The Ultimate 1st Generation Toyota Tacoma Buyers Guide

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Red 1st generation Toyota Tacoma

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If you’re looking to pick up a reliable and capable small truck second hand, one vehicle tends to outshine the pack; Toyota’s 1st generation Tacoma.

Over the years, Toyota Tacomas have established a solid reputation for toughness and longevity that only seems to grow with time. This reputation does however elicit top dollar on the used market, so don’t be surprised to see what some sellers are asking for them. If you happen to find a deal on one, don’t hesitate – because it likely won’t last.

1st generation Toyota Tacoma overview

The 1st generation Toyota Tacoma was built from 1995 to 2004 and was considered by Toyota to be a true compact sized pickup truck. This new truck model by Toyota was designed to improve ride quality, driver features, handling, and safety over its predecessor.

The Tacoma was immediately successful because it managed to incorporate car-like handling, good visibility, low maintenance, and attractive fuel economy into a vehicle that could also hold its own doing most things expected out of a pickup truck. One owner’s remarks about his 1st generation Tacoma follows:

“…the perfect blend of a truck that could go off-road and haul decent weight while being a comfortable ride and rather plush.”

Red 1st generation Toyota Tacoma

1st generation Tacoma models and trim levels

One of the things that new owners appreciated about the 1st generation Tacoma was that there were different options regarding trim levels.

Regular cab, XtraCab, and DoubleCab variations all existed. Regular and XtraCab models featured a 6 foot bed length while DoubleCab models only offered a 5.5″ bed option. This meant buyers had to either give up bed length for passenger comfort/interior room or give up interior space for the standard 6 foot bed length.

In general, driving a truck is a compromise and issues like this come up from time to time. If you address your needs and wants out of your truck before deciding on the features, the process of determining which model is right for you will be easier.

Red 1st generation Toyota Tacoma

A few things to consider regarding trim packages for 1st generation Tacomas:

A PreRunner option was available in 1998, which was basically a 2wd Tacoma but on the 4wd platform utilizing taller suspension and bigger tires.

Later down the line, a TRD PreRunner featured a locking rear differential, giving that trim level of the Tacoma more off-road capability. There was also a supercharged TRD trim level which bumped up power and torque figures considerably.

Four cylinder engines, while not as strong in the power department provided very good fuel economy for 1st generation Tacomas. Both the I4 and V6 engines were capable of going hundreds of thousands of miles with regular vehicle maintenance. Things like changing spark plugs, especially on the I4 engine were easy to accomplish.

1st Gen Tacoma year-by-year updates

In typical Toyota fashion, the Tacoma didn’t receive a whole lot of changes during its 1st generation of production. 2 cosmetic facelifts and a few new features scattered here and there make up the most of it.

1996:

An “Off-road” package was added and features a locking rear differential. For 2WD models, it included bigger tires and a tachometer. 4WD models received a center console, bucket seats, and an updated 4WD system.

1997:

This was the first minor cosmetic change for 2WD models. The sunken design of the headlights was replaced by a more modern, flush-mounted design. The smaller, 2.4L engine also received updated fuel injection and ignition systems.

1998:

One year later, the 4WD models followed suit with the updated headlights and grille. 1998 was the first year for the PreRunner models.

1999:

No noteworthy changes

2000:

Different gear ratio for 4WD trucks, other minor changes

2001:

This was the most noticeable facelift for the 1st gen Tacoma and it also introduced the Double Cab option with 4 full doors. This was the start of the S-Runner model as well, which was basically just a tuned-up PreRunner.

