The best-selling small pickup truck is restyled and refreshed for 2016 just as the less-than-full-size pickup class starts to get revitalized.
Toyota refreshes the Tacoma about every 10 to 12 years — a nod to the trucks’ enduring quality and popularity just the way it is. Buyers, among the most loyal in the industry, need not worry, however; the latest Tacoma drives like the previous model, invariably still looks like the previous edition, and the newest Toyota still performs off-road like its predecessors — probably better.
The two newest models will get the most attention, if not the most sales. The TRD Off-road 4X4 trim brings electronic driving aids such as crawl control, which enables the Tacoma to tackle any off-roading obstacle course with confidence and electronically measured control. New Limited trim gives Tacoma buyers levels of features and equipment previously unavailable in this truck: power sunroof, heated leather seats, Entune Audio and Navigation, dual-zone climate controls and keyless ignition and access as well as more safety gear. Competition improves the breed.
However, the Tacoma no longer competes in a vacuum. After vanquishing the Dodge Dakota and Ford Ranger from the segment, the Tacoma has had its way against the Nissan Frontier, Honda’s misunderstood Ridgeline (coming back soon in a totally new design) as well as the previous editions of the two GM small trucks — Colorado and Canyon. The latter pair reappeared last fall and have stormed up the sales charts, outpacing GM’s ability to produce the two trucks — much to the surprise (and delight) of management, dealers and even consumers looking for an alternative to full-size pickup trucks.
The Tacoma Double Cab four-door is almost exactly the same size as a Chevy Colorado Crew Cab: 140-inch wheelbase, 225-inch overall length, 74 inches wide and 70 inches tall. Narrower and shorter than full-size trucks, these small trucks stretch out to close to the same lengths as some big pickups, although the cabs are notably smaller.
In 4X4 trim, the Tacoma weighs approximately 150 pounds more than a comparable Chevy, while its new 3.5-liter V-6 engine makes 278 hp, up 42 hp over last year’s 4.0-liter V-6, but still down compared to the Chevy’s 305-hp 3.6-liter V-6. Torque output is about the same: 265 pound/feet for the Tacoma, 269 pound/feet for the Chevy, and both use a six-speed automatic transmission, a one-gear upgrade for the new Tacoma.
Through the end of November, Toyota had sold 162,300 units of the old and new Tacoma (new model, built in San Antonio Texas, debuted in September), a gain of over 21,000 trucks from 2014. That is half-again as many pickups sold as the Tundra. Chevy’s Colorado, starting from scratch, sold 76,500 trucks in the same 11-month interval. Add the GMC Canyon for over 103,000 YTD GM small truck sales — demonstrating the possibilities in the “small” truck class, as well as the apparent growth in total pickup truck sales.
While Toyota has upgraded the Tacoma’s exterior — with a modified face and tail treatment, the new truck looks familiar, if not a bit more modern. Better lights are good but one has to think that Toyota knew customers wanted a new truck that was better functionally, yet familiar visually.
Toyota also didn’t tamper much with the chassis, keeping the same general layout — coil springs up front, leaf springs out back — and only making un-seen changes in torsional stiffness and rigidity. Strangely, drum brakes at the rear remain, an anomaly in any segment but more notable with the Tacoma’s upgraded tow rating — now up to 6,400 pounds.
With the new TRD Off-road trim, Toyota has double-downed on the Tacoma’s off-roading prowess by adding electronic aids such as crawl mode. This system enacts precise throttle and brake control over all surfaces to keep a steady, slow pace — the driver only needs to steer. No one else has it currently.
Inside, the Tacoma’s reimaged interior offers better controls and switches in a pleasant, user-friendly layout. Big knobs for the dual-climate controls, nice. Big buttons for switches, just right. Push-button ignition, very convenient. Heated leather seating is welcome and the thick-rimmed steering wheel feels good in your hands and has simple redundant controls for audio, Bluetooth and cruise control. Plus, one-touch lane change action is included on the turn signal stalk, while outside temperature display is added — two simple features missing from the previous Tacoma.
There are contrasts, however. The tilt/telescoping action of the steering wheel is very limited. The twin knobs on the stereo/touchscreen panel are tiny and slippery to the touch, lacking any tactile feel. And why is the traction control button on the ceiling with the power sunroof switches instead of with other center-panel controls?
On the road, the Tacoma performs like before. The chassis is stiff on road, but has some long-travel suspension travel that capably soaks up larger road undulations if not smaller road imperfections. Noise levels are about the same: good at speeds less than 60 mph, with a noisier cabin at highway speeds.
Engine output is notably improved, as the 3.5-liter V-6 generates more enthusiastic mid-range grunt and smoother responses to your throttle requests. The new engine is not nearly as coarse-sounding as the previous V-6, so you don’t mind exercising this motor. The new six-speed automatic improves fuel economy — EPA estimates 18/23/20 mpg, with a realized 19.6 mpg for the week — but the addition of another overdrive gear means that cruise control operation results in lots of shifting up and down over less than Kansas-like terrain. Disengaging cruise control resulted in smoother vehicle operation and better fuel economy.
Access to the cab requires a long step-up (great ground clearance) and then ducking your head and upper torso to fit under the low roof line — kind of similar to entering a Jeep Wrangler, another off-road stalwart. The driver’s seat is low, with no height adjustments — which seems out of place on a $40,000 Limited trim truck. I counted nine beverage holders within my reach, plus there are several slots and pockets about the console and cabin for storing the minutia that we all travel with. The new cabin looks good, functional.
In the back, the rear seats fold forward to reveal small storage space under the seat bottom as well as behind the seatback. This is in contrast to full-size rear seats that fold upward to expand the overall interior storage space, greatly. Double Cab four-door models actually hold real adults; four-door Access Cab models rear space is best suited to gear, pets or small children.
Despite Toyota’s reliability quotient taking some recent hits, including the rusting frame issues with Tacoma’s (over 500 Tacoma frames replaced locally, according to the Toyota dealer) this truck retains a high value factor as well as a reputation for ruggedness. That is important for buyers intent on utilizing the truck’s off-roading characteristics, as well as portraying that image on Main Street. The new Tacoma will only strengthen those perspectives.