In presidential races like the one currently underway, there’s the curious concept of the “dark horse candidate:” a contender who starts off small with grassroots efforts that slowly but surely snowballs into a massive, populist movement. He or she didn’t start off with a network of connections or wealthy donors, and was laughed at for a time, but this individual has overcome the naysayers and mocking pundits by establishing a bond with the constituency and addressing their concerns.
Similarly, Toyota and its history of trucks had humble beginnings that transitioned to overwhelming success. The 1930s G1 gave way to the 1960s Stout then to the 1970s Hilux, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become the ubiquitous and massively popular Tacoma, which began production in 1995.
Now, 20 years later, the pickup has entered its third generation with the 2016 model year, and with it comes a renewed vigor and interest in staying on top of the midsize heap. We previously gave our evaluation of the 2015 Chevrolet Colorado Z71, and found it to be a worthwhile investment for the fence-sitters out there who wanted a truck without the excess of a fullsize. But we’ll be taking a different tack when approaching this new Tacoma.
Toyota’s latest motto has been, “Let’s Go Places.” When we picked up our 2016 TRD Off Road model, that motto became a mission. We spent an entire week going over the pickup, examining its odds, ends, advantages, and defects. Our aim was to see just how well the current model stacks up against the outgoing 2004-2015 second-gen, and tally up the pros and cons to give you the answer to the question: is the 2016 Tacoma worth it?
To test a new truck at its best, you must have its best. In the case of the 2016 Tacoma, that comes in the form of the Double Cab with the TRD Off Road package. We were pleased to see our particular pickup also had the much-touted “Crawl Control” capability, a new piece of technology designed to help off-roaders out of a tight spot. Crawl Control is currently only offered by Toyota on the new 2016 Tacoma, and will likely inspire GM (and possibly Nissan) to get cracking with a competing design in short order.
Other features included in the Tacoma were the Premium and Technology package, offering front dual-zone climate control with individual temperature controls, heated seats, backup sensors, and blind spot monitors embedded into the sideview mirrors. We also had the V6 Tow Package, complete with a Class IV tow hitch, ATF cooler, engine oil cooler, power steering cooler, 130-amp alternator, and trailer sway control. Carpets and door sills, a $209 option, rounded out the niceties.
Measurements of the truck really push the limits for what it means to be a midsize, which is an amusing problem in the market segment – the fact that midsizes of today dwarf those of years past, and are closer to fullsize trucks now more than ever. The 2016 Double Cab Tacoma with a five-foot bed comes in at 212.3 inches long and 74.4 inches wide, which isn’t far off from a 2016 Double Cab Tundra with a 6.6-foot bed at 228.9 inches long and 79.9 inches wide.
Toyota really went for broke on the look of its new Tacoma – okay, not really. Truthfully, there hasn’t been much change to the body lines and overall shape of the truck compared to the second-gen. The lower grille now stretches across both foglights, giving the look of a mouthguard-wearing rugby player, and the headlights have noticeably narrowed. The hexagonal upper grille is here, jutting forward from the hood and giving the truck something of a snout. It’s an appearance that definitely leaves an impression, but which kind of impression, we’ll leave to you to decide; personally, we could take it or leave it.
All the badging has been left as it was, but one striking change is the large-font “TACOMA” stamped into the steel bed, reflecting the recent resurgence of big, bold lettering that tells everyone what you drive. Ford did it to the Raptor, Ram is doing it to the Rebel 1500, and now Toyota has done it to its beloved workhorses.
The paint is a nice earth tone called Quicksand, which can only be had with the $650 V6 Tow Package option. Other colors include Blazing Blue Pearl, Barcelona Red Metallic, Inferno, Black, Magnetic Gray Metallic, Super White, and Silver Sky Metallic. Depending on outside hue one chooses, he or she can choose between Graphite with Gun Metal or Black Fabric with Orange Accent Stitching. Pair the latter with the Inferno paint code, and you’d never lack for vitamin C again.
Whatever misgivings people may have about the outside, it’s more than made up for by the inside. The cloth seats are standard fare for the market, and won’t surprise anyone familiar with trucks, but they maintain a nice, springy feel up front (and we can’t stress how lovely the heated seats are) and back.
Space may be a concern, however, as backseat passengers of an average male height will have a difficult time feeling comfortable with the amount of legroom provided. That was something we liked about the Colorado, which had ample accommodations for us American-sized folks compared to this Tacoma. The headroom is about the same between the two trucks, so no worries there.
