It's no secret that Toyota has been making a substantial effort of late to appear more American. Its recent entries into the premier leagues of good-ole-boy racing--first the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and, more recently, the NASCAR Nextel Cup--attest quite loudly to that. But turning left repeatedly can only get you so far with American consumers, some of whom don't even watch NASCAR or any of its subseries. Quality product is what impresses people, a truth that can't be any more self-evident considering Toyota built its reputation--and gargantuan sales figures--on the backs of well-built, reliable vehicles like the Camry and the RAV4 SUV.
That truth also makes the all-new Tundra, arguably the most significant new-vehicle introduction at this year's Chicago auto show, an important piece of hardware for Toyota in its quest to maintain its positive momentum in the American marketplace.
The outgoing version had adequate levels of comfort and capability, but was--and this is being generous--seriously outgunned by larger, brawnier, and, well, truck-ier competition. Despite its shortcomings, however, the Tundra was never exactly a sales failure for Toyota, with 126,529 examples moved last year. But that number pales in comparison when placed next to the 901,463 Ford F-series trucks, the 705,980 Chevy Silverados, and the 400,543 Dodge Rams sold during the same period.
But Toyota, as usual, has a plan, beginning with making the new truck larger in all the areas. The new truck will offer three cab setups, including a standard cab, a double cab with smaller front-hinged rear doors, and, for the first time, a true crew cab featuring four real doors with a full-size rear bench. (The double cab replaces the access cab as the mid-grade bodystyle.) Preliminary specifications show that the new, mid-lineup double-cab truck (shown here) is only 1.4 inches shorter than the outgoing range-topping model, and that same amount has been added to the old truck's height. The bed also gains a whopping 4.4 inches of length, and the wheelbase has jumped from 140.5 inches to nearly 146 inches. That, in turn, means a roomier cabin, more hauling capability, and an even more comfortable ride. There will also be three trim levels: base (the regular one), SR5 (the sporty one), and Limited (the fancy one). Add in the various bed lengths, and the Tundra will be available in over thirty different configurations.
Toyota's 2004 FTX concept truck was a fairly accurate, if more guppy-like, precursor to the all-new model. The production Tundra's styling is still, like the outgoing model's, on the boring side of dull, but it is handsome. The added height has beefed up the truck's physical presence and, viewed in profile, the stubby nose--quickly becoming a signature Toyota design element--gives the impression that each and every spare millimeter was put to good use maximizing cabin space and cargo bed capacity. The interior is typical Toyota: thoughtfully designed but visually uninteresting. Taking a page from the F-150's playbook, the Tundra's designers have placed the shift lever on the center console, freeing up the right side of the steering column for a second control stalk. A variety of tech-heavy options will be available, including a widescreen backup camera, a premium JBL sound system, and Bluetooth cell-phone connectivity.
When it came to the one figure that resonates most with pickup buyers, maximum towing capacity, the old truck never had a chance. The Tundra's rating of just over 7000 pounds fell far short of its rivals' 9000-pound (Dodge, GMC, and Chevrolet), 9500-pound (Nissan), and 9900-pound (Ford) benchmarks. Some folks say that size isn't everything, but they've obviously never owned a pickup truck--being labeled the weakling in a class where perception is everything was a serious handicap.
Well, consider the problem addressed--big time. The new Tundra boasts over 10,000 pounds of snowmobile-tugging, camper-humping, and boat-pulling ability, thanks to a redesigned frame as well as an all-new top-of-the-line engine. The old truck's 4.0-liter V-6 and 4.7-liter V-8 will continue to see duty in the new model, but the heavy hitter will be a 5.7-liter iForce V-8, expected to churn out more than 350 hp--an 80-hp boost over the 4.7-liter. All three engines will mate to a six-speed automatic transmission, unusual for a segment where, until recently, five speeds was considered positively decadent.
Even with the extra gear, it's hard to imagine that the Tundra won't guzzle copious amounts of fuel. This makes for an interesting juxtaposition when viewed in context with Toyota's recent advertising meant to convice the world that its Hybrid Synergy Drive vehicles, such as the Prius and Camry Hybrid, are the best thing to happen to the environment since rainwater. The Tundra's thirst, then (as well as that of the next-gen SUVs it is sure to spawn), ensures that any damage caused by Toyota's hybrids to the oil companies' bottom lines will be repaid several times over.
The 2007 Tundra was designed and engineered in the U.S. and will be manufactured in Indiana and Texas, the latter of which rightly can be considered the natural habitat of the pickup truck. A brand-spanking-new plant in San Antonio, which will build only Tundras when it opens this fall, is a significant risk for Toyota, both financially--it represents some $850 million in total investment--and politically. Because while Toyota may become the world's number-one automaker without the Tundra's help, it will be a mission more easily accomplished if the truck proves able to convince a sizeable number of meat-and-potatoes domestic pick-'em-up truck buyers to make the swap from an F-150 or a Silverado. The company has been downplaying the possibility of becoming the top dog, often trotting out an "aw shucks" attitude during interviews and press conferences. But if this impressive new truck is any indication, Toyota is gunning for GM's title with far more gusto than they would have us believe. If the Tundra drives and hauls as well as its specs lead on, Toyota may be crowned king of the automotive world much sooner than you think.