2016 Toyota Tacoma: Suspension Breakdown in Death Valley
by Travis Langness, Automotive Editor
There's a big sticker on both sides of the bed of our long-term 2016 Toyota Tacoma. It says "TRD 4x4 OFF ROAD" in bold letters. It's impossible to miss, mounted high up on the bed. Yet, after just 6 miles on a washboard road in the desert, the high-performance Bilstein shocks on the rear of our Taco truck were toast. Oops.
In case you missed it, we took our long-term Honda Ridgeline to Death Valley and brought the Tacoma along for the ride. We wanted to see if the Ridgeline could survive a particularly tough washboard road that broke our first-gen Ridgeline oh-so-many years ago. We also wanted to see how the Tacoma would hold up since it's one of the Ridgeline's biggest rivals. Plus, the Tacoma has what the Ridgeline seemingly doesn't: bona fide off-road credibility.
Up front, the trip didn't seem massively daunting. We assumed the off-road Tacoma could handle a washboard section of unpaved road that led to a desolate dry lakebed. We'd see some cool self-moving rocks, take a few pictures and hopefully avoid popping any tires. What could possibly go wrong?
I was assigned the Tacoma. Just me and a few camping bags, plus some firewood in the bed. I followed Dan Edmunds, who drove our Honda Ridgeline, while Kurt Niebuhr followed both of us in the support truck, our Nissan Titan XD. And for a while, it was a fun drive. But after just a few miles, things got much worse. Instead of just having a rough ride, the Tacoma was bouncing in the rear big time. The tires weren't always touching the ground, and the rear of the truck seemed to be floating over certain surfaces. It was time to pull over.
At our first stop, just a few miles into the trip, both of the Toyota's rear shocks were blown out. Oil everywhere, no damping in the rear, and seriously excessive hopping over the washboard surface. Our prevailing theory (then and now) was that the Tacoma's rear shocks took an extra beating on this particular road because of the unsprung weight out back. There was a lot of bouncing, with a lot of weight in each bounce. This resulted in a lot of heat buildup in the shocks and eventually shock failure. This was a surprise coming from the resident off-roader, and it forced us to throttle back. We aired down all four tires, then continued the trip with an even more vigilant driving style. This "off-road" truck had been beaten by just a few miles of washboard road, and we didn't want to beat it up any further.
Eventually, we made it all the way to the Racetrack Playa and then back to paved ground. Nothing else on the Tacoma broke, but it was in bad shape. Every highway undulation felt like a brush with death. Big bumps meant big instability from the rear of the truck. Driving the Tacoma at this point was plain scary so we went to the nearest Toyota dealership, posthaste.
Here's a mildly dramatized version of the exchange that occurred at the dealership when we showed up with the truck, covered in dirt and dust:
Service writer: "Whoa, you took it off-roading. Cool!"
Edmunds editor: "Yeah, but both rear shocks are blown."
Service writer: "Oh, wow! But this is the TRD Off-Road version; it's got all the stuff. That shouldn't happen."
Edmunds editor: "Yup."
We gave the dealer a breakdown of what happened, leaving out the parts about how we were comparison-testing the truck and the fact that we were from Edmunds. We wanted the typical customer experience. Just the facts, sir: We took it on a dirt road, it broke, now we're here.
The dealer staff investigated, located the broken parts, made sure our truck was under warranty and began repairs. The shock cost was $160.26 for both rear shocks plus 0.6 hour labor at $120.50 per hour. Total cost with tax was $232.56, but it was covered under warranty so we paid zilch. Total of days out of service? One. Not bad.
We did notice an interesting bit of commentary on our service record: "Suspect possible outside influence but unable to confirm — one-time warranty repair for customer satisfaction." From that language, I would infer a couple things:
1. They don't believe our story about a simple dirt road pulverizing the rear shocks.
2. I'll need $232.56 if I blow up another pair of shocks — they won't cover this again.
Couple the service record with the technician's farewell warning to "be careful out there next time" and you've got a clear message from the dealership that it thinks we abused the truck or put it through some sort of special kind of torture. Despite the service writer's commentary in the write-up, the Tacoma's broken bits were the easiest to deal with. They came in the quickest, we had no trouble with the dealership, and we were back on the road in no time.
The other trucks, our long-term Honda Ridgeline and our long-term Nissan Titan XD, however, were not so drama-free. The Ridgeline took nearly a week to repair while the Titan took nearly a month. Both are particularly long stretches by the Toyota's standards. In the end, the message from all three trucks was pretty clear: Go 5 mph on the road to Racetrack Playa or be willing to pay the price.
Travis Langness, automotive editor @ 30,086 miles