If full-size pickups are the backbone of North American industry, then compact pickups are the pillar by which small businesses thrive. And by small I mean handymen, gardeners, and pool cleaners.
Although this may not be as prevalent a situation in parts of Canada, it certainly is in many southern US states. I’m lucky enough to travel to California, Texas, Arizona, and Florida on a semi-regular basis and it’s not uncommon to see a Datsun 620 from the ‘70s or 720 from the ‘80s still working hard. These areas are the only ones where you’ll see an Isuzu P’up still hauling stuff or even a an ‘80s Mazda B-Series that’s not rusted to death with yard equipment in its bed.
The most common import small pickup though remains the Toyota Tacoma. I’ve actually seen an N10 and some N20s in California, and they date back to the very early ‘70s. Every subsequent generation is still strongly represented. The same goes for the GM pickups; there’s still a large number of S10s, S15s and Sonomas that still have their noses to the grindstone.
Where the segment stands
Fast-forward a few decades and the segment that once held a product from the majority of carmakers is now down to no more than a handful of options. When the Ford Ranger died, the now midsize Tacoma took its place as the small-truck sales champion. It is thus for this reason, and for its long-running history, that we chose it over the Frontier or the Honda Ridgeline for this comparison test. Against it, we pitted the latest and newest medium pickup: the Chevrolet Colorado.
We expect the future to hold a few new entries in the category. For starters, Honda’s got a new Ridgeline on the way for the 2016 model year. Mercedes is planning on getting into the game and I suspect that before very long, Volkswagen may want to join in, as well. Hyundai’s even teased us with their Santa Cruz concept at this past April’s NYIAS. And then, there’s Ford that has a Ranger elsewhere in the world. Speculation is long running about the return of Ford’s small-ish pickup; however, nothing is confirmed yet.
Tacoma vs. Colorado specs
Our Tacoma was a 4X4 Doublecab V6 Limited that retails for $39,945 and the Colorado was a Z71 Crew Cab 6’2” box 4WD with a price tag of $39,620. Both (as tested) included a number of options including towing packages that endowed them with maximum capabilities.
The reigning Tacoma is powered by a 236-horsepower 4.0L V6 mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission. The Colorado is served by a 305-horsepower 3.6L V6 and it is coupled to a 6-speed automatic box. On paper, the horsepower discrepancy is important, but the reality is not what it seems as the respective torque numbers are almost identical at 266 (@4,000 rpm) and 269 at same engine speed.
The 4x4 systems on the pickups feature 2-speed transfer cases. A front independent and rear leaf-spring suspension is the standard here. Tuning differs immensely between the two with the more refined of the two (the GM) being much more capable.
These two trucks are not meant to be driveway queens. Essentially, their size may dictate their capacities, but only in relation to their bigger siblings. In other words, their abilities are to scale.
These small-ish trucks are designed to work, and they do. Towing capacities are rated at 6,400lb (2,910kg) for the Toyota and 7,000lb (3,175kg) for the Chevy. Payloads are far more dissimilar where the GM will haul 1,560lb (708kg), while the Tacoma rolls on with a maximum of 1,050lb (475kg).
Design and styling
It’s a little cruel to say that the Toyota Tacoma looks and feels old, but I did. It’s difficult to fault the Tacoma though as it still sports a good “truck” look, but the refreshed version (expected before the end of the year) will address the aesthetic issue. The new exterior fascia borrows heavily from the 4Runner and a few other Toyota trucks, while the cabin swings into 2015.
The cabin suffers the same 10-year-old approach where cheap-ish interiors were acceptable. Cheap, however, does not take away from the fact that the Tacoma’s controls are still highly functional and very easy to use. Fit and finish are OK, but the materials are unsightly at best.
The Chevy Colorado is already here, in 2015. The whole of the truck is leagues ahead of the Toyota -- in other words, far more contemporary. The exterior shell is simple but purposeful, with presence and stance in mind. The Z71 trim ads fog lights, 17” wheels and projector-type headlights that nicely accent the powerful grille.
The Colorado’s passenger quarters are more welcoming. The dashboard is present-day with a modern touchscreen, a multifunction steering wheel and classier-looking materials. The seats are also slightly more comfy than those in the Toyota. Both 4-door cabs are spacious, however, the Colorado’s innards are far quieter.
On and off the road
It is once underway that the differences between the two trucks are most evident.
I’ll start with the Chevrolet Colorado because of its current approach to “truck motoring” that needs not be punishing. The Chevy’s greatest asset is its uncannily refined ride. Like its big brothers, the Silverado and Sierra, the Colorado seemingly floats over the tarmac.
The secret lies, in part, with its two-stage rear multi-leaf springs that provide a layer of comfort. The drive is akin to that of a large, heavy sedan. The rear axle will bounce somewhat over harsher bumps, but compared to the Tacoma, it’s like sleeping in a high-end Sealy Posturepedic mattress.
The Toyota does not mask its roots, and present vocation: it’s a truck, plain and simple. And for its honesty, I find no true fault in this method. This method, in fact, makes me appreciate the Tacoma more. Everything about it is livelier and more eventful.
The Colorado suffers from an impossibly impeded throttle. Standing on the go-pedal results in a delay that is as frustrating as it is disturbing, especially in a passing or emergency manoeuvre. A light amount of pressure gives me the impression that the truck doubts your intentions on moving forward such is the delay in response. This reason alone would keep the GM twins (and their bigger siblings) off my shopping list.
The alert Tacoma springs to life when the throttle is on. The transmission awaits the driver’s commands and reacts almost immediately -- in stark contrast to the GM. I surmise that the Chevy is designed this way with fuel economy in mind, but over a week’s time and with comparable mileage, both returned an average hovering around the 13L/100km mark.
As well, despite the Colorado’s near 70-horsepower advantage, acceleration times are very similar. The torque specs and transmission gearing and reaction time make all the difference or cancel it out in this instance.
Although these are the posh-est trims, both are highly capable off-road. I’ve taken the Toyota on numerous trips in rough stuff and its only limitation is its long wheelbase. The Colorado is much the same, however, I’ve not experienced it. With rear locking differentials, various skid-plates, plenty of ground clearance and a number of hill-assist systems; cottage-country roads do not intimidate these trucks.
And the winner is:
My heart belongs to the Toyota Tacoma. It is a pillar in its segment and the one by which all others are and will be measured, much like the current full-size king, the Ford F-150.
The Tacoma will never let you down and will be worth quite a bit once you’re done with it, should that day ever come. As well, it is the only one that can still be spec’d out with a manual gearbox with the V6 engine. The ride will become secondary after a while, and any other age-related qualms will be forgotten as the Toyota’s performance will always be tops.
The Chevrolet Colorado’s approach is more appealing to those who want a pickup without the inherent behaviour. Its more refined nature makes it easier to live with, however, I don’t know that the throttle reticence will ever be tolerable.
The influx of new trucks will have little effect on the Tacoma as it too will be “new.” Now, and in the near future, those looking for a real midsize truck will have only one question to ask themselves: “Why would I not want a Tacoma?”