Engineered largely in the United States but drawing heavily on Toyota technologies from Japan, the Tundra was reportedly created without the benefit of incessant cost-cutters demanding lighter-duty components everywhere. The result may well be the toughest, most durable truck in its class, as well as the truck with the best standard engines – engines that make the most of every cubic inch, yet yield gas mileage similar to vehicles with much less power. The Tundra uses dual variable valve timing with lift, guided by computer intelligence, to maximize power, while most Detroit Three engines often don’t even have single-direction variable valve timing. The Toyota 5.7 liter V8 beats even the powerhouse Dodge Hemi engine – by a full 40 hp – and does it without sacrificing low-end grunt. Between the Tundra and the new Camry V6, it seems as though Toyota was determined to set class speed standards.
Gas mileage was par for the course; the EPA rated our Tundra V8 at 14 mpg around town and 18 mpg on the highway, which was only 1 mpg higher than our unscientific results; that’s similar to the Hemi-powered Dodge Ram, but with more power, greater torque, and a higher capacity. Part of that efficiency comes from the variable valve timing, but part of it comes from the six-speed automatic, which likes to stay at a low 1,200 rpm or so during normal driving. The engine’s surplus of torque and variable valve timing lets it get away with such a low speed without becoming unresponsive around town, which is good for gas mileage and also good for quietness and longevity.
When the engine was started cold, it had a tendency to rev surprisingly high, roaring, until the transmission was shifted into gear, bringing images of carburetors to our minds. Even when warm, the engine always roared into life. Once warmed up, it idled at a low speed to conserve fuel, making little noise, and remaining remarkably smooth. Acceleration was near-instant at any speed, with responsive downshifting from the well-programmed six-speed automatic transmission, a system that always seemed to be in the right gear (though it had one more gear than the domestics). Shifting was consistently smooth and crisp without fuss or flare, and in normal acceleration shifts were imperceptible except by listening to the engine drop revs periodically; torque management, if any, was very quick and hard to detect. A sequential shift option was also provided by moving the gearshift back and over, a sensible method since it’s not possible to get there by accident, and once there you can push the gearshift forward to drop a gear or back to raise a gear. Oddly, shifting into sequential mode always seemed to drop the transmission down a gear. Regardless, acceleration was certainly good and the Tundra seemed happy to take off instantly from any speed or condition.
As befits any pickup sold in America, the Tundra has an optional four wheel drive system, activated in this case by a dial that turns easily to four wheel drive, and push-turns to low-range four wheel drive, which greatly limits the top speed and is only meant for serious, slow off-roading (this dial is just to the right of the steering wheel in the above photo). Standard equipment on our four wheel drive dual cab was a hitch receiver, transmission cooler, 4.30 rear differential with 10.5 inch ring gear, 150 amp alternator, 7-wire connector, and brake pre-wiring. The truck also included a limited-slip differential, and rode on 18 inch alloy wheels. All that equipment no doubt helped in achieving a 10,300 pound towing capacity. (On this vehicle the gross vehicle weight rating was 7,100 pounds, and the payload was 1,560 pounds).
The gate on this truck was the most user-friendly we’ve seen, though the lock could only be controlled manually. When opened, the bed lowered itself quietly down, rather than slamming down suddenly; it was conversely easy to close, offering practically no resistance and locking easily, with a latch that did not need to be slammed, but could be closed gently, in slow motion. Two cables added strength.
Visibility was aided by oversized mirrors – in our vehicle, including turn signals – as well as Toyota’s usual bright, well-focused headlights. The mirrors on our vehicle folded in with the press of a button, helpful in parking lots or on tight roads. A rear video camera was included with the navigation system, greatly helping parking and preventing accidents (many children are killed each year by people, including their parents, backing out of their driveways). The driver has good side visibility for a big pickup, thanks to low sills; but the rear quarter area of the cab has a decently sized blind spot, and of course rear visibility is hindered by the bed and gate, as with all pickups. Sun blindness was handled well with a two-part sun visor, a feature we wish would show up in cars; there was a main large visor, and then a smaller one that could be flipped down when the main visor was protecting the side window.
