How to Modify Your Tacoma the Right Way
While it’s one of the most popular adventuremobiles, it’s also one of the most widely misunderstood. Here’s how to upgrade yours without creating a monster.
The third-generation Toyota Tacoma—on sale since 2016—is a good-looking, capable truck that’s just the right size for drivers who don’t have significant towing or hauling needs. That it enjoys a strong reputation for reliability, and subsequently high-resale value, seals the deal. Not only is the Taco the bestselling midsize pickup in the U.S., but it’s also the go-to adventuremobile for many of our readers.
Unfortunately, the Tacoma has one big problem: you. Many of its drivers fail to appreciate what makes Toyota’s smallest truck so special and set about ruining it with inappropriate or misjudged modifications. Consider this an intervention on the part of a grumpy longtime car journalist. Save the Tacos!
One person who ruined his Tacoma is my friend Stuart Palley. That’s his former truck pictured atop this article. At one time, a Tacoma seemed like the obvious choice for Stuart. “I bought a Tacoma because the internet said it was a rad truck,” he says. “I thought a full-size pickup would be too big and too inefficient. And everyone said the Tacoma was damn near perfect.”
It wasn’t. I’m going to use Stuart’s story as a cautionary tale of what not to do.
Fuel Economy, Performance, Gearing, and You
One of the ways that Toyota is able to create vehicles with such strong reputations for reliability is by reusing major components across multiple vehicles. Doing so doesn’t just create the kind of volume that reduces the prices of those components for you, the end user, but it also ensures virtually universal supply for those parts.
Go shopping for an engine part for a more exotic vehicle and you may need to special-order it and then wait weeks for it to arrive. Go shopping for a part for a Tacoma engine, and it’s going to be in stock at almost every retailer in the country. That’s because the Taco shares its 3.5-liter Atkinson-cycle V-6 with extremely high-sales-volume vehicles, ranging from the Camry, Highlander, and Sienna to no less than five different models from Toyota’s luxury brand, Lexus. Ten years from now, that parts commonality will make it exponentially easier and more affordable to keep a Tacoma running.
To deliver a truck that can return strong fuel-economy numbers in the Environmental Protection Agency’s standardized test cycle (up to 19 miles per gallon in the city and 24 miles per gallon on the highway), Toyota has chosen to fit the vehicle with relatively tall gear ratios. At 60 miles per hour, in sixth gear, the V-6 is turning over at 1,500 revolutions per minute. That’s great for returning excellent fuel economy in the EPA’s highway-test cycle—in which the top speed is 60 mph—but does involve some compromises in real-world drivability.
In the Tacoma, that 3.5-liter V-6 makes for a healthy 278 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque; however, it only delivers that performance at high engine speeds. Where maximum horsepower is achieved at 5,374 rpm, and max torque at 3,037 rpm, the engine is making somewhere south of 50 horsepower and 100 pound-feet at 60 mph in top gear.
Put your foot down at that speed to pass or to climb a hill, and the transmission will need to shift down two or three gears to deliver the performance you’re asking for. This remains true whether you’re using the automatic gearbox or manual transmission. The Tacoma’s very tall gear ratios are good for official fuel-economy numbers, but in the real world, drivers will find that the transmission must downshift so frequently that matching those numbers becomes unrealistic. Look at the fuel economy reported by the 2,287 third-gen Taco owners who share their own results on Fuelly, and you’ll see that Tacomas can be expected to average about 18 mpg.
But what Tacoma owners frequently do wrong isn’t driving in the fast lane; it’s fitting larger tires without the accompanying modifications necessary to support them.
Large tires roll more easily over larger obstacles off-road. They also look cool. So fitting larger tires is probably the most common modification made to any truck. But larger tires also reduce a vehicle’s effective gear ratio. Since the Tacoma’s gearing is already tall, this creates real problems. Upgrade your Tacoma from its stock 30.5-inch tires to 34 inches and you’ll now be spinning that 1,500 rpm at 70 mph. That may not provide enough performance to maintain top gear while cruising at a constant speed on a level road, and it will force the use of lower gears everywhere, asking the engine to work harder for any given speed. In other words, it destroys fuel economy and makes for a frustrating driving experience.
Stuart, who fitted 34-inch tires to his Tacoma without regearing, reports that he was averaging around 12 mpg on the highway as a result. Simply increasing his tire size by 10 percent halved his fuel economy when compared with the advertised figure.
“I remember driving from Southern California to Montana via Colorado in summer 2019, flooring it up a grade, and barely making it to 60 miles per hour,” he says. “The engine was struggling mightily to maintain highway speeds at 7,000 feet. Semis were going faster than me. Back on flat ground, it was so slow, it was legitimately unsafe to pass in the oncoming lane.”
