First drive: 2016 Toyota Tacoma [Review]

Toyota\'s best-selling Tacoma gets its first major update in a decade.

After a few sleepy years, the mid-size pickup truck market is finally starting to wake up.

Last year General Motors reintroduced its Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon twins after a couple of years off. Honda is feverishly working on a replacement for its Ridgeline, with that truck expected to be ready for 2016. Not to be left out of the foray, Toyota is rolling out a new version of its best-selling Tacoma for 2016.

Something old, a lot more newDespite its all-new designation, the 2016 Tacoma isn't quite a clean sheet redesign. Peel back the sheet metal and you'll find the same basic frame that underpinned the last-generation Tacoma. But just because Toyota recycled the Tacoma's frame, don't think they haven't been hard at work. That carryover frame has been enhanced with more high- and ultrahigh-strength steel, making it three times stronger than the chassis it replaces.

To that updated frame Toyota bolted an all-new body that is not only more stylish, but also significantly more aerodynamic. Engineers typically get excited when they can reduce drag by 2-3 percent between model generations; With the 2016 Tacoma, they managed to drop the truck's coefficient of drag by a massive 12 percent.

The Tacoma's 2.7L four-cylinder, rated at 159 horsepower and 180 lb-ft of torque, is a leftover from last year, as is its standard five-speed manual transmission. The base truck's auto has at least been given a much-needed upgrade, going from four gears to six.

A new 3.5L V6 joins the mix for 2016, replacing the Tacoma's old 4.0L V6. Horsepower grows by 42 to 278, but torque is down by 1 lb-ft to 265. However, Toyota says the Tacoma's new six-speed automatic and manual transmissions deliver engine power more efficiently, so the new truck actually puts more torque to the ground than the outing 4.0L and its five-speed auto.

As far as mileage is concerned, with the Tacoma, you can have your cake and eat it too. A 4x2 four-cylinder model with the six-speed auto is rated at 19/23/21 mpg city/highway/combined, which is slightly worse than the 19/24/21 mpg line put up by the 4x2 V6 automatic. The story is mostly the same for the 4x4 models, with the four-cylinder posting ratings of 19/22/20 to the V6's 18/23/20. Thanks to different gearing, the V6/manual combo (which is available exclusively with 4x4) can only muster 17/21/19 mpg city/highway/combined.

The Tacoma will be available in five different flavors for 2016 — base SR, up-level SR5, off-road oriented TRD Sport and TRD Off-Road, and top-spec Limited. Our time with the Tacoma was spent in the two TRD models, which project to make up about half of the Tacoma's sales volume.

As its name implies, the TRD Off-Road is the most rugged of the bunch. The Off-Road package removes the Tacoma's front chin spoiler, increasing the truck's approach angle from 29 degrees to 32 degrees. The TRD Off-Road also packs Toyota's Multi-terrain Select + Crawl Control systems, making the mid-size pickup a legitimate a go-anywhere vehicle.

Regardless of trim, every Tacoma comes standard with a 6.1-inch touchscreen audio system, voice recognition, Bluetooth hands free, Siri Eyes Free, a rear-view camera and an industry-first GoPro windshield camera mount.

Chopped and chiseledIn order to up the Tacoma's appeal with younger buyers, Toyota designers enhanced the truck with bold and chunky styling cues. Up front that starts with a predominate grille with a Toyota logo smack dab in the middle. The grille pattern changes between models, but every Tacoma is graced with the over-sized mug.

Headlights are thinner and more stylize than before, borrowing cues from the 4Runner SUV. The Tacoma's lower bumper protrudes slightly to aid in pedestrian crash protection. TRD Sport models, as shown here, get a non-functional hood scoop.

View the Tacoma in profile and you'll notice a kind of chopped look. That's because Toyota lowered the Tacoma's roofline by a few inches and also increased the height of the bed sides. The flanks of the Tacoma are graced with bulges and creases that not only make the truck look tougher but also help with aerodynamics. Wheel designs are new and range in size from 16-inch to 18-inch.

The rear of the Tacoma features an integrated spoiler to help better manage airflow and a stamped tailgate similar to the one found on the larger Tundra. The step in the rear bumper has been made wider and upgraded with recesses license plate lights. Tacoma's standard rear-view camera is integrated in to the tailgate handle.

