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Toyota builds a mid-size pickup for the serious off-road crowd, but offers premium touches, too

COURTESY TOYOTA - The 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road is designed to do what the name says: Go off-road, thanks to its Toyota Racing Development all-wheel-drive enhanced system. But it's also very civilized in town.In a mythical time long ago and far away — the 1960s — Japanese companies made great inroads into the U.S. truck market by introducing small models that got good mileage but could still carry a half-ton of in their beds during the legendary Gas Crisis when fuel supplies ran short.

Fast forward to today and the Japanese companies are still selling a lot of trucks, even though none of them are very small anymore and fuel economy is not the top priority. A case in point, the subject of this week's review, a 2017 Toyota Tacoma equipped with practically all the heavy duty off road equipment available through the Toyota Racing Development division, including an all-wheel-drive system with multiple traction control settings and skid plates.

Compared to the earliest Toyota Hi-Lux pickups, the current Tacoma is huge. In fact, it is almost as big as standard full-size pickups about 10 years ago. But it is classified as a midsize truck, which is a market segment that manufacturers all but ignored until recently. Dodge, which invented it, even dropped its Dakota pickup a long time ago.

COURTESY TOYOTA - The interiors of all 2017 Toyota Tacomas are comfortable and well-equipped, with option packages that include all the latest automotive technologies.Toyota kept updating its Tacoma pickup, however, until they are now ubiquitous on American roads. They also come in more styles than anyone could have imagined in the 1960's, including extended two-door cabs, four-door cabs, short beds and long beds. Powertains include a 2.7-liter inline 4, a 3.5-liter V6, a six-speed manual transmission, a six-speed automatic transmission, two-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive. And various combinations of the above come in multiple trim levels, from the base SR to the plush Limited and maxed-out TRD Pro.

Our test truck was configured as a four-door double cab with a long bed, with meant care had to be taken driving downtown or even backing out spaces in parking lots. It came with the V6, automatic transmission, and an upgraded all-wheel-drive system that could be set for different road conditions and controlled for hill decents. The center differential could also be locked for the most traction.

Although Toyota will sell this version to anyone (and I saw a lot of them during my test week), it's unlikely that many owners will ever use them to their full capabilities. Or should even try. As an experienced off-roader told me years ago, "All-wheel-drive will let you get stuck in places you can't even reach with two-wheel-drive." But if you know what you're doing, it would be hard to find a more capable package than the Tacoma TRD Off-Road.

COURTESY TOYOTA - Some of the all-wheel-drive settings for the 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road are located above the rear view mirror.Or more civilized. Despite the beefy exterior look, the interior was comfortable and well equipped, with Premium and Technology packages that included a moonroof, JBL stereo, heated front seats and dual zone climate controls. It also had a good set of safety features, including blind spot monitoring and parking sonar.

The ride was also suprisingly refined. Even when unloaded, the Tacoma did not bounce around like empty pickups of the past. Potholes did not seriously unsettle it, either. The interior felt a little cramped (it's not a full size, after all), but all the controls were in easy reach, including some of the traction control setting above the rear view mirror.

The V6 was a little slow off the line, which isn't surprising, considering it weighed 4,480 pounds. But accelaration improved when set in the ETC mode by push button, even though mileage probably suffered.

Obviously, all of that equipment and those features are going to add up. Out test truck was priced at $42,672. But base Tacoma start at under $25,000 and still come with a lot of standard equipment. Clearly, Toyota is covering all the bases in the market it helped create.

COURTESY TOYOTA - All 2017 Toyota Tacomas are available with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.

2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road

Base price: $32,195

Price as tested: $42,672

Style: Midsize truck

Engine: 3.5-liter V6 (278 hp, 265 lbs-ft)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic with multiple drive modes

EPA fuel economy: 18/23

Length: 225.5 inches

Weight: 4,480 pounds

Final assembly: Baja California, Mexico

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