Toyota Builds A Truck Even Bubba May Love

When Toyota Motor (TM ) Corp. engineers visited South Texas to ask locals what they wanted in a full-size pickup, the out-of-towners got a quick education in priorities. Sure, the truck had to be big and powerful, but it also needed Texas-size brakes to stop three-plus tons of horses, hay, gear, and trailer from taking out a corral fence or barn post.

Toyota listened and learned. And at the Chicago Auto Show on Feb. 9, it will fire its boldest shot yet into the already wobbly defenses of Detroit's auto makers -- taking the wraps off the first full-size Toyota pickup that's large and tough enough to win over the NASCAR and big-belt-buckle crowd.

The new Tundra, which will be built near San Antonio and arrives at dealerships early next year, spells big trouble for Detroit in the red-state Bubba-truck market, the last reliable profit redoubt for General Motors Corp. (GM ) and Ford Motor Co. (F ).

Yes, this marks Toyota's third attempt to get a work truck right. And Nissan Motor Co. (NSANY ) beat it to market with a legit full-size truck, the Titan, by nearly three years. But according to John Matthews, a San Antonio dealer who advised on the Tundra's development, Toyota has corrected mistakes made in the current model and its '90s predecessor, the T100, both of which were too small and light to go bumper to bumper with the Big Three. Hint: It's big. How big? "When other truck owners park next to this Tundra," says Matthews, "they'll feel like they're in a solar eclipse."

To learn the truck market anew, Toyota engineers immersed themselves in Sunbelt America. They hung out at NASCAR events and camped out at ranches in South Texas and Oklahoma, says Matthews. They even went to RV camps and persuaded families to let them travel along.

Toyota's gearheads had plenty of questions. What's the perfect towing solution for different-size trailers? Which dashboard materials clean up the best? How many configurations of the Tundra should Toyota offer? The answer to the last question: a lot. After all, according to the car site, Ford has more than 60 versions of the F-Series for customization-happy truck buyers. And Chevy lists 46 styles of the Silverado. The current Tundra offers just 18.

Image was a matter of considerable import, too. Toyota has a great reputation for quality and reliability. But the macho image that has long endeared Ford to Texas ranchers? Um, no. "You've got three generations of truck-buying families here with Ford blue ovals tattooed on their foreheads," says Matthews. Spy shots of camouflaged Tundras on test tracks, as well as the Toyota concept shown two years ago at the Detroit auto show, reveal an aggressively sculpted hood akin to the Dodge Ram and a more muscular look than the category-leading Ford F-150.

And while Matthews wouldn't divulge the Tundra's specifications, he says that "Toyota realized it needs to be the best in class." Likely translation: The Tundra will top the 305-horsepower engine and 9,500-pound tow limit that come standard with the Nissan Titan. Plus, Toyota's new truck will feature a living-room-quality interior and plenty of storage options for road warriors.

Of course, it's no coincidence that Toyota chose San Antonio truck country to manufacture the new Tundra; 12,000 new jobs builds a lot of goodwill -- not to mention a steady stream of newspaper ads reminding consumers that Toyota has spent billions of dollars constructing plants in pickup-centric states like Kentucky, Indiana, and West Virginia.

And to make doubly sure that people got the message, Toyota in 2003 persuaded NASCAR to count the current Tundra as a qualified American truck. That finally won Toyota a slot in the Craftsman Truck Series, which features drivers racing modified pickups. You could almost hear the gnashing of teeth in Detroit.

Ford President Mark Fields has said that Toyota is "desperately trying to cast itself as an American brand." But patriotic fealty to Motown pickups is fading fast. In Janesville, Wis., home to a GM SUV plant, sales at Hesser Toyota, including Tundras, have been up 30% two years running, says General Sales Manager Phil Bouland. And some of those customers have been GM employees and their families. Buying Toyotas, says Bouland, has become "more acceptable than it was three or four years ago."

All Toyota needs to do now, it seems, is build the Tundra sufficiently big and rugged -- and they will come.

By David Kiley

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