My Torque News colleague John Goreham published a story recently that painted a pretty clear picture. Like a Bob Ross landscape, the Toyota Tacoma is the clear-cut leader in the midsize pickup truck segment. In fact, as John noted, Tacoma has won the title for 16 straight years.
It’s true that Tacoma has the edge mostly because unlike Ford, GM and Chrysler/Jeep, Toyota never bailed on this segment. So for a while it was Tacoma as the only real option within this niche segment.
So Toyota has rightfully earned their title. Then new competitors entered the landscape one by one to challenge Tacoma. GM launched the Chevy Colorado and the GMC Canyon. Then Jeep emerged with a pickup version of the Wrangler called the Gladiator. And Ford relaunched the once-discontinued Ranger. And of course Honda had the Ridgeline and Nissan the Frontier, as lesser players.
So the segment got a little more crowded. Tacoma’s TRD, rugged off-road trim proved a favorite amongst so many, especially for its lower price tag. That forced GM and Ford’s hand to get a smaller truck that can go comfortably off the road. Of course the Gladiator already had the pedigree immediately.
GM brings the ZR2 Bison package to the Chevy Colorado. It was interesting and proved to be quite rugged. Ford had the FX4 which was okay, but fell far short of the TRD. Yet despite all that I controversially proclaimed the Ranger, even with “just the FX4” to be better than the Tacoma. That article got a lot of buzz and some strong feedback.
I stand by that article and that opinion and can go even further now having scrutinized the off-road competition within this segment. Now with the Tremor package, the Ranger is even more of a contender.
Before I make my proclamation, let’s look at a tale of the tape, so to speak of the four major players in the midsize truck segment.
Below are my opinions of each vehicle. I did not take each on an off-road course but merely drove them. The exception is the Ranger Tremor, which I took off roading. I’ll leave all the technical nitty gritty details of rock crawling and locking diffs to the off-road experts. Rather I’m approaching these trucks from more of a daily use/daily driver scenario. The majority of the owners of these trucks would likely use them that way anyway, rather than just as a weekend toy.
Toyota Tacoma TRD
The king of the hill in this segment certainly has loyal followers; and for good reason. As with all vehicles there are subjective reasons for liking a vehicle or not liking a vehicle. Tacoma fans point out the long-term reliability of the Tacoma. And I never speak to that as I have no crystal ball to see into the future. With that said, it’s hard to question the long-term reliability of the Tacoma or the value it brings as the least expensive of the four trucks listed here.
For price and value alone it’s hard to look past the Tacoma, despite its shortcomings as feeling outdated. And truth be told, the only reason I don’t praise the Tacoma more is that it just feels long in the tooth. While it enjoyed all those years unchallenged, Toyota didn’t have to invest much in it. Now that the competition has improved, some of the other trucks just feel newer and more modern.
I do prefer the Tacoma in the TRD trim more than the base trim, which just feels unexciting and bland. For this story only, I’m only comparing the TRD version anyway. The 3.5-liter V6 makes adequate power of 278 horsepower and certainly the rear leaf suspension is off-road ready. Plus the aggressive styling of the TRD trim gives the Tacoma a beefier posture overall that is appealing.
What holds the Tacoma back is the uninspiring interior, the six-speed transmission and the overall road quality (on the road) which has a lot of road noise. I realize for an off-road truck that is to be expected with heftier tires, but some of the other competitors in this list just offer a better overall ride, on the pavement.
Chevy Colorado ZR2 Bison
The ZR2 Bison looks the part. Every bit of it. It has unique looks that clearly shows it has off-road muscle. With unique styling and a big stance, how can you not like the aesthetics of the Bison. Even the name is cool and tough.
The shocks and suspension seems more up to the task too than the TRD. Even the engine is more powerful, boasting a 3.6-liter 308-horsepower powerplant.
The interior of the Bison is sparse, but well-suited for off-road adventures. On the road, as I have been judging, the ride is rough and uncomfortable. I like the personality of the Bison’s overall design, which includes both interior and exterior.
From a pricing standpoint, the ZR2 Bison heads well north of the Tacoma TRD with a price that can exceed $50,000.
Jeep Gladiator Rubicon
Note, for 2021 Jeep brings the Mojave name to the Gladiator truck. I have not driven this truck yet, but will be behind the wheel of it in the spring. As such, for this purpose only we will look at the Gladiator Rubicon.
Within the passionate Jeep community there’s a love/hate reaction to the Gladiator. But I certainly see the merit of the Wrangler-like truck and what it brings to the table. First and foremost, it brings the reputation of Jeep which has all the off-road credibility.
Nobody does rock crawls better or nobody gets dirtier than a Jeep. So it stands to reason that the Gladiator would be a major challenger here and it is. The Gladiator has a longer wheelbase than the Tacoma, since it shares JT wheelbase of the Wrangler. That works for and against the Gladiator, based upon your preference for how you want a truck to drive.
The 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine makes 285 horsepower but the eight-speed automatic transmission is fantastic. A turbodiesel version is available which could make some truck enthusiasts happy.
If you like the way a Jeep drives, you will be fine with how the Gladiator performs on and off the road. Put me in that camp as there’s just something about a Jeep, call it a mystique, that adds a lot of personality. And there’s the removable doors and removable top which adds something no one else can add in this segment.
But all that comes at a high price as the Gladiator Rubicon is the highest priced of all the trucks listed here.
Ford Ranger Tremor
The Ranger had the FX4 trim which had a little ruggedness. But it just didn’t bring enough to the table, so Ford adds the Tremor package to the Ranger for 2021.
On paper, the Ranger Tremor seems to be the least powerful but it also has the smallest engine (by far). So the 270 horsepower out of the 2.3-liter Ecoboost engine is quite impressive and it actually drives, especially over the road, quicker than the numbers indicate.
The Ranger Tremor gets specially-tuned FOX 2.0 monotube dampers with rear piggyback reservoirs and new multi-leaf rear spring setup. The focus of this was clearly on improving off-road control, comfort, confidence and capability without sacrificing on-road behavior. It accomplishes this in spades making it so much better than the FX4 or the bland, first year offering and base trim Ranger which felt dated to say the least.
The Ranger Tremor feels like enough of a refresh to keep the Ranger in the conversation. It’s also priced competitively as the Tremor I had adds $4,290 to the base price of $38,785. Is the Tremor package worth more than $4,000? That’s subjectively up to you.
But that package certainly elevates the Ranger in my book to the top of the midsize truck segment. Tacoma may outsell the segment, but clearly the competition has caught up if not surpassed the leader. In the end, the consumer wins with such good competition.
I’m sure when the Ranger Raptor arrives, it will unequivocally dethrone the Tacoma TRD. Until then the debate rages on!
What do you think? Which of these trucks is most appealing to you and why? Leave me your thoughts below.
Jimmy Dinsmore has been an automotive journalist for more than a decade and been a writer since the high school. His Driver’s Side column features new car reviews and runs in several newspapers throughout the country. He is also co-author of the book “Mustang by Design” and “Ford Trucks: A Unique Look at the Technical History of America’s Most Popular Truck”. Also, Jimmy works in the social media marketing world for a Canadian automotive training aid manufacturing company. Follow Jimmy on Facebook, Twitter, at his special Ford F-150 coverage on Twitter and LinkedIn. You can read the most of Jimmy's stories by searching Torque News Ford for daily Ford vehicle report.