First Drive: The 2016 Toyota Tacoma Places Evolution Over Revolution

Source: Toyota
Source: Toyota

Launched as a 2005 model, the second generation Toyota Tacoma has had to soldier on 10 more model years before finally being replace with a third-generation model for 2016. It was tweaked and updated over the years, receiving a refresh in 2009, but for the last few years, it’s clearly been showing its age. Among other things, the interior materials felt cheap, the fuel economy wasn’t great, it offered limited features, and the seats weren’t very supportive.

At the same time, though, the Tacoma was a capable off-roader even in non-TRD trim, the double cab had enough room for four adults, and it may as well have been indestructible. It wasn’t just a truck you could keep until you drove it into the ground. It was a truck you could keep driving after you drove it into the ground.

As a result, the resale value on used Tacomas is through the roof. In fact, Edmunds recently ranked it as the top vehicle in the United States for resale, retaining an astronomical 64.5% of its original value on average after five years. For comparison, you can generally expect a car to retain 30%-35% after that period of time. In fact, it’s one of the few vehicles I recommend people buy new because they would save so little money buying used.

The Tacoma doesn’t just dominate the resale market, either. It also dominates the sales charts. Even with a new Tacoma going on sale in a few months and new offerings available from General Motors, the current Tacoma has still sold more than 105,000 units so far in 2015. Compared to last year at this time, year-to-date sales of the Tacoma are up nearly 20%. With combined sales of the brand new Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon only up to 65,000 units in 2015, the current Tacoma is majorly outselling them despite the fact that it’s a 10-year-old truck about to be replaced by a new model.

All of those factors combined make the redesign of the Tacoma incredibly important for Toyota. The interior needs a makeover and the fuel economy needs to be improved, but Toyota also has to make sure it doesn’t mess anything up because it already has a good thing going.

Recently, I had the opportunity to test drive a pre-production version of the 2016 Toyota Tacoma to see just how good it really was. I spent the better part of a day driving the top-of-the-line Limited version, the lower-tier SR5, and the off-road-prepped TRD Pro in both on-road and off-road situations. So how did Toyota do?

Toyota Tacoma 2
Source: Toyota

As far as the exterior design goes, it’s not a wild departure from the current look, but it’s just different enough that you won’t confuse your brand new Tacoma with your buddy’s lightly used one. In profile, it looks very similar to the current version, and the dimensions have barely changed, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I like the approach mostly because there was no need for Toyota to make major changes to the design just for the sake of doing something different.

Especially in TRD Pro trim, the new Tacoma does look good, though. It’s chunky and brawny in all the right places, and other than the hood scoop on the TRD Sport version, what you see is all functional. Disappointingly, the TRD Sport’s hood scoop is only for show, but the rest of the design elements are there for making sure you can go further off-road than you would expect from a stock truck.

Ultimately, though, there isn’t much I can talk about with the exterior that you can’t see in pictures, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time dwelling on it.

Instead, let’s talk about the interior. If you care about having a high-quality interior, you’ll want the Tacoma Limited, which is as civilized as Tacomas come. While the leather-trimmed seats you get with the Limited feels high-quality, and the touch points all feel pretty nice, the rest of the cabin quite doesn’t have the same premium feel. Those areas use less expensive plastics, even if the interior doesn’t feel poorly-assembled. My suspicion is that Toyota chose to err on the side of durability instead of luxury since the Tacoma is meant to survive repeated beatings.

Toyota Tacoma 6
Source: Toyota

Compared to the interior on the current Tacoma, even the new SR5 without the leather feels more upscale. Part of that is thanks to the redesigned look of the cabin, and part of that is thanks to better technology and available features. You can get a power moonroof, dual-zone climate control, a smart key, push-button start, Qi wireless phone charging, blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, and probably a few other features that have slipped my mind. You also get the much-talked-about GoPro mount, which works pretty well even if a number of people ended up mounting their GoPros in other places on the truck, as well.

Perhaps most importantly, you can get a larger six-inch touchscreen with Toyota’s latest-generation Entune infotainment system. On the SR5 and higher, the high-resolution screen is bright, easy-to-read, and responsive to inputs, which makes it easier to use than older versions. Being a touchscreen, Entune is naturally more intuitive than the mouse-controlled version you get from Lexus. It also pairs with your phone to provide access to more apps. While Entune still doesn’t quite edge out the best systems in the industry like Chrysler’s Uconnect and Volvo’s Sensus, I was still pleased with it and found it straightforward to use.

