Tacoma Update: 1st Month of Ownership & Leather Seat Cover Installation

It’s hard to believe but it’s been nearly a month from when we brought our new-to-us Tacoma home on 28 November.  Since then we’ve logged 3,000 miles on the truck with 1,800 of those miles collected during a trip to Pennsylvania with the balance coming from 3 cross town drives to Cumming, Georgia, part-and-parcel to the purchase and a trip down to Columbus, Georgia, to buy a set of step rails.  Overall, I’m still very pleased with the truck. It just seems to be the right fit with the right features and the various changes we’ve made to tailor it to our preferences are nearly complete.


Driving Impressions:

While I’ll get into some other things, it’s probably best to share observations regarding the most important one; how the truck performs.

In terms of fuel economy, it’s a vast improvement over the Tundra but does fall a little short of expectations for the highway.  The 1st real test was during our 1,600 mile round-trip drive to Pennsylvania back on 13 & 19 December.  The Tacoma averaged about 20.9 mpg for the entire trip vs. 14.8 for the Tundra.  Now, bear in mind the route we take is anything but dead flat and, in many areas, has very long grades and quite a few fairly steep grades which takes a big toll on fuel efficiency.  One of the frequent complaints about the 3.5L V6 Tacoma is the automatic transmission and how it seems to search for the right gearing on inclines.  We definitely experienced this but, from an engineering standpoint I get it: the engine is tuned to balance fuel efficiency with performance.  Therefore, it will always try to have the vehicle traveling in the most fuel efficient gearing, hence the frequent shifts.  That said, they would have done better to have installed a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) or at least a 7-speed transmission to soften the impact of the gear changes which are often times dramatic.  I should also note, the roads were wet on much of our drive to and from PA and that’s never good for fuel efficiency.  As a result, during the first leg of the trip to PA we only averaged about 19.5 mpg and then 20.5 mpg during the 2nd leg.  During the last leg were were averaging 22.2 mpg and briefly saw an interim average of 23.5 mpg on the less rolling stretches of Interstate 81 from the PA state line through the cut-off at Interstate 78 east of Harrisburg.  Considering I switched out the stock all weather tires for the more aggressive Nitto Grappler G2 All Terrain tires, I was still pleased with the overall fuel economy.  The fuel mileage we saw on the drive home was similar, perhaps a little worse. Again, still much better than the full-size trucks and our 2006 Tundra and that’s a good thing!

Interestingly enough, the Tacoma’s base weight is ~4,500 lbs compared to our 2006 Tundra at 4,765 lbs and the Tacoma is only about 4″ shorter and 2″ more narrow: definitely a mid-size, not a compact. But, while the 6 cyl Tacoma has more horsepower at 278hp vs. the Tundra’s 271hp, it’s way down on torque at 265 ft lbs vs. the Tundra’s 313 ft lbs. It’s that low torque that limits the Tacoma’s towing capacity to 3,500 lbs vs. 6,800 lbs for the Tundra. However, since we don’t tow much of anything aside from a motorcycle now and again, the towing capacity wasn’t a major factor in our decision process. 

As far as the ride quality goes, I installed a set of 1/2″ tall nylon bushings under the front seat rear mounting brackets before we began our trip and that provided a huge improvement in seating comfort, eliminating a pressure point behind my knee and just giving us a better, more upright sitting position. While the cloth seats were comfortable enough, the leather seat covers I’ve just installed (see below) are a vast improvement over the cloth in every respect. As far as the interior noise levels, they seem a bit higher than the Tundra. So, I’m very much looking forward to installing several different sound insulation materials that will go a long way towards making the interior far more quiet, and enhance the sound of the higher-end JBL sound system and various hands-free technologies that this Tacoma came with as part of the Premium and Technology packages.


Any Buyer’s Remorse?

I have moments when I second guess buying both a smaller truck as well as the Tacoma for a variety of reasons, but none of them are really manifesting themselves in terms of my experience with the truck.

On the size question, there’s no doubt about it… a full-size RAM or Toyota Tundra would have been much smoother, quieter riding vehicles, on par with luxury cars.  But, they would also deliver far less in terms of fuel economy vs. what we’re experiencing with the Tacoma, and would be a tight fit for our garage and just about every other parking situation and were, quite frankly, a lot more vehicle than we need.  And, for whatever reason, I’ve found myself in a somewhat practical mindset when it comes to our vehicles.  Yes, it would be a boost to my ego to have a large, powerful luxury truck vs. our mid-size Tacoma which is anything but powerful or large and luxurious.  Well, it’s not getting any larger but the luxuriousness is coming along nicely: more on that below.  We’ve found the same thing with Debbie’s Honda Accord Sport model.  Yes, we could have purchased the more expensive, more luxurious “Touring” model with it’s V6 power and other luxury features but why?  The Accord Sport has proven to be a wonderful car that gets amazing fuel mileage and is more than luxurious enough for our wants and needs.  And, well, we skinny’d down the motorcycle “fleet” to just the Harley-Davidson Road Glide and it too has proven to be a great match for our needs.  There’s no desire to increase the power or add more “bling” as it’s just right the way it is.  So, yeah… the Tacoma is probably the right truck for us right now and we’re enjoying everything it has to offer.

