2016 Toyota Tacoma

SEATTLE, Wash. — Now ladies and gentleman please closely observe our final — and best — magic trick of the afternoon. Our driver is about to drive the all-new 2016 Toyota Tacoma into this huge pile of loose sand where he will bury the truck up to its axles. Then we will hook a tow rope to the rear and pull the buried truck out of the mess it has created. Actually, ladies and gentlemen, no such assistance will be needed.

The trick here is that the Tacoma TRD Off Road will extricate itself from the sand by using its considerable off-road technology including its multi-terrain selector dialed to mud and sand. Watch the truck push sand up under the wheels. See it inch up, and now — like magic — the Tacoma has pushed its way up and out of the sand. Now observe the driver successfully back it out of the pit.

Indeed, we learned first-hand in several demonstrations of climbing rugged terrain, descending grades that rivaled the first plunge of a roller-coaster, and crawling over rocks through a specially built quarry that the new Tacoma is an off-road beast that can proclaim with authority that it isn't about to give up its long-running superiority in off-road performance. And that seems to be where Toyota put much of its resources in developing its all-new mid-sized pick-up.

Granted, the new Tacoma advances the popular truck — that hasn't seen a major remake since 2005 — in interior design, ride comfort, engine and gas mileage improvements, and towing — with a maximum of 6,800 pounds — but if you are looking for new cutting-edge styling or a truck that feels considerably different on the highway than the outgoing model you might be disappointed.

But then again Tacoma's vast legions of loyal customers — a majority of them on the short side of middle age — will probably be excited about the get-down-and-dirty advances made in the 2016 version. And that represents a big portion of the nation's mid-size truck owners because the Tacoma continues to dominate the segment. Toyota has even experienced increased 2015 sales with the outgoing model.

“Our goal was to build a truck that is badass,” said Tacoma chief engineer Mike Sweers. Sweers says Toyota has the youngest buyers in the segment, many of whom enjoy pushing their trucks to the extreme. They are loyal to a fault and don't want the new truck to stray too far from the outgoing one. For that reason Toyota worried most about building on the Tacoma's considerable off-road chops.

What sets the Tacoma TRD Off-Road apart from the other pickups in the lineup are the Multi-terrain Select and Crawl Control.  Each have five settings controlled by an overhead knob. The Multi-terrain system allows the driver to choose between different types of terrain such as loose rock, or mud and sand. Each input regulates wheel spin by adjusting throttle and brake pressure to provide maximum traction on almost any terrain. Engaging Crawl Control, a five position off-road cruise control system borrowed from the Land Cruiser and 4Runner, allows the driver to select a speed from 1 to 5 mph. The Crawl Control system takes over the acceleration and braking, allowing the driver to focus solely on steering.

The system worked as advertised on a couple of severe ascents and descents that Toyota had structured into the massive off-road area about 40 miles from Seattle. And the crawl control set to the number two setting pulled our Tacoma over rocks and boulders in the quarry. We were thankful we didn't have to worry about braking and accelerating because steering the truck between the massive rock formations took 100 percent of our concentration.

The Tacoma is not just about off-roading, however. Toyota is offering the usual large and varied lineup configurations associated with pickup trucks. There are two sizes — access (extended) and crew cab — and five trim levels — SR, SR5, TRD Sport, TRD Off-Road and Limited. The SR is a basic work truck and the SR5 is an upgraded version of the SR model. The TRD models add suspension upgrades and all-terrain features. The Limited is the fully loaded model.

The cabs are about the same size as the outgoing Tacoma, and although Toyota says the 2016 features all-new sheetmetal, the truck will be hard to differentiate from a 2015 without seeing them side-by-side. Perhaps the biggest design change is an aggressive new bold upper grille and a taller, more muscular-looking hood. New high-tech headlights feature projection beam lamps with available LED Daytime Running Lights.

The new pickup uses much the same ladder frame construction
as the old one. Since the frame is mostly carried over, the front and rear suspension designs aren’t new. The springs and shocks have the same wheel travel but are re-tuned. There are now tougher high-strength steel lower front control arms.

There is no carryover in the V-6 engine, however, which is an all-new 3.5-liter Atkinson cycle VVT-iW (Variable Valve Timing with Intelligent Wider Intake) engine making 278 horsepower — 42 more than the outgoing truck — and 265 pound-feet of torque. The engine features both direct and port fuel injection which enables a direct-injector self-cleaning cycle when the port injectors are in use. The bottom line is that performance has been measurably improved, especially in highway driving, and gas mileage has been increased to 19 mpg city, 24 highway, and 21 combined for the 4X2 and 18/23/20 for the 4X4 with the six-speed automatic. A six-speed manual transmission is also available.

Toyota obviously put less emphasis on the base four-cylinder engine, which remains unchanged with 159 horsepower and 180 pound-feet of torque. The engine is mated to either a six-speed automatic or a five-speed manual. Toyota did not have a four-cylinder available to drive.

The interior of the cab has been totally redesigned with a new center stack and touchscreen display that controls entertainment, navigation and smartphone functions. A standard-equipment GoPro camera is mounted to the windshield for documenting off-road adventures.

Toyota has worked on creating a quieter interior enviornment. All seals were enhanced and a multi-layer acoustic windshield and sound-absorbing headliner were added. A floor silencer pad helps to further reduce road noise.

Prices are about the same as the 2015 model starting at $24,200 including destination charge for the SR Access Cab, ranging to $38,720 for the V-6 Limited 4X4.

We think loyal Tacoma owners will be pleased with the changes, but the new Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon, which plays to a slightly different clientele, will continue to offer stiff competition in the mid-sized pickup segment.

— Jim Meachen