Reliability & capability?

I'm looking for a reliable 4x4 compact truck on a budget with enough room to be comfortable for short $. From what I gather, if you want a
small 4x4 truck to go many many miles while spending some time off road, the Toyota is the way to go, followed closely by the Nissan. The word is a lot of the older (I'd be looking early to mid 90's) models are good for 250-300K mi.
Does this apply to the V6 versions as well, or only the 4 cyl? Assuming the V6 is reliable, how's the auto trans hold up with it? I'd only go standard with the 4, but could see an auto 6 working as well.
Are there certain years that were better than others (with exception to newer being better)? Anything in particular to look out for when buying? I'm somewhat concerned about frame rot on a 15-year-old NH truck.
Thanks,
Dan
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The V-6 is a reliable engine, and paired with the automatic is something that many people think can't be beat. I have a 4x4 95 tacoma with that combination, and it has been reliable as you can get, despite the problem of lack of proper maintenance amajority of its life so far. Only real costs except for occasional oil changes and gas along the way was one trip to dealer for timing belt replacement (and water pump while they had it open). Total bill was about $1200, included the timing belt, water pump, new fluids (antifreeze, transmission fluid change, diff change...) at about 130,000 miles. Am planning to put another 100k or so miles on it before it gets retired. The best my friends got was around 275K miles before they got the itch and bought a new one. Yep, every one of them bought another Tacoma. Don't know what they'd do now that it has grown so much, it's no longer a small truck, sad to say.
The bad points: It is an automatic, after all, so the gas mileage isn't as good as I could get with a stick. Also, some of the shift points aren't exactly optimum for movin' it down the line in the fastest method, but probably extends the life of the engine (because it typically upshifts before I would in the lower gears when I really want to move...) However, if you want reliable, no hassle, and don't have to shift (like if you have a stop-n-go commute, which is hell on a stick and your left leg), or just want a carefree truck, I can't think of a better truck than a relatively early Toy. I'm partial to the 95-99 Tacoma primarily because of mine and what friends bought. One caveat: If you plan on upping the horsepower by adding the supercharger, make sure you get at least a 96... The 95 model had different PCV setup and can't use the supercharger for some odd reason. However, if I was dead serious about getting some high power, I'd probably swap in a pumped up small block chevy and have some real fun (and probably wipe out the truck in the process, because it's really too tall for serious high horsepower.)
As far as longevity of the automatic, it's pretty well known it is nearly bulletproof in normal use. Rumor has it that the same transmission in the Tacoma was put into the larger models as well without upgrading anything and it still performs without complaint or failure... Now, if you're into psychotic episodes where you just have to shift between drive and reverse with your foot on the floor, I'd expect it to fail just like any other automatic, but given normal road and off-road use, I'd expect it to survive just fine. In low range, you've got about 35 or 40mph max, and in normal high range, the truck will go faster than you should be driving it given the whippy action of any 4x4 at high speeds (I think it is governed at something like 94mph, but typically back off by the time I hit 80 or so when passing.) If your're into rock crawling, get a stick, you'll really like it better (and will probably be into some serious suspension modifications for more travel and such). If you're like most folk and just want the 4 wheel drive to get you out of a sticky situation or an occasional off road excursion without any worry, than the automatic is OK.
At least with the '95 tacoma (and other similar models friends have had) the automatic doesn't get as good gas milege as the stick. (we all had the v-6) With regular gas, I typically got around 20mpg mixed driving, 22mph longer (200 mile) trips, but since they added the ethonal to our gas here, I'm lucky to get 17 mixed and maybe squeak out 19 on longer trips.
I'd go for the extended cab, which has enough room so you can carry a bunch of junk behind the seats, and the resulting 6'6" bed is still useable for most things. Mine has only rarely had an actual person back there on one of the jump seats, which are like torture if you need to make a long trip on one. I've got a pipe rack on my Tacoma (building a house) and find it's ok as long as I don't put too much weight up there. The center of gravity really changes when you put 6 or 800 pounds of wood or metal above the cab...
no matter what you decide, keep the dirty side down...
--Rick
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