by: Chris Chase
The pickup proliferation keeps on trucking, as drivers continue to choose these once-utilitarian vehicles as their main means of transport, both for getting to work and shuttling their families around.
Automakers who build pickups have responded in recent years by transforming trucks from pure workhorses to multi-purpose vehicles designed not only to carry and tow big payloads, but also to provide the creature comforts demanded by modern drivers.
That move began with full-size trucks such as the evergreen Ford F-150 and its competitors the Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra twins and Dodge’s Ram 1500. The transition is now coming to mid-size pickups: Chevrolet and GMC arguably started the mid-size resurgence with the redesigned Colorado and Canyon models they launched in late 2014.
Toyota joined the game shortly afterward with their Tacoma, treated to its own from-the-ground-up redesign that came to market last year as a 2016 model.
Compare the new Tacoma to the old, and you might be fooled into thinking the 2016 model is simply an evolution of what came before it, but the changes are more significant than that initial impression suggests.
Key among them is a new 3.5L V6 engine, replacing the 4.0L available in Tacomas since its last redesign in 2005. While replacing that torque-rich 4.0L with a smaller-displacement engine might seem like a counterintuitive move, Toyota’s solution was two-fold: it gave the new 3.5L direct fuel injection to improve power output and fuel efficiency, and designed it around the Atkinson combustion cycle to further boost its economy.
We were skeptical that the new engine would have the guts to do pickup truck duty, but it turned out to be one of our favourite things about this new truck.
Against the 4.0L’s 236 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque, the new engine makes 278 up and 265 lb-ft, and that extra horsepower is evident the first time you need to get up to speed quickly. Power delivery is linear, and the 3.5L is more refined, giving the impression that it never has to work as hard as the engine it replaces. Also new is a six-speed automatic transmission in place of last year’s five-speed, a smooth-shifting gearbox that makes good use of the engine’s power.
Toyota’s fuel consumption ratings for a Tacoma with V6 engine and 4WD (as my tester was equipped) are 13.1/10.5 L/100 km (city/highway); my truck averaged 15.2 L/100 km in a week of cold weather and city driving.
Predictably, the Tacoma rides rough unloaded, on a firm suspension designed to handle lots of weight rather than providing a sedan-like ride.
What surprised me most about the Tacoma — and consequently left me most disappointed with this new design — is that its front seats continue to feel cramped, particularly in terms of headroom. Even with the height-adjustable driver’s seat at its lowest setting (keeping in mind that I stand a modest five-foot-seven) the top of the windshield encroached into my line of sight just as it did in the old Tacoma. Couple that with generous ground clearance, and you get a truck that requires you to climb up into it while simultaneously ducking your head under the top of the door frame.
Once in, the driver’s seat is positioned oddly close to the floor, so that instead of the upright seating position you’d expect in a truck, your legs are splayed forward, sports-car style. Maybe I’m missing the appeal of this design quirk, but it continues to be my least favourite thing about the Tacoma.
Toyota’s new design brings a slicker dashboard that includes touchscreen infotainment and niceties like available dual-zone automatic climate control. It comes with its own oddities as well, like the tiny, hard-to-read air conditioning temperature display that appears to be angled down, away from front seat occupants’ eyes. Missing entirely from the climate controls is a rear window defroster, which proved an annoyance in humid weather that fogged up the rear glass unless the air conditioning was running at nearly full blast. That’s a welcome feature you’ll find in GM’s mid-size Colorado and Canyon twins.
For all that, the Tacoma’s four-door “Double Cab” body style offers good space for a pair of average-sized rear seat passengers. The downside in the coach compartment is that the rear seats’ bottom cushions don’t flip up to reveal a flat floor. The best you can do is flip them forward and fold the seatbacks down, which also reveals handy hidden storage behind the seats. But the old Tacoma had hidden storage too, and its seatbacks formed a flatter load surface.
A Tacoma in Double Cab configuration starts at $37,020, a price that includes the V6 engine and four-wheel drive; my test truck was optioned with a TRD (Toyota Racing Development) Sport upgrade package that drove the MSRP up to $40,935, adding niceties such as wireless smartphone charging, dual-zone climate control, blind spot monitoring, and a power sunroof on top of an already-generous list of standard equipment.
Toyota has done well to introduce additional refinement and desirable convenience features to the Tacoma, but the quirks baked into this design suggest a truck conceived to appeal to existing Tacoma owners, rather than to steal buyers from the makers of other mid-size trucks. That will work out just fine for Toyota — the Tacoma has a large, loyal following — but whether it will work for buyers new to the brand is another question altogether.