The Tacoma gives you the sense that you are driving a well-tuned modified 4x4 on the street. Power and acceleration is excellent, as the V-6 engine produces solid low-end torque and rowing through the six-speed manual transmission made cruising the canyons and countryside more enjoyable. The truck never feels too big, so navigating the city is very stress free. While the Tacoma stopped just fine, judges did notice that the brake pedal felt firm and required more effort to engage than expected.
One element that bugged some judges, but didn't bother others was the TRD Performance exhaust. It is the type of exhaust that is just loud enough to get on your nerves if you notice it, but not annoying enough where your neighbors will think that you are part of some import street racing gang. It's always a challenge to get a good rumble out of a V-6 and Toyota did a decent job of matching the sound and performance.
There was also a bit of cabin noise in the form of squeaks, A/C fan flutters, and rattles. The sounds were intermittent, but annoying on rough roads. Overall, for a truck that is meant to blaze quickly down desert trails, it handles surprisingly sporty on the road. We hate when "trendy" magazines like to compare the handling of a truck to a sports car, so we'll just say that it feels stable enough on twisting roads that you could probably drive it faster than you should.
With Baja plastered onto the side of the bed, the off-road performance expectations (especially at speed) were high for the Tacoma. The truck was built to go fast, and the faster you go over desert roads, the more it rewards you. The slower you go however, the harsher the suspension felt. To get the most out of the pickup you sometimes had to white knuckle it through the large whoop sections. Fast is fun, but it can be very dangerous.
The underbelly clearance was great for most of the Southern California trails we encountered, and we rarely scraped or banged the underpinnings. Although a lower crawl ratio would have helped in the rockcrawling and hillclimb sections. The Tacoma's size and visibility continued to make it an easy wheeler. Fitted with a selectable rear locker, we found that traction wasn't a huge concern and the A-Trac front differential assistance proved effective the majority of the time.
The Bilstein shocks are designed to give the Baja version of the Tacoma not only more travel, but more controlled wheeltravel. This travel helped to keep the truck planted in most twisty and speed-derived scenarios. We did manage to bottom out the suspension a few times at speed and feel a touch more valving to firm up the overall suspension wouldn't be a bad thing. The interior noises were extremely obnoxious off-road. The faster you went, the more the inside sounded as though it was shaking loose around you.
The two biggest performance complaints was the very invasive traction control system and slow to actuate four-wheel drive engagement. If you want to let loose with the Tacoma in the sand or hold it sideways over the dirt, 4-Lo was the only way to defeat the electronic nannies and let you have fun. You could trick it into letting you have a good time in 2WD, but you won't be able to lock up the rear axle, and once you got too loose it would shut you down. For most of our testing 4-Hi wasn't the place to be. We don't like comparing this truck to the Ford Raptor, because the two are worlds different, but if it had the same electronic nanny delete feature that the Raptor does, it would be an absolute animal off-road. For a truck with such extreme looks and off-road attributes we just expected more.