On the 2016 Toyota Tacoma

Mike Sweers, chief engineer for the Toyota Tacoma mid-size pickup. He’s also the chief engineer for the Toyota Tundra full-size pickup. Yes, this is a man who knows a lot about engineering trucks.

This is the Tacoma TRD Sport model. The Tacoma has been the segment leader in mid-size pickups for years. One of the reasons is that many of the guys—yes, primarily males—who buy the trucks do so not because of what it can tow or haul, but what they can do with it banging it around off road.

The Tacoma is built in two plants: Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Texas (TMMTX) in San Antonio and Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Baja California (TMMBC) in Baja California, Mexico. What’s interesting to note is that at the Texas plant, the full-size Tundra pickup and the mid-size Tacoma are manufactured on the same line. (That’s not Texas in the background, nor is it Mexico. It is in Washington State . . . not far outside of Tacoma.)

You can try this at home (assuming you live out where there are sand dunes): The Tacoma is equipped with an array of electronic features, such as a Multi-Terrain Select system that regulates wheel spin by adjusting the throttle and brakes, Active Traction Control and Crawl Control (which takes over acceleration and braking, leaving the driver to steer while the Tacoma travels at a driver-selectable sped up to 5 mph). The truck literally drove itself (well, there was a driver behind the wheel who had to steer) out of this sand.

The last time we talked with Mike Sweers, back in the fall of 2013, he was heading up the Toyota Tundra program as chief engineer, based at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And when we encounter him again, in late summer of 2015, it’s as Sweers as chief engineer for the 2016 Toyota Tacoma, the company’s venerable midsize pickup.

Wait, you think. What’s this about venerable?

Consider it this way. The current Tacoma is 10-years old. According to Cooper Erickson, corporate manager, Toyota Vehicle Marketing & Communications, the usual thing to do with a vehicle that is so long in the tooth is to pile a whole bunch of incentive cash on the hood (or in the bed; there are 5-ft and 6-ft boxes available). This would particularly be the case when suddenly there are two brand-new entries in the midsize space, in the form of the Chevrolet Colorado and the GMC Canyon. But Erickson says that this is not the case. They’re straight-up selling Tacomas. And it is now, as it has been, the segment leader.

Segment leader as in having about half of the market. That is, through June 2015, U.S. deliveries of the Tacoma were 88,801, according to Autodata (motorintelligence.com). Colorado came in at 41,575, the Nissan Frontier at 34,805, and the GMC Canyon at 15,017. Which gives the Tacoma—older than any of its competitors—49.3% of the market.

So the new one is a long time coming. They went to work at the Calty design studios in Newport Beach, California, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. They went to work at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor. And they went to work at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Texas (TMMTX) in San Antonio and Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Baja California (TMMBC) in Baja California, Mexico.

And now your eight-hours of Zen:

Mike Sweers says that during the development of the Tacoma, he went to Japan to meet up with the Toyota Motor Corporation “master driver” who is the leading driver in all of Toyota when it comes to off-road driving.

There is only one off-road master driver in all of Toyota.

So, Sweers recalls, they went to a ranch five hours south of Toyota City to drive developmental vehicles. Sweers asked the master where the trailhead was. The master said, “Here.” It didn’t look like one to Sweers. “Where’s the trail?” The master pointed up the mountain and said, “Go.”

So Sweers climbed into the development truck.

Eight anxiety-ridden hours later . . .

That Zen-like experience notwithstand-ing, there is something that’s a little bit more earthy about the brief for the development of the 2016 Tacoma: in Sweers’ words, “Make it bad-ass.”

While most new product presentations would make it sound as though whatever vehicle it is was developed for a highly educated, reasonably affluent group of men and women, there is something different—significantly different—about the Tacoma.

Erickson says they’ve been “steadfast in our dedication to the midsize pickup” in the U.S. market. Realize that Ford dropped out; the Ram Dakota went out of production in 2011; GM dropped out for model years 2013 and 2014. But Nissan has stayed in the category.

Erickson says that the target market consists of young, adventure seeking males. He points out that more than 40% of Tacomas are TRD models—that’s as in “Toyota Racing Development,” which has been slamming the trucks in off-road activities for some 35 years. (For the 2016 Tacoma there are two TRD-designated models, the TRD Sport and the TRD Off-Road, and Erickson says they anticipate about 52% of sales of the ’16 models to be the TRD models.) Sweers says 45% of Tacoma owners go off-road.

The 2016 Tacoma is first in class offering a GoPro mount on the windshield.

And while the truck, when equipped with the V6 Tow Package, can tow up to 6,800 lb. per the SAE J2807 standard, and while when people talk about pickup trucks they generally are all about the cargo and towing capacities, when it comes to towing, Erickson says that comes in 22nd on the list of reasons for purchase for the Tacoma.

It’s more about what it can do off the road rather than what it can do on it.

So to that end, they’ve a suite of technologies specifically developed for off-roading. Such as a “Multi-Terrain Select” system that permits selecting terrain conditions (loose rock, mud and sand); wheel spin is regulated by throttle and brake pressure to achieve traction. There is a locking rear differential, hill-start assist, active traction control, and crawl control. 

There are two engines and two transmissions available for the 2016 Tacoma. There is a 2.7-liter four with a cast iron block and aluminum head that produces 159 hp @ 5,200 rpm and 180 lb-ft of torque @ 3,800 rpm. There is a 3.5-liter V6 Atkinson cycle (there is delayed intake valve closing in this cycle) engine that produces 278 hp @ 6,000 rpm and 265 lb-ft of torque @ 4,600 rpm.

Both engines can be mated to a new six-speed automatic. There are also two manuals available: a five-speed for the four-cylinder model and a new six-speed manual for the V6.

The V6 engine features what Toyota calls “D-4S” technology. This combines direct and port fuel injection. One advantage is that fuel is injected to the port, in the combustion chamber, either, or both, depending on engine temperature and operating demands. 
In addition, Sweers explains that a benefit of this approach is that because the direct injectors are in the combustion chamber, there is a tendency for carbon build-up on their exterior, not merely at the tip, but around the lower periphery. So each injector has a slot in its side. When the vehicle is at idle, the port injection can takeover, and the direct injectors are cleaned by closing off the tip of the injector, then shooting fuel through the side such that the carbon is removed via the heat of combustion. So the injectors are cleaned without any performance issue during engine operation.

Safety regulations had a whole lot to do with the engineering of the Tacoma. Sweers cites, for example, FMVSS 214, the dynamic side-impact protection regulation, FMVSS 216, roof-crush resistance, and Global Technical Regulation No. 9, pedestrian safety, as considerations for the way the vehicle was designed and built. And let’s not forget the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) star ratings.

So for one thing, they added some 93 mm to the length of the vehicle to accommodate crash management.

But the major change was the extensive use of high-strength and ultra-high-strength steels in the creation of the cab. This includes 270 MPa, 340 MPa, 440 MPa, 590 MPa, 980 MPa, and hot-stamped 1480 MPa, Toyota’s first application of that material. Sweers says, “We had to add mass to the truck to meet ratings and regulations, but we took the mass back down through the use of ultra-high-strength steel.” The weight between the 2016 and 2015 models is slightly changed: for example, a 4x2 Double Cab with a four-cylinder engine is 4,095 lb. for ’16 and 3,725 lb. for ’15.

Sweers addresses the issue of alternative materials like aluminum and magnesium by arguing that based on such factors and required sectional properties, steel is actually lighter in the application that the alternative materials would be.

And it is not like he is opposed to using alternative materials. For example, the bed features a composite inner deck made with sheet molded compound, as does the previous generation Tacoma (Sweers: “We surveyed the customers and found that one of the purchase reasons for the truck is its composite deck.”) He points out that they have to source the composite deck from a supplier. “If we made it out of aluminum or steel, we could make it ourselves,” he notes.

The front bumper is made out of aluminum. Sweers says this was done to meet pedestrian crash protection regulations. In fact, pedestrian crash also drove the height of the hood (a steel hood, incidentally, because, Sweers says, it is accommodated by the manufacturing process in the San Antonio plant, and the hood has been already characterized for pedestrian head impact, predicated on the analysis of 1,200 points on its surface), which is increased by 30 mm compared to the previous-generation model.

The rear bumper is long-glass fiber composite. Steers says it’s stronger than steel. It is a three-piece design so that should a section be damaged (although there is a standard rear-view camera for the Tacoma), it can be replaced. However, Steers says that there is a metal beam in the rear to accommodate the tow hitch.

There is no mistaking the 2016 Tacoma—there are 29 configurations including two cab types (extended Access Cab; four-door Double Cab), both with 4x2 and 4x4 setups, and five model grades—with being a truck. But this doesn’t mean that beefy and brawny is without attention to aero.

So they’ve reduced the coefficient of drag for the truck across the board, reducing it by about 23 lb. (depending on model, the Cd is from 0.385 to 0.389), or about 12% compared to the previous generation Tacoma, which is the greatest overall reduction in Toyota’s history, according to Mike Sweers. That said, they’ve maintained the approach angle of at least 29°. 

Apparently, some competitive trucks have an approach angle that’s comparable to that of a Camry. Which, in no one’s estimation, is “bad-ass.”