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PAUL DEAN

Toyota Jumps Into Big Leagues of Pickup Trucks With New Tundra

April 01, 1999|PAUL DEAN | TIMES AUTOMOTIVE WRITER

KONA, Hawaii — With its all-swaggering, full-size, V-8-powered 2000 Tundra pickup, Toyota becomes David versus Goliath. It is also going against Paul Bunyan, Rocky Balboa, John Henry, every titan of the truck-building world and probably the starting lineup of the World Wrestling Federation.

Consider the almighty opposition. The best-selling vehicles in the nation are Ford F-Series pickups. From Flareside to Lariat. America's second-best sellers are the Chevrolet C/K pickups. Silverado through GMC's Sierra.

These guys don't just rule the roost, they built it and have held title to the perch pretty much since Henry Ford helped put the Delivery Wagon together in 1900. Ford and Chevy sell close to 2 million full-size trucks a year--or not quite 15% of America's new-vehicle market--with the Dodge Ram and GMC Sierra as cleanup hitters.

Lovers of these brawny domestic trucks snorted bubbles in their Budweiser six years ago when Toyota introduced its T100, which looked and moved like a big truck but with a huge rip in its bib overalls: no V-8 engine.

It did show hay-hauling lines and came with Toyota's genetic reliability and durability. But its stinted V-6 barely out-muscled a Ford Ranger compact that has only four cylinders to do its hauling. And a Ford Lariat compact with a V-8 and four-wheel drive was still many dollars less expensive than the best-dressed T100 middling-to-large mid-size.

But watch out. Tundra is in town. Or on this Big Island, where the Big Truck (Toyota's marketing team hopes you get the allegory) was unveiled recently and trod heavily across volcanic acres good for nothing, and rich tundra (still get it?) that grows better cattle than Texas Hill Country.

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And here's the scary message from the introduction.

Toyota has turned the deficiencies of its sorry T100 experience into a learning curve and now knows that to compete in the big-truck market, one must first build a vehicle that is superior by hefty margins.

First: Tundra is priced very agreeably, with $15,000 buying the base model with standard-cab, full-size box, a five-speed manual transmission and a 3.4-liter, 190-horsepower V-6. That's almost as much horsepower as the V-6 Silverado--but for $8,000 less. A Tundra with a 4.7-liter, 245-horsepower V-8 will sell for $22,250. Again, that's more power at less price than a comparably equipped Ford Lariat.

Second: Toyota's V-8 puts out more torque, which translates to higher extraction powers while wallowing in the goop, and greater towing poundage than similar trucks from Ford and Chevrolet.

Toyota engineers and testers--and the seat of our pants can offer no denial--say two- and four-wheel-drive Tundras also accelerate faster and brake shorter while pulling those longer trailers, larger boats, fatter horses and greater loads of tomatoes and 2-by-4s.

Third: In its three variations--Standard, SR5 and Limited--Tundra wisely rounds up the usual configurations, options and systems. There's two- and four-wheel drive, of course, with shifting on the fly. Two doors or four; short bed or long; standard or crew cab. Bench seats or split seats--or captain's chairs available in leather with power adjustments.

Fourth: Toyota has added a flurry of new technologies to nag the competition into getting desperate. More ground clearance; more miles per gallon from a low-emission V-8; more technology such as a drive-by-wire gas pedal; and more foam and sheet-asphalt insulation to reduce the NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) to mausoleum levels.

Tundra--which goes on sale in June and will be built back home in Princeton, Ind.--will not challenge Nick Nolte in looks suggestive of tough times while crossing raw wilderness and bottomless pits. A good face. Character visuals. But just another truck look.

On-road, off-road, driving free or fettered to a 2,200-pound horse trailer stuffed with 800 pounds of fertilizer, the Tundra rides with the slightly heavy grace of a very expensive sport-utility vehicle. That trailer--on turns, or headed downhill with surge brakes starting to squeeze--really didn't seem to be there. When the truck was cut loose to romp over rocks and ruts, its shock absorber travel seemed to be endless, never bottoming out. And while on the rough stuff, while daring more than most trucks should suffer, steering remained true with little reduction of control.

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Traveling straight and level and riding empty, the cargo bed showed a surprising jiggle in search of some extra ballast. Small, straight-backed, bloody uncomfortable rear seats were probably designed by Southwest Airlines and beg a name change. From "occasional" seating to "highly unlikely."

And bet your half-ton 1957 Chevy Cameo pickup (cherried-out, worth about $17,000 these days) that Toyota is having second thoughts about the set of Tundra's four doors. The large, standard, rear-opening front doors may be closed only when the smaller, unconventional, front-opening rear doors have been shoved shut.

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