A tale of two trucks: performance starts from the ground up

Never before has it been so important to pay attention to which truck package was tested when you read a review.

For example, take the 2016 Toyota Tacoma.

I first drove the Tacoma TRD (Toyota Racing Department) as part of a test of small trucks for the Canadian Truck King Challenge.

The challenge is designed to test new trucks in a work environment, which means working with loads and while towing and looking at how the cabs are laid out for workers and private use.

In this case, the Tacoma was equipped with the TRD package, which is basically a large-tired, sporty truck with lots of bells and whistles.

So far so good, right?

Well, 2016 is the year of major changes for the Tacoma. Not all of the changes to the interior met with my approval, but that was minor to what happened with the rest of the test.

The truck was comfortable, although I found the seat cushion to be a bit short for my legs and too close to the floor for my liking. My legs were stretched out a bit more than I like, and the throttle pedal was at an awkward angle. Others didn’t find this to be a problem.

It was a nimble truck when empty, at home on pavement, off pavement and off road. Acceleration, thanks to a 3.5 litre, 278 horsepower V-6 and a six-speed automatic, was impressive.

Of course, the Tacoma also had four-wheel drive to keep off-road sojourns interesting.

However, chinks in the TRD package started to appear when the truck was hooked up to a trailer loaded to 50 percent of rated towing capacity and a tongue weight of 350 pounds. Everything was fine at city speeds, but the Tacoma started to squirm and move about a bit in the lane when the truck moved up to highway speeds on pavement. It wasn’t enough to be dangerous but enough to be noticeable and make me uncomfortable.

Then there was stopping.

Stopping on pavement was attention getting because it amplified the squirm, although everything seemed normal when on gravel because I expected it to move a bit, and it did. Compared to the other trucks in class, this was most unsettling.

Needless to say, the Tacoma didn’t do well at this event.

Three weeks later, I was in a different Tacoma at a testing session for the Canadian Automobile Journalist’s Association of Canada’s Canadian Car and Utility Vehicle of the Year event. This time the Tacoma was a normal tired truck, and there was no loaded testing.

However, there was some serious off-road testing.

I managed to put my foot well into my mouth before the testing began when I told the head engineer of the Tacoma program that the truck was a piece of (you fill in the blanks) and proceeded to tell him how poorly the truck had done at the Truck King Challenge.

He was polite, but the public relations representative who was with him was aghast at my comments. I haven’t been invited to a Toyota event since.

I drove a non-TRD equipped normal truck at the vehicle of the year event.

The dash had the same basic shape, but it wasn’t as garish. I still didn’t like the seating position, but the truck was great on all the roads I tried, including some seriously crappy ones caused by two days of intense rainfall with small rivers flowing down the middle. I did my session on our medium serious off-road section when the rain quit, and the end result was that the Tacoma won its class.

It took me a couple of months to figure out why the Tacoma did so poorly in one testing program and so well in another.

At first I thought of the methodology: loaded vs. unloaded and power train differences. Then I got to one item in the TRD package that makes a huge difference: the tires.

The TRD package allows for an optional tall off-road type tire that is great for hauling a kayak, cooler and a tent through the trails to secluded camping spots while looking cool.

The Tacoma equipped with regular tires looked boring, but it could do about 80 percent of the off-road stuff, plus it could do 100 percent of the towing stuff and inspire confidence while doing so. That one little tire glitch probably cost Toyota top honours at the Canadian Truck King Challenge.

It would appear that someone at one of the events didn’t think to check the option sheet against what the truck was supposed to do. It was an expensive lesson for Toyota, and all I can say is I hope you all learn from it.

Now I have to apologize to an engineer. His truck is pretty darn good.

Charles Renny is an automotive columnist and a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada.

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