2002-2004:

No major changes for the final years of production before the 2nd Gen came out. You can continue reading all about the 2nd generation Tacoma in this buyer’s guide:

Red 1st generation Toyota Tacoma

1st generation Tacoma engine options

EngineHorsepowerTorque
2.4 L 2RZ-FE I4142 hp (106 kW)160 lb⋅ft (217 N⋅m)
2.7 L 3RZ-FE I4150 hp (112 kW)177 lb⋅ft (240 N⋅m)
3.4 L 5VZ-FE V6190 hp (142 kW)220 lb⋅ft (298 N⋅m)
3.4 L 5VZ-FE V6 (TRD Super Charged)254 bhp (189 kW)270 lb⋅ft. (366 N⋅m)

1st generation Tacoma towing capacity

As you’ll see below, a small truck like the Tacoma is probably not the best choice if you’re doing a lot of towing. Aside from the late model V6 (with towing package), these 1st gen Tacomas aren’t going to tow much more than a small boat or camper trailer.

EngineTowing Capacity
Model Year 1995-20012.4 L 2RZ-FE I43,500 lbs
2.7 L 3RZ-FE I43,500 lbs
3.4 L 5VZ-FE V65,000 lbs
Model Year 2002-20042.4 L 2RZ-FE I43,500 lbs
2.7 L 3RZ-FE I43,500 lbs
3.4 L 5VZ-FE V63,500 lbs w/o towing package
6,000 lbs w/ towing package

1st generation Tacoma payload capacity

Payload capacity for the 1st generation Tacoma depends on which trim package/drivetrain you have and how much weight (occupants included) are riding in the vehicle at the time you plan to transport the load in question.

For simplicity’s sake, it’s a broad range from about 1,300 pounds to 1,700 pounds depending on a number of factors. Keep in mind that the 1st generation Tacoma is a small truck platform and that added weight to the vehicle needs to be considered so that balance and handling are not altered when the vehicle is in motion. This chart should help illustrate:

ModelEngineTrimCapacity kg (lb.)
2WD Models2RZ-FE 2.4LRegular cab≈ 669 (1475)
5VZ-FE 3.4 LXtra-cab≈ 612 (1350)
4wd Models3RZ-FE 2.7 LRegular cab≈ 709 (1565)
5VZ-FE 3.4 LXtra-cab / Double-cab≈ 616 (1360)
PreRunner (2wd) Model3RZ-FE 2.7 LRegular cab / Xtra-cab
Double-cab
≈ 741 (1635)
5VZ-FE 3.4 LXtra-cab / Double-cab≈ 721 (1590)
Red 1st generation Toyota Tacoma

1st generation Tacoma transmission options

Toyota offered a simple four speed automatic and more sought after five speed manual transmission on the 1st generation Tacoma. Different transmissions were matched to different trim levels and for the most part, owners were happy with both options.

For instance, all PreRunner and all DoubleCab models were only available with an automatic transmission for the first generation, while the regular cab and Xtracab four-wheel drive were available with either a manual transmission or automatic transmission.

1st generation Tacoma body and Chassis

ClassCompact pickup truck
Body Style2-door regular cab, 2-door extended cab, 4-door
LayoutFront engine, rear-wheel drive/ four-wheel drive
Red 1st generation Toyota Tacoma

1st generation Tacoma Suspension

Since this truck was built economically and was positioned as more of a lightweight in terms of performance and capability, it’s no surprise that the suspension is relatively simple as well. It’s a mix of traditional leaf springs and shocks in the rear with coil over shocks upfront.

Simple however does not mean that there aren’t aftermarket solutions for longer travel suspension, better off-road handling, or the ability to bump up your payload capacity to haul more on-road if you so desire.

Red 1st generation Toyota Tacoma

Speaking from experience, the stock suspension on my 1st generation 4×4 Tacoma is well suited for a variety of tasks. Besides having slightly bigger tires, my truck is stock and being mostly unmodified, it handles every off camber, rutted, muddy backroad I point it down, quite well. The independent front suspension, or IFS, sort of comes alive when you leave the smooth reassurance of the pavement.

Red 1st generation Toyota Tacoma

1st generation Tacoma 4×4 system

One of the most appreciated aspects of the 1st generation Tacoma is its 4wd system. As mentioned during the suspension section, the independent front suspension allows decent articulation when traveling over uneven, low traction terrain, as well as maintaining a safe and predictable feel on road.

