First Drive: 2007 Toyota Tundra

Toyota has spent millions to improve its full-size pickup, but is the Tundra a better value than Chevy's all-new Silverado?

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Variety of features and options, excellent engine and power train

The Bad: High Price, no flex-fuel, diesel or heavy-duty versions yet

The Bottom Line: Nice truck, but not clearly better than Chevy’s new Silverado

Up Front

It's no secret that Toyota (TM) is spending megabucks to make its new Toyota Tundra full-size pickup truck a success. The company has invested $1.3 billion in a new plant in San Antonio to build 200,000 new Tundras annually, and dealers are pouring another $3 billion into employee training and bigger service bays, wider doors, and added parking to make Toyota dealerships more accommodating to big pickup trucks and their finicky buyers.

The new Tundra must be really good to justify all that expense, right? Well, obviously, it's far better than the old Tundra, sales of which have been puny because it's perceived as lacking the features and ruggedness to compete with the Detroit-made market leaders, the Ford (F) F-150, General Motors' (GM) Chevy Silverado, and DaimlerChrysler's (DCX) Dodge Ram. Sales of the old Tundra fell 1.3% last year to 124,508 units, a drop in the bucket next to the 796,039 F-Series pickups that struggling (but still No. 1) Ford sold last year.

However, it's not clear—to me, at least—that Toyota's new pickup can leave Detroit in the dust. The Tundra may nab sales from the F-150 (see, 4/19/06, "America's Favorite Pickup") and Dodge Ram, both of which are getting long in the tooth. But those models are due for a redesign as of the '09 model year, and Ford and DaimlerChrysler stylists will have a chance to target the new Tundra while doing their redesigns. I'm also not ready to say the Tundra is better than the new Silverado, which hit the market late last year and which auto writers just named Truck of the Year at the annual Detroit auto show. I'm giving the new Tundra a (very preliminary) rating of four-and-a-half stars, same as the new Silverado (see, 1/23/07, "Chevy's Silverado Lining").

I just haven't seen enough of either model to make the call, and I don't think anyone else has either (even though some rival publications are declaring the Tundra the winner anyway). I was only able to do a cursory driving test of preproduction versions of the midrange Tundra Double Cab at a recent Toyota event in Connecticut. Plus, I was only able to see—not to drive—the regular cab and new, spacious CrewMax cab versions of the truck. Similarly, key elements of the new Silverado lineup haven't even been introduced yet, including a new entry-level 4.3-liter, 195-hp V6 engine and a speedy Sierra Denali version of the truck with an enormous 6.2-liter V8 under its hood.

Still, I've seen enough of the new Tundra to know it's a beauty. While Nissan's Titan (see, 4/12/06, "Nissan's Bulked-up Family Truck") and Honda's Ridgeline (see, 4/26/06, "Ridgeline's Uphill Climb") are niche products, Toyota has aimed right for the heart of Detroit's last big stronghold of market dominance. The Tundra is all-American in its look, feel, and wide variety of features and options. Toyota has matched or surpassed Detroit in many key parameters, from engine size and towing capacity to available upscale cabins and options.

Like the original Baskin-Robbins ice cream, the new Tundra comes in 31 flavors—or at least seems to. There are three engines to choose from: a 4.0-liter, 236-hp V6 with a five-speed automatic transmission; a 4.7-liter 271-hp V8, also with a five-speed automatic; and a huge, honking 5.7-liter, 381-hp V8 with a six-speed automatic.

As with Detroit's pickup trucks, buyers also have three cab sizes to choose from, Regular, Double, and CrewMax, and Toyota says the huge CrewMax cab has even more legroom in the back seat than Dodge's Megacab (see, 3/22/06, "Dodge's Living Room on Wheels"). There are also three possible bed-lengths: 5.5 ft., 6.5 ft., and 8.1 ft. (You can only get the short bed with the CrewMax cab.)

Maximum towing capacity ranges from 10,100 lb. for the 4x4 version with the CrewMax cab up to 10,800 lbs. for a regular cab, two-wheel-drive Tundra. That pretty much matches the new Silverado, which can tow up to 10,500 lbs. with a big engine and special towing package.

Like Toyota and Lexus cars and SUVs, all versions of the Tundra come standard with the company's Star Safety System, which includes antilock brakes, stability and traction control, electronic brake force distribution, and brake assist. A limited slip differential is also standard on all Tundras, which the company believes will allow some buyers to get by without four-wheel drive.

The trouble is, the Tundra also costs more than the Silverado, especially at the low end. The base-model, two-wheel-drive Tundra with a regular cab starts at $22,935. At the high end, a CrewMax cab version of the truck with four-wheel drive and the biggest engine starts at $42,495.

By contrast, the entry-level, two-wheel-drive Silverado with a regular cab and the smallest available engine, a 4.3-liter, 195-hp V6 (not available until April), starts at just $18,760. At the other end of the spectrum, the four-door, four-wheel-drive, crew cab LTZ Silverado with a towing package and the powerful 6.0-liter V8 starts at $40,250.

It's hard to make a direct price comparison, though, because Toyota has yet to price the Tundra's options. But you can get just about every gewgaw and gadget you can find on a Detroit-made truck these days, including cruise control, power everything, three kinds of leather upholstery, a navigation system, rear-seat entertainment, moonroof, a backup camera, 20-in. aluminum alloy wheels, off-road suspension, fog lamps, and extra chrome trim. The Tundra comes in a record (for a Toyota truck) 11 colors, including such eye catchers as Blue Streak Metallic, Salsa Red Pearl, and a Timberland Mica green.

