2016 Toyota Tacoma: First Drive


It was more than 50 years ago when the first Toyota pickup truck — the Stout — was sold in the U.S. Since then more than 7 million Toyota trucks have been sold.

The first Tacoma debuted 20 years ago, and according to Bill Fay, Toyota group vice president and general manager, 75 percent of the 3 million Tacomas sold since then are still on the road. Add to this the fact that the last time a new Tacoma entered the midsize pickup segment was 10 years ago and you see how important this pickup is for the company.

But let's be clear: Toyota did not reinvent the wheel with the 2016 Tacoma; instead it methodically upgraded the popular small truck. With the exception of a light exterior refresh in 2012, the Tacoma hasn't changed in a long while, yet it has retained its top-selling status without much challenge. Toyota executives believe the Tacoma has benefited from the attention to the midsize pickup segment generated by the new Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. The truth is that through July the Tacoma has sold more than double the number of Colorados, and it has a market share in the segment of more than 50 percent. That leaves Toyota with little motivation for completely overhauling the pickup; however, to its credit, Toyota did pack plenty of change and new technology into the 2016 version. Here's what stands out to us after driving the SR5, both TRD versions and a Limited outside Seattle. To see our video review of the 2016 Tacoma, . 

New Look and Trims

To emphasize a sportier personality and make the Tacoma look more similar to the larger half-ton Tundra, Toyota designers accentuated the cut lines over the wheel arches and reshaped the front grille. Stylists increased the size of the squared openings of the front and rear wheel wells, and more prominently defined the bulging fenders above both wheel flares. Interestingly, depending on the color of the truck, the cut lines can either disappear completely or look like oddly dramatic.

Likewise, the grille has been redesigned to echo the trapezoidal Tundra grille shape that debuted in 2014. Some will think this new look is too similar to a new Subaru or Ford Transit grille, but we like the new front face, which gives it a more cohesive, rugged look with more room for a pronounced and defined simulated lower skid plate.

Toyota designers created five distinctly different trim levels for 2016, starting with the entry-level SR, moving to the fairly well-equipped SR5, then the TRD Sport, the TRD Off Road and finishing with the top-of-the-line Limited. Although each trim level has a unique look to highlight different personalities (emphasized through grille colors, chrome highlights and paint color matching), the strongest visual separation is between the TRD packages. The TRD Sport gets the sportiest hood with a mock intake scoop, while the TRD Off Road gets the smooth hood (no hood scoop) and loses the massive lower air dam to improve approach angles. For more details about trim levels and pricing, click here

Foundational Work

But don't think this redesign is just about exterior looks. The front third of the frame is now fully boxed, more solidly supporting the engine; the rest of the frame is open C-channel. The middle section of the frame is reinforced with more high-strength steel to provide a stiffer platform for the cab. Extra-ultra-high-strength steel also has been added to both the Access Cab (Toyota's extended-cab configuration) and the Double Cab (the crew-cab model). The stronger frame and added structural supports in the cab are designed to make the structure stronger in the event of an accident.

Additionally, each body panel now uses ultra-high-strength steel, which saves overall weight. The new Tacoma weighs just about the same as the previous generation but can now offer a higher maximum payload rating (1,620 pounds) and a higher maximum towing capacity (6,800 pounds), due in large part to a higher factory gross vehicle weight rating (5,600 pounds). However, even though the 2016 is much improved, it retains the 2015's front and rear suspension layout and mounting points: front coilover shocks with double wishbone control arms and a rear live axle with leaf springs. Each trim level has uniquely tuned shocks to offer a distinct driving feel.

Powertrain Changes

Probably the single most impressive piece of technology inside this midsize pickup is the all-new Atkinson-cycle 3.5-liter V-6 that produces significantly better horsepower and torque feel than the larger 4.0-liter V-6 it's replacing. The power ratings for the new engine are 278 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 265 pounds-feet of torque at 4,600 rpm. It will be offered with the both a new six-speed manual and an all-new six-speed automatic transmission. The new transmission offers a sportier center console shifter that allows for tap-up and tap-down shifting when in Sport mode.

All SR and SR5 Tacomas will be offered with a base 2.7-liter inline four-cylinder engine (carried over from the previous generation) and six-speed automatic transmission; buyers can opt for the five-speed manual transmission in 4×4 only.

