The Force Awakens: The Toyota Empire Strikes Back Against the Small-Pickup Market
Everyone loves a good underdog story—e.g., every “Star Wars” epic—but one doesn’t catch that feeling whatsoever with the hot-selling Tacoma. It’s not 1957 (Toyota’s first year in the North America); the Tacoma has developed a loyal and very interactive (on the Interwebs) following. We’re not in Hollywood, California, where Toyota originally set up shop in ’57. No, our boots have landed in Seattle, Washington, a stone’s throw from the city of Tacoma. Toyota has provided precisely six hours of vehicle access to drive, learn about, and photograph (in that order) the 2016 Tacoma as swiftly as we can.
Hour 1 First impression: Sensations new and familiar envelop me upon sliding into the driver’s seat of a Barcelona Red Tacoma TRD Off-Road Double Cab. The 2016 has been unified on one common chassis, whereas before the standard rear-drive truck sat lower than the 4×4 and now-retired 4×2 PreRunner models. The commanding view of the road and traffic remains even though the pickup’s beltline has risen 0.4 inch and the greenhouse has slimmed.
In contrast to the Tacoma’s outgoing generation, you no longer climb in and then proceed to fall into the seat. The 2016 truck’s seat bottom is higher off the floor than before and doesn’t lift my knees up, which helps accentuate the feeling of newfound height. Photographer William Walker, at a huskier 6-foot-2, has to recline the seatback more than normal to help clear his head. We concur the tilt/telescope steering wheel doesn’t tilt nearly high enough.
The re-skinned interior now falls in line with the majority of Toyota’s cars, meaning it feels at least two generations ahead of the second-gen truck. The components, the available gizmos, and the touch and feel of the materials, buttons, and switches should be more than enough to persuade a few Taco loyalists to come on down to Big Cal’s Toyota Emporium and get the paperwork started.
Hour 2 Much to Walker’s bemusement, I’ve spent the early part of the drive checking the TRD Off-Road truck’s V-6 redline. The new 2GR-FKS features 3.5 liters of displacement, 278 horsepower, and 265 lb-ft of torque; has the latest version of Toyota’s D-4S combination port- and direct-injection; and can simulate the efficiency-enhancing Atkinson cycle on demand with crafty, variable intake valve timing. The six-cylinder uses water-jacketed exhaust manifolds that have been integrated into the cylinder heads, a practice linked more to turbocharged engines. Yet there I was, running it to its 6,200-rpm redline, which the six-speed automatic transmission is happy to hold when the driver is manually selecting gears. Why run into the relatively soft rev limiter? There are off-road implications at stake.
Hour 3 The hydraulically assisted power steering could be a dead ringer for the 2015 truck’s. The steering ratios are identical (17.3-17.4:1) and the snap back to center continues to be strong and fast. The previous model’s steering effort would increase as it returned to center, but it’s slightly less noticeable with the new model.
Now structurally more rigid and better sealed against the elements and noise, the Tacoma conveys a much greater sense of solidity and refinement on the road. The cabin is certainly quieter. The new V-6 doesn’t grunt along as coarsely as the old 4.0-liter V-6 with its 236 hp and 266 lb-ft did.
Speaking of ringers, even the brake pedal engagement is familiar. The bite point is near the top of the pedal’s travel, making the brakes feel overly sensitive. A midgrade SR5 isn’t as touchy.
Hour 4 An off-road venue turns into demo periods for the TRD Off-Road’s new Crawl Control, as experienced before in the Land Cruiser, 4Runner, and (R.I.P.) FJ Cruiser. Activate the four-wheel-drive system’s low range, choose the Crawl Control creep speed of 1-5 mph, and let the truck control the throttle and brakes (but not the steering). At this point, the truck’s mpg readout is showing 12 mpg, but EPA fuel economy values are expected to range from 19 to 21 mpg combined. (Forty-five percent of Tacoma owners self-identify as off-roaders, but the degree of off-pavement seriousness is a mystery.)
Hour 5 Having now switched to an SR5, I bounce around in the cab more on worn dirt roads. Tire roar is less pronounced than in the TRD Off-Road on concrete.
Hour 6 The elephant in the room is clearly tethered to the GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado. Toyota proudly says it owns the existing small-pickup market, which is true by the sales barometer. Now that the truck group’s heaviest hitters are revamped and re-energized, though, we’re sure the looming comparison test will be one of galactic proportions.
What Current Taco Owners Actually Care About
Prospective 2016 Toyota Tacoma shoppers who have owned a Taco before and are looking to upgrade should note exactly three points.
First, the tailgate not only locks now but also incorporates a rotary damper for softened lowering. Second, an exterior-temperature gauge has been relocated to the cluster display, affixed on all but the base SR trim. The days of pestering the dealer for a HomeLink rearview mirror credit voucher are (hypothetically) over. Third, you’ll still find 10-inch brake drums adorning the rear live axle.
FYI, in case any of that is a deal breaker.