Among the first choices that many prospective pickup truck buyers face is how big to go. Will a mid-size pickup, with its smaller footprint and better fuel economy be enough to get the job done? Or do they want something will full-size capability but aren't sure that they'll be able to park it?
The most immediate difference between a full-size and mid-size pickup is obvious: a significant gap in size. But we wanted to take a more nuanced look at just how much performance variation there is with day-to-day tasks. With that in mind, Pickuptrucks.com Editor Mark Williams and I headed to the Pacific Northwest to test the mid-size 2018 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road double cab and full-size 2018 Toyota Tundra SR5 CrewMax.
One reason we chose these two is the Tundra's age; it hasn't received a full redesign since the 2007 model year, though it got a . Contrast that with the Tacoma, which got a full redesign for the 2016 model year, making the mid-size truck larger and more expensive. Our two contenders for this head-to-head had some overlap in terms of features: They had the same Entune Premium multimedia system and matching 7-inch screens, the standard Toyota Safety Sense suite of active safety features and similar bed sizes. However, they had plenty of differences worth noting.
For a closer look at their specifications, check out the chart below.
In the name of full disclosure, we should note that just before we started this test in Seattle, we fell victim to a commuter-traffic rear-ender. You might notice in some of the photos there is damage to the passenger-side rear bumper of the Tacoma, where we lost the color-matched covering and some parking sensors. Thankfully, no one was hurt and, even more importantly, the Tacoma was more than ready and able to jump into our full schedule of contests.
Seattle offered a nearly ideal mix of urban and rural driving with access to city streets and forest trails for putting these trucks through their paces. We even drove the Tacoma through its namesake city at one point. We came up with nine key categories to see how they stack up:
Although many factors were at play here (tires, shocks, weight, etc.), the combination of a longer wheelbase and street tires made the Tundra ride better on pavement; it soaked up road imperfections better and had a quieter cabin on the highway — the only exception being when you tip into the throttle, which yields a satisfying sound.
Contrast that to the busy ride of the Tacoma with its off-road-biased monotube shocks and it wasn't much of a contest. The truck chatters at low and high speeds, and there's more road and wind noise to boot. Less off-road-oriented trims of the Tacoma likely would provide a better ride, but there would be a trade-off in capability.
Another notable distinction between the two is how the steering wheels feel. The Tundra's setup is well-boosted with low effort, while the Tacoma's has a heavier, stiffer feel without much change at slow speeds, which could make tighter maneuvers like parking a little tougher.
No surprises here; the Toyota Tundra's V-8 feels more powerful than the Toyota Tacoma's V-6. But there are still some important points to remember here, whether you're choosing a daily driver or weekly worker.
The Tundra's old-school formula of a big V-8 with strong torque numbers and a no-frills six-speed automatic transmission paid big dividends in terms of acceleration. The 5.7-liter V-8 offered even and strong power delivery, combining with the transmission to deliver a responsive driving experience at both low and high speeds.
Our experience in the V-6 Tacoma was not as positive. It also had a six-speed automatic transmission, but it was paired to a 3.5-liter V-6 that runs on what Toyota calls a "simulated Atkinson cycle" that makes it more efficient in certain load situations. This engine seemed to struggle with power delivery due to its focus on efficiency. If you need extra power, we strongly recommend finding and using the ECT (sort of a Sport mode) button to change the sometimes sluggish engine feel.
With rare exceptions, a half-ton pickup will be taller and larger than its mid-size counterpart. In this case, the taller Tundra offers greater forward and rearward visibility with its large windows. The views feel more expansive all around and it has a larger set of sideview mirrors, which are crucial on a large truck that rides high and could tow a trailer.
The Tacoma isn't bad in this department, but it falls victim to its size. With that said, front visibility over the hood and to each corner give it a huge advantage, but we found bigger blind spots over the shoulder, through the rearview mirror and out the smaller rear window. Still, the Tacoma's smaller size and the ability to more easily see to almost every corner of the truck would certainly help in tighter urban settings and city parking situations.
There is a 16.6-inch difference in the overall length between the two Toyota pickups, but only 6.2 inches of that comes from the bed — meaning much of the rest is found in the cabin. This is where the Tundra flexes its biggest advantage: In CrewMax guise it has the largest passenger volume of any full-size pickup and the space there is expansive. The Tundra has 42.3 inches of rear legroom, which is nearly 10 inches more than the Tacoma's 32.6 inches.
The Tundra's backseat area is gigantic, with legroom and headroom that rivals anything you can find in a luxury sedan or SUV. The Tundra's backseat cushion bottoms fold to provide a large cargo area for securing valuable gear; additionally, the rear door opening measures almost 41 inches tall by 26 inches wide. In comparison, the Tacoma has a much smaller opening at almost 36 by 18 inches, with its seat bottom folding forward instead of up for much less storage area.
Where the Tacoma strikes back is with more tech features and higher-quality materials (leather seats instead of cloth), a more modern design and luxuries like heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control and an Entune Premium JBL audio system.
It boils down to this: If you're going to have regular backseat passengers, cabin space and storage should be a priority. That's where the Tundra is going to win for you. If you don't need that kind of room, take the extra features you'll get in the smaller Tacoma.
When it comes to parking, size matters. However, because of how our two Toyotas were equipped, we didn't find much of a difference between parking the two trucks. Obviously, there are spaces the Tacoma will fit into that the Tundra won't. That's undeniable. But they both can be easily parked in roughly the same size space.
Though both came with parking sensors, the Tacoma offered sensors just in the rear whereas the Tundra had sensors on both the front and rear bumpers with visual and audible warnings.
