The 1st gen Toyota Tacoma has an unrivaled reputation when it comes to reliability. Owners have described it in the past as “bulletproof,” “hard to kill” and “stupid simple” in terms of modifying and replacing parts on it.
As an owner myself of a Toyota Tacoma, I would even claim that it potentially holds the title as the best small pickup truck ever built. All praise aside though, it isn’t without a few potential faults that should be addressed.
1. Rusted out frames
Frame rust would have to be the most commonly discussed issue in regard to knocking the reliability of a 1st gen Toyota Tacoma. This is due to the severity and impact it has upon the vehicle and the widespread attention the issue has gathered over the years.
Numerous consumer submitted photos can be viewed online of rusted-through 1st gen Tacoma frames literally rotting from the inside out. The majority of the owners who experienced the frame rust issue lived in states that:
- Used salt to de-ice their roads during the winter months
- Lived in coastal towns where there was a higher percentage of saltwater coming in contact with the underside of their trucks
While the issue of frame rust was not documented on all 1st gen Toyota Tacomas, owners who experienced concern were instructed by Toyota Motor Corporation (in a published statement and by mail) to take their trucks into local dealers for inspection. A statement from Toyota Motor Corporation follows:
“…Because of our oft-stated commitment to standing behind our products, we’re extending the rust-perforation warranty covering these trucks for a period of 15 years from each vehicle’s original date of purchase, with no mileage limitation, for corrosion damage that results in perforation of the vehicle’s frame material.”
1st gen Tacoma models that could be cost-effectively repaired were fixed at no expense to the owners, but some trucks that exhibited excessive rust and potential frame failure were actually purchased back by Toyota and destroyed.
This program wasn’t strictly available to the original owners, either. Your truck was covered under the extended warranty even if you bought it second or third hand.
2. Rusted out rear leaf springs and brackets
Similar to the frame rust issue, some 1st gen Toyota Tacoma owners have experienced leaf spring brackets that deteriorated prematurely in accordance to what is considered a normal lifespan.
The leaf spring pack themselves also caused some concerns with owners in regard to uneven and irregular sagging, due to pitting and corrosion of the steel.
While Toyota did issue a recall on 2005-2011 (2nd Gen) Toyota Tacomas, no such recall was ever brought about for 1999-2004 model years. Owners who experienced these issues with their 1st gen Tacomas solved them by replacing leaf packs with aftermarket options and repairing brackets, at their own expense.
3. Timing belt failure in 3.4L engines
To run properly, an engine needs some way to stay in timing. This is either handled by using a timing chain or by using a timing belt. Keeping all the internal parts of an engine moving correctly in sequence with one another is absolutely crucial for the engine to operate.
A timing chain is generally going to cause the owner no maintenance for the life of the vehicle, whereas a timing belt will need to be changed preemptively, at a certain mileage – usually around 80,000-100,000 miles.
If you own a 1st gen Toyota Tacoma with the 2.4L or 2.7L I4 engine, you have a timing chain and this issue does not apply to your truck.
If however, you own a 3.4L V6 engine, you do have to consider the possibility of a timing belt failing if you exceed the recommended mileage between servicing it.
This is an interesting trade-off though. While the 2.4L and 2.7L I4 engines feature a timing chain, they are interference engines – meaning that if the chain were to fail, it is very likely that the valves could come into contact with the pistons. This would cause internal damage to the top end of the engine and possibly even destroy the engine completely.
The timing belt equipped 3.4L V6 however, is a non-interference engine. So the failure of a timing belt is not nearly as crucial of an issue as with a timing chain, since no damage to the engine should result.
Here, I can speak from personal experience. I own a ’98 3.4L V6 Tacoma and actually experienced a timing belt fail on me as I was heading out of town on a trip a few years ago. Without notice, my truck died while carrying a speed of about 55mph.
After pulling off onto the shoulder of the road and googling what could potentially have caused my breakdown, I popped the hood, detached one of the timing belt covers, and saw that the belt had indeed slipped off its sprocket. Since I was only about half an hour from home, I phoned a buddy with a full-size truck and he towed me back to my house.
Because I was aware of the fact that my 3.4L was a non-interference motor, I was confident that it hadn’t been destroyed. So I bought a timing belt kit along with a new water pump and proceeded to do the repair over the next two days in my driveway.
4. Prematurely worn out steering rack bushings
The rack and pinion steering mechanism as a whole is a vital component to a vehicle’s handling and operation. Some 1st gen Tacoma owners have expressed complaints about prematurely worn bushings and while this is not to be overlooked, it is a relatively cheap fix.
It doesn’t require anything more than a little know-how, a few hours of time, and tools you probably already own or can borrow from your local auto parts store.
5. Valve cover oil leaks
With any engine capable of reaching the multiple 100,000 mile mark, some ancillary issues are bound to occur. Owners (myself included) have documented the gradual leakage of oil originating from the valve cover gaskets.
Rubber valve cover gaskets used on the 1st gen Tacoma will eventually start to crack and deteriorate due to the engine cycling from cold to hot many times over a long period of time. Usually, the amount of oil loss due to this issue doesn’t affect reliability or performance and doesn’t begin to even become apparent until vehicle mileage far exceeds 100,000 miles.
Valve cover leakage isn’t really a concern as much as it is something to note and track as an owner, since it doesn’t directly affect the engine’s reliability (assuming you check and maintain oil level). It’s more something to look out for if keeping your engine running like new is your main priority.
If however, you want to tackle this job, the parts are relatively cheap – but you will have to spend at least a few hours disconnecting hoses, cables, and anything else to give yourself access to the valve covers. Proper tools like socket wrenches, socket extensions, a torque wrench, and either a vehicle manual or access to the torque specs are all crucial for success in accomplishing this job.
6. Dim/hazy headlights
If you feel like your headlights do not adequately illuminate the road while driving, especially during low light or poor weather conditions, it is likely due to the gradual discoloration or “clouding” of the headlight covers. This is commonly referred to as oxidation.
Fortunately, this can easily be fixed by purchasing a headlight restoration kit at any auto parts store and spending some time polishing and buffing away the discoloration.
If you’d like to restore your faded headlights like a pro, make sure to head over to this post to learn how to do it:
7. Driver seat deterioration
If you haven’t noticed already, there is a common theme as to how the 1st gen Toyota Tacoma was designed, particularly when it comes to the interior. Economical and reliable are at the forefront of these design queues and while the seats are perfectly fine, if not a little basic, the lower bolster on the driver side seat will eventually break down and split open.
Popular solutions to this issue among 1st gen Tacoma owners seem to be:
- do nothing and live with it
- duct tape it closed
- purchase seat covers in addition to the duct tape underneath
- the elusive seat swap using everything from 3rd gen 4runner seats to electronically assisted and leather-wrapped Mercedes Benz seats.
Because I think of my truck in a function-first way, I have learned to live with the rip in my seat and have opted for the first-mentioned option for the time being.
8. Seat belt deterioration
Much like the seat ripping issue, the driver side seatbelt will eventually exhibit fraying and tend to catch or stick in place when trying to operate or retract it. This issue is actually pretty annoying to deal with and besides replacing the belt, I don’t believe there is any other solution.
While a 1st gen Toyota Tacoma is undeniably one of the most dependable trucks on the road, its longevity will ultimately come down to the owner and how they choose to operate and look after their vehicle.
At the end of the day, the greatest attribute of the 1st gen Toyota Tacoma is its rock-solid reliability, despite the issues listed above. Over the last two decades, this unassuming little truck from Toyota has proven it is capable of going anywhere it is asked to go and return home, whether that be just across town or much further.
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: