- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Even without the added concern about future price-per-gallon fuel costs, fuel prices over the past several months have made compact pickup trucks more attractive. Although showroom sales for smaller pickups have remained rather flat during the past five years, escalating fuel costs could stimulate sales as consumers balk at the lower gas mileage of full-size pickups. If so, Toyota’s launching of its second-generation Tacoma for 2005 was nearly perfect timing.

Roomier, more powerful and better looking than its predecessor, the redesigned Tacoma is well positioned for renewed interest in compact pickups. With that redesign, Toyota added a new, sportier model to Tacoma’s portfolio: the X-Runner. It is basically unchanged for 2006.

A factory-developed sports package, the X-Runner cashes in on the current “tuner” trend that has young owners customizing their pickups. It is available only as a two-wheel-drive extended cab with short-bed cargo box. Every manufacturer calls its extended cab something different. Toyota describes its version as the Access Cab.

Somewhat the opposite of the wildly popular PreRunner model with its raised off-road-inspired suspension, the X-Runner rides on a lowered suspension — 1 inch lower than the standard Tacoma.

The ground-hugging illusion is further intensified with the addition of a ground-effects package that continues all the way around the truck.

Other clues that this isn’t your typical white-bread Tacoma include the hood scoop, integrated fog lamps and the special 18-inch alloy wheels wrapped in low-profile Bridgestone Potenza rubber.

The X-Runner is seriously beefed up underneath.

Its name is derived from the special “x-braced” frame that substantially increases torsional rigidity.

Other hidden improvements include specially tuned Bilstein gas shock absorbers that are mounted outside the frame rails for extra stability; shorter, firmer springs and a rear stabilizer bar.

A limited-slip rear differential is also part of the X-Runner package.

One feature sacrificed for the buffed-up suspension is the anti-skid stability control found across the rest of the Tacoma line.

There is no way to accurately gauge how much the X-Runner extras add to Tacoma’s price because there is no regular 2WD V-6 Access Cab offered.

However at $24,110, the X-Runner is positioned near the top of the Tacoma food chain. Only 4WD V-6 Crew Cabs cost more.

Opting for the X-Runner means it comes with the 245-horsepower 4.0-liter V-6 and six-speed manual transmission. Tacoma’s old V-6 lagged behind most of the competition, but the 4.0-liter puts it squarely in the performance hunt.

It still falls about 20 horsepower short of the V-6-equipped Nissan Frontier, but equals or betters just about every other competitor.

Because the X-Runner is a sportier Tacoma, it makes sense that the only transmission is a manual.

This, however, is the weakest link in what is otherwise a wonderfully executed package. Sloppy and vague, the six-speed flops around like a beached tuna.

The five-speed automatic offered in other V-6 Tacoma’s would perform as well and be less distracting.

All in all, the X-Runner is fun to drive. Toyota says it accelerates from 0 to 60 in less than seven seconds — no argument here.

It handles superbly and its taut steering adjusts course with a minimum of input. Hunkering down and grabbing the asphalt, it corners with greyhoundlike agility. Antilock disc brakes back up each wheel and the system features Electronic Brake Force Distribution and Brake Assist.

It doesn’t soak up fuel like a kitchen sponge either. The Environmental Protection Agency rates it at 16 miles per gallon in the city and 21 on the highway — not great by economy-car standards, but competitive within its segment.

Roughly 6 inches longer and wider than the previous-generation Tacoma, the new version provides more interior space. This translates into more abundant leg, hip and shoulder room. Toyota has done a fine job of making this interior look like anything but a truck. Highly stylized, the dashboard is a smooth integration of color and texture. There is lots of plastic at work here, but it’s not really noticeable.

All of the controls and switches are easily accessed and don’t require a masters degree in engineering to operate.

Particularly noteworthy is the round knob that changes radio stations.

It doesn’t require a 20-second scan of the controls to find a switch or button that simply scrolls through the stations one by one.

There it is, just like the old days, a big round knob that gets the job done.

Equally simple are the three round controls that adjust the climate-control system.

The sculpted front bucket seats offer the sort of lateral support you would expect to find in a sports car. Rear-hinged doors provide access to the backseat area where tumble-flat jump seats provide a perch for children and pint-sized adults for trips of short duration. While there isn’t a lot of people-carrying space behind the front seats, there is a fair amount of cargo room.

For things you don’t mind transporting outside, the cargo box has a composite inner bed that absorbs a lot of punishment and is lighter than steel. Offering two-tier loading, the box has four adjustable tie-downs located on the deck rail. There are also a couple of storage compartments built into its sidewalls.

Loaded with standard features such as air conditioning, power windows/door locks, six-speaker audio system with six-disc CD changer and a leather-wrapped tilt-telescoping steering wheel with redundant audio controls, the X-Runner is about as upscale as this market segment gets.

Toyota has earned its reputation for quality and reliability, and Tacoma is no exception.

The X-Runner, however, gives Toyota something more than durability to market in the compact pickup arena. It’s a touch of pizzazz and that can’t hurt sales.

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