The last time we reviewed a Toyota Tacoma was in 2012 and although we enjoyed that truck even then our biggest complaint: how outdated it was at that time. That was only the second generation of the Tacoma and hadn’t had an update since 2005. It turns out that it still wouldn’t get updated for another three years, making the second generation’s lifespan just at a decade. We’re finally seeing the third-gen Tacoma coming out as a 2016 model and it’s new from the ground up. I’m certain Toyota would have been happy keeping the previous gen in circulation for a few more years but now they’re seeing some competition in the market – with the GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado – and needed to make some of their own moves. And as we wrote a few weeks ago, the mid-size truck market is really heating up.
About the Event
Toyota invited us to a sneak peek preview of the new Tacoma at an event in Houston. All the trucks were staged at the Rio Bravo Motocross Park in the northeastern side of Houston. This was a great facility and we had a track specifically built for trucks, as this is normally a pace for people to take their dirt-bikes out. The track was laid out with steep inclines and steep declines combined with tight corners and sweeping corners, and there was plenty of dirt and mud to show-off the traction and capabilities of the Tacoma; we simply had a blast. There was also an on-road section where we took a few different trim levels of the mid-size truck out on a 45-minute journey from the Rio Bravo track to Dwight D. Eisenhower Park (just east of Houston) nestled up against the San Jacinto River. Obviously this gave us the chance to really see what the truck would be like on everyday roads and highways; despite Taco owners’ collective penchant for going offroad, paved streets and highways are really where they will spend the most of their time.
New truck, new style
This is no refresh in styling – this was a ground-up redesign, so everything about the sheetmetal has been overhauled. With that, if looking at the exterior styling you’ll see this isn’t a revolution in mid-size truck styling. It’s definitely different from the previous generation, and while you won’t be mistaking this for the older truck at the same time you’ll instantly know it’s a Tacoma. Toyota says when they got ready to have this new truck designed they asked for “Bad Ass” styling and repeated: “The truck must look Bad Ass.”
The front end certainly portrays that for me, with its much larger front grille and narrowed headlights it definitely has a more aggressive look. Along the sides you get bolder wheel arches while in back the Tacoma is given a Tundra-esque stamped tailgate.
The body isn’t all about aggressive styling though; the engineers took their time in the wind tunnels making sure the body was as sleek as possible. In a wind tunnel it’s all about how air moves around the vehicle and where turbulence is created that makes the difference. If you examine the truck closely you’ll see little fins protruding out – especially areas like the sculpted headlamps and taillamps – that channel the airflow in the most optimal way. The grille opening admitting air to the engine was made to an exact size as to give the engine enough air without creating turbulence in front of the truck. Even the mud flaps were re-engineered with a whole new way to catch mud and rocks coming off the tires while not protruding so far down behind the tire.
What’s new under the hood?
Another area that needed major help to bring it up to date with modern technologies was under the hood. Some of my harshest criticism back in 2012 was with the engine and 4-speed automatic transmission. Even then it was a very outdated setup yet you can still buy a new 2nd gen Tacoma with it today. The 3rd generation, though, brings many changes. Your base option is still a 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine that carries over but it’s now matched up to a 5-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission. Moving up you can get Toyota’s all-new V6 powerplant, a 3.5-liter engine with both a 6-speed auto or 6-speed manual. While the 4-cylinder engine gives you but 159-horsepower and 180-lb.ft. of torque the new V6 has much more healthy numbers, pushing 278-hp and 265-lb.ft of torque. Not only are you getting more power it’s more efficient as well. That V6, combined with the improvements around the body, will achieve 18-mpg city and 24-mpg highway; that’s a far cry from the 16/21 the previous gen was able to produce.
Inside the 3rd Gen
Inside the truck has been completely reworked as well. We were able to drive many different variations of the truck from the SR5 base trim all the way up to the Limited trim. No matter where you fall in this lineup the interior is much quieter than the previous generation. All models get the same acoustic glass in the windshield as the Avalon. The quietness of the cabin was noticeable for most of the driving we were doing. Our few jumps onto the highway though did reveal some pretty strong wind noise coming around the body of the truck. though. That said, the interior is pretty good; you get nice, comfortable seats, decent soft-touch materials throughout, easily accessed buttons and controls, and lots of new technologies.
