This post is a part of a series on How Today’s Cars Can Meet Tomorrow’s Standards
While pick-up trucks have actually lost marketshare to SUVs over the past 15 years, they remain a substantial and iconic part of the U.S. automotive landscape. Pick-ups are giant profit centers for the Detroit Three especially, and the top three vehicles sold in the United States are all pick-up trucks.
The Toyota Tacoma is the best-selling midsize pick-up in the country, and its assembly facility in San Antonio has been churning around the clock to push the vehicle to record sales earlier this year. However, new entrants to the midsize pick-up from Ford (the new Ranger) and Fiat-Chrysler (Jeep Gladiator) are going to up the pressure on Toyota to finally make some serious improvements to the vehicle, as the latest numbers show.
Here’s how Toyota can improve the next-generation Tacoma and meet the 2025 standards in the process.
The Tacoma has been running on fumes
Despite selling greater quantities of light trucks, Toyota has largely neglected making major powertrain advances in these vehicles, which is why our latest Automaker Rankings analysis showed their average fuel economy declined over the past few years.
For the 2016 model year, the Tacoma did receive a significant upgrade to its top-tier engine, replacing a 4.0L V6 that had been around since 2004 with a new 3.5L V6 that utilizes a part-time Atkinson cycle and combines port and direct injection for a solid mix of power and efficiency.
On the other hand, the baseline 2.7L I4 has remained largely unchanged for 15 years, with the only improvement being an upgrade in variable valve timing that now controls both the intake and exhaust valves, a change largely made to comply with tailpipe pollution regulations.
Both of these engines are paired with just a six-speed automatic transmission, despite Toyota offering 8-speed transmissions elsewhere in its light truck fleet and most of its competitors moving toward wider gear spreads as well (with the new Ford Ranger actually getting a 10-speed transmission).
Learn from your competitors
The Toyota Tacoma has continued to add weight over the years, glomming on features by the pound to stay relevant, and the beefier it gets, the more work the engine has to do to move just the truck around even without a payload. While this added weight may be nice for creature comforts, it negatively impacts both fuel economy and performance. One way to shed some pounds is to follow the strategy deployed by Ford in its F-150—go with an all-aluminum body. At the time, Ford was able to drop up to 700 pounds in some variants of the truck, and the Toyota Tacoma could see similarly incredible results. And with the next generation of the Tacoma sharing a platform with the larger Tundra pick-up, an investment in the Tacoma could be capitalized on for the Tundra as well, potentially increasing the capability and competitiveness of both Toyota pick-ups.
The Tacoma is riding on a frame that has been around for 15 years, based almost entirely on conventional steel, and the cab has only a small amount of high strength and ultra-high strength steels. A study from Transport Canada looked at lightweighting a 2014 Silverado, which has a similar mix of steels, and found opportunity for cutting nearly 20 percent of its weight, while meeting the latest safety tests. Scaled down for the smaller Tacoma but allowing for lack of full optimization due to the shared platform with the Tundra could mean the next generation Tacoma could shed over 600 pounds in some variants.
The compounding benefits of lightweighting
Cutting such a drastic amount of weight makes for further opportunity for downsizing—the baseline engine could be reduced from the current 2.7L inline-4 cylinder to the incredibly efficient Camry Dynamic Force 2.5L…yes, really. The current 2.7L makes just 159 hp and 180 ft-lbs. of torque compared to the Camry’s 203 hp and 184 ft-lbs. torque, and that torque is accessible at much lower engine speeds than the outgoing and outdated 2.7L. Combined with a much lighter truck, that results in a significant improvement in baseline capability while taking advantage of the new Toyota New Global Architecture (TNGA) strategy to trim the number of engines and increase platform sharing.
In a lighter truck, Toyota can stick with the 3.5L V6 thanks to both an increase in capability and increased opportunity for fuel reduction. One variant of the 3.5L V6 runs the Atkinson cycle over a greater range and employs a higher compression ratio, enabled by adding cooled exhaust gas recirculation to reduce knock, similar to the Camry engine. While the total power available is reduced somewhat, capability in the next generation Tacoma is matched because the truck is now significantly lighter.
Further augmenting the 3.5L V6 with the latest cylinder deactivation technology can help maintain efficiency at that sweet spot for most daily driving while allowing the full complement of power for when customers need that truck to act like it’s more than just a pretty face. This is the strategy used by both Ram and General Motors in their latest pick-ups—it’s only natural Toyota would also follow suit.
Toyota is behind but can seize the opportunity to get ahead
If you buy a pick-up these days, chances are it comes equipped with a stop-start system designed to save fuel when you’re not moving (because, duh)—the tech has been on the Ford F-150 for years, and now Fiat-Chrysler has improved upon it with its 48V e-Torque system, which improves the responsiveness of the motor and can also provide additional torque to the engine under certain conditions to keep it operating efficiently. With Toyota’s extensive experience in hybridization, moving to a 48V mild hybrid system would be a natural fit and help save its customers fuel in the process.
With all of these technologies, the 2025 Toyota Tacoma could take a tremendous step up from its current iteration. And, it would save drivers over $8500 in fuel over the lifetime of the vehicle. All of that makes you wonder—will Toyota finally up its truck game? Or is the company content to keep fighting for carve-outs and loopholes instead of improving its vehicles?
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