On buying a 3rd Generation Tacoma in particular, lets just say there are a lot of critics and criticisms about what is one of the all-time, most-popular trucks.  In fact, it’s one of the lowest-ranked mid-size trucks by several different publications that rate vehicles.  But, then again, so is the Toyota Tundra, our #1 choice for a full-size truck.  But, more specific to the Tacoma have been a number of issues included the aforementioned lack of power, transmission shift points and there have been numerous recalls for bad front and/or rear differentials, a brake system problem, etc.  On top of that, there are well over 100 Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs) that alert dealers of issues that fall short of recalls, but that they should be aware of if a customer has an applicable issue with their Tacoma.  One of those is something we’re experiencing — throttle surge at cold start and other times — which I’ll ask Toyota to address when I take it in for the 15,000 mile service in January.  As mentioned, there’s also a noise issue that I think is related to the rear tires we just installed as I don’t recall the truck making that sound when we drove it around with the original, stock wheels and tires.  There are also complaints about the seating position, two of which I’ve noticed and one I’ve already corrected.  The truck is not the easiest to enter and exit; it’s more like a sports car fit vs. a true truck fit, and it also lacks much in the way of adjustments which is problematic because it’s a bit too low in the back. I addressed this second issue by adding spacers that raise the back seat mounting brackets a 1/2 inch and it made for a huge improvement in comfort that was confirmed on our 11-hour drives to and from PA.  On the bright side, the truck is still covered by the original 36,000 mile / 3-year basic warranty, a 5-year drive train warranty and then the 7-year / 100,000 mile Toyota Certified Used Car warranty.  So, you can bet I’ll be taking it to Toyota for service until they give me a reason not to, just to be sure our warranties will remain intact.  That’s also one of the reasons I opted to use Toyota OEM wheels in the original size, an original size tire and used the Bilstein shocks to level the suspension vs. making any real changes to the truck’s suspension or drivetrain, as the latter would clearly give Toyota a reason to deny warranty coverage in the event of a future issue.

Bottom Line: is it perfect?  No, not at all.  But we’re getting the things that aren’t quite right addressed for the long-haul as we hope to have this truck for many years and many miles to come.  If it turns out I was wrong, we’ll make a change.  After all, it’s just a car, not a loved-one.


So, What’s Been Changed?

As far as the changes we’ve made so far, there have been a bunch.  The ones I completed in the first week of ownership back as of 4 December included:

  • Deep cleaning and shampooing the interior cloth seats and carpets.
  • Buffing-out then sealing and polishing the exterior finishes.
  • Removing the various warning labels from the driver & passenger sun visors.
  • Removing all of the “chrome” brand & feature emblems from the doors and tailgate.
  • Removing the special edition decals from the back corners of the
  • Replacing the poorly placed and bright stainless steel running boards with a set of used black powder coated NFab step rails.
  • Ordering a color matched A.R.E. Z-Series shell, due for delivery in mid-January.
  • Figuring out how to integrate my iPod so it’s nearly invisible.

Since 4 December, I’ve:

  • Installed a BedRug cargo bed liner
  • Had the front windows tinted to match the rear windows.
  • Replaced the “funked-up” stone guard material on the rear fender flares.
  • Installed factory mud guards.
  • Installed factory door sill protective strips.
  • Installed new TRD Pro SEMA wheels and Nitto G2 tires.
  • Installed Bilstein 5100 leveling shocks to level the truck.
  • Corrected / centered the cargo bed on the frame.
  • Replaced the stock TRD Sport grill with a TRD Pro grill.
  • Installed a center console organizer.
  • Installed a wireless charging / magnetic smart phone holder.

And, this past week I received and installed the Leatherseats.com leather seat covers which bears special mention and description as this is one of the more significant upgrades to the truck, never mind being one that took me enough time and effort to warrant a detailed description.


Switching our Tacoma’s Cloth Seat Covers our for Leather 

Back on 5 December I ordered a custom-made set of leather seat covers for the Tacoma from a firm called LeatherSeats.com. They are an aftermarket leather seat cover manufacturer that sells primarily to new auto dealers who have customers that want to upgrade cloth or vinyl seat covers and interior trim pieces to leather.  LeatherSeats.com also sells to individuals, but warns that replacing factory seat covers is not your typical do-it-your-self project. Again, these are not slip covers, these are actual seat covers that require removal of the original cloth seat covers and specialized tools, techniques and experience to install.

Thankfully, I gained my initial experience a few years back when I had to replace the foam seat core in our Honda S2000 after the left side bolster had deteriorated. Having successfully managed that auto upholstery project without too much trouble, I had the confidence needed to take on a complete removal and reinstallation of the front seat covers in both the S2000 and our Toyota Tundra truck so I could install heated seat elements.  The leather seat covers in the Tundra were an aftermarket upgrade I made when I bought the truck so having removed and reinstalled those paid-off dividends when I installed the new aftermarket seat covers in the Tacoma.

