FIRST DRIVE: 2016 Toyota Tacoma 4Ă—4 an impressive upgrade in initial testing (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Updated Aug 28, 2015

Toyota has always taken their time when it comes to making generational changes to their pickups, the Tacoma being no exception.

In fact, the last time the company’s best selling mid-size pickup saw any significant changes was in 2005 when the “second-generation” Tacoma, which was first introduced in 1995, rolled out with a new powertrain and body design. A decade between vehicle upgrades is a long time when most manufacturers initiate a rejuvenation cycle every four to five years.

So I was excited to drive the 2016 Tacomas and see first-hand how they’ve  evolved from the previous generation; a day of on- and off-road driving the new trucks, all V-6 automatics, brought a lot of satisfaction—along with a few disappointments.

Tacomas have found favor over the years among fleet owners of businesses such as landscaping, surveying, road building and construction because of the midsize pikcup’s build quality, fuel economy, off-road prowess and maneuverability.

From what I learned driving the the 2016 Tacomas, the new pickups take those very attributes to an even higher level

Stronger, fitter Tacoma

The third-generation Tacoma is stronger than the model it replaces.

TRD Sport models come with a prominent hood adorned with a non-functioning hood scoop and limited-slip rear differential.TRD Sport models come with a prominent hood adorned with a non-functioning hood scoop and limited-slip rear differential.

Toyota’s engineering team at Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor (MI) have used high-strength steel to help enhance rigidity and overall strength of the frame and incorporated ultra-high-strength steel into the body shell. The resulting driving nuances between the old truck and the new model are noticeable in that you don’t feel as much flex in the 2016s driving over harsher, more demanding road surfaces.

The new suspension in the TRD 4Ă—4 models, which I spent the majority of my time driving, is also more robust and compliant than the previous generation. Fine-tuning the valving in the Bilstein shocks, adding an electronic-locking rear differential, and refining the spring rates (coils front/leafs rear) make on- and off-road driving  more pleasurable, instilling a level of confidence in the driver.

The changes in steering and overall handling are noticeably better than the 2015s I’ve driven.

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Combined with the stiffer chassis and cab, I feel the upgrades to steering and suspension give the 2016 Tacomas an edge over their Colorado/Canyon competitors.

A new V6 rolls out

One of the few disappointments is the new 3.5-liter direct-injection “Atkinson Cycle” V6. The Atkinson Cycle allows the engine to switch seamlessly between port- and direct-injection, which helps maximize fuel economy and keeping injectors clean.

The new Tacoma V6, a 278-horsepower 3.5L, isn’t as strong or fuel efficient as GM’s 305-hp 3.6L found in their mid-size pickups. Still, Toyota’s new engine is 42 hp stronger than the 236hp 4.0L it replaces. That’s a big step up in performance. But you have to rev the new engine to 6,000rpm to bring those ponies to life, while the previous engine’s power peak was 5,200rpm.

New six-speed automatic has a nice feel of power delivery to the equally new V-6. Manual mode shifts firm and quick.New six-speed automatic has a nice feel of power delivery to the equally new V-6. Manual mode shifts firm and quick.

Meanwhile, the torque output of the 3.5L remains essentially the same as in the old 4.0L at 265 lbs.-ft. But again, that peak comes in about 600 rpm higher in the rpm band than the previous 4.0L Toyota V6. So the new Tacoma feels a little more sluggish in the lower rpms than the 4.0L until you get high in the rpm band, at which point it the new-found power comes to bear, moving the truck along nicely.

Another plus is the equally new six-speed automatic, which helps the V6 best the previous model’s 4.0L/5-speed combo by 2 mpg with an 18 city/23 highway/20 combined EPA fuel-economy rating.  (The estimated mpg for the 4Ă—4 manual is 17/21/19.)

For those pinching pennies, the new Tacoma still offers the 159 hp 2.7-liter DOHC four-cylinder that delivers an EPA estimated city/highway/combined mpg for the 4Ă—4 with a manual transmission of 19/21/20 and 19/22/20 for the automatic.

The new V-6 powertrain also gives the Tacoma an additional 300 pounds of trailering capacity, bringing the 4Ă—4 Double Cab 4Ă—4’s max tow rating up to 6,800 pounds when using a weight-distributing hitch.

Making a bold appearance

Toyota says towing falls somewhere like no. 22 on the list Tacoma buyers’ list of importance. Looks, however, are near the top.

Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road 23So the Tacoma’s design team focused a lot on cosmetics, starting with much more prominent wheel flares for greater wheel travel and an embossed “Tacoma” in the tailgate. They also raised the beltline, making the windows slightly narrower, giving the new truck the appearance of being lifted.

One thing I noticed right away is the new Tacomas look lower than Colorado/Canyon, but in reality, both are within an inch of each other in all dimensions. What gives the Tacoma a lower look is the high belt line and slimmer windows.