Facing the driver is a gauge cluster that’s easily read and understood. A digital display situated between the tachomoter and speedometer can be rotated through to display readouts like mpg, XM Radio, tire pressure, and even a clinometer measuring pitch and roll. The steering wheel comes with all of the controls you’ve come to expect from late-model vehicles, too: Cruise control, Bluetooth phone connectivity, etc.
Visibility is decent from the front, but the hood does seem to stretch a little too far for the sake of off-roading. There were times when coming up over a crest, we felt we couldn’t see as much as we wanted to. The mirrors keep you aware of your surroundings, and the built-in Blind Spot Monitors (BSM) in the sideviews are useful when on the highway. Toyota went so far as to include a factory GoPro mount too, located on the passenger side of the vehicle next to the rearview mirror.
Look right, and there’s the console, chock full of dials, buttons, and other means of distraction. The seven-inch display holds together all the electronic creature comforts one could want, from XM Radio to navigation to the backup camera, and looks much better than it did in the previous generations. Fiddling with the infotainment center too much while driving would trigger a pop-up warning, essentially telling the driver to hold off with the distractions until he or she had come to a full stop. We thought this was a nice touch.
Look down, and dual-zone climate controls are handy, as are buttons to toggle even more electronics. BSM starts on the left, and to its right is the ECT Power, which changes the transmission’s shift points to make the truck more capable for towing purposes. A backup sensor helps prevent you from crushing the mailbox backing out the driveway, and next to it sit the ports for USB and auxiliary audio cable. Last but not least, we find the Qi toggle, which turns on or off the wireless charging pad for so-equipped smartphones. It worked perfectly on our Samsung Note 5, for example.
Look up, and the controls for the sunroof and drivetrain were right there. Traction Control and the locking rear differential were nothing new, nor were the sunroof controls. What was new was Crawl Control, which had five settings corresponding to miles per hour and the type of terrain one was situated in. As a TRD Off-Road and 4×4 package exclusive, this was one of, if not the, defining feature of Toyota’s latest pickup; but more on that later.
On the whole, the interior feels like the much-needed update people have been demanding for so many years. While we’re impressed with the amount of innovation brought to electronic conveniences, the legroom factor was a tad disappointing.
Yet another overhaul of the Tacoma came in the form of its powertrain. Base models have the 2.7-liter 2TR-FE inline four, making 159 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque, just as it did in the previous generation. Upstream models come with the 3.5-liter 2GR-FKS, a change from the old standby 4.0-liter 1GR-FE V6. This V6 update increased the horsepower by 36, but dropped the torque by one pound-foot, for a total of 278 hp and 265 pound-feet of torque.
D-4S technology found its way into the 2GR-FKS, which switches between port and direct injection during different driving conditions for optimal performance. It also features a self-cleaning ability to fix carbon buildup problems in fuel injectors, spraying fuel when idling during stop lights, drive-thrus, or stop-and-go traffic.
Downstream of the V6 is a six-speed automatic (or five-speed manual, which Toyota offers on both the inline four and V6 models). It’s electronically programmed, which isn’t conducive to spirited driving, but that’s balanced out by the “Sport” mode offering partial manual control of shifting to give us a more spirited driving experience.
The 4×4 capability is rounded out by a limited-slip front differential and electronic locking rear differential, both operated by console controls that are, admittedly, not easy to figure out without the instruction manual. We didn’t get around to towing anything with the Tacoma, but the truck is rated to haul up to 6,800 pounds, which is 300 pounds more than the second-gen could handle.
On-Road Driving Impressions
Driving is a two-fold experience, as we all know. You either drive slowly to be more conservative on fuel, or you drive quickly to have fun or get somewhere faster. Fortunately, the 2016 Tacoma rewarded us no matter our style.
This being the most wonderful time of the year, people have to get a Christmas tree (or two) while the getting is good. The bedside’s built-in tie-down mounts were on a slide, allowing them to be repositioned to get the best layout for securing a strap or length of rope. We figured the trees didn’t weigh much – probably 60-80 pounds, at most – so it did little to affect the ride quality. Nevertheless, we made it home in one piece and were glad to have the rear-facing light to help us figure out where to grab the trees for egress.
On the way to Ocotillo Wells SVRA is the 78 East highway, a two-lane road that, on a lazy Sunday, has few other drivers running around. It was a fitting place to test out the on-road driving experience. Leaving from Hemet, California, we had 92 miles to cover before reaching the off-road area.
