It may be needless to say, but the Toyota Tacoma is extremely important in the midsize truck category and has been for decades. Its contribution to the industry is undeniable and its yearly sales figures are impressive. Sadly, Toyota let the Tacoma get long in the tooth in recent years – letting it span from 2005 to 2015 nearly unchanged. However 2016 brings a heavy refresh that borders on the “all-new” term so loosely thrown around in the auto industry.

Why is Toyota’s newest pickup not considered all-new? Well the 2016 Toyota Tacoma’s frame is mostly a carryover piece, despite its strengthening, and the base four-cylinder engine and five-speed manual are indeed unchanged. Regardless of these nit-picky details, the 2016 Tacoma feels like a brand new truck.

Thanks for the refresh can be given to General Motors and its 2015 Chevrolet Colorado and 2015 GMC Canyon twins. Without these two trucks throwing wrenches into the midsize status quo, the Tacoma may have soldiered on unchanged. Now the newest player on the block, the Tacoma enters the market with an all-new V-6 engine, new six-speed automatic and six-speed manual transmissions, a welcomed exterior update and a very welcomed interior redo.

But are the changes enough to keep the Tacoma selling faster than the GM twins, or will the updates be lost against the ever-strengthening Colorado and Canyon? I drove one to find out.

Continue reading for the full driven review

  • 2016 Toyota Tacoma - First Drive
  • Year:
    2016
  • Make:
  • Model:
  • Engine:
    inline-4
  • Transmission:
    five-speed manual
  • Horsepower @ RPM:
    159
  • Torque @ RPM:
    180
  • Displacement:
    2.7 L
  • 0-60 time:
    9.5 sec. (Est.)
  • Top Speed:
    115 mph (Est.)
  • Layout:
    Front Engine; 2WD, 4WD
  • Price:
    23300
  • car segment:
  • body style:

Walk-Around Video


Exterior

2016 Toyota Tacoma - First Drive Exterior Test drive
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2016 Toyota Tacoma - First Drive Exterior Test drive
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2016 Toyota Tacoma - First Drive Exterior Test drive
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Toyota has certainly taken an evolutionary approach to the Tacoma’s redesign. Parked next to a 2015 model, the main differences are found in the grille, all four fenders and the rear. In fact, the cab section looks darn close to the last generation’s cab, though the designers say every body panel is new.

In fact, the cab section looks darn close to the last generation’s cab, though the designers say every body panel is new.

In fact, close inspection does reveal the cab is different. Toyota has raised the Tacoma’s belt line, effectively making the greenhouse smaller by a few millimeters. That belt line carries back to the bed, where the side rails are taller, making the bed seven percent deeper.

Up front, the truck’s nose is all new. From the lower air dam to the bulging hood, the front takes a new approach to styling. All Tacomas, regardless of trim level, get projector beam headlights. LED daytime running lights give the truck a modern feel without being too dramatic about it.

Each trim level gets a different grille design. The trims are all familiar, too: SR, SR5, TRD Sport, TRD Off-Road, and Limited. The easiest of the bunch to spot is the TRD Sport since it has a (sadly non-functional) hood scoop. The TRD Off-Road is also a breeze to spot with its missing air dam, beefier Goodyear tires, extra tow hook, and bold bedside graphics.

The Tacoma has four wheel options and five tire choices. The base SR grade rides on 16-inch steel wheels, the SR5 comes standard with the steelies but offers a 16-inch alloy upgrade, the TRD Sport comes with 17-inch alloys, the TRD Off-Road comes with 16-inch (no type-o) alloys, and the Limited comes with 18-inch polished alloys.

Color options include eight hues, three of which are new. Those are Blazing Perl Blue, Inferno orange, and Quicksand tan.

Interior

2016 Toyota Tacoma - First Drive Interior Test drive
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2016 Toyota Tacoma - First Drive Interior Test drive
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2016 Toyota Tacoma - First Drive Interior Test drive
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While the exterior received a much-needed restyling, the interior takes the cake for improvements. Gone are the hard plastics that creak and rattle, the deep-set gauges that were hard to read, and the bulky knobs and buttons that made the Tacoma look like a child’s toy. Take a gander at the photos for a second. I’ll wait.