Toyota may have added a lot of features more commonly found in crossover SUVs to make the interior of the new Tacoma a better place to spend your time, but what it didn’t do is turn the new Tacoma into a crossover SUV with a truck bed. Once you hit the road, there’s no doubting that you’re behind the wheel of a truck. It’s quieter, and its on-road manners are better than what you’ll find in the current Tacoma, but if you’re expecting the new one to ride and handle like a Toyota RAV4, you’ll be disappointed.

Toyota Tacoma 4
Source: Toyota

The TRD Sport promises a firmer ride and more athletic performance than the rest of the lineup, but sadly, I didn’t have time to test that version. For buyers who aren’t fans of body roll, that’s probably the Tacoma you want to test drive first.

In both the Limited and the SR5, though, the new Tacoma’s handling can best be described as “truck-like.” It isn’t poorly behaved or unsettling on-road. It’s just tuned to ride like a truck and not a crossover SUV. The payoff, though, is that what you get is a truck that’s exceptionally capable when the pavement ends.

When you’re driving on paved roads, one thing you’ll appreciate is the new 3.5-liter V6 engine. There’s a four-cylinder engine available, but the one you want is the V6. It’s more powerful than the V6 it replaces, now making 278 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque. Despite having an extra 42 horsepower, it still gets 20 miles per gallon combined with four-wheel-drive and a six-speed automatic transmission. A six-speed manual is also available with the V6, which is an welcomed surprise in a world moving away from manual transmissions, but its combined fuel economy drops by a single mile per gallon.

As far as the brakes go, Toyota’s caught a lot of flack for including drums instead of disc brakes at the rear wheels. The chief engineer insists it’s a choice based on long-term durability and not cutting costs, but I’m inclined to believe it’s a little of both. Either way, the brakes work fine even if they’ll be harder to work on down the line.

Toyota Tacoma 3
Source: Toyota

I only drove the V6 with the automatic, and while it would have been nice to shift my own gears, Toyota didn’t have any on hand for us to test. I was a little disappointed, but it made more sense to test the version that the vast majority of buyers are going to be interested in, so I couldn’t get too upset. Even with an automatic transmission tuned to maximize fuel economy, acceleration is strong enough for what most owners will use it for, and shifts are smooth. If you want something faster, I recommend a sports car, not a truck.

If you buy that sports car, though, you’ll be confined to only driving on paved roads, and signs that say “pavement ends” will be warnings your fun is about to end. In the Tacoma, such signs are invitations to start having fun.

Toyota claims that 45% of its customers reported using their Tacoma to go off-road, and while that’s more likely to mean driving down dirt roads than heading to Moab for most of those owners, the Tacoma has always had a reputation for being a capable off-roader. The new Tacoma is supposed to be the best off-roader yet, and to prove it, Toyota decided to show us instead of telling us.

Toyota Tacoma 5
Source: Toyota

In the interest of full disclosure, it’s worth pointing out that the course was set up specifically for the event. I would have enjoyed it if it hadn’t, but Toyota chose not to set us loose in an off-road park to choose our own adventures. That said, descending hills, climbing, and navigating the terrain was far more extreme than anything you could do with a RAV4. It also showed off two important features – how much flex is in the suspension, as well as the approach and departure angles.

We also got to test out Crawl Control, a feature that’s been available on other Toyota vehicles before but is available in the Tacoma for the first time. Crawl Control allows drivers to set a forward speed and then only focus on the steering, whether you’re headed up a steep incline or down a hill. In the event that you bog down in mud or sand, it will also work to free you. It might not do anything that a skilled off-road enthusiast wouldn’t be able to do, but it does make off-roading safer and more accessible to drivers with minimal experience.

Overall, I came away impressed with how the new Tacoma handled off-road. Even in the Limited without Crawl Control, it was able to do more than I expected. For anyone looking to get even more extreme, the Tacoma also offers an excellent platform to start with and modify to fit your own personal needs.

So has Toyota succeeded with its redesign of the new Tacoma? I say yes. The current version’s biggest weak spots – the interior, available features, and the fuel economy – have been improved, and it now offers more technology and improved off-road capability out of the box. It’s a redesign that doesn’t shake things up too much, but at the same time, for a truck that’s still selling better than its competition despite being 10 years old, Toyota didn’t need to do anything revolutionary. All it needed to do was shore up the current model’s weak points, and that’s exactly what Toyota did.

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