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​2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD: You *can* teach an old truck new tricks

We get good and dirty in the new Toyota Tacoma and check out its new Multi-terrain and Crawl Control technologies.

The decade-old Toyota Tacoma midsize pickup truck is finally getting a major update for the 2016 model year. Rather than totally reinvent the truck with an all-new platform, Toyota has taken an "ain't broke, don't fix" approach to this major revision. The broad strokes are familiar, but almost every part of the truck has been tweaked in some way.

The sheet metal more closely resembles a desert-running Trophy Truck; its creases and high beltline emphasizing its high-lift ground clearance. The frame beneath that design still uses its 10-year old design, but has been shored up with high- and ultra-high-strength steel that's stiffer and lighter.

Of course, the biggest change is under the hood where a new engine resides, augmented by an updated set of optional off-road traction management technologies.

Getting to the trail

After picking up my 2016 Taco, the first thing I needed to do was get it somewhere dirty.

Beneath the hood of my red TRD Off-road example was the new 3.5-liter V-6 engine introduced for the 2016 model year. This 278-horsepower, 265-pound-foot mill makes use of Toyota's D-4S head, which can seamlessly transition between port and direct injection depending on the needs of the moment, and debuts a new variable valve timing system that allows it to burn fuel using the thrifty Atkinson cycle when cruising and switch to the Otto cycle when power is needed. According to the EPA, the 2016 Tacoma V-6 will do 18 mpg in the city, 23 mpg on the highway, and 20 mpg combined.

Power flows through a six-speed automatic transmission, which is required for the 2016 Taco's traction-control bells and whistles, but a six-speed manual gearbox is available for those who prefer a simpler approach.

The first thing that I noticed upon hitting the road was just how smooth and quiet the 3.5-liter V-6 engine was. The next thing I noticed was just how loud and rough the TRD Off-road suspension and its 16-inch Goodyear Wrangler dirt tires were at highway speeds. The TRD suspension was so jarring and bouncy over the expansion joints of the highway that conversation with my co-driver was difficult. It was like trying to talk with someone constantly kicking the back of my seat. I hoped that things would improve when we reached the dirt.

Finding its way

Along the way, I made use of the pickup's new Entune infotainment system. Front and center in the dashboard is a 7-inch touchscreen that is flanked by capacitive shortcut buttons and physical volume and tuning knobs.

Along one edge, there are buttons for seeking and phone functions; along the other are shortcuts to home, apps, and home. I was a bit annoyed by Toyota's decision to lumps most of the functions under the "apps" tab, including navigation, and missed having a dedicated button to quickly return to the map with a single touch.

Toyota's Entune tech features some organizational oddities, but gets the job done. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Otherwise, the Tacoma's Entune system is sensibly organized and smooth in operation. The graphics are crisply rendered and pleasing to the eye. The glossy screen is resistant to direct sunlight and visible through polarized sunglasses but can be a bit of a fingerprint magnet. Being capacitive, you'll also need to remove gloves (or use touchscreen-compatible gloves) before using.

A smaller, 6.1-inch Entune Audio Plus system is available at the lower, SR5 trim level and lacks onboard navigation software. This system does, however, roll in compatibility with the Scout Link GPS navigation app for Android and iOS smartphones. Once connected to a phone running the app, the Entune Audio Plus system allows users to interact with the Scout app on the Tacoma's touchscreen and navigate without directly touching the phone. Unfortunately, I was not able to test this system. Toyota still has stated no plans to support Android Auto or Apple CarPlay in their vehicles.

The Tacoma's standard six-speaker audio system is acceptable with clear and loud audio, but a better JBL audio system is available at the Limited trim level.

TRD and Limited Tacoma models feature a standard Qi wireless charging pad at the base of the dashboard. Many Android smartphones, including my Nexus 5, can be charged simply by placing them on this pad. iPhones require an adapter case for wireless charging. Standard across all grades are Bluetooth wireless, Siri Eyes-free, a rear camera mounted near the tailgate's handle, and a GoPro camera mount in the cabin at the top of the windshield. You'll need to bring your own GoPro, however; one isn't included with the truck.

Though a bit unrefined on the pavement, the TRD Off-road suspension thrives in the dirt. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Tackling the terrain

Eventually, we reached the trailhead and switched the Tacoma's drivetrain to its 4WD setting and rumbled on. The Tacoma's 4WDemand system is a part-time 4WD system that can be toggled between a street and fuel-economy-friendly 2WD setting and a traction-rich 4WD setting with the turn of a dial. Another turn toggles between the 4WD system's high (street) and low (crawling) ratios. The TRD Off-road model that I drove also features an electronically controlled locking rear differential and inherits and improves the 4Runner's Multi-terrain Select and Crawl Control systems.

Multi-terrain Select is best described as an evolution of traction control with a focus on off-road grip. The driver is able to toggle between programs for a variety of off-road surfaces and the vehicle will then use the brakes to control wheelspin and torque, maximizing traction for the conditions.

Crawl Control takes this a step further, automatically controlling the accelerator and the brakes to maintain a constant crawling speed over rough terrain or steep inclines or declines while the driver focuses on steering the truck. Crawl Control takes some getting used to -- touching the accelerator or brake will disengage the crawl -- and features five speeds (all very slow) selectable via a knob on the ceiling.

The TRD Off-road suspension, which felt so very rough on the highway, really comes into its own on the trail. Bumps were soaked up with ease, and the pickup truck feels composed when flying down a gravel trail at stupid speeds. The TRD Taco is in its element in the dirt.