If you’ve spent any time in the 2015 Toyota Camry or even the 2014 Toyota Corolla, the Tacoma’s cabin will feel familiar.

Isn’t that much better? Sure it is. The conclusion is the same from behind the wheel. The materials feel modern and very “Toyota.” If you’ve spent any time in the 2015 Toyota Camry or even the 2014 Toyota Corolla, the Tacoma’s cabin will feel familiar. Best of all, NVH levels are down an impressive 43 percent.

Ergonomics are improved as well, with important switches closest to the steering wheel and radiating outward from there. The dash gets Toyota’s current Entune infotainment system on a 7-inch touch screen. Below are the dual-zone HVAC controls with digital display on TRD and Limited trims. The SR and SR5 get manual controls. The electronic 4WD dial and push-button start (if equipped) are mounted horizontally to the left. The next tier below holds the auxiliary switches for things like the blind spot monitoring, parking sensors, as well as USB and aux inputs, and the Qi wireless charging button. A 12-volt power outlet resides here, too. Below that is the Qi wireless charger station (on TRD and Limited grades) that doubles as a storage bin.

Different trim levels are obviously treated to different upgrades. The Limited trim has leather seating and a matching leather-covered dash insert and door panel accents. Lower trims get a tight-weave cloth covering the seats with an interesting padded plastic-like material in place of the leather dash and door panels. It sounds weird but looks and feels good in practice.

Two cab sizes are offered: the base Access Cab with room for two passengers up front and two smaller passenger in back, and the larger Double Cab with seating for five. Rear seating in the Double Cab is good, but feels small in comparison with cabs on full-size trucks. Those who plan on carrying people should opt for the Double Cab, hands down.

Beyond the visual updates in the cab, the Entune system received its own updates, though on a minor scale. The system now offers Scout GPS Link. Basically the app works by linking the GPS function of a cell phone with the in-dash head unit. It includes voice-activated searching, traffic alerts, nearby gas prices, and turn-by-turn navigation. Best of all, it’s subscription-free until 2024.

Powertrain

2016 Toyota Tacoma - First Drive Drivetrain Test drive
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Perhaps the biggest news regarding the 2016 Tacoma is its new 3.5-liter V-6 gasoline engine. The new mill replaces the aging 4.0-liter V-6 with plenty of new technology, decent power, better fuel economy, better towing capacity, and better refinement.

Engineers say new 3.5-liter is not a swap-in from the Camry or any other Toyota vehicle – it’s all new for the Tacoma. It features both direct and port fuel injection, a dual combustion cycle with both an Atkinson and Otto cycle, and variable valve timing. The dual fuel injection system is said to take the benefits of both systems and combine them into one. So the direct fuel injection runs when the engine is at higher rpm or under heavy load. The port injection takes over when things calm down.

Like the fuel-sipping Prius, the Atkinson cycle conserves fuel by lowering the compression ratio by keeping the intake valve open for a split second at the first of the combustion stroke.

The two combustion cycles are present for much of the same reason. Like the fuel-sipping Prius, the Atkinson cycle conserves fuel by lowering the compression ratio by keeping the intake valve open for a split second at the first of the combustion stroke. When more power is needed, the engine seamlessly switches over to the traditional Otto cycle. Both the combustion and fuel systems change without notice form the driver’s seat.

All this tech results in 278 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 265 pound-feet of torque at 4,600 rpm. The V-6 comes mated to two new transmission choices: a six-speed manual (4WD TRD models only) or a six-speed automatic.

For those looking for a more budget friendly truck or just need something for the job site, Toyota is still offering the 2.7-liter four-cylinder. Carrying over unchanged, the four pot offers up 159 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 180 pound-feet of torque at 3,800 rpm. Variable valve timing is its main headlining feature. It comes mated to either the carry-over five-speed manual or the new six-speed automatic.

