HEBER CITY, Utah -- Silted soil and loose gravel fill a narrow trail cut into mile-high slopes of the Wasatch Range in Utah's Rocky Mountains.
The daunting path -- lumpy in washboard ripples as it zigzags up the steep grade – shows off the excellent off-road manners of Toyota's compact-class Tacoma pickup.
Tacoma in Toyota's 2010 truck line makes three cab sizes, two powertrain choices and 18 different models with options for rear-wheel-drive (RWD) and four-wheel-drive (4WD) traction.
The Tacoma we're pointing up the Wasatch trail, outfitted with a muscular six-pack of power and sure-footed traction promised from the 4WD mechanism, piles on sophisticated electronic devices for precise vehicle control and also carries a TRD (Toyota Racing Development) off-road package with locking rear differential, tuned Bilstein shocks and 265/70R16 Goodrich tires mounted on 16-inch alloy wheels.
Those electronic controls link Tacoma's 4WD device to the anti-lock brake system (ABS) and active traction (A-TRAC) and vehicle skid control (VSC) tools plus an automatic limited-slip differential (A-LSD), hill-start assist control (HAC) and downhill assist control (DAC) systems.
So many acronyms for precision electronic hardware designed to keep this truck's tires moving steadily and safely up a rough and steep slope signify that it makes the challenge an easy task for Tacoma's driver.
At one point a fallen boulder blocks the hillside trail, prompting us to veer around the barricade in a maneuver that pitches the truck precariously at a canted angle, left wheels hiking high on the hill and right ones in a rut between slope and stone.
Despite the slippery grade and a dicey maneuver, our Tacoma trudges forward without tipping, rolling or foundering in what becomes a keen demonstration of its 4WD ability.
Tacoma in any trim looks tough in a design with an elevated hood, double-bar bumper and massive front grille flanked by big multi-lens headlamp clusters on front corners.
Sculpted fenders set off big wheelwells, which are rimmed by thick body-colored cladding that dips to form protective sills beneath side doors.
The 18 different configurations for Tacoma are based on three different cabin designs -- the two-door Regular Cab and extended-length Access Cab with dual rear-hinged access doors behind front doors plus flip-flat rear jump seats, and a Double Cab with four conventional front-hinged doors and a back seat fit for three.
Tacoma Regular Cab and the Access Cab carry a truck box in back that extends 73.5 inches long.
Tacoma Double Cab brings a choice in box lengths with the 73.5-inch bed or a chopped 60.3-inch bed.
Deck and walls of the bed contain composite sheet-molded compound (SMC) that's lighter than steel yet stronger and more durable. The box has a built-in system for two-tier loading of cargo with rails for adjustable tie-down cleats and optional 115-volt powerpoint.
And bed rails were designed for compatibility with Toyota accessories, such as cargo bed cross bars, a fork-mount bike rack or diamond-plate storage box.
Structure underpinning Tacoma is based on a ladder-type frame reinforced by seven cross braces and the front third of side rails boxed for extra strength to control energy forces unleashed from a frontal or off-set frontal collision.
Various components for the suspension and tuning of the rack and pinion steering system boost performance off pavement as well as the on-road ride quality.
Suspension elements include an independent double wishbone arrangement up front with coil springs and gas-filled shocks, and leaf springs in back mounted beneath the axle for RWD and above the axle for 4WD in order to increase the ground clearance.
Powertrains to motivate Tacoma begin with the entry-issue engine, a dual-cam 2.7-liter four-cylinder plant consisting of a cast iron block with aluminum alloy heads and Toyota's intelligent variable valve timing (VVT-i).
It generates 159 hp at 5200 rpm with torque of 180 lb-ft at 3800 rpm.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard with the four-cylinder engine, although a four-speed electronically controlled automatic is available.
Toyota's dual-cam 4.0-liter aluminum V6 is also on tap for Tacoma, pumping 236 hp at 5200 rpm and 266 lb-ft at 3800 rpm as one of the strongest six-packs for the class.
Transmissions for the V6 upgrade to a six-speed manual or five-speed electronically controlled automatic.
Standard electronic vehicle controls for safe operation are extensive on every Tacoma trim, with ABS and electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) plus electronic brake assist (EBA), traction control (TRAC) and the VSC system.
Frontal air bags go to all models, and curtain-style side air bags tuck into headliners above outboard seats.
Tacoma shows up in several trim grades (base, SR5 and TRD Sport), but also in special editions like PreRunner and the X-Runner.
PreRunner with RWD traction appears like a customized 4WD truck with hiked stance and flared fenders. It comes in all three cab sizes and the four-cylinder or V6 engine.
Low-to-the-ground X-Runner, a swoopy performance truck with ground effects and hood scoop added and the look of customized drop job, draws its name from x-brace frame reinforcements designed to increase torsional rigidity for handling a twisty set of road curves.
X-Runner strictly conforms to the Access Cab with V6 power and the six-speed manual transmission.
The SR5 package installs color-keyed overfenders, chrome on the front grille and back bumper, bucket seats in the cockpit with a floor-mounted center console.
A TRD Sport Package for any Tacoma V6 adds a sport-tuned suspension with Bilstein shocks, cabin enhancements such as sport bucket seats and bodywork including a hood scoop and body-color trim.
Toyota's price chart for the 2010 Tacoma starts around $15,350 for a base edition (RWD Regular Cab with four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual) and climbs to $27,250 for the top truck (4WD Double Cab V6 automatic).