The new truck also looks more aggressive thanks to a bold upper grille and a taller, more muscular hood. (The TRD Sport moels have a hood with faux scoop that really adds to the tough truck look.) Mounted high above the redesigned front bumper sit slim, high-tech headlights that feature projection beam lamps with available LED Daytime Running Lights.

The tailgate features an integrated spoiler for improved aerodynamics along with an easy lowering feature, which allows it to slowly retract, preventing it from slamming down. The bed is composite with integrated cargo rails and hold-downs. Of interest to work truck buyers, Tacoma will offer an optional factory-installed tri-fold hard tonneau cover for securing gear – a first for Tacomas.

Tacoma’s tough exterior is complemented by an interior that conveys a sporty go anywhere, off-road feel.

Seating is also a bit different. I felt as if I were sitting almost on the floor in the new Tacoma compared to other mid-size pickups – and Toyota doesn’t offer power seats, not even in the top-of-the-line Limited model. I found the front seat bottoms to be shorter than I like, leaving thigh support at a minimum.

Another small disappointment.

However, Toyota designers have added more cushioning to the rear of the front seat bottoms, which is a vast improvement over the previous generation. The interior, overall, is quite nice; The TRD models I drove featured soft-wrapped trim and metallic accents, giving the interior a high-quality look and feel. The gauges and controls are easily reached and nicely arranged.

There’s also an array of available premium features. Among them are:

  • Qi wireless charging
  • Smart key with push-button start
  • Leather-trimmed seats
  • Power tilt/slide moonroof
  • Dual-zone automatic climate control
  • Enhanced touchscreen audio
  • Blind-spot monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert

Another pleasant surprise: The 2016 Tacomas are noticeably quieter than the previous models. Toyota engineers used a multi-layer acoustic windshield and sound-absorbing headliner along with a floor silencer pad to help reduce road noise.

However, there’s still tire/road noise coming up from the rear of the cab in the 4×4 Double Cabs I drove – enough so that I thought at first a rear window might not be closed.

Plenty of model options

True to Toyota Tacomas of yesteryear, there’s no shortage of 2016 models from which to choose.

The new Tacoma will be available in 29 configurations in two cab types, the extended Access Cab and four-door Double Cab. Each cab will be available in both 4Ă—2 and 4Ă—4 configurations.

In addition, Tacoma will now be available in five model grades, each with its own personality and unique look:

  • SR (base/work model)
  • SR5 (the iconic model)
  • TRD Sport (has hood w/scoop)
  • TRD Off-Road (has locking rear diff)
  • Limited (leather interior)

Two bed configurations, short (60.5″) and long (73.7″), are available in al models except the Limited, which is only available with the short bed. The 4-cylincer, SR Access Cab model can be ordered with the Utility Package that removes the rear seats and adds back door handles bumpers and fixed rear window.

Tacoma’s two TRD versions, Off-Road and Sport, are inspired by Toyota Racing Development’s more than 35-year history in desert off-road racing. The TRD Off-Road 4Ă—4 model is my favorite. It’s the only model Tacoma that comes with an electronic locking rear differential and a hydro-boost brake system, both of which add whole new level of traction and performance on and off-pavement.

The TRD brake system helps actuate the front disc/rear drum brakes instantly with a lot of pressure, where as the traditional vacuum-boost system reacts much slower and with less pressure. Fast, powerful braking is essential to making Crawl Control effective. (Non-TRD 2016 Tacomas also have a revamped braking system that’s said to be much more effective than the old truck’s.)

TRD Off-Road models also feature Toyota’s Multi-Terrain Select (MTS) system (automatic transmission only) that allows the driver to choose between different types of terrain such as loose rock, or mud and sand. Utilizing both Crawl Control and MTS in steep or rough driving conditions will make event the worst driver look like an off-road pro.

Those electronic traction aids, alone, put the 2016 TRD Tacoma at the top of the off-road performance ladder of mid-size pickups.

For those who work their Tacomas, the towing package is a must-have option. It equips V6 models with a Class IV towing receiver hitch, transmission oil cooler with water and air cooler, 130-amp alternator (manual transmission only), 4- and 7-pin connector, and Trailer-Sway Control.

For those who like to Facebook and Tweet their every adventure, every Tacoma will come standard with a GoPro mount located near the rear-view mirror. You just need to supply the camera.

Safety-wise, Toyota, as always, is a leader. Standard on all Toyota models is the Star Safety System™, which includes Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Traction Control (TRAC), an Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist (BA), and Smart Stopbrake override technology (SST).

2016 Tacoma pricing

The manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) for the 2016 Tacoma 4Ă—2 will range from $23,300 for the SR Access Cab with a 2.7-liter 4-cylinder engine and six speed automatic transmission to $34,745 for the Double Cab Limited 3.5-liter V6 with a six-speed automatic transmission.

The MSRP for the 2016 Tacoma 4Ă—4 will range from $24,825 for the SR 4-cylinder engine with a five-speed manual transmission to $37,820 for the V6 Limited with the six-speed automatic.

Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles. On sale: September 2015.