Q+A with 2016 Toyota Tacoma Chief Engineer Mike Sweers

Toyota's newest midsize truck.

Mike Sweers is the chief engineer for both the Toyota Tacoma and Tundra, and he's also the vice president of engineering design at Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We sat down with Sweers to learn more about the 2016 Toyota Tacoma introduced at this week's Detroit auto show.

AUTOMOBILE: What vehicles did you benchmark during the development of the new Tacoma?
SWEERS: We looked at all the vehicles in the segment, including the new ones coming. So, [Chevrolet/GMC] Colorado/Canyon, [Nissan] Frontier, and [Honda] Ridgeline. We looked at full-size trucks, as well. We then went out and looked at the market differences. The customer for a compact or midsize truck is completely different compared to a full-size customer.

A: What is carried over from the previous Tacoma in this new truck?
S: Not much. Maybe a seatbelt bracket! The base frame has been modified. The base frame rail design is similar but it's not carryover. The body shell and body structure are new. For the structure, we use hot-stamped steel.

A: The midsize pickup truck market is far more competitive today. How will the 2016 Toyota Tacoma grow sales and stay competitive in this "new" market?
S: It's an interesting question because I can't grow sales; I can't produce any more trucks. We're at capacity; we're running over capacity. To protect that, we're excited about the new market, the new competition in the market. Simply saying, we think the market is going to grow with it. People coming back in, etc. Having GM back in is a good thing for the market.

What we did is we went out and talked to our customers and we talked to competitor customers. Right now, [the Tacoma is] over 60 percent of the market share. Keeping our present customer base is important. Things you see on the new truck are direct reflections of what the customer is asking for. In this market segment, QDR [quality, durability, and reliability] is the number one purchase reason. That's different from a full-size truck. This is a lifestyle truck. It's really the image for the customer that's selling the truck. We see customers putting a lot of cash into their truck after they leave the dealership, to modify and personalize the truck. From the styling right down to the features, that's reflective of what we heard from the customers. It's what they want their truck capable of doing based upon the image of the truck for them.

A: What are you most proud of on the new 2016 Toyota Tacoma?
S: The truck itself has been an awesome project. I think when we look at the technology in it, especially the body shell technology, there is a lot of engineering put forth to meet all the requirements and keep mass at a minimum. Now, a customer never sees any of that. What they see is this really badass truck with a really great interior on the inside. And, of course, the capability.

If you asked me this question while we were in the truck, I'd say the four-wheel-drive system is incredible. It's truly a lifestyle truck and truly aimed at the buyer who is active. Our customers are more active than our competitor customers. If you've never driven with Crawl Control, it's just awesome. This is the latest generation version.

A: You still offer a manual transmission on both engines, and with both rear- and four-wheel drive.
S: Yes. It's what the customer asked for. The true off-road guy wants a manual transmission.

A: What is Toyota's stance on diesel engines for the U.S. pickup truck market?
S: I can't talk about what we're doing in the future but, in this market, diesel is an interesting offering. Of course, with a diesel engine fuel economy is 30 percent better right out of the box. The difficulty with the diesel is LEV III [emissions standards]. The difficulty is the cost-to-benefit relationship. Everybody loves diesel in trucks. The downside is the after-treatment systems can add $3,000 or more. It starts becoming cost prohibitive, especially in this segment, to pay a premium for both the engine and after-treatment system. That's the struggle we have. We build a lot of diesel trucks, just not in this country. If I develop a diesel system for our country and I spend a huge amount of money to do that, I won't see a return on the investment. That's what we've struggled with.

A: But you'll be watching GM's midsize truck diesel sales?
S: Absolutely. But diesel is over $1 a gallon more that gasoline right now. You'd think that would affect the full-size truck market sales but it hasn't. But that's a full-size truck customer, who is different from a midsize customer. Our compact or midsize customer is asking for better fuel economy, which I could give them with a diesel. But are they willing to pay the price?

A: Ford has a "One Ford" strategy to sell one product globally, but Toyota keeps the Hilux and Tacoma pickup trucks separate. Why?
S: The Toyota Hilux itself would work. The size is different, it's not as wide as the Tacoma. The other side of it is that it doesn't fit the [U.S.] customer's image of what a Toyota truck should look like. It's a world truck, designed for countries outside North America. It's a great truck, it's a very durable truck, but it doesn't have all the creature comforts of the Tacoma. [The Hilux buyer is] a different customer, it's different demographics, and it's a different product.

A: So, people use the Toyota Tacoma more as a regular daily vehicle versus the Hilux's work focus?
S: Yes, but we pride ourselves on our off-road heritage and capability. The Tacoma is built to do it. We have no qualms saying that the Hilux and Tacoma are brothers as far as the platform. The basic frame design is similar. We [the Tacoma] have a little bit more compliancy in our frame compared to a Hilux. That's mainly to satisfy the ride requirements for the North American customer. The Hilux is a great truck, a great durable truck. Out of that family, we have the 4Runner [SUV]. That's more refined than the Hilux. The essence of our trucks, the roots of our trucks, comes out of Land Cruiser [SUV]. That sets the standards for all our trucks.

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