Behind the transmission on 4WD models is an all-new transfer case. Toyota says the T-case is lighter and smaller than anything they’ve built before, yet offers increased performance and reliability. The electronically controls box offers two speeds – 4WD high and 4WD low, along with a 2WD setting for normal driving.

A new rear differential puts power to the ground using either an open gear set on 2WD modes, an automatic limited slip on 4WD models, and an electronically lockable diff on the TRD Off-Road model. A 3.9 axle ratio is used on four-cylinder models with the manual and V-6 models with the automatic. A 4.3 axle ratio is used on four-cylinder automatics and V-6 manual models.

Powertrain Fuel Economy
2.7L 4-cylinder (city/highway/combined)
2WD A/T 19/23/21
4WD A/T 19/22/20
4WD M/T 19/21/20
3.5L V-6 (city/highway/combined)
2WD A/T 19/24/21
4WD M/T 17/21/19
4WD A/T 18/23/20

Off-Road

2016 Toyota Tacoma - First Drive Exterior Test drive
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One of the big attractions to the Tacoma is its ability in the dirt. Toyota spared nothing with the 2016 update, but rather gave it even more features. Headlining the updates is Multi-terrain Select and Crawl Control. Available exclusively on the TRD Off-Road model, both integrated systems are borrowed from the 2014 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro and help make novice off-roaders look like Ivan Stewart.

Aside from electronic gadgetry, the Tacoma TRD Off-Road offers impressive ground clearance at 9.4 inches.

Multi-terrain Select works by letting the driver dial in what terrain he’s traveling across. The settings include mud and sand; loose rock; mogul; rock and dirt; and rock. A similar system would be Land Rover’s Terrain Response system.

Crawl Control, on the other hand, is like cruse control for super low-speed maneuvers. The driver simply engages 4WD low, powers on Crawl Control, and selects one of five forward speeds. The truck then inches itself forward, modulating the throttle and brakes by itself. The system works on both uphill and downhill climbs and lets the driver focus on steering.

For the TRD Off-Road models fitted with the six-speed manual transmission, Toyota’s A-TRAC system takes the place of Crawl Control. The Active Traction Control software sends power to the wheels with traction and between the front and rear axles. It also applies the brakes to individual wheels without traction, therefore forcing power to transfer to the opposite wheel.

Aside from electronic gadgetry, the Tacoma TRD Off-Road offers impressive ground clearance at 9.4 inches. Its approach and departure angles are also respectable at 32 and 23.1 degrees respectively. The breakover angle is also impressive at 21 degrees. Thankfully those numbers don’t decrease my much throughout the lineup.

Crawl Control Demonstration


Driving Impressions

2016 Toyota Tacoma - First Drive Exterior Test drive
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While the 2016 Tacoma is much improved, its driving dynamics still remind me of a classic truck. I spent an expended amount of time in both a Limited grade and a TRD Off-Road, both with the Double Cab, 4WD, the new V-6, and six-speed auto. Though the trucks have different suspension tuning, several aspects of their driving dynamics are shared. Here’s my notes straight from the fight home.

I spent an expended amount of time in both a Limited grade and a TRD Off-Road, both with the Double Cab, 4WD, the new V-6, and six-speed auto.

Limited grade, double cab, short bed 4WD, six-speed auto
On-road route

  • Vague steering, sloppy on-center feel, tightens up when loaded in a corner, not very communicative.
  • Ride was choppy, especially from the rear suspension. Felt like the tires were over inflated (but only at 29 psi). Honestly feels oversprung out back.
  • Engine feels adequate at higher revs but the new six-speed is quick to up-shift, resulting in low rpm driving (good for mpg, bad for power). Also makes a downshift required to gain any type of speed on the highway. Makes the transmission continually hunt for gears.
  • MPG note: trucks only had 200 odd miles on the clock and were driven hard. I won’t comment the mpg because I didn’t bother to even check.
  • Brakes feel good. Throttle feels ok but requires a lot of pushing to spur the engine on and the tranny into a lower gear.

