PREVIEW: 2016 Toyota Tacoma – The Off-Road Choice in Mid-Size Pickups

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Last week, we went to Tacoma, Washington to get a look at the all-new 2016 Toyota Tacoma, the first redesign since the 2004 calendar year. Our friends from TacomaWorld and Car Talk and their Facebook fans gave us a ton of help deciding what to look for, and separating the important stuff from what the marketing department wanted to push.

It has been a long, long time since the Toyota Tacoma had a redesign. A lot has changed since 2004. A few surprising facts:

  • The last time the Toyota Tacoma was redesigned was the year the last Oldsmobiles rolled off the assembly line.
  • NBC’s Friends went off the air.
  • The Montreal Expos moved to Washington, DC
  • I didn’t have kids. They’re in first and sixth grade now.

When the 2005 Toyota Tacoma debuted, it completely dominated the mid-size pickup market. The back seat, even in the “C-Cab” or Extended Cab model, was big enough for a human. The double cab made the Tacoma the truck that most of American really needed, and Toyota sold them by the boatload.

Toyota Tacoma 2009
They weren’t without issues, though. The seats were punishingly hard. The interior quality was somewhere south of a Chevrolet product from the late 1990s. A Google search on “Toyota Tacoma Ride Quality” provides 172,000 responses, mostly focused on the second-generation Tacoma. They were simultaneously rough and bouncy, and all kinds of proposed solutions from on-car wheel balancing to aftermarket suspension components didn’t really solve the issue.

Then there were the frames. Frame rust never really attacked the second generation (2005 to 2015) Tacoma, but it pulverized the 1995 to 2004s, causing Toyota to eventually recall almost 700,000 trucks and destroy the bulk of them that couldn’t be repaired. The Toyota truck had an iron clad reputation for reliability that is now synonymous with catastrophic rust. The frames in the 2005 to 2015 models were treated with rust preventatives, but there was no mistaking that the unboxed, c-channel frames were floppy, and might have contributed to that concerning ride quality

We knew all this going in, but we really wanted to get in touch with the people who were actually BUYING Tacomas, who had lived with them for two generations, and were the target audience for replacing their second generation trucks with all-new ones. These are people who know full well that a fixed GoPro mount on the windshield — without a power outlet to charge it nearby — is a gimmick, and not what’s going to make or break your decision to buy.

Their questions — not the same specs and details you can find out of the press kit from every other place on the internet — really provided the basis for what we were looking for when we went to Tacoma. They allowed us to bypass the marketing-speak almost completely, and focus on the things that really mattered to current and prospective owners. Aside from the basics about engine performance, we broke the major questions into a few categories:

Off-Road Capabilities

Toyota Tacoma Question - OFF ROADIf there’s one place where the Toyota Tacoma truly stands out against the competition, it’s in its off-road capabilities. The non-TRD models of the Tacoma (the SR, SR5 and Limited) are equipped with an air dam that helps with fuel economy, but unlike the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, the Tacoma’s air dam still allows for 29 degrees of approach angle. The Canyon and Colorado offer 19 with the air dam in place (“about as good as a Camry” a Toyota voice noted), and if you want to take it off, you have to remove 15 bolts. The TRD Tacomas bring that approach angle up to 31 degrees.

In most basic form, all 4×4 Tacomas get an Automatic Limited Slip Differential (Auto LSD). That’s good, if it works the way it’s supposed to. We drove pre-production trucks, so I’m giving the truck the benefit of the doubt here, but I managed to smolder a tire trying to climb over a rock that was supposed to demonstrate the capabilities of the Auto LSD. It’s supposed to do exactly not that, automatically channeling power to the wheel with better traction.

Nevertheless, the truck’s capabilities are amazing. If you’re a seasoned off-roader or not, the optional CRAWL Control feature is well worth the cost. It’s available on the 4Runner and Land Cruiser models, but this is the first time it’s been available on a Toyota pickup. The trouble for Toyota dealers is that they don’t have the off-road jungle gym that a Land Rover or even a Jeep store may offer, so demonstrating it to potential customers is a challenge. We have no doubt that if you saw it in action climbing and descending 40-degree-plus angles without touching the gas or the brake, you’d want it, too.

