2016 Toyota Tacoma First Drive – Video

Aug. 17, 2015 By Josh Burns, Photos by Adam Wood and Courtesy of Toyota, Video by Adam Wood
Toyota let us get behind the wheel of its new 2016 Tacoma in the Pacific Northwest recently. The new truck is the third-generation of the Tacoma, and it represents its first major overhaul since 2005.

When you’ve led a particular market segment for over 10 years, what exactly do you do for an encore? That’s the dilemma Toyota faces with the introduction of its third-generation Tacoma, an all-new mid-size truck it hopes will carry on its success in the segment—and possibly even grow it further.

The timing for the change is right—and some would say overdue—as the mid-size truck market has heated up in 2015. With the departure of Ford (Ranger), Ram (Dakota) and Chevrolet/GMC (Colorado/Canyon), the mid-size segment hadn’t been so strong in recent years, which made it much easier for Toyota to rule the roost with the Tacoma. However, Chevy and GMC have re-emerged with new offerings in 2015, as we noted in our 2015 Mid Size Truck Shootout, breathing some much-needed life into the segment.

Aside from exterior styling that brings it closer in line with its bigger brother the Tundra, the new Tacoma is slightly longer than the previous version but is roughly the same width.

But the rebounding economy is also making things interesting this year, because while Chevy and GMC’s newest trucks are selling well, the Tacoma, celebrating its eleventh year in its current incarnation, just had its highest month of truck sales ever in July. So while there are new players in the segment, Toyota is still significantly outselling them with, to put it kindly, an outdated truck. 

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Still, Toyota realized that if it hopes to retain its place atop the leaderboard it must move the Tacoma forward. The 2016 Tacoma is proof that Toyota is boldly taking up the challenge, as the redesigned model boasts a number of segment-first features and upgrades to cater to a wide variety of potential truck buyers. There are quite a few things that set the third-generation Tacoma apart from the previous one, and Toyota wanted to prove it by inviting us to the Pacific Northwest, specifically just outside of Tacoma, Washington, to test out its new truck.

A new 3.5-liter Atkinson Style V6 replaces the outgoing 4.0-liter V6 found in previous generation. The new engine increases horsepower by 42 but loses 1 lb.-ft. of torque.

One of the biggest changes for 2016 is the move from a 4.0-liter V6 to a new 3.5-liter Atkinson cycle V6. The new V6 features Toyota’s D4S technology, which offers both direct and port fuel injection to aid in efficiency and performance. The new engine may boast less displacement, but it is more efficient and produces more horsepower—exactly 42 horsepower more than the outgoing V6.

Toyota’s Atkinson cycle V6 isn’t a typical Atkinson-style engine like the one found in Toyota’s Prius hybrid. In fact, this engine actually cycles back and forth between a more traditional Otto cycle and Atkinson cycle, depending upon the situation. While the Atkinson cycle on this engine is more efficient in its combustion process, as it keeps the intake valve open a little longer to evacuate any unused fuel/air mixture and push it back into the intake manifold to maximize efficient combustion, it does sacrifice a little bit of torque. So, when cruising at highway speeds when additional torque isn’t needed, the engine cycles into Atkinson; when torque is needed for acceleration, towing or other applications, the engine switches into Otto cycle.

The TRD Off-Road model features a larger 8 3/4 rear differential versus the 8-inch diff found in the other trims, and it is the only model to features an electronically controlled locking rear diff.

Our seat-of-the-pants impression is that there is very little difference between the new engine and the previous version. We certainly didn’t notice much transition between Otto and Atkinson cycles during driving impressions. Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the torque output of the two are roughly the same. The new engine produces 265 lb.-ft. of torque versus 266 lb.-ft. for the outgoing 4.0L. Maybe that’s what Toyota was after, a new engine that retained most of the character of the one it is replacing. We certainly have no major complaints about the 3.5’s performance—but it doesn’t feel all that much different than the 4.0-liter engine it replaces, which wasn’t in line with our expectations.

The new interior on the Tacoma gives the truck a much more modern and fresh appearance.

With the new motor getting the lion’s share of attention, it might be easy to overlook the 2016 Tacoma’s other drivetrain upgrade, a new six-speed transmission. A manual trans will be an option for both the new 3.5-liter V6 and the returning 2.7-liter four-banger, although only for 4x4 models, and the 2.7 will feature a five-speed trans instead of the six-speed. Too bad, because Toyota’s new six-speed transmission is a nice addition to the truck. It clicks through gears smoothly and seems to downshift at appropriate times to keep the engine in the ideal torque and power range. A new transfer case is also added to the 4x4 models, which Toyota says is lighter, more durable and faster shifting than the previous version. Unfortunately, there were no manual transmission models on the trip, so we didn’t get a chance to sample one.

There’s either a 6.1-inch or 7-inch touchscreen found in the center of every dash on the Tacoma. What’s more, every 2016 model will feature a standard rear backup camera.

The new 3.5L does boast improved fuel economy compared to the outgoing engine, though it still doesn’t lead the segment. The 4x2 with a six-speed automatic is rated at 19 mpg city, 24 highway and 21 combined. The 4x4 is slightly less at 18 mpg city, 23 highway and 20 combined. The manual transmission on the V6 will actually be the least efficient of the bunch at 17 mpg city, 21 highway and 19 combined.

The stamped TACOMA on the tailgate gives the truck a bolder looks that is more in line with the Tundra. The new tailgate features a spoiler incorporated into the design to aid in aerodynamics efficiency, and it also now is damped so it won’t slam down when opened. 

An optional lockable tonneau cover will provide a secure storage option for the truck bed. It also aids in the new Tacoma attaining a 12 percent reduction in drag.

The new engine design, increased horsepower and improved fuel economy may already be enough to keep loyal Tacoma buyers in the fold, but Toyota also made a number of other significant changes to the third-gen Tacoma. More high-strength steel was added to the frame to improve rigidity and overall chassis strength. The new Tacoma is also slightly longer, not because of a larger bed or more cabin space—it’s actually mostly related to front-end overhang, which we are told is related to upcoming pedestrian laws coming down the pipe in the U.S. Toyota also shed a few pounds by using a new hot-stamping process for the outer shell (though it may have given some of that weight back with its surprisingly heavy hood).

The air damn found under the front bumper of the new Tacoma also aids in reducing drag and improving aerodynamics, but Toyota says it will feature a class-best 29 degree approach angle. The TRD Off-Road model won’t feature the air damn, and therefore it will have an even greater approach angle at 32 degrees.

Toyota clearly looked to update the Tacoma with more styling cues that resemble its older, bigger brother, the Tundra. The grille and front end are a little more chiseled and “muscular,” as Toyota puts it. The name TACOMA is stamped into the tailgate as well similar to the Tundra. Yet Toyota also made some significant updates to reduce drag by as much as 12 percent, which is the largest reduction in Toyota truck history. Some of this was accomplished during the design process, where aerodynamics were improved considerably. Toyota looked at everything, from changing the shape of the headlight edges to incorporating a spoiler into the tailgate. Toyota also added a new air dam under the front bumper, incorporating small fins into the air dam and the sideview mirrors to further streamline them, and it also added a new optional tonneau cover. The tonneau cover is a lockable, tri-flip model that will offer secure bed storage on 2016 models, and although it is an optional item it does account for part of the total 12 percent drag reduction (approximately 20% of the final figure).

The Tacoma will gain the CRAWL system in 2016 on TRD Off-Road models, which was first employed on Toyota’s 4Runner. This system will allow the driver to focus on steering the truck in slow-speed, technical off-road sections, as it will control the speed and braking for the truck.

The new air dam also is a significant contributor to the drag reduction, and we were pleased to learn that it doesn’t significantly alter off-road performance, as most models will feature a segment-best 29-degree approach angle. The TRD Off-Road model will not be fitted with an air damn, and its approach angle is even greater, at 32 degrees.

