The idea of the off-road vehicle is by no means new, but it used to be that people that wanted to go bouncing around in sand dunes, crawling through canyons or racing through the desert would basically have to build their own. Aside from the Jeep Wrangler and its predecessors, almost no factory-built truck had real serious off-road capability. However, in the past decade we’ve seen automakers go from building hot-rod trucks like the Chevy Syclone, Ford F-150 Lightning and Dodge Ram SRT-10 to more serious off-roaders like the F-150 SVT Raptor and this Toyota Tacoma TRD Off-Road.
Toyota’s long-running Tacoma was completely redesigned last year as a 2016 model just as the midsize pickup segment is starting to gain some momentum again after a long fallow period. The Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon have been surprisingly successful as has Nissan’s Frontier. After long deriding the smaller trucks, Ford appears ready to finally give in and launch its global Ranger pickup into the North American market in the next couple of years. With more than 79,000 sales through May of 2016, the Tacoma outsells, the full-size Tundra by a wide-margin. This is clearly a potential market too large for Ford to ignore and when the Ranger does return to America, it’s a safe bet we’ll see a little brother for the Raptor as well.
Until then, the market will have to make do with the Tacoma TRD Off-Road and the upcoming 2017 TRD Pro. The TRD Off-Road is three form factors, the extended cab with the longer six-foot bed and the four-door double-cab with either the long bed or the shorter five-foot bed. Oddly for a purported off-road vehicle, this Tacoma is actually offered in rear-wheel-drive form for poseurs, but presumably anyone that wants to go rock crawling will get the four-wheel-drive. Surprisingly, the truck is also available with a six-speed manual transmission in lieu of the standard automatic gearbox. My test truck had the short-bed, double-cab and manual transmission.
Every off-road Tacoma is powered by Toyota’s 3.5-liter V6 tuned to run on an Atkinson cycle. This is a rather unusual configuration because the Atkinson cycle is only utilized with hybrid configurations because the shorter compression stroke hurts the overall torque production. In a hybrid, the strong low-speed torque of the electric motor fills the engine’s inherent torque deficit while still getting the efficiency benefit of the Atkinson cycle.
Despite the lack of the hybrid system, Toyota has compensated by using its so-called D4-S injection system. This setup combines both port and direct injection on each cylinder along with a higher than usual 11.8:1 compression ratio. The result is 278-horsepower and 265 lb.-ft. of torque although the latter peaks at relatively high 4,600 rpm. With a curb weight of nearly 4,500-pounds performance is adequate, but you definitely wouldn’t consider this a performance truck of the Raptor variety. While performance is adequate, fuel economy is mediocre. The EPA rates the 4×4 manual transmission Tacoma at 17 mpg city, 21 mpg highway and 19 mpg combined. During my week with the truck I saw about 16 mpg, well shy of what I’ve seen with most full-size trucks in the past year and only beating the Tundra by 1 mpg.
What sets the Off-Road apart from other Tacomas is the suspension setup, slip control and drivetrain. The multi-terrain select system lets the driver choose different calibration sets for the slip control (ABS, traction control and stability control) to optimize for different surfaces like mud, sand and loose gravel. An auto-locking differential, hill-start assist and crawl control that helps the driver control the vehicle at speeds below 5 mph work in conjunction with a suspension setup with extra wheel travel and taller tires.
I didn’t do any real off-roading, but on some bumpy dirt roads, the Tacoma was much better controlled than it was on regular pavement. The same suspension compliance gives the Tacoma to traverse rough terrain makes the body move around a lot more when driving on the road than most other modern vehicles. Overall, it felt under-damped with more pitch and body roll than I expected. There also seemed to be more drivetrain lash when shifting the somewhat notchy gearbox. If you don’t actually plan to use the Tacoma off the beaten path, you should probably choose one of the other trim levels for a more stable on road ride.
My test truck was equipped with the optional hard tonneau cover, towing package and the premium and technology package. That package brings dual zone climate control, heated front seats, moonroof, navigation and blindspot monitoring. The rear-drive Tacoma TRD Off-Road starts at $31,125 while my tester stickered at $36,630 including delivery. If you’re really looking for the optimal off-road capable Tacoma, you might actually want to wait for the 2017 TRD Pro model that launches this fall with an even beefier suspension setup but we don’t yet have pricing on that one.