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Toyota's Rugged Tundra

Editor's Rating: star rating

Toyota's new full-size truck is a winner but it's no Camry. Detroit will continue to dominate the pickup market

Up Front

For years now, Toyota (TM) has seemed like a juggernaut, relentlessly gaining market share worldwide to the point that it is now overtaking General Motors (GM) as the world's biggest automaker. But as Toyota's sales soar and models proliferate, you have to wonder whether the Japanese company is becoming more like other companies, with all the same problems and glitches and disappointments.

Take a look at the new Toyota Tundra pickup truck and you'd almost think Toyota was a Detroit automaker. The '07 Tundra, which first hit showrooms earlier this year, is an attempt to correct a previous misstep on Toyota's part; the old Tundra, which first came out in 2000, never sold very well.

The new Tundra is much improved, and aimed right at the heart of Detroit's biggest profit center and last area of dominance—full-featured, full-size pickup trucks. But, at least for my money, the Toyota doesn't blow the competition away.

The new Tundra is at best a match for GM's new Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks, which came out at about the same time. Meanwhile, the aging Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram 1500 are due for redesigns for the '09 model year that will likely make them far more competitive. The Ram, in particular, is being heavily discounted right now, which is putting price pressure on the Tundra (and Silverado/Sierra and F-150, for that matter).

Uncharacteristically, Toyota has been plagued by glitches in its most important product launch in years. The most recent example? Camshaft problems have cropped up in '07 Tundras powered by the biggest available 5.7-liter V8 engine, for which 71% of customers have so far opted. Toyota says the problem has caused about 20 of the big V8s to fail so far, out of about 30,000 sold, but says it believes it can avoid a voluntary recall of all Tundras with the engine. "We think we've isolated the problem to a metallurgical [deficiency] at a supplier," a spokesman says. "We shipped whole new engines via airfreight to replace the ones that failed, which impressed the customers. We think we've resolved the problem."

Still, in January Toyota had to recall more than half a million previous generation 2004-06 Tundras—as well as 2004-07 Sequoia sport-utility vehicles—because of ball joint failures, so the camshaft problems on the new model are an embarrassment.

Adding insult to injury, the new Tundra only earned a four-star rating for driver safety in head-on crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That left bragging rights to GM, DaimlerChrysler (DCX), and Ford Motor (F), whose full-size pickups all earned five stars in the test.

From a marketing standpoint, Toyota also has gone mega with its new "Made-in-Texas Tundra" at a time when soaring gasoline prices are forcing the market to go moderate. The Maxi Cab version of the Tundra, which the company says accounts for about one-quarter of sales so far, has an even roomier cab than the Dodge Ram 2500 Megacab and rear doors that are roughly the size of those on a Cadillac DTS. When you outfit a top-of-the-line Crew Max Tundra with options such as a rear seat entertainment system ($1,670), a navigation system ($1,650), a sunroof ($810), running boards ($345), and 20-inch alloy wheels ($920), the list price goes mega, too, surpassing $48,000.

That puts the Tundra right in the middle of the Detroit pack when it comes to wretched excess in the full-size pickup market. By my calculation, comparably loaded Chevy Silverados list for about $3,000 more, Dodge Ram Megacab 1500s for roughly the same price, and Ford F-150 Lariats with a SuperCab about $4,000 less than the Tundra—all before rebates and incentives.

On the low-end of the spectrum, the regular cab version of the Tundra has a much higher starting price than rivals. A basic, rear-wheel-drive, regular cab Tundra with a short bed starts at almost $23,000. By comparison, entry level '07 Silverados start at $18,760, a Ford F-150 at $19,200, and a Dodge Ram at $22,270. The Tundra comes with more standard equipment, including a limited slip differential that reduces the need for four-wheel drive, traction and stability control, and side curtain air bags. But many traditional pickup truck buyers want a bare-bones alternative at a budget price.