There will be no single-cab option on the third-gen Tacoma. Only the Access Cab and four-door Double Cab versions will be offered. The Access Cab models feature a 6-foot bed, while the four-door Double Cab models offer the option of a 5-foot short bed or 6-foot long bed. In any case, the new Tacoma features a lockable tailgate that now features a rotary damper so it won’t slam down when released. Toyota also designed a new rear interlocking, three-piece bumper, which allows for each individual piece to be replaced if damaged versus needing to swap out the entire bumper.

A new instrument panel provides the driver with analog speedo and tach gauges, while a LED screen provides more detailed information in the center, such as terrain settings, trip meter, tire air pressure and more.

Toyota made some significant changes to the Tacoma’s interior for 2016. At the center of the dash is a new 6.1-inch touchscreen that features Entune Audio Plus (available on SR5 models and up), which actually uses the driver’s or passenger’s smartphone to connect to mobile apps for a variety of integrated functions. On this version, navigation will actually be provided from the user’s cell phone via a downloadable application. The Tacoma will also offer a Premium Entune Audio system (standard on TRD Sport and TRD Off-Road models), which features a larger 7-inch touchscreen with integrated navigation, App Suite and the Entune Multimedia Bundle. The top-of-the-line Limited will feature the Entune Premium JBL Audio system that includes six JBL speakers and a subwoofer.

One of the things we’re happiest to see on the new Tacoma is a standard backup camera on every model. The new truck will also offer push-button start, dual climate control, optional Qi wireless charging, and BlueTooth wireless connectivity for phone and audio functions. A new instrumentation panel offers the driver analog gauges for the speedo and tach, while a 4.2-inch digital display provides info on the odometer, trip meter, outside temperature, tire pressure, average fuel economy and more.

We were impressed with the off-road performance of the TRD Off-Road model during our drive. It’s definitely the model that off-road enthusiasts should focus their attention on.

Toyota looked to enhance off-highway performance on the new Tacoma, and its TRD Off-Road model for 2016 sets a new standard for off-road capability. To improve its durability and toughness, Toyota replaced the 8-inch rear differential with a larger 8 3/4-inch unit. Although a limited-slip is found on 2WD models, only the TRD Off-Road features a standard electronically controlled locking rear differential for added traction. TRD Off-Road models equipped with automatic transmissions feature the Multi-Terrain Select system, where the driver simply selects the most appropriate terrain and the truck then adjusts wheel spin accordingly by using throttle and braking adjustments for ideal traction. The TRD Off-Road package also features Crawl Control, which has previously been featured on the 4Runner. This system uses a dial to select the appropriate speed in challenging, slow-speed off-road terrain, whereby the driver can solely focus on steering while the truck controls acceleration and braking. It’s certainly a cool system for those less comfortable in off-road terrain, but more experienced drivers might not care for how obtrusive the system is.

The TRD Off-Road model is outfitted with specially tuned Bilstein shocks to help soak up the bumps off the highway.

For those looking to document their adventures in the new Tacoma, Toyota has partnered with GoPro to offer a segment first and, as far as we know, an industry-first GoPro mount on the inside of the windshield. The mount is ideal for capturing the action in front of the truck, or the camera can be flipped around to capture the action inside the cabin.

The interior and exterior dimensions of the new Tacoma didn’t change considerably, though there are a few key tweaks. Up front, the third-generation Tacoma is slightly longer in front, and the roofline is also a little lower, which of course means the windows and windshield openings are just a little smaller. The headroom in the front of the cabin is actually reduced a little less than half an inch, which doesn’t seem like much, but it did make it a very tight fit for our 6’4” passenger. It also takes a minute to adapt to the lower roofline and slightly smaller windshield, but overall we like the look and feel of the cabin and the comfort of the front bucket seats, although we wish there was seat height adjustability with the manual seat controls.

