EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 16, 2014

Toyota Tundra wears grit on new fenders

Motor Mouth
Jeffrey Zygmont

---- — The Toyota Tundra pickup truck is a brute. Driving a long, wide, high-riding CrewMax version last week — with a back seat that seemed as large as a one-car garage — I felt like I was maneuvering an 18-wheeler.

When I needed to jump-start a car stranded in my driveway, the Tundra was supremely capable. But first I had to edge the big pickup through a 90-degree turn to face it nose to nose with the disabled auto. The tall snowbanks lining my driveway confined the Tundra. I had to step it around gradually, swinging just a few degrees forward, then a few backward, then repeating, practically standing in the driver’s seat whenever I needed to peer over the hood to make sure the truck’s nose cleared obstacles. After I lost patience, I turned the selector knob to switch the Tundra from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive. Then I just bumped the truck over the tall snowbanks that hemmed it in. It slanted up steeply onto a ridge of hard snow alongside my driveway, stepped down again effortlessly, and settled with nary a sigh in front of the stranded car.

The big Toyota was just as serene after I hooked it to the dead battery, which pulled power through the jumper cables to start the stalled auto. But then, I think the 381-horsepower, 5.7-liter V8 in my evaluation model — the biggest engine Toyota offers in its biggest pickup — could have started a de-energized nuclear power plant.

None of that will be taken as criticism by pickup drivers. Just the opposite. To say that a pickup is a brute is high praise. The abilities of the Toyota Tundra full-size pickup justify all the praise that a hard working, heavy rolling driver could offer a vehicle.

“As the Tundra becomes more mature, more and more truck enthusiasts are starting to notice it for its quality and utility,” affirmed Ryan Horgan, director of operations at Rockingham Toyota Scion Honda in Salem, N.H.

Toyota introduced the Tundra almost 15 years ago, in June, 1999, as a year-2000 model. That makes it a mere babe in the American pickup market. Other vehicle companies, especially Ford and General Motors, have been at it for closer to a century. In some cases, enthusiasm for one or the other brand is passed down father to son through generations. That’s part of the reason why the Ford F-Series and Chevrolet Silverado pickups are two of the top-selling vehicles on the planet.

To break in where brand preferences run so strong, Toyota recognizes that it must make a pickup that delivers all the tough, rough-and-ready qualities that drivers demand. This year, Toyota gave its model a new shape to advertise its inner grit and gumption. The 2014 Tundra rides in a redesigned body that is more angular, upright and chiseled than last year’s version. The front end expresses power boldly, as a tall, vertical surface spanned by a wide, prominently outlined grille. The fenders and wheel wells on the 2014 model are more squared off than rounded, to emphasize strength and stability. Toyota says the new design expresses an “industrial image.” It describes the truck’s shape and exterior details as “tool-like.”

The changes are sinking the hooks deeper into drivers who have already been won by Tundra, reported Horgan of Rockingham Toyota.

“The Tundra has already built a loyal ownership base, and the new model is certainly sparking their interest,” he said. “We have seen a large number of previous owners looking to trade in their old Tundra for the new model.”

And that’s not just because of the rougher and tougher exterior look, according to Horgan. The 2014 restyling of Tundra also includes extensive upgrades to the truck’s cabin. For example, front and rear seats are redesigned to increase comfort. Front seats slide more, for more leg-room adjustment. Controls are easier to reach. The instrument panel is a new design. Higher grade materials and trim pieces have been installed.

“The interior makeover seems to be exciting truck people the most,” Horgan said.

That fits with the long-term trend in pickups, which sees drivers demanding a more comfortable ride and a more accommodating cabin – even as trucks’ working abilities remain as capable as ever. On that balance, Horgan sees the Tundra scoring well.

“We have seen a lot of contractors and a lot of recreational truck people buy the Tundra for the way it mixes driving comfort with a lot of utility,” he said. “I’ve spoken to a number of Tundra owners who simply enjoy the way the truck rides. They often comment that it doesn’t drive like a ‘truck.’”

Like other pickups, the Tundra comes in an array of styles, sizes and cab types. Its two-door, regular cab seats three people on a single bench seat. The four-door, Double Cab model adds a back bench seat to hold up to six riders. The CrewMax, with four full-size doors, has a lounge-sized rear-seat area. The Regular Cab and Double Cab versions can be purchased with a long bed that adds 19 inches for greater cargo hauling than the standard bed. The bed of the CrewMax is 12 inches shorter than the standard bed, to make room for the larger cab.

Engine choices start with a 270 horsepower V6, move to a 310-horsepower V8, and end with the large, powerful, 5.7-liver V8 in the model I evaluated last week. All engines mate to automatic transmissions, with an option for rear- or four-wheel drive.

After assembling all the right physical ingredients, Toyota still faces the cultural and psychological barriers keeping Tundra from gaining a wider fan base. It still faces the entrenched loyalty enjoyed by pickups that have been around longer.

Patience will help with that. A lot of drivers still coming of age admire Toyota for the popular passenger cars it makes. Many of those young guns who mature to pickup status will look favorably on a Toyota truck.

Another boost comes from Tundra’s all-American origins, noted Horgan. Tundra was engineered and designed by Toyota facilities in Michigan and California. The truck is assembled in the United States, from parts sourced largely in the U.S. as well.

“There is a common misconception that Toyotas are still made overseas,” Horgan explained. “But the Tundra is made in San Antonio, Texas, and it has more American-made parts than its competition. Toyota has been more aggressive in recent years to get the word out about that fact.” Greater awareness of Tundra’s American roots is helping to sell it to workers who appreciate red, white, and blue, Horgan said.

Jeffrey Zygmont is an author of fiction and non-fiction books, and a long-time auto writer. Contact him at www.jeffreyzygmont.com.

2014 Toyota Tundra

Vehicle type: 2- and 4-door, 3- to 6-passenger, rear- and four-wheel-drive full-size pickup truck

Price range: $26,915 to $48,315 (plus options)

Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles basic warranty; 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain warranty; 5 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 2 years/25,000 miles free scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance

Base engine: 4.0-liter V6

Power: 270 horsepower at 5,600 rpm; 278 lb.-ft. torque at 4,400 rpm

Base transmission: 5-speed automatic

Fuel economy: 16 mpg city; 20 mpg highway

Standard wheelbase: 146 inches

Standard length: 229 inches

Width: 80 inches

Height: 76 inches

Weight: 4,760 pounds

Fuel capacity: 26.4 gallons

Turning circle: 39.2 ft.