TRD Off-Road grade Double Cab, short bed, 4WD
Off-road/On road

  • On-road character feels more refined because of softer springs – especially out back.
  • Steering feels the same as the Limited
  • Engine and transmission behave the same, requiring a lot of downshifting before power comes on. Results in a less than coddling drive
  • Off-road prowess is darn impressive. All-terrain tires handled more than I expected. Mostly loose dirt, gravel, rocks – sadly no mud. 4WD was quick to engage, the rear locker, not so much. It requires 4 Low to activate. Approach, break-over, and departure angles are likely class-leading and made for an impressive drive.
  • Crawl Control: Easy to engage and operate. Simple rotary dial and the display on the center TFT display. Does make A LOT of noise when operating due to the ABS modulating. Also lurches and jerks over terrain at times. Requires 4 Low to operate. Also the degree gauge in the center TFT is fun to watch when climbing hills.
  • Multi-terrain Select: Also easy to use and utilizes the same rotary dial as Crawl Control. Modifies the ABS and traction control to provide the best computer controls for each terrain.
  • Overall off-road performance is very impressive.

As mentioned in my notes, the Limited grade truck felt oversprung in the rear, resulting in a choppy ride. Tire pressure was one PSI under the recommended level, so that wasn’t the issue. Body roll is also pronounced but manageable. The steering and suspension load up nicely once into a turn. For those looking for a 4WD truck but spend more time on the road, the TRD Sport grade is the proper choice.

But even despite the critical remarks, the new Tacoma is still a blast to drive. Just don’t expect an Avalon-like ride.

Price

2016 Toyota Tacoma - First Drive Emblems and Logo Exterior Test drive
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Prices for the 2016 Tacoma start at $23,300 for the SR grade Access Cab with the four-cylinder in 2WD and top out at $37,820 for the Limited grade Double Cab with 4WD and the V-6. All Tacomas are subject to the $900 destination charge. That base price represents an increase of $2,335 over the 2015 Tacoma.

For customers looking at the TRD lineup, both the TRD Sport and TRD Off-Road carry a starting price of $30,765.

Competition

2015 Chevrolet Colorado

2015 Chevrolet Colorado High Resolution Exterior
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The Colorado is the Tacoma’s closest and strongest competitor. Introduced for 2015, the truck is still fresh and offers plenty of up-to-date tech inside its cabin. New for 2016 is a 2.8-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel that is promised to get class-leading fuel economy while its rugged fully boxed frame helps it haul 7,700 pounds on its hitch. The Colorado is also available with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder and the 3.6-liter V-6.

In my experience, the Colorado is a bit smoother on the road, but not as competent in the dirt. With interior comfort like seating and ergonomics, the Tacoma squeaks out a win. Prices for the Colorado start at $20,120.

Read our full review here.

2009 Nissan Frontier

2009 Nissan Frontier
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The Frontier is where the Tacoma was for 2015 – badly aging – though Frontier sales aren’t anywhere close to the Tacoma’s. Nissan is working to change that, however, as it is currently working an the next generation of its midsized truck. The new Frontier is rumored to have a diesel powerplant provided from Cummins.

Expect Nissan to roll out the updated Frontier for 2017 since it is currently concentrating its efforts on the new Titan and Titan XD.

Rean more about the Frontier in our review here.

Conclusion

2016 Toyota Tacoma - First Drive Exterior Test drive
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All told, the new Tacoma is a welcomed member to Toyota’s lineup. It updates may be long overdue, but they were certainly worth the wait. The new truck is more refined, a better driver, more powerful, offers more towing, improved off-road capabilities (even over the TRD Pro), and simply looks more appealing.

Sure, the Tacoma has stiff competition with the current Colorado and Canyon, but the existing Frontier almost shouldn’t be on buyer’s radar. That will change when Nissan finally pulls out the next generation, but at this point, that might be a few years down the line.

Regardless, the 2016 Tacoma works well as a daily driver and as a go-anywhere, fun-seeking vehicle. Its modest price increase seems completely justified for the added features in the truck and its list of options and equipment is impressive. Kudos Toyota.

  • Leave it
    • * Non-TRD models feel choppy on broken pavement
    • * Transmission too quick to upshift
    • * Vague steering
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