Almost $50k for a Tacoma TRD Pro and it still has drum brakes! Is Toyota being cheap or do they know something that none of the other truck manufacturers do?
Reasons Why the Toyota Tacoma Has Rear Drum Brakes
Let’s start by talking about why disc brakes are better than drum brakes. The number one reason is heat management. The enclosed design of a drum brake means the heat is generated inside, away from the outside air rushing by.
The drum must be rather thick and heavy to do its job which means it takes a while for the heat to pass all the way through and reach the cooler ambient air. Finned drums used to be popular in the hot-rod world years ago (and still are for that retro look), but never really took off much on mainstream vehicles.
Disc brakes, however, are right out in the open catching wind from both sides. They aren’t going to heat up and glaze over as easily as a drum. They offer excellent performance and don’t have a lot of moving parts, so they aren’t very expensive and are easy to work on.
Which is exactly why the Tacoma has disc brakes- in the FRONT! For starters, the Tacoma and other pickups carry 60% or more of their weight on the front axle. Remember throwing bags of sand and other junk in the bed of your 2wd truck to get a little more traction in winter? This is why.
Then as you press on the brakes, more weight is transferred to the front. The harder you’re pushing on the brake pedal; the more weight is being transferred. In an emergency stop, the front brakes can provide over 90% of the stopping power.
Living in the age of ABS brakes, stopping distances are limited by what your tires are capable of. Drum brakes have always been strong enough to do that job and an unloaded truck isn’t going to overheat them with one hard stop. In a comparison test against the Colorado, Ranger, and Ridgeline, 60mph to 0 braking tests were all within 5 feet of each other.
People hadn’t quite figured out the front to rear braking force ratio until the second half of the 20th century which is when proportioning valves started becoming common place on vehicles. Proportioning valves allow less braking pressure to be sent to the rear as they lock up much easier due to the weight distribution.
The rear brakes cannot do as much stopping as the fronts, even if they are “better”. This is why vehicles with 4 wheel disc brakes will still have smaller rotors in the rear and weaker calipers.
The Tacoma has been getting along just fine with drum brakes for almost three decades now. Sure, it would be very easy for Toyota to “upgrade” it to disc brakes, but there won’t be a measurable improvement in braking distances or even in brake feel.
Disc brakes have become so common though, that I feel like Toyota could do a better job of explaining the advantages of the rear drum brakes to their customers. I’ve watched several reviews where people have the “drum brakes!? C’mon Toyota!” mindset because it just feels and looks cheap in 2023, but they also can’t explain why they NEED disc brakes on the rear.
Customers need to feel like they’re getting a good value when they purchase a new vehicle, and it seems that there is a lack of education around why drum brakes may make more sense for the typical small truck owner.
How Long Will Rear Drum Brakes Last on a Tacoma?
That’s a valid question, but like any wear item on a vehicle, the answer is going to be: it depends. Now for your typical truck owner that hauls kids and bicycles around town and makes the occasional trip to the home improvement store, drums, and shoes could easily last 100k miles or even 200k miles!
Most of the braking is done up front, so the rear brakes have a rather easy life. Brake shoes also offer much more surface area than a set of brake pads which helps them last longer.
Now if you start doing some hauling, this is going to change the weight distribution and likewise for braking. The more often you tow and the heavier the load, the faster you’ll eat through them. Newer Tacomas are rated for towing over 6k lbs which is no joke for a small truck.
And as they say, you “gotta pay to play”: off-roading is very hard on a vehicle and brakes are no different. Steep descents loaded down with gear and feeding dirt, rocks, and mud into every crevice is a guaranteed way to minimize the lifespan of your brakes.
Comparing prices for the drums and shoes of a Tacoma versus the pads and rotors of an equivalent year Colorado, they are just about equal, although as mentioned, the drum setup should last longer. The cost to the Tacoma owner should be less over time.
Something else to keep in mind is that the rear disc setup of the Colorado uses a drum setup inside the hat of the rotor for the parking brake. These will likely last a very long time, but it is another wear item. This is probably where a lot of the cost is saved by the manufacturer when building a vehicle with drum brakes.
Replacement wheel cylinders are also only about 1/5 of the cost of a new caliper! Huge savings for the manufacturer and also good news for the owners of Tacomas.
