Toyota's rugged Taco returns for the 2016 model year with a few new tools to tackle rough terrain.
The exterior design is inspired by desert running trophy trucks and features an elevated beltline and new sheetmetal creases that emphasize the ride height.
Under the hood is a new 3.5-liter V-6 engine that is able to seamlessly transition between Atkinson and Otto ignition cycles.
Output is stated at 278 horsepower and 265 pound-feet of torque. Max payload and towing capacity are 1,620 pounds and 6,800 pounds respectively.
All 2016 Tacos come equipped with a standard GoPro mount at the top of the windshield. You'll have to supply your own action camera, however.
Toyota's engineers tell us that, though towing is important, most Tacoma drivers are more concerned with payload. So the bed has been strengthened and enlarged.
The composite bed is now 7% deeper and can be optioned with a 110V, 400W inverter; that's great for tailgaters and campers.
The Tacoma is available in 5 trim levels: the street focused SR, SR5, and Limited models and the rugged TRD Sport and TRD Off-road models.
All Tacoma models feature a standard rotary damped tailgate that drops at a slow and controlled speed. A rear camera is also standard across the board.
The tailgate has been reshaped to integrate a small spoiler. All around the chassis, Toyota's engineers have molded in strakes and low profile fins that boost fuel economy and high speed stability.
The interior is as spartan and utilitarian as you'd expect from a pickup truck.
Instrumentation is simple, featuring two large gauges. On SR5, Limited, and TRD models, a 4.2-inch information display tucks in between the dials.
Depending on trim and options, the Tacoma can be had with either a 5-speed manual transmission or a new 6-speed manual, but most will be sold with the new 6-speed automatic transmission.
Front and center in the dashboard is a new 7-inch Entune digital media hub.
The maps for navigation are simple, but crisply rendered. Operation is smooth and quick.
However, I was frustrated with Toyota's decision to lump navigation under the "Apps" tab, rather than giving the map its own shortcut key.
TRD and Limited models feature a standard Qi wireless charging pad at the base of the dashboard. I was able to charge my Nexus 5 by simply placing it on the pad.
From the cabin, drivers can also toggle operation of the optional deck-mounted AC power outlets.
Toyota tells us that it has beefed up the Taco's construction with a high-strength steel frame. The automaker continues to use an open frame, which allows a bit of flex at the rear end and improves articulation.
All Tacoma models feature the same suspension geometry and ride height, but the TRD models feature upgraded components.
An electronically-controlled, on-demand four-wheel drive system can be toggled between rear and all-wheel drive with a twist of a knob. Twist again to toggle between the standard high and low range crawling ratio.
The TRD Off-road inherits the Multi-terrain Select system that we've seen previously on the 4Runner and an updated version of Toyota's Crawl Control system.
In this iteration, Crawl Control features five selectable speeds and will automatically control the accelerator while individually actuating the brakes to maintain a constant crawling speed.
Multi-terrain Select is sort of an extension of the traction control system, giving the driver the choice between brake optimization programs for a variety of off-road surfaces.
We put the Taco TRD Off-road through its paces on an off-road playground located around Tacoma, Washington.
Most 2016 Tacomas feature a new lower air dam that improves highway fuel economy. The TRD Off-road, however, lacks this bit and gains a bit of additional approach and departure angle clearance.
The Crawl control system was used to ease the truck down a steep hill of loose silt. By individually controlling each wheel's brakes, the Tacoma eased itself down the hill at a controlled speed. I only had to steer.
On the highway, I found the TRD Off-road suspension to be ridiculously stiff and bouncy — so much so that holding conversation was tricky. However, it is in its element when off-road, soaking up bumps and crashing over dirt and gravel paths with ease.
Later in the day, crawl control was used to scale a steep rock incline, to rumble across uneven loose boulders, and to unstick a truck that had been buried up to its axles in loose sand.
I was impressed with the Taco's capabilities, but never really got comfortable with the Crawl Control system.
Crawl Control uses anti-lock brakes to control wheel motions and makes a lot of noise in the process. It was difficult to tell if all of the banging and thumping was the brakes or some part of the body coming into contact with the rocks below.
Under most conditions (and with the aid of a friend to spot) the TRD Off-road's locking differentials and low-ratio gearbox seemed capable enough for most dirt and rock driving conditions.
The Toyota Tacoma's underpinnings are over a decade old, but with new materials, available cabin and power-train tech, and a new engine option, it's got a new lease on life for 2016.
During the day, I was also able to spend time behind the wheel of a Tacoma Limited model and the TRD Sport variant. The Sport features unique bodywork that includes a (nonfunctional) hood scoop.