Silvio Calabi: Toyota Tacoma gets plush but still feels tough
By now, after endless reruns, everyone on the cable grid must have seen what the BBC’s Top Gear team did to a Toyota pickup truck. The goal was to kill an already well-used, 190,000-mile diesel model. With mounting frustration, it was: Crashed into a tree, washed out to sea, buried in sand, driven through a building, set on fire, and clobbered with a wrecking ball and a travel trailer. In a final attempt at assassination, the truck was helicoptered onto a derelict 24-story high-rise that was then flattened with explosives. After a few minutes of rubble-clearing and then “repair” with basic hand tools, the truck once again started up and drove, or limped, away.
That was a 1998 Toyota Hilux compact pickup and the one we’re looking at now is a 2016 Toyota Tacoma, bigger and much more plush, but each time I climb into it I think of that mangled survivor, enshrined on a pedestal of honor in the Top Gear studio.
The Tacoma is the Hilux’s mid-size American-market cousin, manufactured in California, Texas and Mexico. I assume that our top-of-the-line $40,000 4X4 Limited version is also a tough utility vehicle at heart, but this gen-3 2016 rides like the family car and is kitted out better than most sedans recently were, with push-button starting and locking, a backup camera and parking sonar, cruise control, tire-pressure monitors, blind-spot monitors in the wing mirrors, rear cross-traffic alert, a sun roof, full leather interior, automatic two-zone climate control, heated this and powered that, the latest in digital hands-free and touchscreen multimedia, and an inductive phone charger.
Since this is a Double Cab — as opposed to the Access Cab (a regular cab is no longer available) — it also provides four doors. The back seat is a 60/40-split folding bench with adjustable headrests and storage space beneath. This seat is best for either shorter people or shorter rides.
Our sample Tacoma also has the new and slightly smaller but more powerful 3.5-liter V-6 gas engine, good for a robust 278 horses and 265 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is a six-speed automatic (a manual is available, also with six forward speeds) that can also be shifted by hand.
The part-time, on-demand 4WD includes an electronically controlled two-speed transfer case and a limited-slip rear differential. With the $650 V6 Tow Package, our truck is rated to trailer up to 6,800 pounds, 300 more than before. But even lightly loaded and in default RWD mode, don’t expect more than 23 highway miles per gallon and 18 or so in town.
The Tacoma Double Cab comes in two sizes — a 127.4-inch wheelbase with a 5-foot bed or 141.0-inch wheelbase with a 6-foot bed. Both beds have tough composite decks and walls with integral rails with four movable tie-downs. These rails can take a Tacoma-specific bike rack, a cargo divider and mini tie-downs, and a 120-volt/400-watt power point is also available for the bed. Modern tailgates, like this one, no longer flop down like motel toilet lids; they ease open softly.
Six-cylinder Tacomas have always felt quick and responsive, for pickups anyway, so it’s hard to gauge the effect of the 42 new horsepower. However, this truck is noticeably quieter than its predecessor, thanks to better door seals, a thicker windshield and a sound-absorbing headliner and floor pad. Like every Toyota truck, it still has a separate frame and body shell, so it can mount a snowplow or a heavy-duty hitch (or a machine gun, for you Third World insurgents and various armies, including the U.S.), but Toyota has moved up to better grades of lighter, stronger steel. With coil springs up front, even the longest Tacoma has an unexpectedly tight turning radius.
Despite all the new civilizing touches, this particular Tacoma still has some of that live-rubber-ball springiness that makes it seem to have been grown in a test tube instead of bolted, bonded and welded together from thousands of pieces. Also, while it may just be the effect of the tall wheel arches and the springy ride, the Tacoma feels as though a great deal of up-and-down wheel travel has been built into its suspension. I do wish for some upward travel in the driver’s seat, though — it’s like sitting in a hole.
— Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at email@example.com.
* Cabin is now more vehicle than toolbox
* Tight turning radius
* Tacoma’s quality feel survives and thrives
* Available in approximately 27 different variations
* Disappointing fuel efficiency
* Front seats are too low
* Drum brakes at the rear?!
* Now almost as long as the full-size Tundra