Verdict: Toyota has crafted a solid update to the country’s best-selling midsize truck, but a cramped interior and questionable ergonomics keep it from being the best midsize truck.
Versus the competition: Though its TRD models have an edge off-road, the updated Tacoma is less spacious, comfortable and efficient than the Chevrolet Colorado, GMC Canyon and Nissan Frontier. It also falls behind the GM trucks in towing capability and safety features and technology content for the price.
The midsize pickup segment, which had been shrinking year over year, is heating up thanks to the smashing success of GM’s redesigned Colorado and Canyon twins, which have been selling like crazy since their reintroduction just more than a year ago. But the Toyota Tacoma has been freshened for 2016 with new styling, a new interior, new engines and some new electronics (compare the 2015 and 2016 models here).
I tested two trim levels of the new Tacoma, a Limited and a TRD Off Road, both double-cab (crew-cab) versions with 5-foot cargo beds. The TRD is available in this configuration or with a 6-foot bed and Access Cab (extended cab) or double cab (the Limited is available only as tested).
Exterior and Styling
It’s certainly an attractive truck. It’s not all that different from the previous Tacoma, but it does look a little larger, a little chunkier. The windshield is very upright, with an A-pillar that curves dramatically. The front and rear ends tie in well with the latest full-size Tundra pickup and Toyota’s truck-based SUVs such as the 4Runner and Land Cruiser, so the family resemblance is definitely maintained.
My blue Limited had plenty of chrome and a deep air dam, large 18-inch wheels, chrome running boards and mirror caps, and body-colored bumpers and fender flares. My vivid orange TRD Off Road looked every bit the part, with black plastic bumpers and fender flares, no running boards or air dam to hinder ground clearance, 17-inch wheels with chunky off-road tires and blacked-out trim around the windows for a more Tonka-toy look. In either version, the Tacoma is a good-looking truck, but only true Toyotaphiles are likely to notice the differences versus the 2015.
How It Drives
A 159-horsepower, 2.7-liter four-cylinder engine is standard, but both of my test trucks were equipped with the optional 278-hp, 3.5-liter V-6. Unlike the Colorado/Canyon twins, a diesel engine is not available, but rumors persist that one is eventually coming to the Taco. You can have a manual transmission with the four-cylinder (a five-speed) or the V-6 (a six-speed). A six-speed automatic can be had with either engine. My Limited had the V-6 and automatic combination, while the TRD came with the manual, so I was able to sample both. Frankly, the automatic is the way to go because the manual transmission suffers from the typical problem with manuals in trucks – vague shift feel, long throws and a tall shift lever that felt like shifting an oar.
Better to let the truck shift for you, with its smooth six-speed auto that never had a problem kicking down for more power. The truck felt quicker with the automatic as well, always seemingly keeping the power on tap and drawing from the reasonably deep well of reserve oomph. Despite not being as powerful on paper as the GM trucks, it feels quicker, possibly due to its transmission gearing.
Handling is nothing special – it feels well-controlled in either version, with pronounced body roll in both the Limited and TRD Off Road, which has a softer suspension. The upside to this softness is good ride quality, as little in the way of pavement irregularity disturbs the occupants. Just as in the Colorado Z71 off-road trim, the Tacoma’s off-road suspension is actually my preferred one. It soaks up bumps and potholes with much better control than the standard suspension.
Braking performance is a shortcoming with the redesigned Tacoma, however. It was a pronounced weak point with the previous truck, called out by everyone in sibling website PickupTrucks.com’s 2015 Midsize Challenge, and it remains troublesome. They’re just not very powerful, with a vague initial bite and lack of stopping performance. One expects more deceleration for the amount of effort being applied to the brakes, but such is not the case, even under hard braking.
Fuel economy is also a weak point. Depending on the configuration, the Tacoma’s gas mileage ranges from 17 mpg city in a four-wheel-drive V-6 with a manual transmission to 19 mpg in most of the other configurations. Highway mileage can be as high as 24 mpg in the two-wheel-drive V-6 automatic or as low as 20 mpg in the 4WD V-6 manual. My Limited was configured with the V-6, 4WD and automatic transmission rated at 18/23/20 mpg city/highway/combined, while the TRD Off Road came with 4WD and a manual transmission rated at 17/20/18 mpg. Neither model achieved these ratings in my two weeks of testing them, with the Limited faring slightly better at 18 mpg combined than the dismal 15 mpg I achieved with the manual TRD model. The ratings are better than Nissan’s Frontier V-6 4WD with an automatic, which is rated at a dismal 15/21/17 mpg, but struggles to catch the superior highway mileage of the Chevrolet Colorado V-6 4WD, rated at 17/24/20 mpg. Chevy then goes one further and offers up a diesel four-cylinder model rated at 20/29/23 mpg, but which in initial testing has turned in even higher numbers.
