New Car Test Drive

1999 Toyota Tacoma PreRunner

Pretend you're Ivan Stewart on the way to work.

By Mitch McCullough, Editor-in-Chief

Introduction

The first time we saw it, we assumed the Toyota Tacoma PreRunner was a four-wheel-drive truck. We should've known better. For years, off-road racing teams have used modified two-wheel-drive pickups to pre-run desert racing circuits. Over and over they pound down the rough terrain, searching for the quickest way through, preparing for the big race.

These prerunner trucks are usually fitted with off-road suspensions similar to the race trucks, but are equipped with less powerful engines that are far more durable and reliable than the fragile race engines. And a lot of these trucks are two-wheel drive. Two-wheel-drive trucks are often faster than four-wheel-drive trucks and a lot of teams race two-wheel drive. So there's nothing new about two-wheel-drive off-road pickups.

Though they boast the sporty exterior styling of a Tacoma 4x4, all PreRunners come with two-wheel drive and automatic transmissions.

That's why the appearance fooled us. But what surprised -- and delighted -- us was the PreRunner's impressive handling characteristics. The steering is quick and the truck responds crisply to changes in direction. And the amount of available grip is impressive. This truck really hangs on around the on-ramps. We had to stop, get out and look: Yep, those are big off-road tires, and, yep, that's an off-road suspension with a high ground clearance. So we got back in and blasted on down the road -- toward the home-improvement center.

Walkaround

PreRunner XtraCab models start at $18,028 and come with a big 150-horsepower 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine that's normally fitted to the 4x4 models.

Toyota's powerful 3.4-liter double overhead-cam V6 comes with the $18,958 PreRunner V6 XtraCab. This engine produces 190 horsepower and a robust 220 foot-pounds of torque at 3,600 rpm.

Options include $590 anti-lock brakes and a $340 locking rear differential that dramatically improves traction in extreme conditions by pushing a button. Other features include $75 bucket seats, $470 power windows and door locks, $250 cruise control, $245 tilt steering, $75 all-weather guard package and $300 bedliner; value packages have been added this year that offer some savings.

For 1999, Toyota is offering a $15,188 PreRunner with a regular cab that comes with the four-cylinder engine; air conditioning and other features are optional.

Don't like the extroverted appearance of the PreRunner? There's a Toyota Tacoma for a wide variety of pickup buyers. A fully loaded top-of-the-line Tacoma 4x4 Xtracab V6 Limited retails for about $27,000 -- a luxurious truck with phenomenal off-road capability. The base $13,118 Toyota Tacoma 4x2 comes with a 142-horsepower 2.4-liter engine, a durable, reliable pickup that gets 28 miles per gallon on the highway; but it's Spartan and air conditioning is extra.

The Tacoma line of pickups was updated last year with fresh front styling and more comfort and convenience features. The only significant change for 1999 are seatbelts that have been upgraded with pretensioners and force limiters for added safety.

Toyota has a history of building solid, dependable trucks. Its four-wheel-drive vehicles have always been standouts for tough duty, with rugged suspensions, rigid bodies and powerful engines. All Tacoma pickups come with a six-foot bed fitted with four inner tie-down points.

Xtracab models are longer and ride on a substantially longer wheelbase (18.6 inches longer) than regular-cab trucks. Xtracabs offer better ride quality and extra space for people or cargo inside. But the longer wheelbase reduces maneuverability in tight parking lots and narrow trails. For the extra two grand or so, the Xtracab adds a carload of convenience and comfort.

The optional 3.4-liter V6 is smoother, quieter, more powerful and more refined than the four-cylinder engines. It's the best choice for those who take long trips, pull trailers, go off road or just prefer more power. A V6 Tacoma with four-wheel drive and an off-road package can tackle the most challenging terrain. A V6 Tacoma with two-wheel drive and an automatic can pull a 5000-pound trailer and won't spill as much coffee on the way to work. Automatic transmissions and extended cabs reduce payload, but not towing capacities. Maximum payload available is 1,859 pounds in a 4WD regular cab with five-speed manual.

All engines burn 87 octane unleaded. Five-speed manual and four-speed electronically controlled automatics are available on selected models. Four-wheel-drive systems come with a choice of manual locking front hubs or shift-on-the-fly. A control lever is used to shift into low range. The suspension on all Tacomas is independent double wishbones with coil springs up front and a live axle and leaf springs in back.

PreRunners are available in nine exterior colors with gray or oak-colored interiors.

Interior Features

Though unremarkable, the Tacoma interior is attractive and straightforward. Big, highly legible instruments provide information. Well laid out switch gear with quality rotary ventilation controls make adjustments easy. A driver's dead pedal provides a place to brace the left foot, while two power outlets and dual cup holders add convenience for longer trips.

The regular cab seats two in comfort. Xtracab models add a 60/40 split front bench seat and rear jump seats with a special restraint system designed for children. Xtracabs can carry four people in relative comfort, but the primary practical benefit of the extended cab is to provide security and shelter for smaller items. Xtracabs also offer another inch of front legroom, tilt-out quarter windows and a folding table with cup holders.

Driving Impressions

We expected this truck to offer excellent off-road performance. The last time we checked, Ivan "The Ironman" Stewart was still a top contender in off-road racing and he was still driving a Toyota. The suspension has plenty of travel for bounding over major moguls and there's no shortage of traction for bouncing down muddy two-tracks or slogging through snow.

The $1,590 TRD off-road package on this truck was developed by Toyota Racing Development, the company's racing and aftermarket products division. TRD works from a separate California facility so corporate types can't hang over their shoulder asking too many questions. The TRD Off-Road package includes specially valved Bilstein shock absorbers, the locking rear differential, a modified suspension with progressive-rate springs and a larger front anti-roll bar, and big 31x10.5R15 Goodyear tires on 15x7-inch alloy wheels. TRD PreRunners get the more substantial brake system that comes on 4x4 models. Black overfenders and graphics let the world know there's something special underneath. (The TRD package is also available for Tacoma 4x4s.)

We expected all this stuff to come with a jouncy ride. Engineers haven't quite figured out how to design a suspension that offers a luxurious ride and the ability to handle a basketball-sized rock at 50 mph without damage. Every bump, every pebble is felt in the PreRunner, though harshness is damped out by the progressive-rate suspension. And the big tires set up an audible whine. Like almost any pickup, a load in the bed improves the ride quality and handling balance considerably.

But what we didn't expect was the handling. We weren't prepared for so much grip on the on-ramps. The tall PreRunner leans in the corners, but offers surprisingly sporty cornering capability. Again, the progressive rate suspension provides the right amount of damping for the conditions. Handling response is heightened by the Tacoma's rigid chassis structure, which allowed the suspension to be designed with closer tolerances and superior dynamics.

The V6 engine provides lots of torque. Throttle response is excellent. Stab the gas and the engine and transmission respond instantly. The PreRunner takes off from a standing start with gusto. Jump on the gas at highway speeds and the transmission downshifts one or two gears and you're rocketing past the offending vehicle.

Big brakes use drums in the rear, but do a good job of slowing the Tacoma down. Off-road suspensions and tires are not noted for short braking distances, however, so it's a good idea to maintain respectable following distances, particularly when it's raining.

Summary

Toyota's Tacoma PreRunner doesn't exactly ride like a luxury car, but it doesn't shy from off-road hazards or heavy work loads -- and it's a lot of fun to drive.

Known for quality, durability, reliability, Toyota Tacoma pickups should be on the shopping list for any pickup buyer.


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