First Drive: 2016 Toyota Tacoma

Toyota's truck division is largely a tale of two very different destinies. First, there's the Tundra, the brand's full-size option that for a brief shining moment seemed poised for relevancy amongst the domestic workhorses that dominate the Canadian pickup market, only to fizzle and fade, a victim of the indifference of its corporate masters and product planners who'd judged the experiment a failure.

It's a decidedly 'bro truck' direction for Toyota to take, and one that will play well in fraternity house driveways and anywhere a Monster Energy Drink sticker gets you a discount on parking.

Then there's the Toyota Tacoma, a mid-size model that has successfully stomped the life out of not one, but three of its Detroit-sourced competitors – the Ford Ranger, the Chevrolet Colorado, and the GMC Canyon - and currently has a death grip on the title of most popular pickup in its segment. In fact, the Tacoma has been such a gold mine for Toyota that the factory the company built in San Antonio, Texas, that was intended to produce the hundreds of thousands of Tundras no one ended up wanting has seen a significant share of its assembly line repurposed to build the smaller vehicle.

Like a ‘90s action movie star, however, GM's mid-size trucks have proven hard to kill, and after using the 2015 model year to stage a successful comeback, Toyota was forced to wipe the dust off the Tacoma's 10-year development cycle and reconsider the details of its auto-pilot pickup strategy. The end result: the Tacoma has been sent to boot camp and come back tan, buff, and at least a little more polished than it was the year before.

When In Washington...

I've had the chance to drive the Tahoe in Tahoe, the Yukon in the Yukon, and now the 2016 Toyota Tacoma in Tacoma, Washington, a region of the Pacific Northwest that, in tandem with Seattle, offers gorgeous mountain vistas and the kind of rugged terrain Toyota intended to evoke when they chose it as the inspiration for its pickup namesake. It's perfect terrain for finding the limits of a truck's drivetrain and chassis, and the trails that criss-cross the region easily lend themselves to the kind of off-road testing Toyota was eager for me to experience from behind the wheel of the new Tacoma.

Sharpened Smile

It's not difficult to pick the 2016 Tacoma out of a crowd, as the truck's refreshed styling distances itself from the rounded curves of its predecessor, instead offering the kind of sharp angles, oversized front grille, and scalloped sides that have become the new visual shorthand for aggression and power (and which also satisfy the upcoming set of stricter pedestrian safety regulations). It's a decidedly 'bro truck' direction for Toyota to take, and one that will play well in fraternity house driveways and anywhere a Monster Energy Drink sticker gets you a discount on parking.

Marty McFly, truck bro? Test Drive: 2015 Toyota Tacoma TRD

Inside the Toyota Tacoma's revised cabin the year-to-year difference isn't quite as striking. SR and SR5 models featured improved fabrics and plastics as compared to the previous generation truck, and the TRD Sport and TRD Off-Road models also offer nicer digs than what one would have expected to find in 2015. It's diminishing returns when you reach all the way to the range-topping Limited trim, however: the model offers leather upholstery and the largest, best-featured version of Toyota's Entune infotainment interface (along with a JBL-sourced stereo), but nothing approaching the same level of decadent luxury that can be found in its full-size siblings, making it difficult to justify its higher pricing. 

More Power, Less Fuel

Under the hood, the Tacoma offers two very distinct choices: a carry-over 2.7L four-cylinder engine good for 159 horsepower and 180 lb-ft of torque, or a brand new 3.5L V6 that grinds out 278 horses and 265 lb-ft of twist thanks to the presence of direct injection and variable valve timing. The long-lived 4.0L V6 that has haunted Toyota truck engine bays for so many years has been banished to the 4Runner stockpile where it continues to ply its trade, which is good news for Tacoma buyers who had been seeking a more modern power plant upgrade.

If you can afford the initial outlay for the V6, then you should make the jump: there's no fuel savings to be had with the old school four-cylinder, making it an almost perfunctory box on the options sheet that few customers will likely check off. The six-cylinder features the option of a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic gearbox (the four-cylinder makes do with a five-speed manual), while both can be paired with four-wheel drive.

So convinced is Toyota that the four-banger will barely cause a ripple in the ordering habits of Tacoma customers that it failed to include any examples for us gathered journalists to drive (nor were any manual transmissions in the cards). As a result I can only report on the V6’s road manners, which came across as willing if perhaps not noticeably quicker than the previous truck's larger-displacement engine. Down on power compared to the Canyon and the Colorado's V6, the Tacoma did nevertheless feel at least as spry with the pedal to the floor while passing.

When comparing the Toyota Tacoma's handling and ride to its newly redesigned GM rivals, a more distinct difference presented itself. While steering and body roll have been improved for 2016, Toyota has elected to leave much of the rest of the Tacoma's chassis alone, which means it still drives like the truck that it is. This stands in contrast to the Colorado and Canyon, which have seen a fair portion of the handling liabilities associated with their body-on-frame designs dialled out by the deft hand of their suspension engineers. The end result: Chevy and GMC have created a mid-size pickup that drives not unlike a crossover SUV, which is territory that the Tacoma comes nowhere near to sniffing.

Still Has The Chops

The 2016 Toyota Tacoma does its heritage proud once the pavement disappears and you're forced to shift its transfer case into four-wheel low. Both TRD Off-Road and standard four-wheel drive Tacoma models made short work of the array of obstacles arranged for our driving pleasure roughly 100 km north of the city, including rocky outcroppings, 30 to 40 degree inclines and declines, and deep sand. The TRD Off-Road goes the extra mile for 2016 with the inclusion of a new Multi-Terrain Select feature that offers computerized traction assistance for dealing with difficult driving situations. Paired with the truck's Crawl Control system, you could theoretically use these tools to get yourself very far from civilization with only a modicum of trail experience, which kind of had me wondering whether recreational off-roaders would truly be interested in such a digitally sanitized version of their favourite pastime.

Evolution, Not Revolution

That the 2016 Toyota Tacoma is better than the version of the truck that it replaces is not in dispute: a cheerier, quieter cabin, more powerful, yet still frugal V6, and the undeniably useful, but not much fun Multi-Terrain Select system are all upgrades over the older model. That being said, the revised Tacoma hasn't made the kind of leap needed to keep it ahead of the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon, at least not in my mind. Rather than attempt to out-Toyota its Japanese adversary, General Motors elected to present truck buyers with a civilized, yet still utility-focused pair of options, leaving the Tacoma to stay the more traditional pickup course. To borrow an earlier analogy, it's the difference between a reboot and a remake, and while it seems unlikely that Toyota's enormous sales advantage will evaporate any time soon, it will be interesting to see which strategy has more mid-size customers lining up outside the marquee in a few years time.

Toyota's truck division is largely a tale of two very different destinies. 8/17/2015 10:28:05 AM