We conducted our parallel parking test in downtown Seattle on a fairly busy street. I didn't feel any less at ease than parking the larger truck than the smaller one. That is in part due to the Tundra's quick-turning steering wheel, which is easier to turn than the stiffer steering wheel found on the Tacoma. It had so much weight that it took two hands to turn quickly.
Besides parking the trucks on the streets and in parking lots in Seattle, we also tested how the two trucks fit into a normal suburban garage. As you might expect, this is where the Tundra's size worked against it, more so than in the other parking scenarios.
Here, the photos tell the tale.
The Tundra's 16 extra inches of length were at play here. No matter which side of the garage we parked it on, it partially or completely blocked the door to the house or storage closets built into the garage.
With the shorter and narrower Tacoma in either slot, there was plenty of room to maneuver around the truck on either side as well in front and behind. As to ceiling height, the lowest point of the garage was 76.5 inches — directly underneath one of the motors for the garage door — that made for some nervous moments in the Tundra with its 76.2-inch roof height. But it fit in both sides of the garage nonetheless.
The point here (and probably everywhere else) is if you are choosing between these two pickup sizes, consider everywhere you'll drive and park your pickup. Check to see if you will still have access to all the important doors and equipment stored in your garage.
We drove two fuel economy loops around the Seattle area to see how the two sizes compared, mixing highway and city driving with a few hours of commuter traffic for good measure (the things we do for you, dear readers). The first loop was performed empty, the second one loaded to near each vehicle's maximum payload figure. That came out to 1,200 pounds for the Tundra and 900 pounds for the Tacoma. We switched seats throughout the loops to account for differences in driving style, and the pickups were filled at the same pump, at the same time, by the same person at the start and the end of the loop. Here are the results:
- EPA estimates: 13/17/14 mpg city/highway/combined
- Calculated, empty (5,940 pounds): 17.4 mpg combined
- Calculated, loaded (7,140 pounds): 13.8 mpg combined
- EPA estimates: 18/22/20 mpg city/highway/combined
- Calculated, empty (4,600 pounds): 20.8 mpg combined
- Calculated, loaded (5,500 pounds): 17.4 mpg combined
The Tundra outperformed its EPA highway fuel economy rating on our unloaded loop, while the Tacoma got closer to its EPA-estimated combined mpg figure. The two trucks had similar gaps in both the empty and loaded tests, with the Tacoma having a 3.4 mpg advantage in the unloaded test and a 3.6 mpg advantage with a full load.
The engine doldrums that we noticed during acceleration in the Tacoma were exacerbated with a bed full of cement bags. The Tundra, however, handled it with aplomb with the flip of the Tow/Haul switch on the dash, allowing the transmission to hold gears up and down longer. If you plan on hauling heavier loads, there's nothing that compares to strong V-8 power.
The Tacoma? We used ECT power mode for towing, but it didn't have quite the same effect as a Tow/Haul mode. The Tacoma's V-6 worked hard with the extra weight in the bed and felt much less confident off the line and around corners, especially going up steep hills in downtown Seattle. However, having a hand brake near the driver's right hand was a huge advantage when stopped at a red light on a steep incline.
Both trucks handled the added weight pretty well from a ride-quality perspective, though the Tundra appeared to have more dip in its bed with its maximum payload. The springs didn't appear to be overwhelmed and we didn't feel any worrisome motions. The Tundra felt like it could handle more if needed, but the Tacoma was at its limits.
The off-road portion of our testing was where the Tacoma shined; it was the more natural truck on the small off-road loop we ran in the Tahuya State Forest. Many of the smaller pickup comes with decent off-road packages; our Tacoma was the stout TRD Off-Road trim, which included aggressive tires, Crawl Control, Multi-Terrain Select, a locking rear differential, extra skid plating and impressive articulation.
Whether using Crawl Control or doing things the old-fashioned way, the Tacoma was the much better tool on the loose, off-camber surfaces. Additionally, since we were running in low range much of the time, the earlier complaints about the V-6 engine performance simply went away.
While the Tundra ran the same off-road course, it was clearly less at home and pushed closer to its limits — although it was impressive on the course. The Tundra's size worked against it and the light steering we welcomed in the city was less of an advantage on the trail where we wanted feedback. Also, it lacked the amount of articulation found in the Tacoma and required more preparation before every obstacle.
This full-size versus mid-size comparison test reinforced some assumptions and offered a few surprises.
Size can be both an advantage and disadvantage. If you need to park your truck in the garage, it may not fit; however, if you need more payload or you tow a trailer, the bigger truck will pay dividends.
Conversely, if you don't need as much capability, the Tacoma offers you more truck overall. Going smaller for a bit less money — our Tundra cost $45,168 and the Tacoma $41,367, including destination fees — nets a ton of off-road capability, but if you don't need that, jump down a trim level and save even more. I would be OK putting friends in the backseat of the Tundra for hours, but in the Tacoma that time window shrinks to much shorter trips.
We didn't get a chance to test towing, but it's still worth mentioning that the Tundra's higher gross vehicle weight rating and more powerful V-8 engine will help deliver a more confident towing experience. As equipped, our half-ton Tundra had a max tow rating of 9,800 pounds, while our mid-size Tacoma had a max tow rating of 6,400 pounds. And we're guessing, as with payload, the Tundra will offer the more confident ride at or close to its max numbers while the Tacoma will be pushing it.
As you'll see in our head-to-head video, we had the requisite "which one would you take home?" conversation. And despite being the one who lives in the city, I'd choose the larger Tundra. Williams, on the other hand, chose the Tacoma even though he lives in the suburbs and has a garage big enough to handle both. I preferred the Tundra's spacious cabin and powerful performance. Williams found the Tacoma's off-road capability and value in regard to features too hard to pass up. Of course, we agree there's a lot to consider when choosing between these two pickup sizes.
Cars.com photos by Christian Lantry