The good news for buyers is that all pickup truck prices may go down over time. Ford offered $3,000 rebates on the F-150 and Dodge $5,000 on the Ram through the end of January, and similar deals are likely to be common for the foreseeable future. "Competition will be fierce, and there's no doubt it will be a buyer's market for some time," predicts Joel Fukumoto, Toyota USA's truck marketing operations manager.

Behind the Wheel

At the press event I attended, I was able to put Tundra Double Cabs with the midrange and largest engines through their paces, both in suburban-style driving and a slalom course. It's an impressive vehicle. The steering is very precise. The truck was amazingly nimble on a slalom course, especially with a bit of weight in the rear bed to give it stability. Even though the CrewMax Tundra has a slightly longer wheelbase than the Silverado, its turning radius is just 44 ft., three feet less than the Silverado's.

With the big engine, the Tundra is also now the fastest full-size pickup on the market. I wasn't able to get zero-to-60 times on it, but both I and a professional driver I went out with at one point felt it could easily achieve times of under seven seconds. Toyota showed videos of tests it ran, and the Tundra outran all its competitors in zero-to-60 and quarter-mile acceleration tests. Of course, the Sierra Denali version of GM's new pickup may be faster, but we haven't seen it yet.

The Tundra's five- and six-speed automatic transmissions both seem smoother and more refined than the Silverado's four-speed automatic. However, GM plans to offer a six-speed automatic next year.

The Tundra whipped the competition in braking to a stop from highway speed, largely because it's equipped with huge, segment-leading 13.9-in. standard brakes. At one point, I rode shotgun while a professional driver took the Tundra through the slalom course with a 4,000-lb. trailer in tow. He threw the truck into curves and slammed on the brakes from 40 mph or so. Even in such extreme maneuvering, the standard brakes and suspension kept the truck under control most of the time.

Rather than emphasize the coolness factor in designing features into the Tundra, Toyota focused on the needs of traditional truck buyers such as farmers, ranchers, and construction workers. The thinking is that if Toyota can win the hearts and minds of those buyers—who tend to be very conservative and brand-loyal—other buyers will eventually follow.

That shows up in a number of ways. For instance, the back seat of the CrewMax cab model has nearly four feet of legroom, even more than Dodge's Megacab, and the rear seats fold up to create a large interior storage space for hauling tools and gear. If you go with the bench-style front seat, there's a lockable storage bin underneath, partly because hunters are required in some states to keep their guns under separate lock and key. The cupholders are big enough to handle a Big Gulp-size drink, and the glovebox can accommodate one of those big green Stanley thermoses that construction workers always seem to have.

The easy-open rear gate is damped to make both opening and closing it a snap; the hydraulic mechanism that makes it work is hidden behind the brake lights. There's a rail-and-cleat system in the bed—standard on the Limited trim level and otherwise optional—that allows you to tie down loads that might shift in the bed. And the backup camera provides a very high-resolution image of what's behind the truck, making it easy for a single person to hook up a large trailer.

However, the Tundra falls short of the Silverado in several respects. At the high end, the cabins on the Tundras I saw were nowhere near as nice as the plush, leather-lined cabin of the Silverado I test-drove. The Tundra's ride is also a lot stiffer and more truck-like than the Silverado's. And there are no flex-fuel, diesel, and heavy-duty versions of the Tundra to compete with the ones offered by the Detroit companies.

The Silverado's engine also has a fuel-economy feature that allows it to run on four cylinders when you're cruising down the highway. 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 on the highway, significantly better than the 14 city and 18 highway mpg rating for a four-wheel-drive CrewMax cab Tundra with the biggest V8. With the V6 engine, the Tundra is rated at 17 city/20 highway, about the same as the Silverado with a big V8.

Buy It or Bag It?

Personally, I wouldn't rush out and buy a new Tundra. Toyota's quality and durability ratings have been slipping, partly because its sales have been so brisk, while GM's quality has been rising. And it's far from clear that Toyota can ramp up its new San Antonio plant to full production without suffering some quality glitches, especially during the early months.

Otherwise, whether you go with the Tundra over a rival model may depend on what kind of truck you want. If a huge cab and quick, powerful engine are your priorities, the Tundra is now probably the model of choice. But if you're on a budget, the base-model Silverado and F-150 cost several thousand dollars less than the entry-level Tundra (though the base Tundra has more standard equipment). And if you want diesel or flex-fuel or towing capacity above 11,000 lbs., a Detroit model is your only option for now.

Also, be prepared to suffer sticker shock when you price a Tundra. The Power Information Network figures that the Silverado's average selling price is $34,192, way above the average for the Dodge Ram 1500 ($26,430), the Ford F-150 ($27,400), and the Nissan Titan ($28,537). The Tundra not only starts out higher than the Silverado, but has a similarly long and attractive list of options to tempt buyers into spending more than they had planned.

So, I'd wait before buying. If Tundra sales are hot, you'll have to pay close to list price whether you buy now or later. But if sales are slower than expected, Toyota may have to offer deals like the ones Ford and DaimlerChrysler have been doing. My guess: It's going to be a great year to cut a deal on a pickup truck.

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