Ann Arbor - Our founder and editor emeritus, David E. Davis, Jr., had a new idea for the Toyota Tundra pickup truck we added to our Four Seasons test fleet in late 1999. He would send it to northern Michigan for use as a real live workhorse at Red's Bog, his idyllic retreat on the west side of the state. His ranch foreman, Jerry Keie, would have charge of Toyota's big new truck and keep notes from a real working man's perspective.
Only, Jerry didn't find the Tundra quite as useful as the Ford F-150 that already served Red's Bog. He was afraid to get dirt on its cloth upholstery, and at the lumberyard, he found that the Tundra's box wasn't long enough or deep enough to hold the same amount of scaffolding he could carry in the Ford. Every time he had real work to perform, he'd park the Tundra and take the F-150. So we fetched it home and put it back into the lily-livered hands of the sissy writers at Automobile Magazine.
The story could end right here: Toyota Truck Can't Handle Hard Labor!
Only, most of the people who buy big trucks can't handle it, either, and, for them, the Toyota Tundra just may be the best truck out there. Here's why:
* The interior gauges, instruments, and trim are Camry-quality.
* The V-8 engine and four-speed automatic transmission are the class of the field in terms of refinement.
* We spent a measly $722 for 30,000 miles of scheduled maintenance, which would take an average American nearly three years to rack up. That's $240 per year. Chump change.
* There was no unscheduled maintenance performed. None. It never, ever broke. (We bought a trailer hitch; we fixed a gouge from flying debris; we replaced a gas cap we lost.)
Let's return to the joy that filled our hearts when the Tundra came home to roost. Everyone needs a pickup. If you need friends, buy a pickup. Design director Darin Johnson used it to haul "a full load of kitchen cabinets" for his big re-modeling. Former online editor Megan McCann noted that a "nineteenth-century settee fit right in." A Kubota tractor with blade and front-end loader was trailered from Jennings home to Jennings cabin. A banzai four-day run to Arizona and back (4000 miles) relocated my brother and his belongings, including his Harley-Davidson. Boats were pulled on double-axle trailers "with ease and on cruise control," noted one sportsman, and "very well uphill from the boat barn," noted another. That last guy also noted how well the Tundra's shift-on-the-fly (dash-mounted 2wd-to-4wd switch) four-wheel drive worked when he forgot the boat plug while launching and ended up beating a hasty retreat out of the drink, hauling trailer, boat, and a bilge full of lake water.
One winter noter commended the Tundra's ability to "zip through drifts and a standing foot of snow with ease" in four-wheel drive.
It might not be the biggest engine in its class, but, as more than one tester noted, nothing can touch the relaxed demeanor and refinement of the Tundra's 4.7-liter DOHC V-8. It's a proven performer that began life in the Land Cruiser and is also now shared with the just-released, full-size Sequoia SUV. After 17,000 miles, a reluctance to fire up without a couple of extra crankings was noted. As much as we loved the engine, we weren't quite as fond of the cruise control, which shut itself off when you slowed to 35 or 40 mph. You'd then have to go through the process of resetting it once you got back up to speed. Annoying.
The ride was what you would expect of a full-size pickup on rough pavement. (The body-on-frame Tundra's front is suspended by coil springs and double wishbones with an anti-roll bar. The live-axle rear uses traditional leaf springs.) "It will never be confused with a Camry," senior editor Joe Lorio noted. On good roads, though, it straightened out to the point where it felt "less trucklike than other full-size pickups," in managing editor Amy Skogstrom's words. Mr. Davis suggested that it would work best "on Sun Belt roads."
What works best, as we discovered during the year, is to order the TRD package if you're going to be doing any real amount of dirt roading, as the Jennings family tends to do. Baja king Ivan Stewart had a hand in tuning the Bilstein monotube high-pressure gas dampers, the key component of a $925 option ($95 on the loaded Tundra Limited) that also includes foglamps, BFGoodrich all-terrain tires, alloy wheels, and special mud flaps and fender flares.
Our 4x4 Tundra came in base SR5 trim, which, to the naked eye, means fabric seats instead of leather. It's a $25,585 truck--nothing to sneeze at. But your money also brings air conditioning, dual side mirrors, halogen headlamps, a tilt wheel, cruise control, carpeting, a really useful flip-down center armrest with perfect cup holders, and good safety equipment (dual front air bags, belt pretensioners, and force limiters). We added the requisite CD player, ABS, cool alloy wheels, power stuff (which, annoyingly, did not include keyless entry), foglamps, and floormats to jack the total up to $28,795. (You can order the exact same thing today for $240 less.)
Everyone hated the seat fabric, which grabbed your clothes when you jumped in and held you like packing tape. Mr. Davis used a swear word to describe it in the logbook. We whipped on a set of $199 Cordura seat covers from Overland Outfitters (877-788-4327), which offered not only great protection from the elements but also a fair degree of butt slippage, killing two birds with one stone.
We also ordered our Tundra with the Access Cab, Toyota's version of the four-door pickup. Both rear doors had convenient outside handles; you didn't have to fiddle with a latch on the inside door jamb. But we had to have the driver's side adjusted on two different occasions during scheduled maintenance to keep them from, not popping open, but sort of unsealing enough over big bumps to set off the Door Ajar warning light and the interior lights. The more serious concern was the lack of comfort in the back. Space was tight, even for kids, and the seat was so uncomfortably upright that even our dogs preferred the floor. The rear bench flips up, and the dog beds go neatly within. Executive editor Mark Gillies also mentioned the impossibility of safely installing the two child seats he needs back there for his twins, chastising the rest of us for not having kids enough to notice its uselessness.
Did I mention dogs? So did a couple of other editors in the logbook. After a particularly long spell of hauling big hunting dogs in that back compartment, we added an aftermarket ionic air purifier, which I don't think worked that well. Associate editor Eddie Alterman, on the other hand, praised its ability to tame the "dogalicious olfactory offensiveness."
In a world where Ford sells more than 800,000 F-series pickups and Chevy and GMC send out nearly as many Silverados and Sierras in a year, selling 85,349 model-year 2000 Tundras is a mere fart in a stiff wind. Still, it must have thrilled Toyota to no end. Mostly, it's one more piece in a corporate strategy that, over the years, has delivered one solid car after another, then one good truck and SUV after another, until it has filled its showrooms with such a well-rounded complement of vehicles that you don't have to shop anywhere else.
Seeing that trusty TOYOTA badge now affixed to the tailgate of a full-size pickup ought to strike fear in the hearts of the competition.