So the answer is thus: a 2001-2004 Tacoma 4-door, lifted 6 inches.
Wow, not what you were expecting, right? What went wrong? WTF, right? Let me explain how we arrived here:
We got out of the 4Runner because as it stood, it was barely big enough for us all, what with 2 full-sized people, a 70lb Labrador, and a 35lb mutt. Then it happened that we found 2 labrador puppies — brothers no less! — wondering the street, pretty much holding up a “pweez adopt us mr. Bob” sign, right? Well these two pups grow up to be 90lbs each. Where the 4Runner could barely stand 110lbs of dog, it was straining under the weight of 300lbs of dog.
Not only that, but we go out and the dogs get wet. The 4Runner was starting to stank a little, with all that carpet & insulation holding the water in and gettin’ all musty on us; we needed to give them their own compartment, that was bigger, and could be hosed down. A 4-door Tacoma seemed like a good choice.
So then why didn’t we get an older one to begin with? Well, here’s the real story then, huh? Because The Girl didn’t like the way they looked. No, in a way I’m dead serious. I actually prefer the old ones to the new ones, but they were still pricey two years ago. I didn’t want to buy anything pre-2002, and the difference in cost between a used Tacoma & a brand-new one was literally pennies on the dollar. It didn’t make cents (har har) to spend the dough on a truck with ‘questionable’ mileage when we could get a newbie and break it in ourselves for just a few grand more. And since The Girl preferred the new ones, there was little argument against the idea. And it seemed that a lot of people were talking up the new ones, they DID have bigger motors, some new-fangled off-road options that sounded really cool, and hell I hear that the 2010 models actually give you head on road trips (I lie).
So. I had no plans to lift the truck, I was familiar with my old 4Runner, and obviously since the new model wore the same size shoes and was better, I’d have no issues, right? Well recently I got curious: was it really better? I had decided some time ago that indeed, I DID want to lift the truck and get us some better obstacle clearance. But why in the new truck but not in the old 4Runner? I began to look at the issue. Old Tacomas — built on the 4Runner frame and pretty damned identical — seemed to have me on the ground clearance front quite easily, and I am running 1.5” taller tires than stock to begin with. At least, that’s how it seemed. And then instead of observing, I decided to test. I carried around measuring tools, and when I’d find a Tacoma 4-door that was bone-stock, I’d measure. Sure enough, by as much as 2 inches, they had me. And keep in mind, I’ve got ¾” of extra ground clearance because of the larger tires!
So. All this talk of 3” or 6” lifts on the 2nd gen Tacomas, right? Which way to go? Well it turns out a 3” lift on a 2nd gen is damned near the ground clearance equivalent of the 1st gen BONE STOCK. I’d have to go 6” to even compete with the ground clearance of the 1st gens. And you know what? That’d only gain me about ½” over a 1st gen with a 3” lift!
So then the mice are turning full-speed ahead here. I don’t want to pour money into the wrong thing. And I start fondly recalling my 4Runner. I miss it. It was not as powerful as the new truck, but it was more nimble, lighter, and taller apparently. I felt like I could go places in it on worse tires than I can in the new one with better tread. And maybe that’s really true after all. It’s lighter by a few hundred pounds at least, taller, and more handsomer — trust me being handsome helps off-road, any expert can corroborate.
I didn’t want to just take my own word on the matter of which would be better, so I decided to post the question online. Turns out that it’s not a question many have bothered to ask. And not just that, but the measurements that matter, no one had taken them. I posed the question to the internets, and was met with “dude totally get a 1978 toyota solid-axle, it’s the bomb ha ha” and “ the new ones are the best lol I got one and lifted it 3” and I can do anything that anyone else can do lol dude.”
Turns out, the internet is full of stupid people who like to congratulate themselves, and possibly can’t read. No point trying to get advice from the looney bin I decide, I will go and ask some people that actually do the sh!t, insteasd of just taking poser pictures of their trucks next to a construction site rock pile: the local off-road shop.
The conversation starts out confusing enough: “I have a 2009 Tacoma double cab —”
“— thanks. Anyway, I want to build a moderate expedition rig, I need something with a good amount of space so I have confined my choices to what I have, and the 1st gen 4-door model. Which is a better starting point for that?”
“If I were building out a Tacoma for an off-road rig, I’d go with the 1st gen, no doubt.”
“I thought you said my truck was… never mind”
We talked about it some, and it came to pass that we understood that the new trucks are good for some things, but when you start doing any moderate modding, their weaknesses shine through. Good on-road multi-purpose trucks if you don’t plan on doing anything to them, but if you want to get equipped, best to start with a different base: it’s predecessor.
Which is pretty much the conclusion I had come to. I just needed someone with knowledge to verify that fact for me, assure me that I was on the right path.
That path now consists of selling the Tundra (eventually), letting The Girl inherit the newer, fresher vehicle, and equipping myself with all the tool I need to conquer all terrains with family in tow: a 1st gen Tacoma double cab TRD.