Some other trick features of the new Tacoma include a dampered tailgate that prevents it from slamming open and LED cargo lights — a first in the segment.

Inner trappingsThe interior of the Tacoma has been given a thorough upgrade to match its updated exterior. New-for-2016 improvements include Toyota's latest Entune audio system, revised climate controls and a new gauge cluster. Toyota has also include some soft-touch material pieces on the Tacoma's door tops and dashboard, but other surfaces remain standard-issue tough plastic. Cloth seats are standard across the Tacoma line, save for the Limited, which gets leather upholstery.

During our day-long drive both on-road and off we found the Tacoma's front buckets to be quite comfy. Space is good in the front row, but we can't say the same for the back seat of all Tacoma models. If you plan on hauling people as well as cargo, you'll need to spring for the roomier Double Cab option as the Access Cab is simply too tight.

Some cheap materials aside, our only major complaint was with the Tacoma's telescoping steering wheel, which didn't seem to extend far enough. We needed just a few more inches of travel for an ideal driving position.

Behind the wheelOn everyday roads the Tacoma rides like a typical truck. Thanks to its separate frame and solid axle rear end, the Tacoma tends to bounce over road surfaces, even ones that appear to be fairly smooth. Your average pickup truck buyer probably won't mind the Tacoma's ride, but someone switching from something like a car-based crossover might be in for a minor shock.

Toyota didn't provide us with any four-cylinder Tacomas to sample, but we spent plenty of time with the 3.5L V6 mated to the six-speed auto. The V6 is a smooth operator, but it's not going to bowl you over with raw power. The six-speed auto handles shifting duties just fine, but it also tends to "hunt” for lower gears when you stab the gas.

But the Tacoma really starts to come into its own once it veers off the beaten path. Tacoma 4x4 models are surprising capable out of the box thanks to 9.4 inches of ground clearance, beefy tires and a rough and rugged suspension. TRD Off-Road models crank things to 11 with Toyota's Crawl Control system.

In a nutshell, Crawl Control is autonomous driving for off-roaders. The system oversees braking and accelerating duties, leaving the driver only in charger of steering. If you're familiar with modern off-road systems, think of Crawl Control as hill decent control but for every type of surface.

Once engaged, the system offers five different settings, with 1 being the most aggressive in terms of constant braking and speed adjustments and 5 being the most hands off. The lower settings tend to be better suited for extreme off-roading situations like climbing a steep hill while the higher numbers are better for faster maneuvers, like traversing a rock-strewn canyon.

We were able to test out the Tacoma TRD Off-Road's off-road chops across a number of different obstacles and came away thoroughly impressed. Engage Crawl mode, point the Tacoma towards whatever obstacle you want to tackle, take your feet completely off the pedals and the TRD Off-Road just goes. The system perfectly modulates vehicle speed and uses a new ABS system to monitor wheel spin and control individual braking at each wheel. During our afternoon with the Tacoma TRD Off-Road we effortlessly climbed up and then came back down a hill raked at more than 40 degrees, plowed through a boulder-covered trail and climbed over everything in-between.

But perhaps most impressive, the Tacoma TRD Off-Road is capable of crawling out of a sand pit, even when buried up to its axles. We doubt many other pickups on the market, regardless of size, can make that claim.

Off-road purist might scoff at that idea of a truck that can conquer the wilderness essentially on its own, but the Crawl Control system should prove invaluable to the occasional or novice off-roader. It's truly Land Rover-like in its operation, and that's about the highest praise you can heap on a factory rig.

Leftlane's bottom lineThe 2016 Tacoma makes big improvements in terms of styling and interior features, but our biggest takeaway has to be the truck's merits as a go-anywhere adventure vehicle. Simply put, the 2016 Toyota Tacoma is the most capable vehicle in the small truck segment.

2016 Toyota Tacoma SR base price, $23,300.2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Sport base price, $30,765.2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road base price, $30,765.2016 Toyota Tacoma Limited base price, $34,745.Prices exclude a mandatory $900 destination fee

Photos by Drew Johnson.

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