Meanwhile, the Tundra's fuel economy is only average. With a crew cab, four-wheel drive, and a 5.3-liter V8, the Silverado is rated to get 16 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway, significantly better than the 14 mpg/city and 18 mpg/highway rating for a four-wheel-drive Crew Max Tundra with the biggest V8. Even with a V6 engine (standard on regular cab and some Double Cab versions), the Tundra is only rated at 17 mpg/city and 20 mpg/highway, about the same as the Silverado with a big V8.

In real-life driving, the difference shrinks. In 160 miles of mixed hard driving I got 14.6 mpg in my test Tundra, as opposed to 14.8 mpg in 221 miles of mixed hard driving in a comparable Silverado. However, the Silverado has a clear edge in highway driving if you get one equipped with GM's "Active Fuel Management" system, which switches the engine from eight- to four-cylinder power when you're cruising down the highway.

The good news for consumers is that Toyota is being forced to discount prices to move the new Tundra. Through July 2, the company is offering $1,000 to $2,000 cash rebates on higher-end versions of the truck with the double or maxi cab. On regular cab versions, the rebate is $2,000, plus $2,000 extra in "marketing support" that goes to dealers, who can pass savings on to customers if they choose.

However, the Tundra still costs more than any of its main rivals. The '07 Tundra's average selling price is $30,812, after an average rebate of $1,736, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). By comparison, PIN figures, the F-150 has been selling for an average of $27,960 after $2,419 in rebates, the Silverado for an average of $27,698 after $2,030 in rebates, the Nissan Titan for $26,220 after $3,231 in rebates, and the Dodge Ram 1500 for $24,386 after a whopping $5,584 average rebate. (PIN and BusinessWeek are both units of the McGraw-Hill Cos. (MHP).)

The reason for the price-cutting is clear: Overall U.S. full-size pickup sales are off slightly so far this year, despite sexy new models that in addition to the Tundra and Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra include the new heavy-duty Ford F250.

Tundra sales were up a huge 113.8% in May, to 17,727, and 24.7%, to 61,113, for the first five months of the year. But the comparisons are with the old Tundra, which wasn't popular to begin with and was on its way out at the time. Without the price discounts, Toyota would probably have a hard time reaching its hoped-for sales of 200,000 Tundras annually.

Behind the Wheel

Don't get me wrong. The new Tundra is a terrific truck—the quickest, best-handling full-size pickup I've driven.

The big 5.7-liter V8 generates 381 horsepower and 401 lb.-ft. of torque. At a press event where I first drove the truck, both I and a professional driver guessed the Tundra could accelerate from 0 to 60 in under 7 seconds (see, 1/30/07, "First Drive: 2007 Toyota Tundra"). As it turns out, our guess was right on. When I test-drove a Tundra with a Crew Max cab and a big V8, I consistently clocked times of 6.8 to 6.9 seconds in 0-to-60 runs, vs. 8.8 seconds in a comparably equipped Silverado.

However, the standard engines on the Tundra are a lot less exciting. The regular cab and standard-bed double cab versions of the truck come with a 4.0-liter, 236-hp V6; standard on other Tundras and optional on those versions is a 4.7-liter, 271-hp V8. The 4.8- and 5.3-liter V8s in the Silverado/Sierra have more oomph.

The Tundra doesn't come with a stick shift. However, the sophisticated 6-speed automatic transmission that comes with the big V8 has a manual shifting mode that's different from any other I recall using. You can run through the gears, shifting manually if you want to. But if you put the transmission in, say, third gear, and leave it, it doesn't just stay in third gear; an artificial intelligence program takes over and the transmission finds the optimal gear for driving conditions. On a downhill slant or during acceleration, for instance, it might downshift on its own into second gear to provide engine braking or more torque. It's a nice feature that offers the driver many extra options for controlling the truck's performance.