Couple this with power being delivered to the front wheels and the result is a very sure-footed feel off-road. On-road, 4wd isn’t utilized unless driving in snow or during particularly hazardous road conditions so it needs no mention besides the fact that it adds a little weight to the feel of the vehicle, even when driving in 2wd.

Earlier 1st generation Tacomas featured manual locking hubs, which you had to get out of the vehicle to lock and unlock. 4wd enthusiasts tend to gravitate toward this system because of its mechanical nature and simplicity to work on or replace.

Modern 4wd systems are usually electronically actuated which eliminates to need for the driver to have to get out of the vehicle when wanting to switch into 4wd.

Head over to our complete article on using your Tacoma’s 4WD system if you’d like to learn more!

Red 1st generation Toyota Tacoma

Another great attribute of the 1st generation Tacoma related to its 4wd system is the ground clearance and factory skid plates. Ground clearance on 4wd drive models is very good and the underside of the engine is equipped with a two-piece steel skid plate that acts as a shield from rock dings, punctures, and potential collisions with debris with driving off-road.

Everything under the vehicle is tucked up out of the way and the gas tank even features a skid plate of its own. A full-size spare tire is secured up and out of the way behind the rear bumper.

Red 1st generation Toyota Tacoma

1st generation Tacoma downsides

One issue that continues to come up with 1st generation Tacoma owners is that the driver seat will eventually rip on the side closest to the door. The seats, in general, are not the most comfortable or supportive, but there are aftermarket pads and covers available. Some owners have even installed leather seats out of similar model year Toyota 4runners to solve this issue.

Depending on your body type and height though, you may not fit very well inside the cab. I am 6’2” and am very aware that this small truck was built for an average height driver of under 6 feet tall.

Besides this anecdotal gripe, I am quite happy with how the cab is laid out and consider it attractive in a utilitarian sense. The mirrors though are quite small and somewhat flimsy which is carried over into the feel of the rest of the plastic interior.

Red 1st generation Toyota Tacoma

One other point to consider about the interior space of the 1st generation Tacoma is that even with the Xtracab option, space is very limited. Don’t expect guests to be comfortable for longer than a few minutes riding back there. Even though seatbelts are present, that area is better suited for stowing groceries, the family dog, or some camping gear, rather than human occupants.

In 1995, 1st generation Tacomas came standard with a driver airbag, but no passenger airbag. This was updated in 1998.

As with any other Toyota truck of this age, rust is always a concern. 1st gen Tacomas were known for their frames rusting prematurely which resulted in Toyota fixing or replacing many of them free of charge. 

For more details on the 1st gen Tacoma’s reliability (and common problems), head over to this post:

Final word

At its core, a 1st generation Toyota Tacoma is a simple work truck capable of accomplishing a variety of tasks. It was built for a time period and market that valued reliability and functionality, above all else. If you’re looking for a small pickup on the used market, the 1st generation Toyota Tacoma should definitely be considered.

3 responses to “The Ultimate 1st Generation Toyota Tacoma Buyers Guide”

  1. Mark D Cooper Avatar
    Mark D Cooper

    Very good info. I just bought a 2000 Pre Runner xtracab yesterday, clean car fax, 183,000 miles, V6. I hope to see another 183,000 miles.
    Thanks for your the good info.
    Mark C

    1. Canadian Gearhead Avatar
      Canadian Gearhead

      Congrats on the new truck!

      -Tim

      1. Tito Avatar
        Tito

        Yeah i purchased a super clean 99 prerunner sr5, but basic (manual everything ie lock, windows etc)
        Just at 200,000 on the v6. Love the truck around Denver area. Paid $3850 in 2021, stole it. Spent its life in tx, rust free.
        Our ’06 4runner with the 4.7 v8 has 450,000 miles and runs perfect. Love’m right, they love you back

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