to the floor, forcing a relatively legs-out position rather than the chair-height posture you get in rivals. And the tough-look styling dictates a low roofline, so the cabin feel more claustrophobic than in other midsize-class pickups.

Access Cabs have two rear outboard seating positions. The cushions are rock hard, and there’s virtually no legroom. Double Cabs have a more traditional three-across rear bench. The seating surface is much more comfortable, though legroom is no better than in a compact sedan. One notable, and welcome, change for the ’20 Tacoma is that the available keyless access system now works on the front-passenger door; it only works with the driver’s side on 2016-19 models.

Interior storage is quite good, with a decently sized center console and glovebox. Double Cabs have locking bins under the rear seat cushions and hidden compartments behind the seatbacks.

Any mechanical changes?

Yes, mostly in off-road enhancements to the TRD Pro. High-tech trail assistance is now available with introduction of the Panoramic View Monitor (PVM) + Multi Terrain Monitor (MTM). The driver can select front, side, or rear views for improved visibility. An under vehicle terrain view can help the driver avoid potential unseen obstacles. New 16-inch wheels are 4.2-pounds lighter than the previous wheels, reducing unsprung weight. Toyota also retuned the Fox-brand 2.5-inch internal bypass shock absorbers and front and rear springs.

Otherwise, SR and SR5 models of both cab styles are again available with a 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine of 159 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque. The four is available only with rear-wheel drive and only with a six-speed automatic transmission. This engine feels overmatched in the Tacoma, and we can’t recommend it unless you can’t stretch your budget for the V-6.

Standard in the balance of the ’20 Tacoma lineup and included with 4WD is a 3.5-liter V-6 with 278 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque. Toyota offers the V-6 with a six-speed manual transmission on the TRD Sport Access Cab and Double Cab, on the TRD Off Road Double Cab, and on the TRD Pro Double Cab. All other V-6 Tacomas come with a six-speed automatic.

This is the engine to get. Its power delivery is much stronger than the four-cylinder, though it’s neither as smooth nor as refined as the available V-6 motor in the Colorado or Canyon. Tacoma could benefit from an automatic transmission with more than six speeds. During our evaluation of a 2019 TRD Pro, it often felt uncertain of the gear it wanted to use, especially in moderate-speed suburban commuting. Its shifts weren’t the smoothest, either. Perhaps Toyota’s engineers will do some fine tuning for 2020 to improve the transmission’s behavior.

Noise suppression likely won’t be a strong point either. The primary source of racket is the engine, at least on V-6 models. It’s very loud at startup and during accelerating while not fully calming down at cruise. TRD Pro models exacerbate this issue with their free-flowing performance exhaust that we’re convinced produces more noise than extra horsepower.

Ride quality and handling prowess should remain appropriately truck-like. Despite its raised suspension and other serious off-road hardware, the TRD Pro is surprisingly compliant on pavement. There’s only a trace of axle hop with an unladen bed.

While we were unable to venture off the beaten path during our review period, this is the Tacoma to get if you want to bash rocks with the best of the class, namely the Colorado ZR2 and ZR2 Bison and the Gladiator Rubicon. Steering feel is dull, especially on the TRD Pro, but the truck never feels tippy or unsafe when going around turns at speed.

Will fuel economy improve?

Extremely unlikely. The styling changes aren’t liable to improve aerodynamics enough to impact fuel economy, and with powertrains and curb weights unchanged, EPA ratings for the 2020 Tacoma should repeat those of the 2019’s.

With rear-wheel drive, expect four-cylinder models to rate 20/23/21 mpg city/highway/combined and V-6 versions to rate 19/24/21.

With 4WD and the V-6 engine, count on ratings of 17/21/18 mpg with manual transmission and 18/22/20 with the automatic. The TRD Off-Road and TRD Pro would rate 17/20/18 mpg with manual transmission and 18/22/20 with the automatic. Our 2019 TRD Pro automatic returned a very respectable 20.1 mpg in our suburban test loop.

All Tacomas would use regular-grade 87-octane gasoline.

Will there be new features?

Some. The most significant upgrades come in the form of convenience and infotainment. The addition of Android Auto is welcome and something we hope will get rolled out to future models as well as for owners of recent Toyota vehicles. Base SR models will use a 7-inch touchscreen while all other Tacomas will have an 8-inch unit. A power driver’s seat also becomes standard on the SR5 and above.

Also standard on all 2020 models is Toyota Safety Sense P (TSS-P), which includes autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-departure warning, automatic high-beam headlights, and adaptive radar cruise control.

A complete list of standard equipment for the 2020 Tacoma was not available in time for this review, but we think it’s safe to assume everything that was included on the ’19 will return.

SR grades would include a full complement of power accessories, cloth upholstery, three USB power points, and a sliding rear window. Moving to the SR5 will add the aforementioned power driver’s seat and infotainment screen upgrade along with fog lights and remote entry.

Among TRD grades, the Sport would have pushbutton engine start (automatic transmission only), wireless smartphone charging, LED daytime running lights, imbedded GPS navigation, and a 120-volt power outlet in the bed. Off-Road grades would have all this plus upgraded 4WD hardware. The TRD Pro would add even beefier off-road kit, specific exterior and interior trim, leather upholstery, and blind-spot alert with rear cross-traffic detection.

Limited buyers can expect standard leather seating surfaces, dual-zone automatic climate control, power sunroof, and a JBL-brand audio system.

Will 2020 prices be different?

Toyota had not released 2020 Tacoma prices in time for this review. But they’ll almost certainly increase — and probably by more than typical year-over-year inflation. Base prices here include the automaker’s destination fee, which was $1,005 on the ’19 Tacoma.

Tacoma will again be available in some 33 different powertrain/cab/bed/trim configurations. For reference, the 2019 lineup started at $26,795 for a rear-drive SR Access Cab with the four-cylinder engine and escalated from there, to $46,760 for the TRD Pro Double Cab with automatic transmission.

Among some of the most popular configurations, the V-6 4WD SR5 cost $31,795 as a long-bed Access Cab and $36,085 as a short-bed Double Cab. The 4WD TRD Sport Double Cab short bed was priced from $37,860. The TRD Off Road Double Cab with the V-6 and 4WD started at $36,230 with manual transmission and $38,470 with automatic. Base prices were $41,960 for the 4WD V-6 Limited Double Cab and $46,760 for the TRD Pro Double Cab with automatic transmission.

Among carried-over 2020 options, the SR’s “SX” Package ($570 on the ’19 Tacoma) would again add blackout exterior trim. The TRD Off-Road Premium Package ($710) would include dual-zone automatic climate control and heated front seats. The $1,480 Technology Package includes the Premium Package plus rear-obstacle detection and blind-spot/rear cross-traffic alert.

A folding tonneau cover would be $650 on most models. All other optional equipment would come in the form of dealer-installed accessories.

When does it come out?

Expect a 2020 Toyota Tacoma release date in summer 2019.

Best competitors

Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, GMC Canyon, Honda Ridgeline, Jeep Gladiator, Nissan Frontier

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]