Getting down and dirty

After an off-road warm-up consisting of rolling over some large rocks to get a feel for the 4WD system, the Tacoma was presented with its first real trial. After creeping along a wooded path, we found ourselves looking down a ridiculously steep hill -- about two stories from summit to base -- composed largely of loose silt.

My Toyota co-driver and guide instructed me to activate the Crawl Control system and then just take my feet off of the brakes and steer. Instead of sliding uncontrollably into one of the trees that closely flanked our path, the pickup carefully inched down the hill, slipping a bit, but maintaining its composure and my control of the direction. All the way, I could hear the system working, the brakes rat-tat-tatting away at all four corners as they scrambled for grip where it could be found.

Reaching the base of the hill, I was finally able to step on the brake and regain control of my velocity and, after grabbing a few photos that didn't at all do the descent justice, head on to the next trial.

The Crawl Control system slowly, but surely, pulls the Tacoma up an extremely steep grade. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Climbing the wall

Next, Toyota wanted to demonstrate how Crawl Control used in concert with the Tacoma's low-range transfer case to to scale a steep rock incline. We lined the Tacoma up with what looked like a rock face so steep that we could barely climb it on foot holding a rope, and activated the Crawl.

Most 2016 Toyota Tacoma's have a new, front air dam that boosts fuel economy on the highway, but is situated far enough back to not affect the 29-degree approach clearance, but the Taco TRD Off-road lacks this bit and boasts a 32-degree approach angle.

It would appear that we'd need every one of those degrees as the digital inclinometer located in the dashboard display sharply rose and then pegged at 35-degrees, even as the incline grew more severe and nothing but sky was visible out of the Taco's windshield. The truck continued to angle upward until we heard the tow hitch at the tail end scrape slightly on the ground below as the climb continued. Toyota's guides reckoned the steepest part of the climb was easily more than 40 degrees.

With Crawl Control active, there wasn't much for me to do from the drivers seat but steer and enjoy my view of the sparse clouds as the engine steadily hauled the pickup skyward. The system was significantly quieter when ascending than descending, relying more on the torque of the engine than the grip of the brakes.

Later that day, Toyota's drivers would take the climb a step further by turning the Tacoma around and repeating the Crawl Controlled climb -- in reverse.

Toyota tells us that the open "C" frame allows a bit of flex at the rear end and improves articulation. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Crushing the boneyard

The next trial prepared for the Tacoma was called the Boneyard -- a rocky course of large and uneven stones and boulders built into an old quarry. With the 4WD system in low-range and the assistance of Toyota's guides to point the wheels in the right direction, I began the slow climb through the course.

It was over this rough terrain where I really lost my faith in the Crawl Control system, not because I doubted its capabilities, but because it's just so damn loud when traversing really uneven terrain.

Bang-bang, crunch, griiiiind, crunch, bang. As the truck bounced over the rocks and I bounced around the cabin, it was hard to tell if the sounds I was hearing were the brakes grabbing and releasing or the body of the truck crashing against the rocks that were seemingly inches from my doors. The system simultaneously inspired confidence and constantly had me second guessing and cringing from the cacophony.

As I exited the boneyard, I was tense and uncomfortable. Despite the thumbs-up received from Toyota's guides, I still checked and double-checked the body for the damage that I knew wasn't there. I've no doubt that Crawl Control is an excellent tool for managing traction and control in off-road situations, but I also feel like a deft pedal foot could have gotten the Tacoma through many of the day's trials with less clenching.

Escaping the sand trap

By now I was on the fence about this new Crawl Control nonsense, but what Toyota did next pushed me decidedly back into the pro-tech direction.

One of Toyota's drivers eased a Tacoma TRD Off-road onto an embankment of loose sand and then disabled all of the traction control systems. He then proceeded to spin the tires, burying the truck up to its axles until it was nice and stuck. Freeing a vehicle from this much loose sand would require a lot of skill, patience and luck.

Toyota's driver needed none of these things. He just put the truck into reverse, activated Crawl Control and waited. On its own, the Crawl hesitantly and slowly turned one wheel at a time, testing the traction and working itself, little by little, backward. After about a bit of inching, suddenly, the truck popped free of its trap. The whole ordeal took just about a minute.

Both the Crawl Control and Multi-terrain Select systems are controlled via this ceiling-mounted panel. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Getting home

The final task put before the 2016 Tacoma was getting me back to the airport and headed home.

For this leg, I cheated a bit and switched to a fully loaded Limited model. Over the gravel trail leading back to civilization, the Limited's suspension felt pretty good, but on the same highways that jarred and jostled the TRD Off-road, the Limited model seemed so much more composed.

The Limited rides quieter on its 18-inch wheels and street tires and soaks up the rhythmic thumps of the highway expansion joints so much better than its dirtier sibling did. I was actually able to enjoy a chat with my co-driver, and when the conversation lulled, take in the JBL audio system.

The 2016 Toyota Tacoma doesn't totally reinvent the truck that we've known for the last decade, but it does refine nearly every element of that truck and adds a few new tricks to its off-road feature set to breathe new life into the platform.

The new Taco updates its 10-year-old design to do battle with the new contenders from GMC and Chevy. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Starting at about $23,300 for the base SR and growing to $30,765 for the TRD Sport and Off-Road models, the Tacoma finds itself in a good position to tackle the new, more street-friendly GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado. At the top of the lineup is the fully loaded Tacoma Limited, which has an MSRP of $37,820 before options and a $900 destination charge.

The Toyota Tacoma isn't available in Australian and UK markets, which instead fill this niche with Toyota's Hilux pickup.

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