The problem is even worse off-road, where the concern isn’t fuel economy but performance. By reducing the effective gearing of your vehicle, you’re also reducing the amount of horsepower and torque that reach the road. Off-road vehicles are able to safely climb and descend steep obstacles at very low speeds by switching into separate, very low gears. Those gears multiply the force the engine is able to exert over the wheels by an amount expressed as a simple ratio.
A stock Toyota Tacoma TRD Pro has a 36:1 crawl ratio with an automatic transmission; 44:1 with a manual. Compare those gear ratios with a more purpose-built off-roader like the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon (with an 84:1 ratio), and you can see that the Tacoma’s gearing is already marginal on extremely steep obstacles. Fitting larger tires will decrease that further. Which is why it’s common to see videos of Tacoma drivers tackling climbs at inappropriate speeds, risking damage to their vehicles in return for the momentum necessary to make the climb.
This video from the Fast Lane is a good demonstration of a Tacoma driver being forced to use momentum rather than gearing to complete a climb. Driving like this will eventually cause damage to a truck, and using high speeds to complete technical off-road obstacles also risks a rollover or other accidents.
What can you do about this? Fortunately, there’s a really good solution: by replacing the gears in your axle differentials, you can increase your final drive ratio. Accounting for the effective gearing reduction created by larger tires, you can either return that final drive ratio to something close to stock or opt to increase it. For optimal performance and fuel economy from the Taco’s V-6, you’ll want to fit gears that increase engine speeds at 60 mph to about 2,000 rpm; that way you’ll be able to maintain highway speeds without downshifting, keep the engine operating in its most efficient rpm range, and boost safety as well as control off-road.
Nitro Gear and Axle specializes in converting the Tacoma’s final drive ratio from 3.91:1 to either 4.88 or 5.29:1. If Stuart had fitted 5.29 gears when he added the 34-inch tires, he’d have averaged something closer to that 18 mpg figure that most owners of stock Tacomas report, while enjoying the ability to pass 18-wheelers on two-lane roads. If you’re planning to fit larger tires to your Tacoma, you should budget about $3,000 for regearing (which should cover both parts and labor).
Here’s a fun new activity all of us can do from home. Find a Tacoma on Instagram, and scribble out some calculations on a napkin. For this one, let’s make some conservative estimates, starting from the front and working backwards. Front bumper: 100 pounds. Rock sliders: 100 pounds. Roof rack: 40 pounds. Bed rack: 50 pounds. Unsightly pile of canvas: 150 pounds. Knockoff Maxtrax: 15 pounds. Hi-Lift: 30 pounds. Fifteen gallons of extra fuel: 90 pounds (there are two Rotopax on the other side). Rear bumper with swing-out: 120 pounds. Big spare tire: 50 pounds. Before accounting for the weight of a driver and passenger, a full fuel tank, and anything they’re carrying inside the cab or bed, this Taco weighs at least 5,190 pounds.
Blow Your Budget on Modifications, Not Weight
One of the most frequent misconceptions I see about trucks is that a payload rating defines how much weight you can carry in the bed. But that rating actually entails the total weight a vehicle is capable of safely carrying and includes items that drivers often overlook, like their own weight and any parts bolted to the truck. You should treat payload like a budget. Calculate the weight of everything your truck carries, and don’t carry more than you can afford.
Writing about the Tacoma’s payload, veteran 4×4 journalist Bryon Dorr explains this better than I can:
A stock Tacoma TRD Pro only has a carrying capacity of 1,155 pounds, and that’s before you factor in fuel, people, or gear. If you figure about 126 pounds of fuel (21.1 gallons at six pounds per gallon), two adults at about 350 pounds total, and some basic camping gear and recovery gear at 150 pounds (126 + 350 + 150 = 626 total load), you’ve only got about 529 pounds left over.
Payload equals a vehicle’s gross vehicle weight rating (its maximum legal weight on the road) minus the weight of the truck itself in stock form. The GVWR of the third-generation Tacoma is 5,600 pounds. Depending on how you option it, the Taco weighs between 3,980 and 4,480 pounds on its own. Bryon did the rest of the math for you, but it’s worth noting stuff he didn’t include, like extra passengers, dogs, food, water, or even beer.
