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2016 Toyota Tacoma (A More Civilized Off-roader) First-Look Review By Steve Purdy +VIDEO

2016 Toyota Tacoma (select to view enlarged photo)
2016 Toyota Tacoma

SEE ALSO: 2016 Toyota Tacoma Official Specs, Prices, Models and Features

A More Civilized Off-roader.

By Steve Purdy
Senior Editor
The Auto Channel
Michigan Bureau

The Toyota folks brought wave after wave of journalists, bloggers and influencers, along with groups of dealer reps, to the forested hills not far from Tacoma, Washington to experience the new Tacoma pickup. This mid-size truck is thoroughly refreshed and updated with a renewed emphasis on off-road capability. They demonstrated all this by literally building from scratch an extensive off-road park in an abandoned coal mining area in the foothills east of Seattle.

Mid-size pickups sales have not been strong over the past couple decades. Ever more popular SUV and CUVS, and the oft-freshened, full-size pickups offer bottom-end models at comparable prices. These slightly smaller trucks have had trouble competing for buyers, partly because the difference in price was minimal as was the difference in fuel mileage. So, why not just buy the big one?

2016 Toyota Tacoma (select to view enlarged photo)

Well, one reason is that the smaller physical dimensions of the mid-size trucks make more sense in urban areas with full-size pickups are often seeming just too cumbersome. Another reason might be a modest fuel savings, although the big trucks have gained fuel economy and the price of fuel is low. So, really, mpg issues become relevant for just a few buyers. In this case Tacoma’s off-road cred offers the sporting crowd a more easily-managed truck with which to bang through the trails.

Let’s take a look at the new Tacoma and see if we think it will be able to grow its niche.

Tacoma is the mid-size pickup most involved in off-road and desert racing. Toyota continues to go after enthusiasts who play intensely with their trucks and to add an exclamation point they’ve added a GoPro mount in the windshield as standard on all five Tacoma models – an inspired marketing move, I contend.

2016 Toyota Tacoma (select to view enlarged photo)

Exterior styling and design get modernized, dressed-up, bolder and more aerodynamic. They say the design theme is to make it look “Bad Ass.” That might be a bit hyperbolic but standard projector beam headlights, a larger trapezoid grille and lots of black accents in the front fascia provide an imposing presence. The front appears higher in the air implying a better break-over angle. Bulging wheel arches and new character lines on the side with slightly narrowed green house and more black trim give it a no-nonsense look. The damped and lockable tailgate with “Tacoma” embossed into its lower panel has a slight top lip – they call it a spoiler - for improved aerodynamics.

2016 Toyota Tacoma (select to view enlarged photo)

Inside we see vast improvement in both design and materials over the outgoing truck. A horizontal theme to the overall design makes the cockpit appear wider. The shape is more complex and stylish but not complicated. The materials used to finish the inside project a quality and attention to detail not seen in the earlier Tacoma. We found the layout of controls and gauges to be logical and easily managed, though that is an element best evaluated during a longer-term experience with a vehicle. Fabric seats in all but the top model reflect a practical value and represent the least impressive element inside. The top-of-the-line Limited gets real leather seating. Most impressive inside is a level of quietness that surprised us, both on the road and the trails.

Two powertrains are offered: a carryover 4-cylinder with 5-speed automatic making just 159 horsepower and a modest 180 pound-feet of torque, and an all-new Atkinson Cycle, 278-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 featuring both direct and port injection. The latter makes a good 265 pound-feet of torque and comes with an all-new six-speed automatic transmission. The exhaust manifold is integrated into the head and they’ve included a self-cleaning system for the injectors. A new six-speed manual transmission is still offered with either engine for loyal Tacoma customers who insist on shifting themselves but they expect only about a 5% take rate.

Tacoma’s chassis gets lots more high-strength steel, retuned spring rates and other dynamics but is mostly unchanged. We have lots of protective skid plates standard underneath the whole line of trucks and these also contribute to aerodynamics by smoothing airflow down there. Tacoma engineers have made the controversial decision to continue with drum brakes on the rear while everyone else has gone to discs. They say the drums are entirely competent for all but the most demanding towing needs and they are much less prone to trapping dirt and other stuff to foul the brakes.

Towing capacity is listed at 6,800 pounds for trucks equipped with the trailering option. Payload is 1,620 pounds.

The big news, and the emphasis of our drive experience here in Washington State, is the emphasis the Toyota designers and product planners have put on off-road capability. A new lighter, tougher transfer case and new rear differential for those trucks with four-wheel drive and low range integrates with crawl control and a slate of other stuff to make this easily the best mid-size pickup at off-roading.

2016 Toyota Tacoma (select to view enlarged photo)

Tacoma comes in five trim levels, the base SR, SR5, TRD Sport, TRD Off Road and Limited. Each trim level gets its own grille design and its own wheels. The TRD Sport and TRD Off Road are priced the same but come with different standard equipment. Two bed lengths and two cab sizes are offered throughout the range. A single cab is not longer offered. Like many other Toyota products Tacoma is entirely designed, tested and manufactured in the U.S.

The new Tacoma pickups begin arriving at dealers in early September. Prices begin a $23,300 for the SR model and go to $37,820 for the V6 Double Cab Limited. The TRD Sport and TRD Off Road models both start at just over $30,000. Wheels range from 16 to 18 inches and both wheels and grille designs differ with each trim level. Two box lengths are offered.

The target market, we’re told by the Tacoma team, is “young active males”. Women will purchase only about 15% of these trucks.

Now to 2016 Toyota Tacoma Driving Impressions

2016 Toyota Tacoma (select to view enlarged photo)

On the 35-mile drive to the off-road course along smooth Washington highways my co-driver and I are struck by the amazing quietness inside, as we mentioned above. Even with the windows down the improvements in aerodynamics are striking. The coefficient of drag is still in the high 0.30s but that represents a substantial improvement over the last Tacoma. We found no fault with ergonomics inside, though that short drive was not enough time to make a full assessment.

We stopped for pictures at a lovely and deserted state park along the way where the cloudy skies allowed for soft, even light on our bright blue truck. Parked by itself in this natural setting gave us an opportunity to admire the nicely updated styling details and overall personality of the truck. We hadn’t finished our shoot when a surly park ranger chased us off saying we should be paying a fee for using the park and we should not be shooting it in this deserted no-parking zone.

2016 Toyota Tacoma (select to view enlarged photo)

The off-road experience solidified our admiration for the Tacoma. Toyota spared no expense preparing steep ascent and descent trails and rock crawling opportunities out in this wilderness. And, the access roads offered lots of bumps, dust and rocks getting to the challenging sections of the course. Using the “crawl-control” on the TRD Off Road models we were unstoppable, up, down and over the rocks and even in a sand pit. The high/low range transfer case operated easily. The Toyota folks did an admirable job of convincing most of us that the TRD Off Road might be surpassed only by the Jeep Wrangler - certainly not by Dakota, Colorado or Canyon.

Mother Nature provided great snacks at every stop as endless acres of wild blackberry patches in full production presented themselves. But, I don’t think I’ve ever seen more tenacious thorns protecting a bush. I snagged plenty of those sweet berries anyway.

Heading back to town we drove the scenic route by Snoqualmie Falls then into the congested urban environment of Issaquah. The whole Seattle area proved to be a good test for a competent, multi-functional truck like the Tacoma. We’ll have a more complete evaluation once we’ve had some more time with it later in the fall. Until then . . . stay tuned.

©Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved

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