For years, Toyota has prided itself on its tough trucks. Tough enough to tow. Now tough enough so there's room for the family to grow.

And just in time for an ever-expanding American family, in steps the sixth-generation Tacoma, labeled the Double Cab.

And out goes your spine.

Wooden roller coasters, the Nasdaq and Florida ballots are expected to carry some weight of uncertainty. Feel free to add the Tacoma.

Don't get us wrong here. We like trucks. They're full of utility. They can be fun. And, in these days of crossover vehicles, they can even dare to be both.

Jumping on the "crew-cab" bandwagon, the all-new 2001 Tacoma is a mix of many things - rugged, attractive new styling and competent off-road ability. Just big enough for a family of four, still long enough for a sheet of plywood.

What the Tacoma isn't good at is inspiring confidence.

It took 180 miles into our one-week test - the final 20 of which were spent negotiating land mines on Interstate 94 near downtown Detroit - for us to realize a dentist's plan should be included with the destination charge.

Offroading on a six-lane highway was never such an adventure.

On the straight and narrow, the Tacoma handled fine: Smooth, crisp and responsive. But hit a bump and watch the fur fly. Or, in the case of a very-pregnant passenger, watch out for early signs of labor.

At times, the dips and dives had us wondering if the ride came with a height restriction.

It certainly came with speed.

Where the California-built Tacoma struggled in the handling department, it scored big with a big engine.

Available with a large, base 2.7-liter, four cylinder - the most powerful four in the compact pickup class - or our optional 3.4-liter V6, Toyota has guaranteed that if you are going to "get trucky" with the ride, at least you'll do it fast.

The Tacoma's 190-horsepower V6 (220 pounds-feet of torque) makes this a quick vehicle from a standing start, an able tower (5,000 pounds) and a big competitor in the race to corner the small-truck market.

And that "crew" style pickup market seems to be expanding daily. Hence, Toyota's jump into a four-door, small SUV/truck market.

Toyota's been in the extended cab market for years. But that usually meant jump seats for passengers riding in back. The "crew cab" replaces cramped rear room with a slightly larger bench that can hold three in reasonable comfort.

And no more slithering through two doors to get to the back. The Double Cab gets twice as good with two rear, albeit small doors. Squeezing in and out of those doors can still be a challenge - two more passengers bumped knees "every time" they got in our Tacoma - but at least there is more room and now there's even space for a child car seat, an unrealistic option before now.

So what's sacrificed?

As with most trucks that have undergone that infamous cab expansion, the price you pay comes in payload. The bed in back is now more of a cot - just over five feet in length, meaning your six-foot couch on that weekend move now must rest over the tailgate. (At least your four friends can ride along to help out.)

Toyota says it will continue to offer an extended, or "Xtracab," option with two doors and a larger bed.

With the Double Cab, those four doors lead to what is typically Toyota: easy-to-read gauges, well-located control knobs and no-fuss styling. For some strange reason, the digital clock was placed directly behind the steering wheel, meaning a quick check of the time turned into a potentially dangerous tilt to the side.

And the rear speakers in our tester were barely audible - even from the back.

The dashboard has a cheap, plastic feel to it, but styling was interesting and different. The gear selector on the automatic transmission looks like the end of a broken hockey stick, and the differential lock switch and ransmission shift mode selector (normal or power) sits on the left of the steering wheel, instead of near the hockey stick.

Four separate door pockets allow for storage; so does a two-tiered center console, and there are two 12-volt power sockets in the dash.

Standard equipment includes everything except ABS (more regrets), air conditioning, cruise control and power windows, locks and mirrors. And all that for less than $20,000, depending on how you want it done up.

Actually, the Tacoma starts at an amazing $11,845, plus freight, which will get you a Regular Cab with rear drive, a four-cylinder engine and a five-speed. Step up to the Double Cab and you can add $6,000, called a PreRunner Double Cab. Add four-wheel drive and the Tacoma moves up to $21,865.

Add a mid-level SR5 package ($1,480) along with a few extras and the little truck that started at 11k is suddenly dangerously close to $30,000.

Who said small trucks had little price tags anymore?

But they do have good visibility (11-inch road clearance in four-wheel drive), decent mileage (17 mpg city, 20 highway) and four-wheel drive mated to that powerful V6.

But mistake-free? No.

Nobody said the Tacoma would ride like an Audi TT, but this was closer to an 18-wheeler.

As mentioned, the ride and handling were an exercise in bump and grind. The Tacoma's rack-and-pinion steering was stiff at parking lot speeds and decent on the highway. But the instability at high speeds, especially over rough surfaces, was more than what is typical out of truck rides. It begged for a screwdriver.

As per usual, toughness can't be questioned with this Toyota truck.

Dental work and baby doctors might be another problem.



2001 TOYOTA TACOMA DOUBLE CAB 4X4

Rating: 2

High gear: With some powerful engine choices, rugged new styling and competence off-road, the Tacoma is Toyota's version of the crew-cab craze that's hitting the country. Four doors and a five-foot bed provide that utility.

Low gear: Getting in and out of those doors is a chore and riding over rough surfaces may invoke teeth-rattling pleasure. Interior layout is simple but the finish still has that plastic quality to it.

Vehicle type: All-wheel drive, front-engine, four-door, five-passenger compact pickup.

Standard equipment: Four-speed automatic transmission; 15-inch steel wheels; driver and passenger airbags; dual, remote mirrors; tilt steering; two auxiliary power outlets; two-speed transfer case; disc brakes w/rear drums; double-wall cargo bed w/hooks; front and rear mudguards.

Competition: Nissan Frontier (crew cab), Chevrolet S-10, Ford Explorer SportTrac, Ford Ranger Edge

Engine: 190 horsepower, 3.4-liter V6

Torque: 220 foot-lbs. @ 3,600 rpm

Wheelbase: 121.9 inches

Length: 202.3 inches

MPG rating: 17 mpg city/19 mpg highway

Manufactured: Fremont, Calif.

Warranty: The basic warrant y is three years/36,000 miles; the drivetrain is five years/60,000 miles; body corrosion is five years/unlimited miles.

Base price: $21,865

Price as tested (including options, destination and delivery): $27,410