RASPBERRY, Ark. -- A bumpy unpaved trail winding up granite-crusted hills in the pine-clad Ozarks of Arkansas serves as our real-world track to test the substantial off-road manners on a new rendition of Toyota's Tacoma TRD Off-Road mid-size truck.
The new treatment for Tacoma -- packing new engines and transmissions, revised and retuned suspensions, beefy exterior styling and fresh cabin designs -- appears in Toyota's 2016 line with two cab configurations, two powertrain choices with rear-wheel 2-wheel-drive (2WD) and 4-wheel-drive (4WD) traction for 29 models based on five trim designations: The work-ready SR, upscale SR5, athletic TRD Sport, rugged TRD Off-Road and cushy Limited.
Tacoma's two TRD grades draw styling points from Toyota Racing Development experience in desert off-road races such as the Baja 1000 in Mexico.
The 2016 editions of Tacoma seem athletic and muscular from chiseled sheetmetal styling with an elevated hood, fat-lip front bumper and bold hex grille ringed in chrome and flanked by narrow corner headlight clusters with projection-beam lamps and optional LED daytime running lights.
Note that flank fender wheel flares have been squared-off to allow greater wheel travel and project the high-lift image of a desert racing truck.
The 29 different configurations for 2016 Tacoma issues are rooted in two different cabin designs -- the extended-length Access Cab with dual rear-hinged access doors mounted behind the front-hinged front doors plus flip-flat rear jump seats with under-seat storage, and the Double Cab with four conventional front-hinged doors and a full-size back seat fitting three riders.
Tacoma Access Cab carries a truck box in back that extends to 73.7 inches long.
The Double Cab offers two box lengths with the 73.7-inch bed or a brief version measuring 60.5 inches.
Deck and walls of the truck box contain composite sheet-molded compound (SMC) that's lighter than steel yet stronger and more durable. The box has a 2-tier system for loading cargo and rails with adjustable tie-down cleats plus an optional 120V/400W powerpoint. The rail system also works with Toyota accessories, such as cargo bed cross bars, a fork-mount bike rack or diamond-plate storage box.
All Tacoma models are equipped with a coil-spring double wishbone front suspension with stabilizer bar and leaf spring rear suspension with staggered outboard-mounted gas shocks. Tacoma TRD Sport models score sport-tuned shocks while TRD Off-Road models get an off-road-tuned suspension with Bilstein shocks.
Brakes are power-assisted ventilated front discs and rear leading-trailing drums with a tandem booster. The standard Toyota Star Safety System adds Vehicle Stability Control (VSC), Traction Control (TRAC), Anti-lock Braking System (ABS), Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD), Brake Assist (BA), and Smart Stop Technology (SST).
Tacoma 4WD models employ Toyota's 4WDemand part-time 4WD mechanism with an electronically controlled transfer case and automatic limited-slip differential.
Tacoma TRD Off-Road edition also has a Multi-Terrain Select device to manage the 4WD system. Driver selects a terrain setting -- rock, mud, sand -- and the mechanism automatically regulates wheel spin by adjusting throttle and brake pressure to deliver maximum tire traction. Also included is Toyota's CRAWL controller, which works with the transfer case set in low range regulating engine speed and output as well as brakes to send the vehicle forward or backward at a low speed.
Powertrains to motivate Tacoma begin with the entry-issue engine, a dual-cam 2.7-liter 4-in-line plant consisting of an iron block with aluminum alloy heads and Toyota's intelligent variable valve timing (VVT-i). The 4-cylinder engine produces 159 hp at 5200 rpm with torque of 180 lb-ft at 3800 rpm. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard with 4WD, but a new 6-speed electronic automatic is available for 2WD and 4WD.
Toyota's new 3.5-liter Atkinson cycle V6 engine is also on tap for Tacoma, pumping 278 hp at 6000 rpm and 265 lb-ft at 4600 rpm. Transmissions for the V6 upgrade to a 6-speed manual or the 6-speed electronic automatic.
MSRP figures for 2016 Tacoma models stretch from $23,300 (SR/Access Cab/2.7/AT6/2WD) to $37,820 (Limited/Double Cab/3.5/AT6/4WD).