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Up Close: Tacoma Chief Engineer Goes Deep

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The nearly 300 attendees at this year's 10th Annual Lone Star Toyota Jamboree held at the Barnwell Mountain Recreation Area in Gilmer, Texas (120 miles east of Dallas), came expecting to spend four days doing off-road trail rides and sampling the wares of the roughly 35 sponsoring Toyota-loving vendors.

What they did not expect was a surprise appearance by Michael Sweers, Toyota's chief engineer for the all-new 2016 Toyota Tacoma. He and his crew have been working on the midsize pickup truck for three years, and they brought one to the jamboree. We caught up with Sweers as he was conducting walk-arounds and collecting feedback from event participants.

PUTC: Up until now the only place the 2016 Tacoma has been on display has been at major auto shows. What made you decide to bring it out to an off-roading event like this?

Sweers: All the [jamboree] attendees are Toyota owners. They love Toyota and are very loyal to the brand, so it seemed like the logical place to come and show off our all-new Tacoma, and to demonstrate some of its new features and capabilities. We figured these were the kinds of Toyota owners who would really appreciate seeing it themselves.

PUTC: What are some of the major changes and upgrades you've made to the new Tacoma?

Sweers: The truck is all new from the ground up. We focused on several different things. But overall, our main goal here was to build the best and baddest truck we could come up with. To start that process we talked to a lot of our current Toyota Tacoma owners and asked them what they would change, if they could change something about the truck. We asked them to tell us what they wanted that wasn't available, or wasn't built into the current truck.

Compared with our competition, we've gone in a slightly different direction. The main focus for us wasn't to make a baby Tundra, but to do a better job of delivering what this particular demographic is after. We're trying to really meet the needs of that younger, more active crowd. We took a very close look at how they used their trucks, and really scrutinized what kinds of items they hauled in their truck and towed with their truck. So whether it was hauling dirt bikes, personal watercraft or ATVs [all-terrain vehicles], we wanted to make sure we were meeting their needs — and at the same time keeping our SAE [Society of Automotive Engineers] certification for the J2807 [towing standards]. So we're right around 6,800 pounds, which adds 300 [pounds] more towing capacity. Other than that we simply wanted to improve and upgrade certain areas to improve the overall QDR [quality, durability and reliability] of the truck.

Based on that feedback, a couple of things come to mind. First of all, we installed a new rear differential and took the electric motor for the e-locker from outside the differential and added internal solenoids to do that job instead.

Customer suggestions also resulted in us putting a GoPro camera mount inside the windshield. Those were just some of the responses that we got. They told us, "These are the things I've done on my own to improve my truck, or these are the kinds of things we'd like to see, that can only be done at the factory."

So the direction we've taken with the 2016 may be a little different than the path taken by our competition, because we really focused on pleasing our current buyers and the demographic group that is the primary target market for our truck. We have the most active customers and we have the youngest customers, and they tend to use the truck as a truck, not a car.

PUTC: Were there other upgrades or changes your customers wanted to see?

Sweers: Improving fuel economy for the Tacoma was one of the main things customers asked us to do. So we focused on reducing the drag coefficient of the truck and making it more aerodynamic — which isn't easy to do when you have a vehicle that sits so high off the ground. But we managed to do it. As a result, it has the lowest coefficient of drag of any truck in the segment. And it did help improve fuel economy.

We really weren't able to take much weight out of the truck; however, we added some lightweight materials in an effort to improve economy, but those efforts were offset when some new components were added. The main reason was we went to ultra-high-strength steel to make the body structure [stronger].

Another change we made to improve fuel economy was to add a more efficient 3.5-liter Atkinson-cycle V-6 engine. Not only is it more efficient, we are mating it with two new transmissions — a six-speed automatic and a new six-speed manual. We also added an all-new transfer case in the truck, and the new rear differential that I mentioned earlier, adding high-strength steel to the axle housing, and changed how the e-locker is engaged, for better protection.

PUTC: Can you talk about the styling changes for 2016 and what Toyota's thoughts were?

Sweers: The exterior styling is basically set to give the appearance of an aggressive desert racer. The interior styling is based off some of the ATV styling themes we're seeing now, with the handlebar design in front.

We also cleaned up the model lineup so each model or grade has a clearly defined look — both inside and out — with certain standard equipment packaged into each one. We will be coming out with five distinct models — the SR, the SR5 and the Limited, followed by our TRD Sport and TRD Off-Road models.

