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First Drive: 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road

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As one of the most dominant players in the midsize pickup market, the Toyota Tacoma is a go-to for off-road and midsized truck enthusiasts across the board. The high resale value, legendary reliability, and un-matched off-road prowess continues to make the Tacoma a leader in a category that most domestic manufacturers have seemingly moved past. With only minor revisions done to the truck over the last ten years, the Tacoma had grown a little long in the tooth. This was ever so apparent by the launch of the all-new Chevy Colorado, which has set the bar with an advanced level of refinement in the midsized truck market.

In what was clearly a response to the evolving market place, Toyota has stepped up with its all-new 2016 Tacoma. Fit with a fresh face, new engine, and a host of interior refinements, Toyota is clearly willing to fight to remain king of the midsize truck. However, will all that’s new with the Tacoma, don’t think that the company was foolish enough to stray too far from the company’s proven formula. Class-leading ground clearance, a selectable rear locker, and off-road tuned shocks, are all part of the Tacoma heritage and things carried over to the 2016 models. 

One thing that is gone is the regular cab, a result of low consumer demand. An Access Cab and Double Cab will be the only two cab configurations up for grabs. The Access Cab will come with a standard bed length of 73.7 inches, while the Double Cab can be optioned with a 60.5-inch or 73.7-inch bed length. A four-cylinder engine and manual transmission is offered in two- and four-wheel-drive models, but the big news is the all-new 3.5L V-6 engine and six-speed automatic transmission.

dl 0615 trd 12 To experience the all-new platform for ourselves, we got the keys to a Double Cab TRD Off-Road edition 4x4, fit with the 60.5-inch bed and an as-tested price of $38,045. We proceeded to pilot the truck over the course of week in the high desert of Southern California. From deep snow and rocky passes to twisty canyon roads and miserable stop-and-go traffic, we experienced it all. Here’s what we found.

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Toyota is known for its clean and simple interior layouts, and the 2016 interior echoes that formula. An all-new dash layout, instrument cluster, and climate control system give the truck a modern look without being overly confusing. Our TRD Off-Road tester was fit with the premium and technology package. Highlights of the system include a first for the Tacoma proximity key, which allows for push-button starting, a sunroof, and the all-new crawl-control feature (more on that later). If you’re looking for leather, you’ll need to move up to the Limited model, but you will lose the off-road attributes that are well worth having in the dirt. 

Touch-points throughout the interior have been improved and the cabin is noticeably quieter than the outgoing model. The flat floor that gives the truck its tremendous ground clearance, continues a common complaint from the previous Tacoma. This is mostly due to the low seat mount, which can be uncomfortable for some. We’d love to see a power seat option make an appearance, as even in the highest-end Limited model, the driver and passenger seats only have a basic range of manual adjustments.

dl 0615 trd 10 We split our highway driving over a mix of Southern California’s highways and twisty back roads. The 127.4-inch wheelbase isn’t short by any means, but moves easily throughout the city streets. Toggling the electronically controlled six-speed automatic transmission offers the driver increased control, which equates to a more enjoyably canyon carving experience. We noticed the new six-speed transmission liked to hunt around a bit more than we cared for in higher gears. A simple press of the ECT Power button helps this, but will come as a slight fuel penalty. 

With 278hp and 265 lb-ft of torque on tap, the Tacoma never feels sluggish, but the power difference isn’t as night and day as we hoped it would be from the outgoing 4.0L engine. The biggest difference in power from the previous V-6 can be felt off the line. While the increased power numbers are great, it creates those extra ponies at the higher end of the RPM cycle. This all equates to the need for more throttle input to get it moving from a stop.

dl 0615 trd 04 The truck’s suspension is mostly carry over, so the familiar firm, but not overly stiff suspension is still working below. The rack-and-pinion steering delivers a tight, and borderline heavy on-center feel, which we actually didn’t mind. Our only major complaint is Toyota still uses drum brakes on the rear axle. Crazy, we know.  

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The Tacoma is very much a lifestyle truck. It's designed for people who want to go off-road and are looking for something that can still fit the normal ease of life. If you fall into that category, you’re probably going to want to opt for the TRD Off-Road package. Included with the Off-Road setup is an electronically controlled selectable rear locker, off-road tuned Bilstein shocks, and the all-new Multi-Terrain Select and five-speed Crawl Control. The Multi-Terrain Select works by allowing the driver to choose between an assortment of pre-programed off-road terrain settings.

dl 0615 trd 11 By choosing a specific terrain, the truck automatically regulates the throttle input and brake control to increase traction in the setting you choose. Engaging Crawl Control means relinquishing control of the braking and acceleration to the vehicles computer. The only input required is you steering the wheel. It may seem a little gimmicky, but we found it works extremely well. These technology features almost make up for its lack of selectable front locker. Almost.

dl 0615 trd 03 Ultimately, we found the Tacoma works incredibly well off-road. From snow, sand, loose dirt, and even rockcrawing, the truck remained sure-footed and confidence inspiring. Speaking of footing, that’s one area we did have a little trouble.

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The shale rock was especially sharp over one of our mountains trial adventures, which left us plugging three of the four 265/70R16 tires. Thankfully, these tire failures were experienced at the top of the tread, not the sidewall. A set of Trail Grapplers would be one of our first upgrades if the truck were ours.

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Everything we loved about the outgoing Tacoma is largely still intact. While we miss the low-end torque of the older 4.0L, we think the 3.5L Atkinson Cycle engine was a huge leap forward in the fuel economy and performance department. We suspect the engine may be a bit de-tuned, and wouldn’t be surprised if power numbers eventually get a bump north. While the Tacoma refresh was long overdue, the all-new truck is definitely a viable contender in the growing midsized truck landscape. If you’re looking for a durable truck that can actually survive routine off-road exploration, the 2016 is hard to beat.

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