Getting into the Tacoma is a bit of a contortion act, for despite the truck’s large overall size, the cabin itself is not spacious. The biggest deficit comes in the headroom department – being 6 feet tall, I have to duck while stepping up and into the Tacoma’s reasonably sized seats. And once there, the lack of headroom and inability of the driver’s seat to be lowered sufficiently means that my head touches the headliner on the TRD Off Road. Different, thicker leather seats in the Limited mean that my head is actually inside the moonroof opening on that model, canted at about 20 degrees from upright, or else I simply can’t sit in the truck without hunching over. Get rid of the moonroof, and this problem is ameliorated somewhat, as I found out from a brief spin in a buddy’s new ’16 TRD Off Road that lacked that feature. This is not a problem encountered in the Colorado, which has plenty of headroom and no need to duck when sliding up into the driver’s seat.
I would say it seems like the Tacoma was designed for smaller, shorter people, but several of our editors (including other tall ones) reported trouble seeing over the hood, especially in a model with a hood scoop, and blasted the lack of a seat height adjustment for the opposite reason.
The driving position is also rather unusual due to the high floor. Your legs are straight out in front of you, and the steering wheel doesn’t adjust high enough for taller drivers.
The much smaller Nissan Frontier comes with an experience closer to that of the Tacoma’s, however, designed as it was many years ago on an older compact truck platform.
Electronics & Ergonomics
The switch arrangement in the Tacoma leaves much to be desired. The low position of the dash and controls combines with the high seating position to leave you hunting for climate controls and other buttons while on the fly. Visibility of the automatic climate control in the Limited model is awful and requires taking your eyes off the road for an extended period to figure out how to adjust things to your liking.
While it may be difficult to find the switches you desire, information displayed in the gauge cluster and on the large, bright touch-screen is simple and well-presented. The touch-screen itself is a bit confounding, often requiring more than one press to select a desired function, but it’s still an improvement over systems seen in previous Toyotas. The Entune multimedia system is functional and easy to use, and features the full suite of available apps to play with, but Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are not yet offered, unlike the Chevy Colorado.
Cargo & Towing
The Tacoma features a choice of bed styles, 60.5 inches or 73.7 inches long, dependent on which body style you’ve chosen. My test vehicles’ short beds provided plenty of cargo room for hauling well over a dozen bags of lawn refuse to the city recycling center. The optional hard tonneau cover is easy to remove with just a single bolt and a couple of latches. I did not do any towing with the Tacoma, but the strong V-6 engine feels like it would have little problem tackling most jobs thrown at it.
The Tacoma can be equipped to tow up to 6,800 pounds with the V-6, with a maximum payload rating of 1,620 pounds (ironically, in the much less powerful four-cylinder model). This is less than the Colorado can haul, rated at 7,000 pounds for the V-6 model, and up to 7,700 pounds for the available diesel engine in the crew-cab 2WD model. The Frontier is smaller than either of these two trucks, with a choice of 4.75- or 6-foot beds and a maximum towing capacity of 6,500 pounds.
The new Tacoma has not yet been crash tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, aside from a rollover rating of four stars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has run a few tests and has given the ’16 model a rating of good (out of a possible good, acceptable, marginal or poor) in both the moderate front overlap crash test and the side-impact test. See the crash test results here. Like most light trucks, the Tacoma comes with a limited set of electronic active-safety features: Rear parking sonar, blind spot warning and cross-traffic alert are all available, but active crash avoidance technologies such as forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking and lane departure warning are not available. See what safety features the Tacoma does offer here.
To see how well child-safety seats fit in the Tacoma, view our Car Seat Check.
Value in Its Class
One of the Tacoma’s strengths is the wide variety of trims and features available, making it accessible to many across several price levels. It starts with the cheap base SR four-cylinder, 2WD Access Cab truck at $24,200 (all prices include destination), and covers several trim levels: SR, SR V-6, SR5, TRD Sport, TRD Off Road and Limited. The 4WD TRD Off Road focuses on suspension bits with an off-road-tuned setup complete with Bilstein shock absorbers, a lockable rear differential, Toyota’s advanced electronic active traction control and 16-inch wheels on chunky off-road tires, and starts at $33,000. The Limited is more on-road oriented, forgoing all the specially tuned off-road goodies and opting for 18-inch wheels, a standard automatic transmission, leather seats, a premium JBL audio system, dual-zone automatic climate control and a power moonroof; it starts at $38,720 for a 4WD model. My two trucks were the TRD Off Road 4x4 double cab, which stickered at $36,630, and the Limited 4x4 double cab, which rang in at $41,024. Build one your way here.
The Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon undercut the Toyota in price considerably, with the base Colorado starting at $20,995 and the Canyon coming in a bit more at $21,880. In comparing the TRD Off Road, the Colorado Z71 is most similar, with the Tacoma featuring standard navigation and an optional 12-speaker audio system, while the Colorado offers it up in a package and has only a seven-speaker audio upgrade. When it comes to luxury versions, the Colorado simply doesn’t have a competitor to the Tacoma Limited – you’ll have to go across the street to the GMC dealer and look at a Canyon SLT. There you also can get forward collision warning, lane departure warning, automatic all-wheel drive and true leather trim throughout. Coming for 2017 is a Canyon Denali, which should amp up the luxury content considerably with 20-inch wheels, premium leather and real aluminum trim. The Nissan Frontier is the cheapest competitor by far, however, starting at $19,190 for the base truck. It too offers an off-road model, the Pro-4X, and a more luxurious SL trim, but its advanced age and cramped quarters keep it on the list simply as a good budget alternative to the more expensive, newer trucks. Compare all four trucks here.