It’s the most significant feature available not only in mid-size trucks, but in all pickup trucks available today, and it’s not just about climbing rocks. Its ability to extricate the Tacoma from sand up to the frame rails is fantastic. Can you do it on your own? Sure, I guess, but in that case, you can probably do without cruise control and power windows, too, right?

Watch the video to see it in action:


Fuel Economy

Toyota Tacoma Question - FUEL ECONOMY
There’s a lot of talk in truck circles about fuel economy these days. Ford dumped 700 pounds out of the F-150 to at least attempt to get better gas mileage. We saw an observed 28 miles per gallon out of the EcoDiesel Ram 1500, which we’d never thought even possible.

The expectation is that you can do a lot better in a smaller truck, and that’s what a whole lot of TacomaWorld and Car Talk fans were asking about. Unfortunately, the improvements aren’t all that significant. Yes, this is — as the marketing guys will tell you “the most fuel-efficent Tacoma ever” — but that’s not saying much. These trucks were gas-hogs to start with.

The 2.7-liter, four-cylinder, four-wheel drive Tacoma delivers 19/21/20 (city/highway/combined) from the manual and 19/22/20 for the automatic.

The 3.5-liter six-cylinder, four-wheel drive Tacoma delivers 17/21/19 from the manual and 18/23/20 for the automatic.

Toyota made a lot out of the Tacoma’s new engine being (A) NOT just a Camry engine and (B) a blend of Otto- and Atkinson-cycle, as a means of extracting better fuel economy while still offering 278 hp, a 48 hp jump from last year.

In our day-long drive, we didn’t see any reason to argue with those numbers, but keep in mind, we did a lot of off-roading, too.

If you’re wagering heavily on fuel economy, you’d have to chalk those numbers up as a loss. A 6.2-liter V-8-powered Chevrolet Silverado 4×4 can turn in 15/20/17. The only way to truly get a big jump from those numbers is to choose the 4×2 with an automatic and a four-cylinder, but you’re left with none of the capabilities that a truck owner is looking for, especially the better horsepower afforded by the V-6.


Toyota Tacoma Question - POWER OUTLET
A few TacomaWorld fans were particularly interested in a couple of electrical items. The first is the overall output of the alternator, for powering lighting and winch accessories, and the second was the output of the bed-mounted power inverter and 110V outlet.

Toyota Tacoma Question - POWER OUTLET PICTURE
We missed asking the question on the output of the base alternator, but we do know this: with the optional Class IV towing hitch on V-6 models, the Tacoma gets a 130-amp alternator. But that’s ONLY on the manual transmission-equipped Tacoma, which is exactly the same alternator offered in 2015 Class IV upgrades. That means that at idle, Tacomas without the upgrade are putting out 70, maybe 75 amps at idle. One long recovery with a few lights blazing and you’ll be in the dark.

All of the 250 amp upgrades that current Tacoma owners are executing are still something to be aware of if you’re planning on a lot of accessory lighting, winches and high-powered audio systems.

The power outlet in the cargo bed is again limited to 400 watts. That’s four decent-sized light bulbs. You’re not going to be running a welder back there, that’s for sure.


Here’s where I differ with a lot of people. There is a great hew and cry over the fact that that 2016 Toyota Tacoma still has drum brakes in the rear. The truth is, rear disc brakes are completely unnecessary in a truck like this. Seventy-five percent of the truck’s braking capability happens up front. With an unloaded bed, the only thing the rear brakes are doing is keeping the back end from swapping with the front.

Yes, there is some advantage to having rear disc brakes when towing, butToyota noted that out of all of the tasks they asked Tacoma owners about, towing came in 22nd on the list. The max towing capability is 6,800 pounds. It’s not like you’re going to be hauling a two-car trailer back there.

For at least a couple of reasons, disc brakes in the rear can be a disadvantage off-road. They’re more expensive to replace, and they’re very susceptible to rocks stuck between the calipers and the rotors, which can score the discs pretty badly. Drum brakes in the rear offer at least some protection from that.

If the target to stop faster than the Colorado and Canyon is something the Tacoma can meet, whether it’s discs or drums is hardly an issue. We’ll wait and see on the actual performance.

Ride Quality

Based on the issues in the last Tacoma, the ride quality was the big question. It’s a whole lot better than the last Tacoma, but like the fuel economy question, that’s not saying much. So the ride quality is perfectly acceptable in a truck this size. We spent an entire day in the Tacoma, front seat and back, and never felt like it was uncomfortable or unacceptably bouncy.

