Having been based in the Florida Keys for about six months now, we have realized that having access to a vehicle is almost essential. With everything you need to be stretched out along the edges of the only road heading from north to south of this collection of islands and keys, a simple excursion to two or more stores for general supplies can take up a whole day if you rely on public transport, or a very costly $5 per journey back and forth around the island(s).
By far the most common type of car you’ll find in the Florida Keys is the pickup truck; as synonymous with South Florida as beaches, alligators and good ‘ole-fashioned southern hospitality! But the question I have to ask is, ‘Is it really necessary?’ We have driven several pickup trucks while we’ve been here, all with plenty of cargo space in the truck bed, high clearance for rough roads and, of course, a big American V8 or V6 engine.
Within a few days of driving such a vehicle, I began to question the purpose of driving one. Did we need the flatbed and extra clearance and could that justify the lower gas mileage? Now I’m not saying that I haven’t found a pickup truck useful at all. When Hurricane Irma decided to use the Florida Keys for target practice we, like many others, evacuated further north to safety. To try to minimise our losses as much as possible, we rented a mid-size pickup truck to carry everything we owned in our boat and our small storage container on land. The truck was invaluable, and it saved all our possessions from being destroyed in the 100 mph+ winds and 8-foot storm surge that swept across the islands. We needed a truck that day and practically lived out of it for the next ten days, but that was an exceptional situation.
Since most of the driving we do around the Keys is up and down US1, on paved roads, in varying traffic, and only occasionally needing to carry large items, we decided to try something different.
That’s when we found the Toyota Rav 4 Hybrid. When it arrived, I’ll admit my first thought was, ‘Oh, that’s pretty small!’ But then I had just spent a week driving the Toyota Highlander SUV, which is a much larger vehicle. Once the Highlander drove away that comparison was gone and I could get a better idea of the true size of the Rav 4 – it’s no compact! First of all, the four-wheel drive model we drove had very good clearance for a smaller car, making it easy to slide into the car rather than climb down into it.
Once inside, it feels incredibly spacious in all directions. Extra headroom reduces the need for extra legroom, which is already ample for adults sitting in the back. There is also plenty of width in the front, so you would have to reach across the center console to clash elbows with your passenger! The cargo space in the rear was plentiful for this size of a car, especially being a hatchback, and looked to be perfectly adequate for our needs around the Florida Keys.
When I started to get impressed, however, was when I fired up the engine, or not as the case turned out to be! Although Toyota has been at the forefront of hybrid cars for over a decade, this was my first time driving one. My initial reaction to pressing the START button and not hearing a starter motor was to press it again, thus turning off the car. I got over this confusion pretty quickly though once I put the automatic gearbox in to reverse and silently backed out of the parking space – it was eerie, I liked it!
That day was the perfect test of the suitability of the Rav 4 Hybrid for the driving we do in the Keys. I had to drive about 50 miles from Marathon to Key Largo to pickup up some parts of the boat. Traffic was light, so I wasn’t driving slowly (but not thrashing it either) and as soon as my speed exceeded a fast walking pace, the gasoline engine automatically kicked in. The first thing I have to say is that this car dispelled any ideas that hybrid = slow… this thing moves!
The drive was fast and smooth, overtaking was easy thanks to the ride height, and best of all I averaged just under 40 miles per gallon. That’s practically unheard of in the USA! That mileage did decrease over the week as I mostly used the car for short journeys and was heavier on the throttle to pull onto or across US1, but I still stayed well over 30 miles per gallon.
After using the Toyota Rav 4 Hybrid for over week, we can confidently say that if you’re planning a visit to the Florida Keys with a group of 4 people or less, then this is the perfect car for the task. Comfort, technology, speed when you need it, and unbeatable gas mileage!
You can read our detailed review of the Toyota Rav 4 here.
Now is time to take a look at the other side of the coin – Is there a reason for driving a pickup truck on your visit to the Florida Keys? Since we were so impressed with the Toyota Rav 4, we decided to stick with the same brand and spend a week with the 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD 4X4. While we were still working on our liveaboard sailboat, Empress, in the boatyard we spent a week driving the Tacoma’s big brother, the Toyota Tundra iForce V8 Platinum. The 5.7-liter iForce V8 was incredibly powerful and very satisfying under power, but with no need to tow anything, I just could not justify the 13 to 15 miles per gallon.
So here’s the big question – Can the Toyota Tacoma TRD V6 help us to justify a pickup truck on a trip to the Florida keys?
Firstly, the Florida Keys is all about great weather, the ocean, beaches and all the activities that go along with that. Some of the most popular activities in the Keys are fishing and boating, with plenty of visitors from the mainland bring their boats with them by the trailer. Obviously, to tow a boat, you need a vehicle that’s capable of towing. Both the Toyota Tacoma and the Toyota Tundra have received great reviews in that department, so there’s a plus point to the trucks right there.
The Florida Keys is also one of the most beautiful destinations in the world for outdoor activities like kayaking and paddle boarding. If you have your own and the ability to bring them with you, then you can save a lot of money on rentals. With a pickup truck all of this gear, as well as snorkeling gear, fishing poles, paddles and everything else imaginable to enjoy the Keys to the fullest, can all be piled into the flatbed of the truck, keeping the interior clean and sand free.
So can the Toyota Tacoma TRD V6 deliver all of these benefits with better gas mileage than the bigger Tundra V8?
With a towing capacity of up to 3500 lbs (1587.5 kg), the Tacoma would have no problem getting your small to the mid-size fishing boat (or a couple of jet skis) down to the Keys. The 278HP V6 engine with the four-wheel drive automatic gearbox has plenty of torque and can still deliver between 19 and 24 MPG – a significant improvement on the Tundra.
This alone could be enough to make a lot more sense of bringing a pickup truck down to the Florida Keys! The interior of the Tacoma also makes it feel much less like a ‘big vehicle’ while still being rugged. Leather seats and armrests make for great comfort, and all the instruments and onboard computer are just as easy to reach as any other car. I’m also very impressed with the handling; given its off-road reviews, you could expect some of the typical wallowing associated with off-road vehicles, but the Tacoma has a firm ride and responsive handling without feeling unsteady.
So as ever, it’s another case of pros, cons, and compromises. If you’re visiting the Florida Keys to eat great seafood, go swimming, snorkeling and lay on the beach, then go ahead and get a smaller car like the Toyota Rav 4, with the additional economy of the hybrid. You’ll find that it meets all your needs and you can spend the money saved on renting paddle boards or joining a group fishing charter one day!
If the whole purpose of driving to the Florida Keys is to go fishing in your boat and explore the islands with all your gear, boards and equipment, then you would find it hard to beat the Toyota Tacoma TRD as an excellent all-rounder!