On a boulder-strewn, snow-covered former mining trail outside of Georgetown, Colorado, the Toyota Tacoma picks its way through obstacles like a veritable mountain goat. In mere minutes, it slices across terrain that in the 1880s took miners and their ox carts days to conquer — but perhaps what’s most impressive is that the Tacoma does so with relatively minimal driver input.
Equipped as it is with a bevy of off-road-oriented tech — and a built-in GoPro mount on its windshield — the Tacoma is without a doubt the ultimate go-anywhere vehicle you can buy new today.
Our bright orange Tacoma TRD Off Road test truck boasted a full portfolio of off-road doo-dads: four-wheel drive, locking center and rear differentials, multi-mode traction control, huge all-terrain tires, steel skid plates, tow hooks, and even easy-to-clean upholstery in case some muck makes its way inside.
But what really sets the TRD Off Road apart from rivals is an innocuous looking control panel located up by the map lights — this combination of knobs and buttons operates Toyota’s Crawl Control and Multi-Terrain Select systems. Switched on, Crawl Control uses each independent wheel’s brake to transfer power and keep the Tacoma moving at the kind of slow pace necessary for traversing, well, anything, while Multi-Terrain Select offers up slew of modes for sand, mud, rocks and even snow.
After all, Toyota says that nearly half of Tacoma buyers will venture off the pavement — that’s a far higher figure than any other truck. That said, there’s a wide variety of Tacoma options on the table for prospective buyers — ranging from the simple SR all the way up to our off roader.
In short, if there ever was an automotive equivalent of the ever-valuable Swiss Army Knife, the Tacoma is it.
Look past the Inferno Orange paint which stands out like a traffic cone and you’ll see that the Tacoma was thoroughly re-sculpted for the 2016 model year — and not a day too soon, since its predecessor had been on the market for nearly a decade. With virtually no midsize truck rival until General Motors unleashed its Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon trucks for 2015, Toyota was finally incentivized to step up its game.
Clean and purposeful, the fresh Tacoma may not break new ground, but that doesn’t mean we don’t like its tall, high ground clearance stance. This is a truck that looks like it was meant to leave the pavement, a positive in our eyes.
Exterior pros and cons
+ Its simple, unadorned exterior styling is clean today and will age well — a real boon since Toyota trucks generally last a long time.
+ Attractive 16-inch alloy wheels allow for tall, rock-deflecting sidewalls compared to 17-inch rubber generally seen in off road-oriented trucks.
+ Finished bed includes bedliner, household-style outlet, dampened/locking tailgate and light.
– It breaks little new ground in the looks department.
– Tacoma stamping in tailgate looks a little too Tonka Truck for us; conversely, we would have liked to have seen TOYOTA spelled out in big letters on the grille like the 2015 Tacoma TRD Pro — and, of course, Marty McFly’s reborn BttF truck.
– There’s an odd lack of a passenger door handle sensor for the proximity key meant we were sometimes fumbling through our pockets for the key fob. This seems like silly and moderately annoying cost-cutting.
Supplanting last year’s thirsty but powerful 4.0-liter V6, Toyota specified a new 3.5-liter unit for the 2016 Tacoma. This high-tech powerplant puts out a solid 278 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque, but it requires a good deal of throttling to really wake things up under hood. The V6 is a smooth operator at speed but made its presence known at idle thanks to a surprising thrum felt through the steering wheel.
Uniquely, the V6 uses the “Atkinson” cycle rather than the “Otto” cycle seen in nearly every other engine. What’s the difference? In short, Toyota gleaned Atkinson tech from its ultra-efficient Prius — it’s a complicated rethink of the way the engine mixes air and fuel, but the only time the average buyer should notice a difference is at the gas pump. We saw upwards of 24 miles per gallon on the highway from our test truck — a more frugal driver in a 4×2 example should see even better.
Credit goes to the optional six-speed automatic (a manual gearbox with as many gears is standard equipment) for directing that power to the rear wheels — or, at the twist of a knob, all four wheels when the road gets slippery. One thing to note is that the Tacoma lacks an all-surface four-by-four system; instead, its system can only be activated on unpaved or slippery surfaces, otherwise there’s a risk of drivetrain damage.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ It has remarkably good fuel economy given the Tacoma’s capability.
+ It’s an ultra smooth-shifting six-speed automatic, and we laud the availability of a six-speed manual gearbox.