We’ve spent our fair share of time in the previous generation Tacoma, and after a day in the new truck we couldn’t discern a big difference in seat-of-the-pants feel between the prior 4.0-liter V6 and the new 3.5-liter V6. On the one hand that’s a good thing since the new motor contributes to improved fuel economy, but on the other hand we didn’t feel a notable change in performance with the 3.5’s addition of 42 more horsepower.

The Tacoma still retains that go-kart-style seating where the floorboard-to-seat ratio is closer than other trucks in the class. Legroom in the back seat of the Double Cab is unchanged, but the front legroom is increased by more than an inch. We couldn’t help but notice the improvement in cabin quietness while driving. The added hush comes courtesy of improved door seals, a new headliner, floor silencer pads and more. The new power moonroof is a cool option as well, and one we’d consider adding if we were going to buy a Tacoma.

A number of new standard/optional features can also be found on the 2016 Tacoma to enhance safety, such as a Rear Parking Assist Sonar, Blind Spot Monitoring with Rear Cross Traffic Alert, Hill Start Assist Control, and Trailer Sway Control, which is included on the optional V6 Tow Package (which includes Class IV hitch, oil and trans coolers, and 4- and 7-in connectors).

A Go Pro mount is attached to every Tacoma windshield on the 2016 model to document the action.

Although we didn’t get the chance to tow behind the pre-production units during our first drive, Toyota did increase the maximum towing weight to 6,800 pounds, 300 pounds more than the previous model. The bed cargo capacity has also been increased by 120 pounds to 1620 pounds. The deck rail system in the composite bed offers four adjustable tie-down cleats, while four other fixed cleats are found mounted in the bed as well. A handy 120-volt AC power outlet is still found in the bed of the truck as well.

There will be five trim levels for the 2016 Tacoma, including the SR, SR5, TRD Sport, TRD Off-Road and Limited trims, with prices starting at $23,300 for the SR running up to the Limited’s starting price for $37,820. The TRD Sport has a starting price of $29,665 while the TRD Off-Road starts at $30,765.

The 2016 Tacoma improves on the previous model in many ways. We like the new 3.5-liter V6 in terms of performance, as it is similar to the prior motor, but it didn't meet our expectations for improved fuel economy.

Final Thoughts
Toyota was clear in its goals with the new Tacoma. It wanted to “rethink the concept of the midsize pickup,” retain the “do anything” Toyota truck mentality while improving performance and fuel economy. The 2016 Tacoma is definitely an improvement over the previous generation. Off-road capability is further enhanced, especially on the TRD Off-Road model, and the interior feels much more modern and current. Toyota’s third-generation styling is fresh and new while retaining the Tacoma’s identity. 

That said, we feel like Toyota left something on the table with its new V6. Although the smaller displacement engine provides more ponies and is more efficient than the outgoing power plant, the new 3.5 still doesn’t lead the segment in horsepower, torque or fuel economy. We really couldn’t detect a major difference from this new motor to the prior version, which is a little surprising considering it does pump out 42 more horsepower. And while the fuel figures are improved by as much as 13.3 percent, the new engine isn’t the only factor in this regard when you consider the move from a five-speed trans to a six-speed and the significant drag reduction. It’s quite possible Toyota just didn’t want to mess up a good thing, and maybe the new engine is more focused on retaining similar performance characteristics with less concern on making great strides in fuel efficiency. To an extent such a move is understandable, especially considering how well Toyota has done in the segment, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are multiple full-size trucks on the market that offer similar or better fuel economy. In our eyes, this is the key area in which Toyota didn’t quite do enough.

There’s no doubt Toyota’s new Tacoma is a step forward. Overall, it’s a very nice truck and it is improved in nearly every area. We couldn’t help but feel this was an opportunity for Toyota to really make a statement with fuel economy and put exclamation point on the mid-size segment. Instead, the new V6 feels like a conservative move. Overall, the changes are likely enough to keep it atop the segment for 2016, but it’s not moving the needle as much as it could have.

Photo Gallery: 2016 Toyota Tacoma First Drive

First Look: 2016 Toyota Tacoma

2015 Mid-Size Truck Shootout

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