The major improvement, not just over Tacomas past, but of all trucks in general is the road noise. This truck is quiet. SUPER quiet. Until you really get into the gas pedal, you can barely hear the engine turning. It takes a lot of the discomfort of driving these trucks completely away.


Toyota tacoma Question - FRAME
We had a lot of questions about the frame, and we asked specifically “Is the frame boxed.” The answer we got was “Yes, yes and yes,” but that’s not really the case. The answer is “Yes, if you consider the Tundra’s frame boxed.” Which it really isn’t. The front third of the Tacoma frame — the business end, which carries all the heavy components — is a fully boxed unit.

Under the cab, though, the frame changes to double-thickness c-channel.

IMG_1115The last third of the frame — carrying the cargo box and the rear differential — is single-thickness c-channel.

That’s arguably not such a bad thing, especially if off-roading is truly something that Tacoma owners are doing. It allows the rear third of the truck to move a bit, offering better articulation than a fully boxed frame would. It also makes the ride more compliant for passengers than a fully boxed frame would.


Toyota Tacoma Question - SEATS MORE COMFORTABLE
Overall, the interior is a much nicer place to spend some time than in the last Tacoma. Even in lower trims, the design is well-executed, and the trims have their own interior style. The TRD trucks, for example, have a body-color accent ring around the dash that you may or may not be crazy about. The lesser trims add design elements like a cloth accent on the dash in front of the passenger.


The overall dimensions of the cabs are essentially the same, but a lot of room has been carved out of consoles, door panels, and other places to provide more room. For example, the manual transmission Tacoma — since around the time Eisenhower was president — had a parking brake operated by a t-handle under the dash. The brake lever has since moved to a very accessible place alongside the console, providing more room in the footwells, and also allowing for the dual knee airbags that arrive this year.


Seat comfort has increased exponentially. None of the old bleacher-bite from the last truck, even in hours of driving. The grab handle on the passenger side is on the A-pillar, which definitely helps getting in and out, but isn’t really in a convenient spot for passengers when the truck is rolling, and it completely obscures the view out the passenger window when a passenger is holding it. The seat is not height adjustable, and it’s manually operated.

Toyota Tacoma Question - INTERIOR VOLUME

The trouble for Toyota is that everybody’s interior quality has increased. In a discussion later in the evening, one Toyota representative felt — naturally — that the Tacoma’s interior quality and design far surpassed that of the Canyon and Colorado, but I find that really hard to agree with. It’s not like the Tacoma’s passenger cabin features polished brass and walrus tusks. It’s exactly the same blow-molded plastic that GMC uses, only the design is a little different. GMC did a remarkable job with the interior on the Canyon. I’d put the Tacoma on the same level, but it’s not far beyond it by any stretch.


Toyota Tacoma Question - OIL DRAIN PLUGS SPARK PLUGS
Toyota’s marketing folks spent a lot of time talking about all the research it did with its customers, finding out that they were — surprise — male, on the younger end of the spectrum and adventurous. That also means that they’re doing a lot of their own work on these trucks, adding accessories, performing regular maintenance tasks.

Toyota Tacoma Question - DRAIN PLUGS

One of the best questions we got was on how hard basic maintenance items were to perform: where the drain plugs for differentials, the oil pan, etc. were, and where the plugs were.

Toyota Tacoma Question - DRAIN PLUGS DIFF
We spent some time under the truck to photograph all the locations. None of them looked especially difficult to reach, though the plugs on the driver’s side of the V-6 will require a few universal extensions or a flexible extension to reach.

Toyota Tacoma Question - DRAIN PLUGS OIL

The TacomaWorld and Car Talk fans really came through for us, providing me with a list of questions that I was able to focus on the entire day. I didn’t get every single one answered, but I hope the questions were meaningful.

For their participation, we promised to give away whatever tschotchkie Toyota offered as a lure to journalists to show up. Frankly, if I come home with any more of this stuff, my wife has threatened to throw me out of the house, so I’m more than happy to share it with the people who provided me with such great questions.

Tacoma Coffee maker
I discussed it with our pals from Car Talk, and we thought Travis Nelson’s question on maintenance issues was the best. Travis, drop us a line with your address and we’ll get your coffee grinder out to you as soon as possible.


Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at