+ Its wide range of off-road features ensures that your confidence will run out before Tacoma’s ability will.
– The four-wheel drive system is meant only for slippery roads. An automatic system that requires no driver input would be nice for rainy days or roads that alternate between slushy and dry pavement.
– The V6 felt a little lumpy and grumbly at idle.
– While there’s good power available, you really have to bury into the throttle.
Sleek, modern and loaded with buttons, the Tacoma’s interior is decidedly trucky but also pleasantly modern. Furnishings are largely rugged and storage is very well thought-out. Our tester boasted orange touches on its dash panel and seat stitching to match its exterior, but the door panels were devoid of such flair. Materials range from a nice rubbery surface on some materials to durable but not luxurious plastics elsewhere. Overall, the Tacoma’s interior stands out more for its design flair than its direct rivals from General Motors and Nissan.
Nice features worth pointing out included automatic climate control, heated seats, an LCD display in the instrument cluster, and a convenient charging pad in the center console for mobile phones.
Interior pros and cons
+ Relatively narrow roof pillars provide good overall visibility.
+ Available orange dash trim and seat stitching adds interior flair.
+ Terrific small item storage space throughout.
– High floor, low roof design means front seat passengers sit in a “legs out” position rather than a “chair-like” one, even though the front seats are quite comfortable.
– All black seats, carpeting and headliner result in a “coal mine” feel especially evident in models without optional orange interior touches.
– Cramped rear seat means the Tacoma isn’t a great family road trip cruiser.
Tech and safety
The tall, vertical dashboard’s most notable feature is its large, high-resolution touchscreen, part of Toyota’s Entune infotainment system. Generally user-friendly, the system pairs quickly to Bluetooth and offers easy audio and navigation controls. Demerits are relatively nit-picky, but we would have liked a button on the head unit’s face that directed us immediately to the navigation map (instead, users have to tap through a menu to access it) and, in contrast to some rivals, the map doesn’t offer the “pinch and scroll” capability tablet and mobile phone users are accustomed to.
On the safety front, Tacoma comes standard with the expected bevy of airbags and electronic assists like a rear cross traffic alert system and a blind spot monitor, but one surprise is that its rear brakes are lower-tech drums rather than the generally stronger disc brakes seen in rivals.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ Entune navigation and infotainment is easy to use and boasts a bright, low-glare screen.
+ Wide range of standard and optional safety tech.
+ It’s loaded with nice tech, especially the GoPro mount, wireless charging pad, and a pair of USBs.
– A map button and pinch/scroll capability would really bring this system up to par.
– Manually-adjusted front seats seem like a softball at this price; full power seats would be nice up front.
– Front parking sensors or camera would be helpful off-road or in tight urban areas.
Although its underpinnings consisting of a separate frame and a rugged-but-simple leaf spring-type rear suspension are hardly high tech, the latest Tacoma defies its girth by being remarkably comfortable, quiet, and nimble over the road. It’s an adept highway cruiser, with only some tire rumble from the all-terrain rubber underneath reminding passengers that they’re not in a luxury sedan. Tall sidewalls mean that the Tacoma rides softly, its high degree of suspension travel soaking up rutted terrain, both in the city and in the boondocks, with aplomb.
Hustled into a corner, the truck settles nicely and its steering, albeit light in feedback, is well-weighted. There’s certainly some body lean, but this is a truck after all, and it was designed not for corner carving but for more utilitarian needs. Although its brakes are drums out back, we still found that the Tacoma stopped well — albeit with a mushier brake pedal than we’d generally like to see.
As we already alluded, the Tacoma is nearly unstoppable off road — in short, its closest rival when the pavement ends is probably the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. That icon of off-roading can certainly go a little further, but it lacks the utility of the Tacoma’s truck bed and its interior furnishings and tech features are decidedly lower end.
Squaring off against the Chevrolet Colorado, the Tacoma comes across as the elder statesman of the midsize pickup segment. It’s not as flashy as its bowtie-branded cousin, but this conservative Toyota is exceptionally well thought out from every angle.
Toyota has dominated the less-than-full-size pickup segment for over a decade, and it’s easy to see how this will probably continue. Although the Tacoma doesn’t move the needle far, its refined demeanor, just-right packaging and exceptionally high capability deliver exactly what it needs to do.