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The 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road Works Like a Half Ton

I recently had a chance to spend a week testing the 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road and after putting it through all of the same punishment as I do the larger half-ton trucks, this truck impressed me in every way like no “small” truck I have tested – from off-roading to towing to everyday driving, the Tacoma TRD Off-Road rocks.

The Toyota Tacoma has been the sales leader in the midsized truck segment for a very long time, but with the new generation arriving for the 2016 model year, Toyota set out to make the Tacoma better in every way. This new Tacoma was built to be better than the past Tacoma and better than any other midsized truck sold in America – and I think that they succeeded in every way with the TRD Off-Road package. In fact, after being put through the same rigorous tests which my half ton test trucks experience, I would go so far as to say that the new Tacoma TRD Off-Road is the best mid-sized truck I’ve tested in terms of offering the capabilities of a full sized truck and the proper “truck feel” that you get from the larger trucks.

The Exterior
Exterior appearance is a totally subjective matter based on personal tastes, but I love the look of the 2016 Tacoma compared to the outgoing models. This new model is far edgier and when you add the TRD Off-Road package, it is far sportier than past midsized Toyota pickups.

Up front, the 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road features a unique lower front fascia with a dark central section and a unique grille with gun metal grey filler that is only offered on the TRD models. The front end also has projection headlights with LED trim, LED daytime running lights and Halogen fog lights.

16 tacoma side

Along the sides, the TRD Off-Road package includes body colored mirrors, contrasting black wheel opening flares, and 16 inch rims wrapped in off-road tires while the back end has a black center section, and the Tacoma logo stamped across the tailgate between the LED taillights. Also, as part of the Premium & Technology package, the locking tri-fold tonneau cover is both great looking and a great way to secure your belongings in the bed. I love the fact that this tonneau is included as part of a standard package and when you lower the tailgate, the tonneau will fold up to the rear glass of the cab with a quick pull of the easy-to-use release handle right under the rear edge. Folding up the tonneau is as simple as opening the tailgate, and I wish that I had a comparable system on my own pickup.

Finally, my 2016 Tacoma TRD Off-Road was painted Inferno orange, and this would most certainly be my choice for this new Toyota pickup.

The Interior
Inside, the 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road is fairly simple, but it the orange-trimmed cloth seats combined with the matching orange trim around the gauge cluster and the infotainment screen looks sharp. More importantly, the Tacoma in the Double Cab configuration offers a ton of room for the driver and front passenger, while the back seat offers as much room as the smaller cab options from the half ton trucks. You don’t get as much rear leg room as you do with the biggest Ram 1500 or Ford F150 pickups, for example, but the Tacoma Double Cab has enough room to comfortably seat two adults of average height – or three kids.

16 tacoma dash

The worst thing that I can say about the interior of this new Tacoma is that the rear seats fold down rather than up. This allows you to transform the rear seats into a flatter cargo area, but the fact that the seats fold down means that you have to lift cargo up onto them, and that makes the process more difficult than in trucks where the seats fold flat against the back of the cab. This wasn’t a problem for me, but shorter folks might have a harder time loading cargo into the cab – but with the locking tonneau and tailgate combo, that cargo is just as safe in the bed.

Overall, I really like the interior of the 2016 Tacoma. The orange-trimmed seats look good, they are comfortable and the cabin offers plenty of seating space front and rear. The dual zone climate control is a nice touch, as is the premium infotainment system and the integrated backup camera – allowing the new Tacoma to offer the same amenities as the larger, far more expensive half-ton trucks.

Putting the Tacoma TRD Off-Road to Work
If you are unfamiliar with my truck reviews, I have the benefit of having a variety of horse trailers at my disposal via the stable that my wife and I manage. Every single truck or SUV that has a towing package and the ability to tow at least 5,000lbs is hooked up to my 5,000lb 2-horse trailer and taken through a long list of real world driving situations ranging from highway driving to tight quarters on the local dirt roads. I also load a thousand pounds of bagged horse feed into every vehicle that will handle a payload of that size to see how well the vehicles react to having that extra weight out back.

