2016 Toyota Tacoma: Racetrack Road Revisited
by Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing
The time has come to hopefully put this whole 2016 Toyota Tacoma TRD-Off shock absorber business in our rearview mirror. But first, let's recap for those who came in late.
In May 2017, we got the idea to drive to Racetrack Playa in Death Valley in our 2016 Honda Ridgeline. We brought the Tacoma along in support, but it took center stage after its rear shock absorbers failed spectacularly not even one-quarter of the way through the 54-mile round trip on this established dirt road.
The puny Toyota-developed Bilstein 36 mm (internal piston diameter) shock absorbers were no match for the admittedly severe washboard surface. We decided to upgrade to something more suitable for continuous travel on such terrain and installed Bilstein 6112 front (60 mm) and 5160 rear (46 mm with remote high-capacity oil reservoir) shock absorbers.
We were pretty certain these upgraded shocks would survive the trip, but we had to go back to Racetrack Road in Death Valley to confirm this hypothesis. This time we brought along a different support truck, our 2017 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 diesel. And to keep the conditions as similar as possible, we went back in the fall to avoid the summer heat. The weather was clear and the temperature 75 degrees, about the same as it was on our previous visit.
This road is deceptively bad, even though it is graded and appears on park maps. There are interpretive signs at the beginning near Ubehebe Crater and at the destination at Racetrack Playa. But this is Death Valley. It almost never rains. The interval between successive road grader visits is measured in years.
The washboard doesn't look all that bad, but then corrugated roads never look as rough as they feel. This particular surface has no give, and the substrate is coarse and embedded with countless small rocks. The troughs are a little deeper than average, too. And when you measure the distance from crest to crest and divide that into 54 miles, you get something like a quarter-million cycles.
Shock absorbers get a real workout out at Racetrack Playa, and the slender 36 mm factory units simply didn't have enough oil volume and surface area to absorb and expel the tremendous heat generated by the relentless hammering.
The result with the Bilstein 60 mm front and 46 mm remote reservoir rear dampers couldn't have been more different. In a word, they were flawless.
Editor Josh Sadlier and I started out at the same 25 mph we'd set as our target speed the last time, and right away the altered Tacoma felt more poised and less skittish. The washboard still came through, but the shaking inside the cabin was far less violent. The upgraded shock absorbers neatly absorbed a good deal of the shock and made the trip far more enjoyable.
As we had before, we pulled over at the 11-mile mark. But there was no real reason for this other than to replicate the first trip by stopping where we'd first noticed the failure of the original shocks. The Tacoma's new shocks were certainly quite warm to the touch, but only to the degree we expected. There was nothing approaching the intense heat that led to the melted boots and burst seals of the original parts. We swapped trucks and continued on, but since nothing was amiss we decided against diminishing our speed or even reducing the air pressure in the tires as we had before.
A brisker pace brought us to Teakettle Junction before we knew it, and we had no choice but to stop for the obligatory picture. The shocks looked and felt the same as they had before. We swapped trucks once more and pressed on.
The surface gets sandier as the road skirts around the edge of Racetrack Playa. There are fewer embedded stones, but the washboard is deeper and nastier. The Tacoma didn't seem to care. The corrugations still came through, but my water bottle wasn't trying to jump out of the cupholder. We arrived at the parking area much sooner and far less harried than we had last time, and we had time to wander a bit farther out onto the Playa.
The 27-mile return trip to Ubehebe Crater was uneventful. We stopped a couple of times to switch drivers and each time the shocks looked and felt the same. There was no sign of heat buildup or degradation in performance. The Bilstein 6112-5160 shock absorber combination had Racetrack Road covered.
We arrived back at the paved Ubehebe Crater parking lot much after shaving a full hour off the previous trip's driving time. The mechanical consequences of driving this road at a reasonable pace never once factored into the journey, which is how an off-road package ought to behave.
You may be wondering about the ZR2 at this point. After all, it went everywhere the Tacoma had gone, and at the same speed. Thing is, both of us preferred the off-road ride quality of the Tacoma. The ZR2 didn't exactly disappoint, but it didn't feel quite as buttoned-down and tidy. "Skittish" is almost the right word, but it wasn't as bad as that sounds. The steering also felt more vague and distant.
There's no question the ZR2 is a badass off-road package, and its trick Multimatic shocks certainly have the heat capacity for this kind of washboard surface. But the ZR2's shocks are fine-tuned to deliver a smooth paved-road ride, too. Washboard dirt roads are a thing unto themselves, so this may be why it doesn't feel quite as unflappable out here as the Tacoma with the Bilstein 6112-5160 aftermarket shock upgrade.
Our Tacoma TRD Off-Road is about to leave the fleet, but we can now send it off on a high note. Meanwhile, the ZR2's term is just beginning, and this first trip to the Racetrack is giving us ideas about what to do with it next.
Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing @ 38,693 miles