Ever since Toyota's little truck was actually little, it has earned a strong reputation for rock-solid reliability and tough, capable off-road performance. When it became the Tacoma, that reputation -- and the size of the truck -- grew. The Tacoma has a fantastic resale value, earning the top spot in Kelley Blue Book's Best Resale Value Awards. It dominates sales in its segment -- the current generation of Toyota's midsize pickup makes up about half of all midsize pickup sales. But as new competition comes to the segment, and the Tacoma continued to age, it was time for an upgrade. And it got a big one for 2016.

The Tacoma already had a solid foundation. Its frame is tough enough to handle fairly serious off-roading, and the truck manages to have a nice balance of being easy to park yet offering enough room to carry five passengers and gear. Toyota retained the same frame design, using more high-strength steel, a move that reduced weight while increasing rigidity. The wheelbase is the same, but the truck is longer and wider. Toyota took advantage of the new dimensions to improve interior packaging, increasing leg-, shoulder and hip room in the Access and Double Cabs.

Also: Class of 2016 -- New Cars Ready to Roll

New look

The Tacoma's cool new look was inspired by Toyota's off-road race truck heritage. While it still has visual cues that align with previous Tacomas, the new muscular, bold style sets it apart. LED daytime running accent lights are available and there are four wheel and tire combinations, ranging from 16- to 18-inch, and eight exterior colors, three of which are new.

We started our drive in the 2016 Tacoma by taking it on the roads near Tacoma, Washington. Our Double Cab is powered by the new Atkinson cycle 3.5-liter V6 with direct and port injection (Toyota's D4S system), which has a self-cleaning feature to remove deposits from the high-pressure fuel injectors. The V6 uses an all-new 6-speed automatic transmission and puts out 278 horsepower, 42 more than the previous 4.0-liter V6 did (with a nominal reduction in torque). Fuel economy is considerably better (the best is an estimated 19 city/24 highway versus the best 2015 V6's 17 city/21 highway). Acceleration is strong and linear, and while mashing the throttle won't snap your head back, there is a clear improvement in power over the 2015 model. The V6 is also available with a 6-speed manual. The 2.7-liter I4, still with 159 horsepower and fuel economy of 19 mpg city/23 highway, carries over. Most 4-cylinder Tacomas will come with the 6-speed automatic, but a 5-speed manual is also available.

Changes to the suspension plus the tweaks to the frame make the 2016 Tacoma feel more planted and more stable on-road. Handling feels better, and the ride is comfortable and compliant. The brakes, still discs in front and drums in the rear, use an all-new braking system that has a confident and linear feel.

Cabin Fever

The interior is much quieter than in the previous Tacoma, courtesy of the new acoustic windshield and use of more sound deadening material. The only downside is that losing the distraction of cabin noise makes it easier to notice the sound of the tires on bad roads. The Tacoma has a fresh interior: there are higher-quality materials throughout, new gauges and multi-information display (you can see off-road settings, fuel economy and more here), and several new colors and materials choices, including available red weatherproof mesh inserts on the doors and dash on the SR5. However, whether you opt for the SR, SR5, TRD Sport, TRD Pro or Limited, you will not be getting power seats.

New convenience features set it apart from other midsize trucks. A rear tailgate camera comes standard, as does a handy (and easy-to-use) GoPro mount, located to the right of the rearview mirror. Options include pushbutton start, the first in a midsize truck, Qi wireless mobile device charging, dual-zone climate control, power moonroof and an updated version of Entune audio and apps. The Tacoma retains its hidden rear-seat storage: in the Double Cab, you can fold the bottom rear seat cushions forward, exposing the storage area. If you want a flat load space, pull the seatbacks down and you can haul bigger gear there.

Ready to Work

Toyota has made the Tacoma more capable and easier to use. The lockable tailgate is damped, so it opens quietly and with ease. A new lockable 3-piece hard tonneau cover is available. Buyers still have a choice of 5- or 6-foot beds, but the bed is now deeper, so it can accommodate more cargo. Both towing and payload capacities are higher, the former is now 6,800 pounds up from 6,500, while the latter is 1,620 pounds, up from 1,500.

Off-road, the highly capable Tacoma has new features that make trail rides less stressful. Ground clearance is now 9.4 inches at the rear axle, up a bit from 2015. Cool new optional features, such as Crawl Control, works with the 2-speed transfer case to make for fun forays into the backcountry. With this, you set the speed (always low), and the system controls engine and brake torque at each wheel. You don't touch the throttle or brake; Crawl Control takes care of it for you while you focus on steering. We used it on steep grades, both up- and downhill, and it worked beautifully. The new Multi-Terrain Select system, another first in a midsize truck, lets you choose the mode based on the ground you want to drive on, including loose rock, mud and sand, and rock.

Also: Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Awards of 2015

Tacoma vs. Colorado/Canyon

The new Tacoma doesn't make as dramatic a splash as the Colorado and Canyon did in 2015, but it doesn't have to. It was already a strong competitor; Toyota worked on what needed to be improved, making a relatively old truck new again, and even more competitive. When it comes to cross-shopping the three newest members of the midsize truck segment, buyers will discover each has different priorities. The Colorado and Canyon have interiors that are more like a small SUV or a crossover. They can tow a bit more; have better fuel economy and more horsepower in the I4 and V6. But the Tacoma offers fantastic resale value, tried-and-true reliability, excellent off-road prowess, better payload capacity and convenience and safety features that aren't available in the Canyon and Colorado.

When it goes on sale in September, pricing for the 2016 Tacoma will start at about $24,000 for the SR (the work truck), and the 4WD V6 Double Cab will start at around $38,000. People who like the current Tacoma will be thrilled with what Toyota has to offer.

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