If you want a Tundra with an extended cab, you'll have to make the tough choice between a Double Cab and the enormous Crew Max cab. The Crew Max rivals the Dodge Ram 1500's Megacab as the biggest, roomiest cab you can get. The rear seats in the Crew Max Tundra also have a unique feature: They're adjustable, allowing rear passengers to slide them forward and recline the seatbacks for lounging and napping purposes. Even with the rear seats all the way forward, there's plenty of legroom. With the rear seats all the way back, I doubt even Shaquille O'Neal would be cramped.

However, the Crew Max cab also has some disadvantages. You can only get a short, 5.5-ft. bed with the Crew Max cab, while with the two smaller cabs you have the option of 6.5-ft. and 8.1-ft. beds. Also, in the Double Cab Tundra, the seat bottoms fold up as well as down, creating a large floor space capable of holding lots of tools and bulky cargo, as well as a handy space for dogs. In the Crew Max Tundra, the seatbacks fold down, creating a high, flat platform for cargo, but the seat bottoms don't fold up. If you want to have dogs riding in the passenger area, you have to fold down the seats and put them on the platform created by the seatbacks. But then they're riding too high and go flying if you have to brake suddenly; over time their claws would scratch up the hard plastic seatbacks.

The upscale Tundra Limited's interior is very nice, but not as nice as the Silverado's plush, wood-trimmed cabin. My test Tundra had attractive, dark brown leather seats, with black and aluminum trim on the doors and dash. But it also had a disappointing amount of hard plastic, and some of the plastic pieces in the center console, including file holders, seemed a little flimsy.

The Tundra's rear seat entertainment system, on the other hand, is fabulous. As a test, I had the radio going full blast in the front seat, put on the remote headphones, and seated myself in the spacious back bench seat to watch the DVD of Barbarian Invasions. The movie starts off with a very long sequence of a nun walking through the crowded corridors of a Montreal hospital and I could hear every little noise—bedpans crashing, beeping medical equipment, etc. There's a remote control to operate the DVD player from the rear seats, as well as a parent-friendly feature that allows the driver to override the rear seat controls and operate the player from the front seat.

One option that's definitely worth considering, especially if you plan to tow a boat or trailer, is the backup monitor, which comes with the optional navigation system. This truck has a tight 44-foot turning radius, which makes it relatively easy to maneuver into a parking spot. But, as with any big pickup, you can't see well when you're backing up. The backup video screen has very high resolution. My neighbor checked it out with me by backing the truck up to one of his big, flatbed trailers. He could see well enough to line up the hitch on the back of the truck with the trailer hitch on the first try.

A caveat: The backup camera's image isn't nearly as clear at night. And if it's raining, forget about it. I tried parking under those conditions and the image was so blurred it was almost useless (though the sonar backup alarm, which costs an extra $500, was helpful).

Another caveat: The Tundra's extra-large outside mirrors are great for towing because they're extendable and allow you to see around the sides of a wide trailer or boat. But for city driving, they're a hazard—they're so big they block your view of pedestrians when you turn onto a side street. I found myself having to lean forward and back to see around the mirror to make sure I wasn't about to run over someone in the crosswalk.

Buy It or Bag It?

Given all the price discounts being given, it's a great time to buy a full-size pickup truck—if you need one. I wouldn't hesitate to buy a Tundra if it fits your needs. I would probably go with the Double rather than the Crew Max cab, though. It's as roomy as the biggest cab in some rival models, with plenty of legroom. And if you're doing much hauling in the truck or have dogs, it seems more versatile.

However, the Tundra won't suit the needs of every buyer. If money is very tight, it's more expensive at the low end. And, Toyota has yet to offer a diesel engine, or heavy-duty, three-quarter, and one-ton versions of the Tundra.

Whatever your needs, it's worth test-driving rival models before buying, especially the Silverado/Sierra. And be sure to bargain hard on price. When even mighty Toyota is putting big discounts on a hot-selling new model, you know it's a buyer's market.

Click here to see more of the 2007 Toyota Tundra CrewMax.

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