The SR5 continues to be our top seller. Meanwhile, the new two-door TRD Sport is a 4×4 for the average customer, while the Off-Road is more for those who are seriously into the 4×4 experience. That gives you the locking differential and better shocks, so the spring rates have been changed. If you go with the four-door we offer the four-door TRD Off-Road model, with higher spring rates in both the front and the rear.

We really focused on providing much better ride quality on models with the off-road packages. They used to be really harsh. So this time we've worked to round the edges off a bit more. They still do the job of giving you good off-road handling ability, without shaking the fillings loose from your teeth.

In the process of improving the aerodynamics of the new 2016 Tacoma, one of the things we wanted to focus on was making sure we didn't do anything to take away from the truck's off-road capability. So our approach and departure angles are still best in class for both the standard and off-road models. Our brake-over angle overall is 29 degrees, with a figure of 21 degrees in back and 31 degrees in back, both best-in class figures.

 

 

PUTC: Did the dimensions change much?

Sweers: We seriously looked at making dramatic changes to the packaging of the truck. But after lots of consideration and debate, as well as talking extensively with our current owner body, we decided to keep essentially the same size for the overall package. Now we did make the cabin slightly larger inside … we'll offer a bit more hip room and shoulder room. So with that our customers get a bit more wiggle room. Essentially we're working to provide a cabin that overall is more spacious and comfortable.

The wheelbase of the truck is the exactly the same, but the overall length is 107 millimeters longer [just more than 4 inches]. We added 97 millimeters [3.82 inches] in the front and 10 millimeters [almost a half inch] in the rear. The front overhang was increased to accommodate future pedestrian safety requirements that the industry anticipates will be coming from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration by 2018. We expect these will be similar to what is currently in effect in Europe, which requires a change in the bumper configuration of trucks and commercial vehicles.

Also, we raised the hood 30 millimeters [just more than an inch] and the deck 33 millimeters to accommodate other customer requests as well as some production requirements.

Customers also said they'd like greater stability, so we increased the rigidity. We accomplished that by using ultra-high-strength steel not only in the body panels, but in the frame as well. So the front portion of the frame is all new, and the control arms have been beefed up. To give the buyers better corrosion resistance we changed up the coating material we use on the frame for 2016. We also went to nylon-coated brake lines to provide longer life and better corrosion resistance.

PUTC: Earlier you mentioned the all-new V-6 engine. Can you describe what other changes or upgrades were made to the powertrain?

Sweers: We carried over the same base four-cylinder engine, but did make some friction-reducing changes internally that will help improve fuel economy. Now the V-6 is an Atkinson cycle with a very fuel-efficient direct-injection system, plus port injection.

That engine is brand new for 2016, and exclusive to this truck in the American market. No other Toyota or Lexus model offers it. It's being built for us at our engine plant in Alabama. And then we have our new six-speed manual transmission as well as a new six-speed automatic, which will both help improve fuel economy. So the gearing is now 28 percent lower on the front end and 22 percent higher on the rear end of the power band. So getting off the line, we've got a little lower gear now in the manual.

We changed the ratios in our rear differential as well. We're now offering a 3.9:1 and a 4.3:1. Previously we offered five different ratios for the rear end, but realized for the usage our customers have, we just didn't need that many in this truck, so we're just going with the two for 2016.

PUTC: What are the major changes to the interior?

Sweers: I already mentioned a couple of things — adding more shoulder and hip room, and installing the GoPro camera mount. But we also have wireless USB port charging available now on the center of the instrument panel. Another addition is one-touch power-up, power-down windows.

We also changed the instrument display so the gauges are easier to see and read. The audio system has also been upgraded in the new truck to improve the sound quality. But perhaps the biggest change we made to the interior is the quietness inside the cabin of the truck. We added extra sound-deadening acoustic materials on the various metal surfaces, including the firewall, floor and ceiling of the truck.

Next, we put improved sealant between the cab and the rear deck where the truck box sits. We also changed the door hinge flange so there is less noise when opening and closing the door of the truck.

PUTC: What kind of response have you gotten from attendees?

Sweers: The feedback has been largely positive. Those attending generally approve of the more aggressive look of the new truck and the fact we were able to make it more aerodynamic without sacrificing strength or rigidity. They also approved of the change we made to the e-locker, going with internal controls so it's less susceptible to being damaged or being affected by moisture. They also like the fact we added a camera mount inside the cab.

If there has been an area of concern it was with the front bumper. With the anticipated change coming from NHTSA regarding bumper design, we wanted to be out front instead of reacting to the rule change later on. However, some were concerned it might be more difficult to attach personalized aftermarket bumpers to the new Tacoma.

Cars.com photos by Peter Hubbard

 

 

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