Does Anyone Sell a Disc Conversion Kit for Tacoma Rear Brakes?
There are many different options out there if you absolutely insist on putting rear disc brakes on your truck. These start around $600 and can get up to around $1,500. Disc brakes look cooler but will likely perform the same in normal driving and towing.
People have been doing disc brake conversions on Tacomas since the second gen came out (or maybe even before but that was before the internet so how would we ever know???) and the arguments went the same back then as they did now.
Disc brake conversions do offer advantages though, like NOT having to work on drum brakes. Drums tend to be a bit trickier and frustrating to work on, especially if you haven’t had to deal with them in a while.
While I’m not particularly fond of wrenching on them myself, you might only be doing this once in the truck’s life. Maybe take it to a shop just this time if you don’t have the tools or care to deal with them.
Drum brakes aren’t totally sealed either, so if you take your truck off-roading, dirt will find its way in but won’t find its way back out! This can result in screeching sounds and eat through your shoes and drums very quickly. From what I’ve come across in my research, this seems to be the use case that best warrants and benefits from the disc conversion.
What Other Vehicles Come With Rear Drum Brakes?
It may sound like Toyota is lagging behind the times to save a couple of dollars or being stubborn, but surprisingly they’re not the only manufacturer sticking with rear drum brakes.
Okay, maybe this first one isn’t a shocker: The cheapest car currently for sale in the USA and the second cheapest in Canada, the Mitsubishi Mirage is also clinging to its rear drum brakes. This is obviously a cost-cutting maneuver, though with only 72 horsepower on tap pushing around a dainty 2,100 lbs (less than 1,000kg) there really is no reason to have anything stronger.
You won’t be tempted to do any spirited driving and there is zero chance of towing anything. The brakes are not going to get much of a workout!
These next two vehicles are ones that I wouldn’t have guessed- the VW ID.4 and its sibling the Audi Q4 e-Tron. These high-tech and not inexpensive electric SUVs are keeping their rear brakes from the 20th century- but with a twist.
While I don’t have numbers, I would wager this system costs VW/Audi more than a simple rear disc setup. It’s not the plain old system we’re used to seeing. They designed a new, sealed, and electrically actuated system for these vehicles.
Disc brakes tend to drag just a little bit and eliminating this on an EV, where efficiency is the name of the game, is huge! The system is estimated to have a 150,000km service interval which is great, but EV/hybrid owners have already been enjoying extended brake life.
The weight distribution of these vehicles means the front is putting in 90% of the effort in hard braking. Thus, they wear sizable front disc brakes and braking tests show that these vehicles beat out other midsize SUVs in the 60mph to 0 emergency stops.
With rear mounted motors, the regenerative braking system will handle most deceleration duties in normal driving. Drum brakes also perform better than disc brakes when they haven’t been used for a while. This is a use case that is unique to EVs and again gives the drum the upper hand.
While not a current model year scenario, I always found it interesting that GM was using disc brakes on their Silverado and Sierra in the early 2000s but went back to drums on the following model.
My dad owned a 2003 Silverado that he had purchased brand new. That thing would eat through brakes and rotors like nobody’s business! The rotors would rust to pieces. I can remember him changing the pads and banging on the rotors to see all the flakes of rust falling out. Time to order another set of rotors!
Like most old men, he hated all things new and lamented the change away from disc brakes. He never had such problems with the drum brakes on his 1992 Cheyenne W/T! Then in 2007, GM “proved him right” by switching back to drums.
Did they do it for cost savings? Or had they totally given up on rear disc brakes, despite the fact that they work fine up front and all around on many other vehicles?
I wasn’t as well versed at researching automotive issues back then, but I’m learning now that the problem had two different causes. The first being they did cheap out on the material used for the rotors and the second being how road debris was being directed toward the brakes.
GM issued a service bulletin where they would install a set of mud flaps in front of the rear wheels to prevent the brakes from being sandblasted.
It will be interesting to see where Toyota goes with the fourth generation Tacoma. Will they finally “get with the times” and give customers the rear disc brakes they have been asking about for years? Or will they keep the time-proven drum brakes with their reduced drag to squeeze out a bit more fuel efficiency?
Honestly, I’m not sure what I would bet on them doing. Then again, I’m not a gambling man which is why I drive a Tacoma- with drum brakes.
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: