The Taco at 21k

It was November 2016, and I needed a vehicle. I was changing jobs, and the company compact SUV that I was driving would no longer be mine by the end of the year. After weeks of researching vehicles on the web and test driving a few different vehicles, I chose the 2016 Toyota Tacoma.

Everyone asks how you like your new car or truck when you first get it, but you’re typically not best equipped to answer that question until many miles and months later. While I was doing my research, the most valuable review information I sought were long-term road test reviews. Most reviewers, be they on noteworthy websites or YouTube channels, get limited time with their subject vehicles. That’s great for understanding some features and qualities of a car or truck, but there was little dedicated to driving these vehicles in the snow or creating a home base for a concert tailgate.

With that in mind, I thought it appropriate to give my impressions of my 2016 Tacoma and reflect on my experiences with it over the past 16 months and 21,000-plus miles.

Other Vehicles Considered and My Trim

I was pretty certain I wanted a pickup truck, though I had heard criticisms of the ride quality from some people. I researched and later test drove a mixture of SUVs and midsize pickups. Vehicles included the Jeep Renegade, Cherokee, and Grand Cherokee; the Nissan Frontier and Murano; the Honda CR-V; the Mazda CX-5; the Chevy Colorado/GMC Canyon, and both the 2015 and 2016 Toyota Tacoma.

Test driving the SUVs confirmed that I really did want a truck. Despite the concerns about ride quality, the Chevy/GMC model and the 2016 Tacoma both were among the smoothest trial rides I took. They stood apart in this regard from the 2015 Tacoma (which was largely unchanged from the 2005 model that represented the genesis of that body style) and the Nissan Frontier (which was a similarly unchanged and unimproved design).

With it narrowed down to the Chevy/GMC models and the latest Tacoma, I determined the must-have features I wanted: climate control, heated seats and a moonroof. All were available on the Colorado and the Canyon but I gave the nod to the Tacoma, which offered the heated seats without requiring leather (which seemed especially practical given that it’s a pickup truck and I could foresee myself doing yard work and moving activities in dusty clothes). The Tacoma I chose also came in slightly less expensive than the fully loaded GMC Canyon (whose styling I preferred over the cheaper-looking Colorado). There was also the fact that Toyota had a long track record of quality production, while GM had knowingly installed faulty ignition switches in their vehicles for ten years which would later be linked the deaths of at least 124 people. Sorry GM, but I prefer to do business with companies that actually give a damn if I die.

Having chosen the make and model, I had to pick a trim. Toyota offered a base trim, the SR5 (with some creature comforts), the Limited (an SR5 with leather seats, extra chrome accents, and the largest wheels), the TRD Sport, and the TRD Off-Road. I knew I wanted one of the latter two. The Sport featured a hood scoop and bigger wheels, while the Off-Road had the air deflector removed and kevlar tires for serious off-roading. I chose the Sport for it’s slight height advantage and more practical alignment with my needs. It was also a little less expensive than the Off Road.

I opted for a short bed with a crew cab. The extended cab might as well have not had seats in the back, as they weren’t very functional. Given that it would be my only means of transportation, and that I might want to haul groceries or other light goods that wouldn’t belong in the bed, the crew cab felt like the only way to go. As for the short bed, which measures five feet in length, it kept the truck just short enough to squeeze into normal parking spaces.

Features

One of the things I originally liked a lot about the Tacoma, and which has remained true to this day, is that the cabin is very comfortable and practical. There are four cupholders easily within reach of the drivers seat (great when you have water and coffee). The steering wheel feels solid but comfortable with its leather-wrap. The fabric of the seats is high quality and, surprisingly they’re heated (uncommon on vehicles without leather upholstery).

The center console is a combination of buttons, knobs and a touchscreen. The climate controls allow for precise temperature control. Pressing “Auto” always activates the A/C, which feels as though it’s pushing cool air into the cabin even during cold weather. It still warms the cabin eventually, but it never really blasts hot air unless the A/C button is pressed again (to turn it off) or unless the defroster is in use.

The touchscreen in the center controls the radio and all of the Entune applications, including the navigation system and apps the work in conjunction with one’s smartphone. Such apps include Facebook, OpenTable, MovieTickets.com, and Pandora. I make the most use of Pandora, although I’ve found that I prefer to run the app in my phone and play music via Bluetooth for maximum functionality.

While the phone integration works, it hardly distinguishes itself as special. Frustratingly, the truck and my phone collaborate to play random music that’s been purchased on iTunes when I choose Bluetooth audio. Maybe it’s my own ignorance, but I’ve never tried to put music on my phone, so I don’t know how it got there or how I can remove it. That’s an iPhone problem, though.

Several times I’ve started the truck and the audio system has not responded. The only remedy has been to turn the truck completely off, and then turn it back on. It’s aggravating, but given the rarity of this issue it’s a flaw I’m willing to live with. Beyond that, the system works well. The software and controls are fast and responsive.

One other great feature lies within the bed of the truck: a power outlet. It sounds random, but it’s fantastic when you’re tailgating and can fire up a blender with ease.

The Entune navigation system is deeply flawed, unfortunately. Routing from point A to point B can be a real head-scratcher, with the system choosing very indirect routes. This isn’t an issue in familiar places, but it presents a problem in unfamiliar territory. Once, the system even took me to a location that was fifteen minutes away from the address I entered. That’s a real disappointment. 

Driving Impressions

The Tacoma has impressed with its smooth ride quality. It feels less like a pickup and more like an SUV. I can’t speak to how the ride varies between trims, but in my TRD Sport the truck traverses even the bumpiest roads comfortably. That translates to a comfortable ride to and from work, and confidence if you have to transition from the pavement to the trail.

Snow was a big concern for me, given that I currently commute from the East Bay in Rhode Island to Mansfield, Massachusetts. The Tacoma is more than up to the task, thanks to its four-wheel-drive capabilities. Between the rotation of all four tires and the weight of the truck, even the slickest conditions aren’t a concern at reasonable speeds. Even in the standard rear-wheel-drive, the Taco is heavy enough to gain traction on relatively straight roads. Still, I prefer not to leave traction or control to chance in the snow.

Because of the truck’s weight, it requires more braking distance for sudden stops. It’s not something I prefer to test, but inevitably during driving there are times when an animal darts into the road or another vehicle stops unexpectedly.

Gas mileage is a concern. In an age of fuel efficient vehicles, the Tacoma averages about 21 MPG for me. Given my commute, that means filling up every five or so days. Gas prices are low so I can tolerate it, but if the price of fuel were to shoot up above three dollars per gallon, it would be very painful for my bank account.

The Tacoma is not a racing truck. It takes some time to accelerate and never feels like it’s going terribly fast—even when it’s at highway speeds. Maybe that just has more to do with the mass of the truck, which is substantially more than anything I’ve driven in the past. That mass makes it a little trickier to maneuver through thick traffic, as would be the case with any truck. The driving experience is substantially different from cars and even most SUVs.

Final Verdict

Since 2016, the market has changed little. The Chevy Colorado has additional trims available, though none are terribly impressive. The GMC Canyon remains a somewhat uncommon sight on the road, given that it’s price tag puts it at about the same cost as a full size truck. The Tacoma has a new trim called the TRD Pro, which combines the styling of the Sport with the Off-Road’s enhanced… err… off-roading capabilities. It starts at about $40,000, though, which makes it too rich for my tastes at the moment.

Honda has also released the Ridgeline, which is unique in the pickup market. Whereas most smaller pickups have 5′ or 6′ beds, the Ridgeline splits the difference. The tailgate can open sideways or fold down, and the bed is loaded with extra storage. Unfortunately, the styling is more comparable to the new Pilot, which I don’t really enjoy. It’s a shame, too, because I believe that Honda’s quality is superb for the price. Some people won’t mind the softer styling, but I prefer that my truck looks the part.

So would I purchase the same truck again, a year-plus and over 21,000 miles later?

You’re damn right I would.

It’s been a true pleasure to drive, and it’s the perfect size for my lifestyle and how I use it. I’ve helped people with moving and hauled as much as was necessary. The crew cab has been the perfect fit for me and my needs. Winter driving has never been easier. I still love the look of the truck, too. It looks the part when pulling up to a valet at a nice restaurant just as much as it does running errands to Lowe’s or Stop & Shop. The gas mileage is a concern, but so long as gas remains cheap, I can live with it.

Who knows when I’ll need my next vehicle. I’m hoping the purchase of a Toyota will mean I don’t have to worry about that for a while. When the time comes to look into a new vehicle, the Tacoma will warrant consideration again. Until then, I’ll drive with the confidence that I chose the right truck for me.

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