2016 Toyota Tacoma: First Drive

August 19, 2015

Let’s get this out of the way: With the Tacoma, Toyota has the best-selling truck in this segment, and one of the models that retains the best resale value in the entire U.S. market. Its owners are fiercely loyal, and cheerleaders for the brand’s trucks.

They’re also the demographic that other automakers seem to dream about in marketing presentations: Younger, active professional males—weekend warrior types, especially—with the budget leeway to spend thousands of dollars of accessories or off-road hardware.

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It’s such a solid, loyal buyer base that Toyota officials seem truly baffled how other automakers don’t see a business case in mid-size trucks. But as we found this past week, in a test drive of the redesigned 2016 Toyota Tacoma, success does come at a cost: While the 2016 Tacoma probably delivers exactly what that existing demographic wants in a next truck, we don’t see the Tacoma reaching out and appealing to a new buyer base.

The Tacoma TRD Off-Road model, at around $35k as equipped, is the model that probably most appeals to those enthusiasts—and most fits into the rugged Pacific Northwest forests leading up from Seattle toward Mount Rainier, where we tested this new truck.

Off on a rocky trail, you take advantage of the ladder-frame layout, which is open in back, the integrity of the new composite-panel bed, and the wheel articulation afforded by the revamped suspension. A new Multi-Terrain Select system (yes, like in the 4Runner, or Range Rovers) let us dial in settings for the conditions—like Mud and Sand, or Rock—and the traction control system provided the right amount of wheelspin and nuance. And down a very steep hill with loose, sandy soil and exposed roots, the Tacoma TRD Off-Road model’s Crawl Control maintained a constant, very slow speed that allowed us to simply focus on steering between the trees close on either side.

Engineered for the long haul—even off-road

What’s more impressive is that, according to chief engineer Mike Sweers, all this stuff is supposed to perform just as well after 200,000 miles—or when it’s coated with mud and grime—as when it’s brand-spanking new. While sports-car owners would never expect original lap times from a performance model with that sort of mileage, truck owners really do expect it from their rigs, he says, so that’s a huge consideration in the truck’s design.

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It’s part of the reason why Toyota stuck with rear drum brakes for the Tacoma, Sweers says, as they’re less likely to have issues with dirt, sand, and rocks caught in rotors.

It also even allows things that those loyal Tacoma off-roaders are going to gush over—like a special mode in which the Crawl Control electronics will actually get the Tacoma “un-stuck” in loose sand or mud, by gently pulsing like a washing machine on tumble cycle, eventually finding the right ridge to crawl back over.

The Tacoma has a new 278-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6 that’s stronger yet more fuel-efficient than the 4.0-liter V-6 in last year’s model; with those models, a new six-speed automatic shifts smoothly through the gears with a refinement (and lack of shift shock) that wasn’t present in the last generation. Loads of additional noise insulation, like an acoustic windshield and special headliner, help keep out unwanted noise, and the Tacoma even rides a bit better thanks to a retuned suspension. It’s all relative though; we still think the vertical motions are too abrupt on the road, but it may be the price for the off-road prowess.

Amenities inside are much-improved, too, if you think of it in terms of a feature list. And there are some very thoughtful, first-in-class features here, like Qi wireless inductive charging for smartphones, and a GoPro mount built right into the windshield. Touch-screen audio systems with Siri EyesFree and apps compatibility completely bring these trucks up to present day on connectivity, and there’s even an app-based navigation option. Materials inside have improved greatly, and the cabin look and feel is much better-detailed.

Flush in features, lacking in comfort

For all the effort that Toyota has put into modernizing the powertrain and performance, upgrading cabin tech, and reducing noise and vibration, there’s an elephant in the room: Despite all this, the cabin packaging itself hasn’t much changed (Toyota claims to have increased hip space, but this amounts to an carved-out section of door panel). If you’ve spent time comparing the Colorado or Canyon, the last Honda Ridgeline, or even the dated Nissan Frontier, it’s likely you’ll find the seating and driving position in the Tacoma to be a throwback—in an unpleasant way.

Even in top Limited or TRD Off-Road models, seats are short and flat, and there’s no adjustability for seat height or tilt. The seats themselves still feel like springy, foam-core affairs that put way too much pressure on sit bones without supporting thighs. Back support, sadly is much the same. Headroom is also quite tight for anyone on the tall side if you have the available moonroof—tighter than before, it seems—and it feels like the Tacoma’s cabin, in general, doesn’t make the best use of available space.

Pricing for the Tacoma is on the high side. With a base price of around $24k, reaching up to around the $40k mark for a top Limited model, the Tacoma seems to cost a few thousand dollars more than its rivals. Then again, it’ll likely hold its value better than any other truck.

And there's plenty more to read about this truck's feature set, by the way, in our full review of the 2016 Toyota Tacoma.

Despite it all, we see the appeal

The Tacoma feels like an image vehicle, as much as some sports cars are. While you’ll find trucks that are more comfortable, better-equipped, its reputation and off-road ability loom large to those enthusiasts.

And we really do see what they like.

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