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What to look for when buying a used 1995-2004 Toyota Tacoma 4x4

Posted in Features on September 2, 2015
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When looking for a used ’95-’04 Toyota Tacoma, you’ll quickly realize that they seem to hold their value incredibly well. As with most vehicles, you’ll find some Tacoma trucks that have been very well maintained. They look as though they have been in a vacuum their whole life. Expect to pay a premium for these examples. We saw some that were priced up to $14,000, which seems insane for a 10-year-old mini truck. Other owners fail to perform even the most basic recommended maintenance, yet still try to justify an exorbitant price. Fortunately, Toyota Tacoma pickups are incredibly reliable, so there are only a few things to look out for. You mostly want to steer clear of the trucks that have been literally vandalized with modifications and attempted repairs.

If you’re looking for a reliable runner, try to find a truck with less than 150,000 miles on it. During our search, we found that salvage-titled trucks were very common. Salvaged trucks tend to fetch slightly less than their clean and uncrashed counterparts. Most salvage repair jobs are not done well. If you plan to simply cut up and thrash the truck anyway, then a salvaged truck might be the right choice for you. If you’re looking for a clean daily driver that runs straight down the road, then you’ll likely want to steer clear of salvaged trucks, depending on the damage.

Don’t forget to check all the regular underhood fluids when buying any used vehicle. Excessive leaking, filthy black oil, rusty coolant, and low fluid levels all around are good indicators that the vehicle has been poorly maintained. Coolant in the oil or oil in the coolant are deal breakers and a good sign that a head gasket is shot.
Bulging and spongy radiator hoses need to be replaced. Again, if the previous owner let things like this go, it’s a good indicator other regular maintenance has been skipped, too.
Squeaking, glazed, and old cracked belts need to be replaced. Twist each belt and check the ribbed side for cracks.
Many first-gen Toyota Tacoma trucks have really greasy-looking front axles and suspension. Don’t let this discourage you. Changing the oil in a Tacoma is a problematic job. The used filter and drain bolt spill oil on everything below them. Few owners take the time to actually clean this mess up properly. Our axle and skidplate are pretty nasty looking, but there are no real leaks.
High-mileage and age will eventually wear out or rot the front axle CV boots. Excessively lifting and stretching out the suspension to its limits and beyond can speed up the process and tear the boots. Look for oozing grease coming from cracks and tears in the rubber. The CV joints inside will wear quickly if left open to the elements.
Our rack-and-pinion steering boot had clearly made contact with something sharp at some point. The Tacoma rack-and-pinion mounting bushings are prone to wear, especially when loaded up with larger-than-stock tires. This can cause erratic handling. Fortunately, it’s a fairly simple fix.
We’ve seen factory Toyota Tacoma driveshafts last well into 200,000 miles or more. However, the driveshaft carrier bearing may not go that long. Driveline vibration can usually be attributed to this worn bearing. Check the rubber boot around the bearing for tears—It usually becomes brittle with time. We found our bearing was worn and that someone had installed our rear driveshaft out of phase, causing all sorts of driveline vibration.

Frame rust can be a big problem with the first-gen Tacoma, especially in states that salt the roads or on beach-driven trucks. After inspecting several frames, it’s easy to understand why. The ’95-’04 Tacoma trucks have a stamped-steel boxed frame. It’s not incredibly thick and there are not many drain holes. However, there are several larger access holes on the sides of the framerails near tire splash zones that can allow salted slush to enter the frame and cause it to rot over a period of time. Some owners were able to convince Toyota to repair or replace their frames, although an official frame recall for all vehicles was never issued.

The condition of the skidplates is a pretty good indicator of if a 4x4 has been used and abused off-road. If we plan to use a new-to-us 4x4 as reliable transportation, we’ll usually walk away if the skidplates are significantly damaged.
Frame rot on ’95-’04 Toyota Tacoma trucks has been well documented. The frame under our West Coast truck is clean. However, you can see that there are very few drain holes for water and winter salt slurry to escape. The buildup can cause the framerails to rust from the inside out.
There are several holes in the sides of the framerails in locations that can collect and hold water and other debris. As with many first-gen Tacoma pickups regularly used in the dirt, our frame is half full of silt and sand, some of which the tires had kicked up off-road. We’re still working on the best way to get it all out and prevent it from accumulating again.
Around the rear spring hangers is generally where the rust breaks through first. Weld-on frame-saving kits are available to repair rot in this area.

We plan to forgo all of the expensive go-fast long-travel suspensions and solid-axle rockcrawling conversions. Instead, we’re looking to transform our truck into a fairly mild and reliable daily driver that doubles as a weekend explorer and base camp 4x4. For that, we would have rather started with a clean stock truck owned by someone with a pile of solid maintenance receipts like our dad. However, this lifted ’97 Tacoma surfaced at a price we just couldn’t pass up. Here are a few specific things to look out for when on the hunt for your own first-gen Toyota Tacoma. Keep an eye out for the next installment where we’ll make a few upgrades and right some wrongs with our truck.

Our truck came with some well-worn 32-inch all-terrain tires and hideous 15x8 steel white-spoke wheels. Switching to lighter aluminum wheels is a good idea to help improve acceleration and braking performance, among other things.
We suspect that, at some point, our truck had 33 or 35-inch tires on it. The fenders were trimmed and beaten back for a little extra clearance in addition to the 4-inch lift. This kind of modification is difficult to reverse, so inspect the body carefully if you are looking for a stock unmolested truck.

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