Because the all-new V-6 engine uses Atkinson-cycle technology and direct and port injection (determined by the computer software based on load and need), the V-6 EPA fuel economy numbers are very close to the four-cylinder EPA fuel economy numbers, depending on application. They both get around 21 mpg combined with a highway max of 24 mpg and a city max of 19 mpg. For more details about the new 3.5-liter V-6 and fuel economy ratings, click here.


As pronounced as the exterior design changes are, the inside of the new Tacoma is much more dramatic. Toyota has done as good a job at separating the different trim levels as we've ever seen with this midsize player. It's almost like it took its half-ton strategy and moved it down market.

The seats have all been redesigned, offering more support and bolstering. But what will most impress midsize buyers (whether Toyota fans or not) is the significantly improved dashboard and the console look and feel. Although the dash is still very horizontal, the radio/navigation screen and climate controls sit dead center between driver and passenger. This opens up quite a bit of storage area, creating room for several cubby holes for stashing glasses, phones, drinks and other personal items. Toyota also has done an excellent job of creating individualized looks with materials like soft-touch plastic, cloth and anodized aluminum.

The gauge cluster continues to house a traditionally round speedometer and tachometer inside the steering wheel arch, but it now offers an easy-to-read 4.2-inch center information screen with everything from real-time fuel economy to tire pressure to trip mileage and more, all dependent on trim level.

A quiet ride has never been a Tacoma strength. We've always been disappointed by how noisy certain Tacoma packages can be at speed — that was certainly true during our . Thankfully, with the addition of more sound-deadening material in the floor and roof liner, and extra lamination on all windows, sound intrusion has been cut significantly. Although we didn't have our sound-measuring equipment with us, it wouldn't surprise us if the new Tacoma is even quieter than the well-insulated GMC Canyon (the current segment leader when it comes to quiet).

Driving Impressions

As for actually driving, we found the throttle response impressive, especially when in Sport mode and manually shifting through the gears. With 3.91:1 axle gears and a 1st gear (automatic) of 3.60:1, the new engine does an amazing job of jumping off the line. The traction control feels much smarter as the engine winds up quickly, and the transmission shifts quickly through the gears. With the exception of a slight dead spot around 2,500 rpm in certain conditions, the power ramp-up is smooth and fluid all the way up to 6,000 rpms. Make no mistake, even if this new engine has 1 less pound-feet of torque, it feels much stronger than the bigger 4.0-liter V-6 it's replacing.

We didn't get a chance to track many fuel economy miles — we were having too much fun carving in and out of traffic on two-lane mountain highways — but we consistently saw our average hover around the 20 mpg mark during our excursions through the Seattle countryside. If we were disappointed with anything, it was that we didn't get a chance to see how the new engine would handle a load or pull a 4,000-pound trailer. All we can say is while driving empty we found the throttle feel impressive.

Although improved, we found the steering ratios a little slow and unresponsive, experiencing the same numb feeling from the previous generation. The Tacoma also still has a pretty large turning radius, especially the 4×4 models. No doubt the tried-and-true rack-and-pinion setup has worked well for Toyota, but it might be time to think about the weight-saving benefits — and infinite tuning possibilities — that comes with electric steering.

Off-Road Prowess

As smooth and well-integrated as the engine and transmission are when running on pavement, the way the TRD Off Road Crawl Control four-wheel-drive system mates with tire traction is something to behold. Most of the "off-road" courses truckmakers set up for media drives are quite simple and designed for the least-experienced drivers. But Toyota, normally one of the more conservative drive-route creators, went against type and created a Rubicon Trail-like rock sluice built out of boulders and jagged granite rocks in a valley that looked like an old, abandoned quarry. And if that wasn't enough, Toyota engineers also fashioned a few natural and unnatural hill-climb obstacles, complete with tight-squeeze 90-degree turns through lodge-pole pines.

The Tacoma TRD Off Road's new four-wheel-drive system with Crawl Control is as impressive as anything we've driven from Jeep, Land Rover or Mercedes-Benz (well, when thinking about the Unimog, maybe that last example is an exaggeration, but just barely).