The base trucks come with a 6.1-inch touch-screen display and Toyota’s Entune Audio system, which gives you connectivity for things like your phone and hands-free features. It also serves as the screen for the standard backup camera. The SR5 comes standard with Entune Audio Plus which keeps a 6.1-inch display but gives you much higher resolution, a Navigation app, SiriusXM radio, and traffic and weather apps. You can step up even more to the Premium system with adds integrated navigation and a full app suite. You can also get a premium JBL audio system which sounds pretty good.
Taking it Off-Road
The Tacoma is known as a truck you can use and abuse with great off-roading capabilities. This is a reputation Toyota cannot afford to lose with the 3rd-gen truck. Yes, they needed more tech, comfort, and fuel economy for the road but they also couldn’t lose its notorious toughness. Like we mentioned earlier, our off-road course was designed to put the Tacoma through its paces. We utilized the trucks traction control and Bilstein suspension – standard on the TRD Off-Road package – to make our way up and down some simple gravel hills. As we made it around a few corners we come across a massive incline; this is where we’re getting to test the TRD’s new crawl-mode. You reach up toward the ceiling of the truck where you get a handy traction knob and a few buttons. Push the crawl button to engage the mode and move the knob to choose your crawling speed. We set it to a slow crawl to make it up the hill, as we reached the peak we switched the speed on the fly to let the computers work and move a little more quickly going down the hill. I’ve used crawl modes before but mostly on expensive SUVs or ones made specifically for off-roading like a Jeep. This system in this truck worked fantastic and was able to get us up and back down a steep gravel hill, in complete control, with no fuss.
We move around to the back side of the course where someone left the sprinklers running a little too long. Yes, it was thick and deep mud. Instructions come from the driving representative for the first time as he says, “just keep on the gas and keep us pointed straight.” That’s exactly what I intended to do as we plowed into the first batch of mud. You could feel the wheels searching for grip at all four corners of the truck as it pulled itself through. This went on for a few more corners when we came up on another large hill only this time with wet, muddy tires and a slicker climbing surface. Onto the gas and power up, working the wheel to keep the nose pointing in the right direction. All in all the truck did a fantastic job throughout the whole course. It definitely lived up to all expectations I had.
Driving On Road
Having fun off-road is always great, and represents a valid test of what a vehicle can really handle. The Tacoma did great off-road (as it always has), but would all the other improvements throughout the truck make it any better or worse where the truck will spend the majority of its time? Pulling out of the park in the SR5, it was immediately recognizable that the suspension and tires on this truck were much different. Where driving over rough conditions off-road was smooth in the TRD, driving on the rock road pulling out of the park felt much more rough and harsh. As soon as we hit the pavement, though, it all settled down. The acoustic glass did a good job of keeping the cabin fairly quiet and the cloth seats were actually quite comfortable. Steering feel was good as we wound down the road heading toward the San Jacinto River, and as we were getting back to the park I was pleasantly surprised at just how easy the drive was; comfortable, quiet, and smooth.
Next we jumped from the bottom of the line to the top. The Tacoma now comes in a Limited trim with great looking leather seats and trim to match. It’s not luxury-truck nice, but it gets you some premium goodies that you otherwise wouldn’t be getting in a Tacoma. Overall it was nice, although I’m not a huge fan of Toyota’s infotainment system and the seats seemed taller in the Limited with no height adjustment so I felt almost too tall for the truck.
Wrapping it up
The Tacoma event was a success, and on the heels of this we have our annual Texas Truck Rodeo – be sure to look for some exciting news coming out of this. There was a lot of buzz at the event about if this mid-size truck could take the title of Truck of Texas and being a truck that’s actually being built in Texas this could just happen. The Tacoma lived up to all the hype, which doesn’t often happen. It’s just as capable as a Tacoma needs to be with great new features and tech. It’s finally got a modern powertrain and able to achieve much better fuel economy numbers, making it a much better truck to live with day-to-day. The interior is comfortable, quiet, and much nicer than the previous gen, so even if you’re stuck in the daily commute it’s a decent place to be. We’ll give an extra thumbs-up to anything that’s built in San Antonio – plus, Toyota’s headquarters is moving to Dallas while distributor Gulf States Toyota is headquartered in Houston. Toyota is really getting to know and love the Texas lifestyle, while close to becoming an integral part of it.