The new seat covers were delivered while we were in Pennsylvania and their installation had to be put on hold upon our return for half-a-day as one of the two tools I needed to perform the seat cover swap — a pair of hog ring cutters, in addition to a pair of hog ring pliers — didn’t get delivered with the rest of our hold mail on Wednesday.  Thankfully, they were delivered at noon Thursday which allowed me to begin the project on Thursday afternoon.

I started with the back seats first as those would be the easiest ones to work with since they didn’t have heated seat elements or side impact air bags to contend with. Removing the seats was also very easy as there were only 9 bolts holding them in place vs. 8 bolts for the front seats plus several wiring connectors for the heating elements, air bags and occupant sensors for the seat belts and air bags.

Given it was only about 58°F in the garage, I decided to set-up my make-shift upholstery shop in the family room where it was 78°F.  That would make the leather and vinyl materials a lot easier to stretch into place, as there’s a lot of material stretching involved with the installation of the seat bottom covers.

The removal and disassembly of the rear seats was pretty straight-forward and didn’t take a lot of time.  It was just a matter of removing some plastic back cover pieces held on by  a few small screws, then pulling rubber-coated trim edging that holds the bottom edge of the seat covers in place along the edge of the frame and over the foam cores. With the bottom edge of the seat covers loose from the seat frames, I could then pull up the seat covers to gain access to and cut-loose the hog rings that held the seat covers firmly in place between listing rods attached to the backside of the seat covers and the ones embedded in the foam cores.

Installing the new leather seat covers followed a reverse process using a hog ring plier to reconnect the listing rods in the foam cores with the stitched-on attachment strips on the backside of the new seat covers. There were 3 listing rods with 12 rings on each of the seat bottoms and four listing rods with 16 rings on each of the seat backs for a total of 44.  The hardest part of the installation was stretching the bottom seat cover edges while compressing the foam core so the rubber-coated trim edging could be rolled-over and attached to the metal edge of the seat frames: an extra 50 lbs of body weight would have come in handy.

I had the rear seats finished in about 3 hours.  As hoped, I was able to brush up my auto upholstery skills rather quickly and learn some of the nuances of how to cut holes in the leather for the head rest posts.  In fact, I learned why the manufacturer recommends simply cutting small holes in the covers and pulling them over and around the head rest post receivers instead of removing the receivers and pushing them through the material; boy, that was far more trouble than it was worth.  Reinstalling the seats in the truck took no time at all, but I made the mistake of using my impact driver and inadvertently cross threaded the bolt that attaches two seatbelt ends to the floor of the truck.  It was an easy fix two days later as I had the correct 7/16th x 20 pitch tap to re-chase the threads in the floor and I picked up a replacement bolt at Toyota for $1.50.

It was after dinner when I removed and brought the front passenger seat in the house and began to tear it down.  Everything you read about seat removal said to disconnect the vehicle battery so as not to trip an error / idiot light for the air bag which I neglected to do. However, once the seat was reinstalled the warning light went out, so I think I dodged that bullet.  But, to that point, as noted the front seats would be a lot more challenging to work with since they had heating elements in both the seat bottom and backs as well as side impact air bags in the outer shoulder bolster areas.

I started with the bottom cushion and it came apart without any trouble.  The heating element was installed using plastic barbs which were easy enough to remove.  However, not having anticipated the need to have a price label tagging gun on hand to reinstall the heating elements, I had to break out the needle and thread and stitch them to the new seat covers, adding about an hour of work to the project for the four heating elements. As a side note, I found it interesting that the heating element on the driver’s seat back was installed backwards with the red lettering that clearly says “this side towards operator” facing towards the seat cushion.

  

Moving on to the back cushion, it was the side impact air bags that were new to me. I took an extra hour to study-up on what all to be attentive to with the additional constraining straps that all came together at a bracket on the seat back frame.  To make a long story short, I had the passenger seat nearly finished around 11:00pm, cleaned-up my workshop and called it a night.

 

I resumed work on the front seats at 6:00am on Friday by making the cuts in the top of the passenger seat cover and then worked the leather down and around the headrest post receivers; that was the final step.  With the 1st front seat completed, I carried it back out to the garage and re-installed it so I could stand back and admire my handiwork: it looked great!

I pulled the driver’s seat out — albeit putting two small scratches in the door sill paint when the seat got caught on some wiring right as I was clearing the door sill — and took it inside the house to the family room / makeshift upholstery shop. This seat should have taken less time to rework than the passenger seat but it fought me all the way, stretching the recovering project out to 3 hours.  However, by 11:30am the seat was back in the truck and this project was now finished and well worth the time and expense.

 

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About TG

I've been around a bit and done a few things, have a couple kids and a few grandkids. I tend to be curmudgeonly, matter-of-fact and not predisposed to self-serving chit-chat. Thankfully, my wife's as nice as can be otherwise we'd have no friends. My interests are somewhat eclectic, but whose aren't?
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