I’m a car guy. I’ve been driving cars almost exclusively for the decades I’ve been on the road, starting with a little blue Chevy Nova and bouncing through sports cars, coupes and sedans, with a detour for a couple of years of minivan. Fellow parents know what that’s like. Now I drive an SUV – a Toyota Highlander – and it’s a nice, comfortable ride. But every so often there’s stuff I want to haul, a bike I want to toss in the back, or a pile of boxes that a friend needs to transport that doesn’t easily fit into the back of a regular car.
When Toyota offered up one of its popular Tacoma pickup trucks, I decided it was time to have some fun driving a truck for a week and asked ’em to drop it off. Now I can remember back years ago when guys would buy a pickup truck because they couldn’t afford a car. Yes, they used to be the less expensive alternative to entry level cars, noisy and without any luxuries at all. If you got an AM/FM push-button radio you were living the high life.
Not any more. Now a fully equipped pickup can run $50,000 or more, and the Tacoma I drove, the 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD Offroad 4×4 Double Cab with its Premium & Technology package has a full manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $37,610. Definitely not the low-budget alternative to the Toyota Yaris, Chevy Spark or Ford Fiesta!
But with its “Inferno” orange paint job, convenience of the double cab, and smooth, comfortable ride, the Tacoma did prove to be a blast to drive and even off road! Speaking of which, here it is, where the road ends:
I’ve never driven a vehicle designed for offroad and other difficult driving situations, and it had a lot of controls that I found baffling to figure out. Indeed, I had to actually pull out the owner’s manual to figure out some of the features and controls, to make sure I wasn’t enabling the ejector seat or some other Bond-ready feature.
For example, where I would normally expect just the sunroof controls, the Tacoma had this:
Open/Close, Up/Down, I could figure that out. But what was I turning off on the leftmost button? What did the drivetrain wheels skeleton change, and what the deuce was the control at the bottom with MTS on one side and Crawl on the other? Some investigation revealed that these control the VSC off switch, active traction control, and the multi-terrain select/crawl switches. Not much clearer, but check this out: the MTS system actually lets the car inch forward without you actually controlling the gas: it’s for terrain where moving slowly but steadily forward (think really rough mountainous terrain with big boulders, etc) is the name of the game.
And that VSC? It was just the beginning of a vehicle drowning in acronyms, some of which were never actually spelled out in the user’s guide. The book never quite said, but my best guess is that “vehicle slip control” is VSC. The problem is that without proper training it’d be all too easy to either choose the wrong rough terrain driving features to enable or to never realize you have a feature in your off road 4×4 truck that would help you in a tough spot. Perhaps this is something I’d find less confusing if I were already into off road driving, however.
But that’s not the limit of the controls. Here are some more, mixed in with the climate management system:
Look at the left dial: It let you switch from 2WD to 4WD and to 4WD low, even at 55mph. Helpful if you suddenly find yourself on difficult terrain like a roadway full of water (hydroplaning no bueno) or ice. Below it are more of these acronym buttons: BSM, ETC PWR, P<triangle> and a sort of sideways baseball cap. You always want BSM on: it’s the blindspot monitoring system, and it produces a little yellow warning light on your sideview mirror if someone’s in your blind spot. I love this feature and it’s the one I most miss on my 2008 Highlander.
ECT PWD is still a bit of a mystery to me. It’s described in the user’s manual as “when you want a higher level of responsiveness” like when you’re pulling a trailer, but it never spells out what ECT stands for. I didn’t have a trailer to test out the hitch and towing capabilities, so that’s just one I’ll omit. The P<triangle>? That’s another useful one: it enables the parking radar warning system, so the system beeps if you’re getting too close to the wall, building, or cars as you pull into or back into a parking spot.
And the sideways baseball cap? Look very closely at the bottom of the photo, at the rubber mat. It’s the same logo and it’s actually the Qi wireless smartphone charging system, which is really cool. My iPhone doesn’t support it without a special case, but if you are lucky enough to have a Qi-enabled phone, just laying it on that mat is sufficient for it be charging while you’re driving through the mountains (or to the store).
The Tacoma entertainment system was very nicely integrated into the car and easy to work with. Here you can see the default view of a map + stereo display (I’m listening to BBC World Service on XM satellite radio).
Let’s go back outside for another view of the truck’s exterior:
One thing that surprised and impressed me: in the owner’s manual are instructions about how to completely pop off the back tailgate, something that I expect would be quite useful if you’re hauling particularly big items. Of course, in this view you can also see the trade-off of the extra cab space: The truckbed itself is definitely smaller and shorter than on a more traditional pickup design.
And yet it doesn’t offer a huge amount of room in the back. I’m a tall guy, and when I had the driver’s seat pushed back to where I was comfortable driving the vehicle, well, let’s just say that the back passenger would need to have pretty slim legs or sit cross-legged to be comfortable:
Still, most vehicles have this problem. It’s kind of the airplane seat issue and if needed, I could have moved the driver’s seat up 6-inches or more to help out. The back seats fold completely down too, by the way, so if you’re just hauling stuff inside your truck you can sidestep the space issues completely.
And finally, the dashboard and fuel efficiency:
20.8 mpg on average wasn’t too bad at all for a truck. In fact, I drive it more fuel efficiently than most, because when Toyota dropped off the truck for my week’s driving, the fuel economy was 18.3 mpg, so I improved its overall stats!
Now I’ve complained about the complexity of the 4×4 off road features and controls, but they didn’t much bother me as someone just driving on city streets. What I did find disappointing in the 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD off road 4×4 was that the engine just felt underpowered. The truck had a 3.6L V6 engine with 278hp and a 6-speed automatic transmission, but after driving the powerful Toyota Avalon Hybrid, it felt like I really had to “put the pedal to the metal” to accelerate enough to get onto the highway safely.
That was really the only thing I didn’t like about my trucker experience, however. Otherwise the experience of driving a big, bright orange truck was quite fun and the vehicle got a lot of attention from people, lots of questions in parking lots, and with its “Inferno” orange, it’s impossible to lose track of even in a big lot. It’s comfortable to drive and has more controls than you can shake a stick at, and if you are an offroader, once you figure out all the controls and features, you’ve got your perfect post-apocalypse vehicle that’ll be able to drive over and around obstacles that’ll stop everyone else in their tracks!
The 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD offroad 4×4 with Premium & Technology Package. MSRP: $37,610.
Disclosure: Toyota loaned me the Tacoma for the purposes of this writeup.