Tacoma VS the Horse Trailer
First up came my towing tests for the 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road. The Tacoma is powered by a 3.5L V6 with 278hp and 265lb-ft of torque, mated to a 6-speed manual transmission which is, without question, one of my favorite aspects of this truck. I am a fan of manual transmissions and I am unhappy about the fact that so many trucks have gone to an auto-only lineup. The manual transmission in the new Tacoma is user-friendly for anyone who is a novice with the clutch pedal and for those who are experienced, the manual transmission really makes the new Tacoma the most entertaining mid-sized truck I have driven in a few years. In terms of functionality, the manual transmission provides an extra measure of control when towing my 5,000 pound test trailer, making for a great towing experience when hood to the 2-horse trailer, but it just plain more fun to drive with the third pedal.

16 tacoma rear

When I have towed my test trailer with other smaller trucks, I found a few constants among both the larger mid-sized trucks and the smaller half ton trucks. Most notably, the 5,000lb trailer tends to “push around” many smaller trucks, but as was the case with the Tundra TRD Pro with Bilstein suspension – the Bilstein equipped Tacoma handled the trailer load beautifully. Whether I was cruising along at highway speeds with long, sweeping turns or when taking tight turns on local roads, the Tacoma felt as planted and as comfortable as the smaller half ton trucks. It should be noted that I have not tested the new Colorado Diesel, which has a towing rating some 1,000 pounds higher. Click here for a closer look at the maximum towing figures for the Tacoma and the new Colorado.

I wouldn’t go so far as to offer up my “you can’t tell the trailer is back there” distinction for the 2016 Tacoma TRD, as you can definitely feel the trailer behind you, but at no point did I feel like the trailer was having a real impact on the rear end of the truck during any normal driving situation. The 3.5L V6 handled the weight effortlessly around town and the only time where I felt that the V6 was really struggling with the weight was when entering the highway on a long, uphill on-ramp from a stop. To get the Tacoma up to highway speed on the steep hill, I had to keep the accelerator pinned to the floor in third gear, but the only trucks I’ve tested that didn’t run into this issue were half ton trucks. I mention it in this case because it was the only time where I really found myself wanting for more power, but overall, the 3.5L V6 performed well with the horse trailer hooked up.

Hauling 1,000lbs of Grain
After unhooking the horse trailer, I headed to the feed store with the 2016 Tacoma to pick up a thousand pounds of bagged grain. The Tacoma’s payload capacity is 1,155lbs in this configuration, so I was a little concerned about how the small truck would handle this bigger, heavy load since it is so close to the maximum capacity. Thanks to the Bilstein dampers, the back end hardly drops at all when the half ton of ballast is loaded into the bed and those off-road dampers did a fine job of keeping the truck planted around corners on the way back to the stable. In terms of acceleration and road-handling, the Tacoma TRD Off-Road was barely affected by adding that extra weight out back, to the point that you could drive around all day without being hindered by the load.

16 tacoma bedBraking Under Load
Since the 2016 Tacoma was introduced with rear drum brakes, many outlets have been quick to fault the new Toyota pickup for having “old technology” under the rear wheels. Mind you, none of those outlets mention why the drum brakes are a problem, but I have seen multiple people discredit the Tacoma based on the rear brakes – even without any explanation of why this setup is so awful. Click here for a closer look at this braking system from our own John Goreham.

I reached out to Toyota to ask why they opted to run with drum brakes in the new Toyota Tacoma, and Tacoma Chief Engineer Mike Sweers was able to offer a few advantages over a rear disc setup. Roughly 75% of the braking force applied during braking comes from the front wheels and this is why the bigger, open area of the front brake rotor is important for heat dissipation. Since the rear brakes don’t do the same amount of work, they don’t experience the same amount of heat, so disc brakes aren’t really needed for a vehicle like the new Tacoma. Disc brakes are also more likely to corrode due to the fact that the stopping surface is fully exposed to the elements and they are also prone to create braking noise, whereas the enclosed drum system muffles the sound and helps cut down on corrosion.