Along the two-hour journey, we noticed the truck rode nice and quiet. Any and all road noise was kept to a barely audible level, just the gentle hum of the V6 going up and down as we went over dips and around mountains. Holding the truck at 60 mph had the RPM hovering around 1,000; definitely the mark of a highly efficient motor.
During the curvy mountain portions, the Tacoma reminded us that it was indeed a truck and not a car – attempting to steer it through the sharper corners had us biting lips and cursing as the G-forces pinned us side-to-side. Nevertheless, the pickup pulled through, and any rough portions from cracks or potholes were easily dismissed by a very smooth suspension system.
From this drive, we managed to achieve our best fuel efficiency reading of the week: 22.1 miles per gallon. That was right around the EPA estimate of 23, proving that this truck had decent mileage properties when not driven maniacally. It made the Tacoma a pleasure to drive knowing that it would forgive us at the gas station.
Off-Road Driving Impressions
All that self-congratulating on good mpg went right out the window once we reached an off-road destination. In the case of the 2016 Tacoma, we tried out several locations to get a complete sense of where the limits lay.
Out in Ocotillo Wells, we felt the popular hotspots would be a little too hardcore for a stock Tacoma like ours, but there was still plenty of terrain to romp around in with all the safety features set to “off.” Blasting over whoops, the truck’s Bilstein shocks got quite a workout, and the truck never felt like it was a bucking bull. It felt quite restrained and in control, although ABS had a nasty habit of kicking in when we wanted to get sideways.
Since the park was mostly empty at this time, we opted to go full-bore down the main road. We came across washboard sections that would have turned an older, stock Tacoma into a motorized earthquake, but again, the suspension was so smooth that the rapid bumps hardly registered. Ocotillo Wells was fine and dandy, but how would the truck hold up in a more dicey situation?
We drove the truck down into the local wash, an area that was made up of super soft sand. The sand would be a great area to test the Crawl Control feature. To begin testing the vehicle, we drove out to the middle of the wash and left the truck in two-wheel drive. We buried the rearend until the sand was half way up the wheel. We then enabled four-high, and did the same to the front.
Once the Tacoma had all four tires spinning freely, we knew we had gotten the Tacoma good and stuck. Enabling Crawl Control means switching the truck over to four low, turning the MTS (multi-terrain select) knob all the way to the right, and pushing the Crawl Control button. The truck needs to be in neutral to enable four-low, and once Crawl Control is selected, the shifter needs to move to reverse or drive, giving users options to select what way the vehicle exited.
Next, all you do is sit back and let the truck do the work, without needing to step on the gas or brake. The truck shook back and forth as the wheels began to spin and vibrate the sand underneath the tires. Crawl Control seemed to use the ABS system as we could hear noise coming from under the dash. In a matter of seconds, the Tacoma began to rise up and out of the sand like a four-wheeled Graboid.
In the span of one week, we got to see so much of the 2016 Tacoma, and likewise the Tacoma got us to see so much of Southern California. We can safely say that this is a truck that not only gets the job done, but also has fun doing it. The updates Toyota fans have clamored for have finally caught up with the automaker, and have been implemented with this latest midsize: the infotainment system has merged well, the interior comfort has gone up, and the off-roading capabilities have shown a marked improvement to boot.
But can we justify this truck as a worthwhile purchase over a low-miles, pre-owned second-gen? That’s a question we have a harder time answering. The 2016 model carries itself well, but doesn’t do enough to really make itself distinct from a well-equipped 2015. A new engine, a new look, and some new buttons are great, and the Crawl Control cannot be stressed enough as a technological wonder. However, any off-roader worth his salt can take care of himself out on the trail, and Crawl Control alone cannot replace the peace of mind one gets from off-roading with friends and their rigs. So worry not, second-gen owners; compared to this new kid on the block, you still have a very solid truck and aren’t going to be left in the dust (unless you get stuck).
But if you have the means, the will, and the passion, then the 2016 Tacoma TRD Off Road is the chariot of choice. It will get you where you want to go, then take you a little further, all while playing the greatest hits and keeping you warm. It may not be the standout, blow-us-away midsize that the hype built it up to be, but it came close and is plenty of fun to take off of the beaten path.
Photography courtesy of Toyota, Steven Olsewski, & David Chick