Although a less sophisticated four-wheel-drive system is offered for the other trim packages (all models use the same transfer case with the 2.57:1 low range), the TRD Off Road uses a Multi-Terrain Select system that allows the driver to select rocks, mud, snow or sand to allow the 4×4 computer to change gears, transmission shift points, traction control parameters, and even throttle and brake inputs. The Off Road trim also includes a bigger, heavier-duty rear axle — an 8.75-inch ring gear instead of the normal 8-inch axle.

Engage the Crawl Control system, and you can set your up- or downhill speed according to the terrain requirements so all you have to do is focus on steering. The advanced 4×4 system takes over the throttle and braking duties and can adjust between (less than) 1 mph on Setting 1 and to 5 mph on Setting 5. Toyota continues to include a rear-locking differential, hill start assist and active traction control. When the Tacoma is equipped with the five-speed manual, you get what's called "clutch start cancel," which allows you to start the vehicle in gear (presumably 1st) just in case you've stalled out on a precarious mountain ledge.

We tested the system on several steep hill climbs. It was amazing — and sometimes unnerving — to witness and hear the computer control the engine revs to deliver the optimum amount of power to a specific wheel as needed while the brakes kept absolute control of each corner for the maximum amount of traction and control. This is a more advanced version of the Lexus GX and LX advanced four-wheel-drive systems; Toyota said there is nothing equal to it in the rest of its lineup. The integration of the engine power, computer controls, and traction and speed settings had us feeling unstoppable.

To demonstrate how well the system works, Toyota buried a Tacoma TRD Off Road crew cab long bed in soft sand, then shifted the pickup into Crawl Control and let the system — on the slowest setting — figure out how to move each wheel, inch by inch, to extract the truck from the sand. It was like watching an autonomous vehicle problem-solve its way out of a perilous situation, essentially escaping from what normally would have permanently stopped any other vehicle.

Final Details

All 2016 Tacomas have stability control, a backup camera, traction control, an antilock brake system, brake-force distribution, three-point seatbelts, eight airbags, active headrests, tire pressure monitoring and a new lever handbrake that falls to the driver's right hand. The Class IV towing package, for V-6 only, adds trailer-sway control, a Class IV trailer hitch, transmission oil cooler, a heavy-duty alternator, and a four- and seven-pin connector.

Other standout features on this new Tacoma include the large-format (7 inches for TRD and Limited, 6.1 inches for SR and SR5) touch-screen with the latest version of Entune Audio. The Limited level includes an amazing JBL Audio speaker setup that offers incredible surround sound.

The 2016 Tacoma will be in dealerships next month with prices ranging from just less than $25,000 for an SR Access Cab long-bed inline four-cylinder 4×2 to just less than $40,000 for a Limited Double Cab long-bed V-6 4×4. For a more detailed account of the pricing and trim-level structure, click here.

In case you think Toyota has not gone far enough with this updated Tacoma, the pickup offers quite a few segment-first technologies. The much-publicized GoPro mount in the front windshield is clever idea (although you still have buy a GoPro). Likewise, the new Tacoma will be the first midsize pickup with a push-button start on select models, a power moonroof, wireless phone charging and a factory-installed (a first for Toyota) hard, lockable tonneau cover.

There's no question in our mind that the Tacoma will continue to do very well with consumers in the midsize segment, and it is likely to do better once the redesign hits dealer lots. If our is any indication, getting up to speed in this changing market was long overdue. From our perspective, this new Tacoma is a tremendous first step that leaves room for more changes to come. While we don't expect Toyota to give up the throne anytime soon, we do know GM has a few tricks coming, and Nissan is hard at work getting the next-generation Frontier ready to make an earth-shaking debut.

To see our full video review and drive impression of the 2016 Toyota Tacoma, .

Manufacturer images


A collection of brand-new Tacomas waiting to conquer the quarry. 

Tacoma chief engineer Mike Sweers ready for testing. 

The new Tacoma TRD Off Road trim level has a larger 8.75-inch rear axle. 

The all-new six-speed automatic has a sportier tap-up/tap-down quick shifter. 

Access Cab rear doors open 90 degrees and offer flexible seating and storage. 

TRD Off Road trims have more aggressive tires and no front air dam. 

Shock and spring tuning are new, but all the attach points are identical. 



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