More importantly to most owners, the cost of servicing a rear drum setup is lower than the costs of replacing rear disc brake setups, so those folks who buy the new Tacoma will pay less to have the rear brakes fixed – while also being able to service them less often. Those are fine reasons for Toyota using drum brakes on the new Tacoma, but how does this system really perform in the real world? That was the big question – and the one on the minds of so many prospective buyers.

16 tacoma high

When testing some other smaller trucks and some of the smaller configurations of the half ton trucks, I found that my 5,000lb horse trailer can push the truck around when you are coming down to a stop – especially if you are trying to stop in a hurry. Making a quick stop with a livestock trailer out back is a dangerous endeavor, but it gets even worse when you can feel the brakes struggling to get the load stopped under heavy braking pressure.

With all of the negativity around the rear brakes of the new Tacoma, I partially expected the truck to struggle when braking under heavy load, but the reality is that the Tacoma stops more comfortably and more smoothly than any other smaller truck I have tested – even those trucks with rear disc brakes. The Tacoma stopped quickly with the trailer loaded without any feeling of the trailer driving the truck forward through the braking force. Whether I was slowing for a stop sign at the end of a highway off ramp or braking to take an unexpectedly sharp turn, the Tacoma TRD Off-Road stopped like a much bigger truck.

For the sake of argument, I also took my horse trailer out for a ride without the horses so that I could stop hard without risking the safety of the horses. When out in the middle of nowhere, I was able to literally slam on the brakes with the 2,500lb horse trailer and the braking system brought the combo down to a stop very quickly.

Not surprisingly, the 1,000lbs of grain in the bed didn’t have any negative impact on the braking capabilities either, so overall, the braking system made for a more comfortable, confident towing and hauling experience in even the most extreme situations.

Sometimes, new technology isn’t the best choice when old technology still offers great capabilities. This is why plenty of the most powerful engines in the world still use pushrod engines, for example. In this case, the Tacoma might have old school rear brakes, but that doesn’t cause any compromise of stopping performance under any working situation that I experienced.

The Daily Drive
So the 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road handles the 5,000lb horse trailer and 1,000 pounds of grain nicely, but how does it handle every day driving? After all, many Tacoma owners may not ever hook up a trailer, so normal driving situations are the most critical. Even with the stiff Bilstein suspension, the Tacoma TRD Off-Road is surprisingly smooth on paved roads. It rides like a truck, and I say that affectionately, as a pickup made to tackle the toughest off-road situations, but it is not excessively rough. The high stance of this Tacoma gives it a higher center of gravity, so it isn’t going to carve any corners, but this isn’t a truck meant to zip around tight turns on paved roads. The stiff suspension does a nice job of muffling road noise (with the help of the meaty off-road tires) and as a result, I don’t think that anyone would have complaints with the ride quality under normal daily driving – even on Detroit’s pothole-riddled highways.

16 tacoma road

In addition to the local paved roads, I capitalized on the many local dirt roads to see how the new Tacoma TRD Off-Road handled on the worst public roads I could find. Even on the roughest dirt roads, lined with trenches deep enough to swallow a compact car, the Tacoma skimmed effortlessly down the muddy roads. The four wheel drive system ensures solid footing in mud, snow and ice in any footing, and when combined with the off-road ready suspension setup, the new Tacoma offers trophy truck-like fun on muddy, slippery roads.

Finally, while I didn’t do any serious off-roading with the 2016 Tacoma TRD Off-Road, I did hit a few local fishing spots with tough access roads and even in the event of rough, steep hills coated in ice – the Tacoma was unstoppable.

Now, I understand that a great many people who buy the new Tacoma wont pull a trailer or haul a thousand pounds of grain, so for the folks who will be spending most of their drive time on the road, our guy John Goreham has a broader "daily driver" review coming in the near future!

