Payne: The Toyota Tacoma off-road assault vehicle

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I’m confused. I just spent a day flogging a Toyota Tacoma pickup and I can’t wipe the grin off my face.

Yes, Toyota. That manufacturer of the best auto appliances — and cures for insomnia — in the business. Camry, Corolla, RAV4, Avalon. Reliable, competent, dependable. And as exciting as vanilla. There are exceptions to be sure — like the Scion FR-S sports car which I’d take over a lifetime free pass to Cedar Point.

But then the FR-S is a Scion because Toyota self-consciously created a youth brand to try to pep up its somnolent reputation. Toyota is very aware of its, um, personality deficiency. Like Al Gore cracking a joke, its efforts to appear fun can come across as strained. Take current ads suggesting that the new Camry is so spontaneous it’ll drive you to crash weddings and elope with the bride. Please.

So how to explain the Tacoma? A rock ’em, sock ’em, youthful, off-road toy that is to pickups what the Jeep is to sport utes.

When Baja 1000-veteran Chief Engineer Mike Sweers calls the Tacoma a “bad ass” truck no one snickers. Tacoma comes by its reputation the old-fashioned way: It earned it. Turn the clock back to the ’80s when off-road racing legend Ivan Stewart joined Toyota on his way to winning a record 17 Baja 500s and 3 Baja 1000s in the roughest, readiest tests of trucks. It continues today with Toyota segment innovations like crawl control and a 32-degree front attack angle.

If Jeep did a pickup it would be the Tacoma. Indeed, when Sweers & Co. invited the media to check out its newest creation they did it the Jeep way: They took us to a terrifying off-road course (near Tacoma, Washington, natch).

Black Diamond is an old mining town surrounded by steep hills and deep hollows. Like black diamond ski slopes, they’re not for the amateur truck. Forty-degree inclines, jagged rock quarries, snake-like gravel roads.

I started Toyota’s obstacle course on a 41-degree incline called Double-Drop Hill. If I had my druthers, your road-racing scribe would rather be racing at 170 mph across a 30-plus degree incline — say, Daytona’s 31-degree bankings — than off-roading straight up it at 5 mph. But it’s no less harrowing. So steep is Daytona’s banking that all you see out the front windshield is a wall of asphalt. To actually see where you’re going, you actually have to look out the side window.

Ascending at 41 degrees is a learning experience, too. Any truck with hill descent will help you brake down a slope, but going up is another matter. All you can see at that angle is the sky (and flags that you/your spotter have planted along the path). Leave the rest to Tacoma’s crawl control system which takes over the brakes and accelerator to get you to the top. I felt like Spiderman scaling the Empire State Building. Tacoma is that solid.

And that unique. No other mid-size pickup can accomplish such feats.

Which is a good thing for Toyota because its hold on midsize trucks is under assault from Detroit’s biggest truck armies. While the full-size segment has been a raging war between Ford, Chevy, GMC, Toyota, and Nissan, the midsize front has been strangely peaceful. Chevy’s Colorado and GMC’s Canyon got out in 2011 — as did Ford’s Ranger — leaving the spoils to Tacoma and a few scraps for Nissan’s Frontier. But as you may have noticed from the glassware tinkling in your cupboards, the GM makes have unleashed a full-scale artillery assault to retake the pickup segment. Call it P-Day.

The Colorado and Canyon are formidable players with tomb-quiet interiors, Olympic strength, and competitive pricing.

The Yanks have turned the tables on their Japanese competitor by offering the most cost-competitive vehicles at a $20,995 (for Colorado, $21,880 for Canyon) — significantly undercutting the Tacoma’s $24,200 base price — itself a $2,335 jump over the 2015 model. What’s more, the Detroit boys come at the homely Toyota with dazzling facias and best-in-class fuel economy and towing numbers.

This two-front war goes to the heart of the segment’s traditional demographics: Budget-conscious, 20-something male adventurers and comfort-minded 50-somethings who want to downsize from full-size pickups the size of Rhode Island.

Game on. GM’s challenge forced the aging, decade-old Tacoma back to the lab to produce its best truck ever. To counter the GM twins’ superior looks and performance numbers, Tacoma offers go-anywhere, run-forever endurance.

At the bottom of Double-Drop Hill, I toggled off crawl control which hands me back full control of the vehicle. I floor the 278-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 — a smooth, gem of an engine — creating rooster tails of dust as I bomb along the gravel trials. The fun doesn’t diminish on public roads where the TRD Sport’s suspension checks body roll.

Gone is the old Tacoma’s noisy cabin. Responding to the Detroiters’ hushed interiors, Tacoma upped its game too, surrounding me in a cocoon of acoustic glass and sealed joints to record a claimed best noise/vibration/harshness spec (NVH) in class. The build quality is superb. No squeaks, no rattles despite the off-road punishment. I bark at the navigation system and she understands every word. Nice. A truck that assaults the trails, then finds the quickest road home for dinner. Cabin amenities are familiar to Toyota owners — though again Tacoma dances to its own tune with bright, Jeep-like trim molds in the Sport model.

When you have the tools for the job, it breeds confidence. And confidence breeds personality. I like this Toyota.

Like Jeep, that personality brings swagger. At Black Diamond Toyota names its final obstacle the Devil’s Boneyard — a sinister rock quarry that the pickup’s 32-degree attack angle and extensive skid-plating tackles with ease. Try that in the handsome, 17-degree-attack-angle Canyon and it won’t be handsome for long.

Tacoma’s off-road obsession sacrifices looks. The 2016 is an improvement over its homely predecessor. But its blunt front end will win no beauty contests. It’s a bulldog compared to the GM’s golden retrievers.

The Detroiters’ are on-road work trucks. The Tacoma begs to go to oblivion and back. Throw your dirt bikes into the rugged, composite sheet-lined bed. Tie them down with sliding cleats. Bury the rear axles in mud and sand, the drum brakes won’t mind.

Which makes for a dilemma. Buy the GMC Canyon to tow your Scion FR-S to the race track? Or claim a Tacoma to have as much fun off-road as the FR-S gives you on-road?

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com and Twitter @HenryEPayne. Or see all his work at HenryPayne.com.

2016 Toyota Tacoma

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear and four-wheel-drive, five-passenger pickup

Price: $24,200 base (TRD Sport AWD model tested starts at base $33,850; Limited model starts at $38,720)

Power plant: 2.7-liter in-line 4-cylinder; 3.5-liter V-6

Power: 159 horsepower, 180 pound-feet of torque (4-cyl); 275 horsepower, 268 pound-feet of torque (V-6)

Transmission: Five-speed manual or six-speed automatic

Performance: Payload: 1,120 pounds; Towing capacity: 6,400 (with prep package)

Weight: 4,445 pounds (4WD double cab as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 19 mpg city/22 mpg highway/20 mpg combined (4-cyl 4WD); EPA 18 mpg city/23 mpg highway/20 mpg combined (V-6 4WD)

Report card

Highs: Go anywhere attitude; hushed interior

Lows: Base price sticker shock; gas mileage barely better than full-size truck


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

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