People love bolting stuff to their Tacomas, so this can be a problem. Take Stuart. As a professional wildfire photographer who works out of his truck, Stuart not only opted for the heaviest Taco (four doors and a six-foot bed), but he also needed to carry a lot of heavy camera gear inside a secure storage area. He achieved that with a steel-reinforced, insulated commercial topper and a slide-out bed rack that enabled him to reach gear easily. Worried about hitting animals while traveling through remote areas, he also fitted his truck with a replacement bumper and some driving lights. And because the full-length Tacoma has so much space between its wheels, he protected that area with steel rails. Toss in a small roof rack, some extra fuel, and minor interior modifications, and Stuart was left with a truck that, when I directed him to a vehicle scale, measured out at just about 5,600 pounds—without him or his gear in it.
“I thought to myself, This is a beefy-looking truck,” he says. “Why would I worry about weight?” So he set about turning it into an all-terrain gear hauler and mobile office, giving more thought to practicalities he needed in the field rather than what his truck was capable of carrying. Stuart ended up with an overweight truck the same way most other Tacoma owners do.
“I’d seen the term payload mentioned in car reviews but never gave it much thought,” says Stuart. “I’d never realized it was so easy to overload these things.”
There are several problems that can come from exceeding GVWR. First, it’s illegal. While police in this country are unlikely to possess the expertise necessary to spot an overweight truck on the road and cite you for it, the weight of your truck could be determined during an accident investigation; it could be enough to push fault in your direction or, in the event that someone is hurt or killed, leave you on the hook for negligence. Exceeding GVWR also increases the odds of a mechanical failure. Every nut, bolt, and system on a vehicle is designed to support its GVWR—no more. Building an overweight truck puts enormous stress on essential parts like the cooling system, transmission, and the Taco’s drum rear brakes. Combine that with inadequate gearing that labors the engine, and you’ve undone the brand’s whole reputation for reliability thing—the thing that made you want to buy a Tacoma in the first place.
Then there’s the simple fact that overweight trucks are just awful to drive. I took Stuart’s Tacoma for a spin last summer and don’t think I’ve ever driven anything worse. With the lift necessary to clear those 34-inch tires, stock gears, and all that weight, it cornered like a cruise ship, struggled to keep up with traffic, and, by the time I eventually reached highway speeds, was so loud inside that I couldn’t maintain a conversation. Suffice it to say, all this was not ideal for a three-year-old truck he’d sunk close to $50,000 into. Without any exaggeration, my $5,000 Toyota 4Runner (a 1998 model with 240,000 miles on it), only lightly modified with nice suspension and 31-inch tires, offers a superior driving experience in every way. I feel lucky that my trip was short enough that I didn’t have to buy Stu a tank of gas; at 12 mpg, his range from that 21-gallon tank was just 250 miles.
Better Trucks for Everyone
Driving my trucks—there are two Toyotas and a Ford in my garage—was as much of an intervention for Stuart as I hope this article can be for current or prospective Tacoma drivers. He sold his a few months later. Because the market for these trucks is so hot right now, he even managed to recoup most of his investment. The new owner removed the commercial topper and bed slide (probably knocking 600 pounds off in the process) and reports, “This thing actually drives pretty good now.” Stuart and I are both a little skeptical of that claim.
Overall, my advice is to appreciate trucks for what they actually offer, not what you hope they can offer. In its stock form, the Tacoma is a great truck for normal, outdoorsy people, but it lacks the payload and power train necessary to support much in the way of modification—at least within a reasonable budget. When shopping, consider your needs and wants, then buy a truck that’s already capable of meeting them. Don’t try and press something unsuitable into a role it’s not designed to support.
Stuart ended up with a full-size pickup from another brand. He reports that on a recent trip from his home in Newport Beach, California, to the cabin in Joshua Tree he’s renovating, his new truck returned 18 mpg even while hauling 700 pounds of lumber. And he was able to pass other traffic in the fast lane without thinking about it, even over a mountain pass.
Is there a truck that enjoys as strong a reputation for reliability as the Tacoma but is capable of carrying more weight and pushing bigger tires? At least two current-model Toyota Tundras (on sale since 2007) are known to have exceeded one million miles on their original power trains without requiring much more than routine service. That model’s payload runs from 1,520 to 1,730 pounds, and its powerful 5.7-liter V-8 is capable of pushing tires up to 33 inches without the need to regear. Its owners report that real-world fuel consumption is about 14 mpg—not great, but better than a Tacoma without gears. The best part? Tundras aren’t quite as fashionable, so they’re pretty cheap considering how much truck you get for your money. No matter your budget, you can probably get into a Tundra of similar age, condition, and mileage for around the amount you’d spend on a Taco.
For most of our readers, the best Toyota Tacoma is actually going to be a Toyota Tundra.