Inside, our particular Tundra had an attractive interior, largely due to use of color; a reddish-brown was used on selected trim and on the seats, providing a warmer look than the usual gray and black that stylists (or cost cutters) have been inflicting on us. The use of color nicely distracted us from the usual masses of plastic surfaces; in addition, the instrument panel bezel was a dull silver color, which brightened the driver’s view. There were few large expanses of any particular color or texture; the massive instrument panel had black dials but dull silver panels with the brown underneath; the center stack was a shiny black; and the passenger faced a black upper panel and glove compartment, but a brown lower panel and glove compartment. The doors have all three elements – brown, silver, and black. It has been interesting to watch the progression of pickups and cars; pickups used to have plain, spartan interiors, with bench seats and the cheapest available dashboards, while cars used to be far more upscale. Now, it’s cars that tend to look like victims of mindless cost-cutting, while truck cabs are ever more ornate and inviting.
The Tundra follows the current trend of using extra-wide, stiff seats, not especially comfortable for our tester, but also not notably uncomfortable (and, unlike some vehicles, not requiring a trip to the chiropractor). One reason for using this new, firmer seat is to cut the depth of the seatback, thereby creating legroom without the need for extra steel (hence extra weight). As always, seat comfort depends on your body, and your mileage may vary.
The instrument panel looked a bit odd at first; it was a large affair with deep, asymmetrical pods, their blackness contrasting with the dull silver texture of the faceplate, and looking cheap until the key was turned. Then, brilliant backlighting brought the pods to life, with white lettering and red needles. The huge 120 mph speedometer had 60 mph on top, in the center; the other large pod had the tachometer. Smaller pods contained the transmission temperature gauge (useful for towing and carrying heavy loads), the antifreeze temperature gauge, fuel level, and, sharing a pod, the voltage and oil pressure.
The trip computer, in the bottom of the speedometer pod, was unusually easy to use. Normally it showed status messages like the user-friendly “right rear door open,” and it always showed the miles. One large, conveniently located button cycled through the various readouts (trip odometer, average speed and mileage, current mileage, and range), and another button cycled through the various settings (how many clicks were needed to unlock all doors, automatic locking and unlocking, etc.) Pressing a third button either reset the averages for the mileage and average speed (separately), or changed the visible setting. The system was intuitive and attractive.
Controls were generally logical, with some oddities. Headlights were stalk-mounted; though the bed light was horizontal and below the vertical dome light, both a few inches away from the rheostat, the switches were unusually clear, and had positions for on, off, and on-when-a-door-is-open. The mirror controls included a button to fold the mirrors in (when the ignition was on), and the tow/haul button was next to two button-shaped covers that may have held wonderful features had we only gotten those mysteriously options. At the top of the center stack were the outside temperature and a digital clock in a soothing steel blue. All displays were visible even in bright sunlight.
The electronic climate controls were attractive in appearance but not in function; the dials did not provide any feedback as to what they were doing. The fan dial spun around infinitely, as did the knob for choosing vents; the driver had to look at the display to see where it would stop. The system offers no advantages over conventional systems, but requires more driver attention than warranted; positions can’t be memorized and dialed in by touch. The button-in-the-middle-of-the-knob design worked well; but in automatic mode, the system invariably demanded air recirculation (which it sometimes turned on even without automatic mode), and it liked having the fan on full blast, making lots of noise. Air conditioning was strong.