The Final Word
I have always been a skeptic of the mid-sized truck segment because they just don’t offer the same feel as the half ton trucks – particularly when working hard. The 2016 Tacoma TRD Off-Road is a mid-sized truck that offers that big truck feel when towing or hauling, while maintaining the smaller footprint on the road so you can have the working capabilities of a large truck in a considerably smaller package.

Best of all, with a price as tested of just over $36,000, the 2016 Tacoma TRD Off-Road in loaded up form costs less than similar full sized, half ton trucks on the market today. For example, the Ram Tradesman with the 3.6L Pentastar V6, four wheel drive, the crew cab, the 5’7” bed, the popular appearance group and off-road tires has a price of $38,180, while the Ford F150 with the base 3.5L V6 and all of the similar features inside and out starts at just over $37,000. The half-ton trucks might have slight advantages in towing and hauling capabilities, but they come with a price that is often thousands higher for similar amenities.

16 tacoma front

If you want a mid-sized truck that offers a smooth ride during the rigors of daily driving on paved roads, comparable capabilities to a half-ton truck on the worksite and the ability to tackle the toughest roads and trails – there is no better option on today’s market than the 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road. Throw in the roomy interior, the convenience of the locking tonneau cover, the optional sunroof and the premium infotainment system – this new Tacoma has maintained a clear advantage over the rest of the segment that should keep it atop the crowd for years to come.


Dollar Bill (not verified)    January 29, 2016 - 2:19PM

It is a decent truck but seriously overpriced . I currently have the last generation Tacoma DC and with the three nasty recalls and Toyota's legendary idiotic customer service I am done with Toyota's trucks . They should stick to cars and vans ,no wonder they can't break into the numbers of the Big Three . The rusty , broken suspension components , horrible customer service minions I would recommend the F150 , a grand more but way more truck and much better backing from a company who knows how to build a truck .. Oh Toyolet , done with you..

Ryan (not verified)    February 1, 2016 - 12:44PM

In reply to by Dollar Bill (not verified)

Are you really comparing trucks to the kind of customer service you get? On top of that, compare them to the worst dependable trucks there are out there? Ford needs to work on the way they build trucks because they are not tough. They fall apart within weeks of driving them off the lot. I've seen 3 brand new f150 and 250 wheel bearings shatter a month after purchase, ac controls breaking along with the vents snapping, cup holders snapping, and the same day I drive a brand new 4x4 f150 home, threw it in reverse and, BAM! All the air bags deployed for no reason. A malfunction in the computer. I wouldn't be so worked up right now but i can imagine a decent argument if you were comparing the Tacoma to a Colorado, but there's no way to compare a Tacoma to a Ford of any kind. Not to mention Ford lost its touch on the diesels too. Bad glow plugs that deserve a recall. The bad thing is Ford doesn't have hardly any recalls, but all their customers are screaming for them! So they're ignoring them because they'll look more like shit as a company than they already do. The whole rotting frame thing happened in the mid to late 90s. People can't seem to let that go. They've fixed that problem almost a decade or so ago. Again no Ford is worth buying brand new. Better get a Ford that's used so somebody else has already fixed all the stupid bull shit that happens within the first year of driving one off the lot that doesn't happen with Toyota, Mazda, or Lexus. At least not as often.

LazerLarry (not verified)    May 10, 2016 - 9:13AM

The Tacoma Truck is not 100% redesigned, it still looks very much the same outside middle carriage is exactly the same as the middle carriage on the second generation. put the old and new side by side and your see the new looks like lip stick on a pig. I have a 13 and ill wait for the new generation of trucks to change and not now pay a extra 5 grand for lip stick.

David Swick (not verified)    November 19, 2017 - 8:38PM

I like the review but you didn't say if you tested the 4x4 or 4x2. Please let me know as I am getting ready to order a 2018.

Thx, David