The interior was wide, with lots of elbow and head room; the truck was wide enough across for two generously sized bucket seats as well as a center console large enough to swallow up an iBook – either horizontal or vertical. There were map pockets on the doors, small bins with their own doors on the doors, cupholders on the doors and in the center console, two slots inside the center stack, a large glove compartment, one open and one covered slot between the seats, and a large covered compartment above the glove compartment. The massive center cubby includes a removeable organization tool in case you don’t want to simply store a six-pack and a laptop in there; in theory you can use an insert to keep hanging files in the center console, making it into a mobile filing cabinet. An unusual three overhead bins were set up for eyeglasses, sunglasses, or similar objects, and that’s not to mention the overhead ticket/card holder; all were of the “push to open” variety (likewise, the dome lights could be individually turned on by pressing them).
The Tundra was more comfortable and less jiggly or jouncy than most competitors with this capacity; there was no danger of seasickness on rough roads, and bumps were handled surprisingly well, with no audio boom. Indeed, the ride was better than in some cars. Cornering was good, considering how large the vehicle was, with no squealing or loss of traction during normal or faster-than-normal turns. Jackrabbit starts could result in a little squealing but wheelhop was conspicuously absent.
Luxury or convenience features included with our $39,195 Limited level truck included dual-zone automatic air conditioning, cruise control, 18 inch alloy wheels, chrome exterior accents, sliding rear window, fog lights, leather trimmed power heated front seats, center console with laptop and file storage, JBL ten-speaker stereo with audio jack and six-disc CD changer, tilt-telescoping steering wheel with audio controls, power windows, locks, and fold-in mirrors, and alarm. The auxiliary jack (for conneting
Safety features include power four-wheel antilock brakes, electronic brake distribution, brake assist, stability control, traction control, side airbags, roll-sensing curtain airbags, and tire-pressure monitoring.
Our particular vehicle also had the cold-start kit (heavy duty battery and starter, wiper de-icer), a bargain at $100; bigger wheels at a stunning and pointless $920; running boards at $345; mudguards at $60; the DVD navigation system with a video backup monitor at $1,650; daytime running lights at $40; and carpet floor mats for $178. The total came to $42,488.
The DVD navigation system was worth more discussion. The Toyota system was easy to use for navigation, with a touch screen, data entry in either QWERTY or alphabetical order, and features that are easy to explore and use. Often, smaller roads are shown but not used, which can be confusing and lead to roundabout routes, but then, most of these systems have some quirks. New to the system is traffic avoidance, which is rather clever. The nav system comes knocks the JBL CD changer down to four discs, and comes with ten speakers, but the Limited comes with ten speakers anyway. More importantly, the navigation system comes with a rear video camera, which both helps in parking – these pickup trucks are long and it can take a while to discover where they end – and in safety, since you really can’t see kids or, for that matter, short adults. Our vehicle didn’t have a backup alert, which would have been redundant anyway, but the camera took its place quite well and made parking far easier and safer.
Unfortunately, as with many navigation systems, this nav system also made using the radio a nightmare. To do something as simple as lower the bass response (otherwise overwhelming when people on the radio were talking) required pressing the Audio button on the far right, then pressing a Sound icon, then repeatedly pressing a button on virtual sliders. This takes both time and attention, a dangerous preoccupation when piloting a heavy, long pickup that might well be pulling a trailer, and with the touch screen there’s little chance of memorizing the steps by feel. Even remembering which of the eight buttons brings up the Audio menu takes considerable effort. Having the station up/down and volume controls on the wheel helps, but it doesn’t do the trick. We also found that the stereo was a bass-heavy and not quite as satisfying as a ten-speaker, premium-brand stereo should be. (The bass-heavy tuning seems to be catching on among automakers.)
Overall, the Toyota Tundra may well be the best full-sized pickup truck in America, both in driving experience and in durability. We’ve heard good things about the underlying chassis engineering, the engine provides far more horsepower than competitors while delivering similar gas-mileage, capacities are above peers, and ride and cornering are as good as or better than any competitor. There really are no definitive weak spots in the Tundra, and there are many strengths. It looks as though this vehicle may be for trucks what the Camry was for mid-sized cars.