It doesn't take a genius to realize that full-size trucks are big - and highly profitable - business in the United States. Just one drive through Southern or Western states reveals a litany of large trucks being used as everything from delivery vehicles to serious workhorses or, increasingly, family haulers.
Naturally, Toyota wants a chunk of the pie - even if a V8-powered truck seems at odds with the Prius-friendly image Big T usually cultivates.
For 2014, Toyota has thoroughly revamped its Tundra lineup, and while we'll definitely stop short of calling this a full-scale redesign, the Tundra offers some compelling reasons to shop outside of the Detroit Big Three.
What is it?
For 2014, the Tundra receives a new look inside and out plus some chassis modifications designed to improve its ride quality. A little short on "whiz-bang" high-tech features compared to Detroit's rigs, the Tundra might look like something of a weak effort on paper.
Unlike Chrysler, Ford and General Motors, Toyota offers a relatively limited range of full-size Tundras - you'll only find three gas engines and three bodystyles. That means that no heavy-duty model or diesel variant is a part of the lineup.
What you will discover, however, is a truck that's more or less an on-paper facsimile for a Detroit pickup - at least one from a few years ago. Engines displacing 4.0, 4.6 and 5.7 liters are on offer with a choice of rear or part-time four-wheel-drive. Bodystyles begin with a standard cab, grow to an extended cab and culminate in our tester's CrewMax. And trim levels, an ever-growing part of the one-upping pickup market, start with entry-level work-oriented models before topping out in luxo-lined range-toppers.
With its standard 5.7-liter V8, our Limited grade tester sits somewhere in the middle as the gateway into more lifestyle-oriented trucks. It was further optioned up with a TRD Off Road package that adds Bilstein shocks and special Michelin all-terrain tires plus skid plates for a very reasonable $100. A few other goodies boosted the bottom line to $44,295, which is, pound-for-pound, cheaper than a Detroit-badged truck.
What's it up against?
This one's easy: The Chevrolet Silverado, Ram 1500, Ford F-150 and GMC Sierra.
What does it look like?
While the first-generation Tundra was criticized as something of a softy, the second-gen model that hit the market all the way back in 2007 had the right proportions and measurements to be treated like a real truck. This latest model doesn't grow, but its look is subtly and thoroughly refined.
A grille so big that it actually splits in two when the hood is raised greets onlookers up front. More aggressive flaring to the truck's fenders clean things up along the Tundra's side. Out back, big lettering stamped into the tailgate replaces separate chrome bits for a butch look, but the tail lamps feel a little too car-like for us.
The black-finish 18-inch alloy wheels included with the TRD Off Road package class things up, but overall we're left feeling less-than-enamored with the Tundra's redesign. The new look is different, but not necessarily more interesting than before. Up against our favorite lookers in the segment - the Ram 1500 and the GMC Sierra - the Tundra comes across a little busy and a little blobby.
And on the inside?
The improvements are far more noticeable here. Clearly using the Ford F-150 as a template, Toyota has redesigned the Tundra's interior interior to feel more welcoming and upscale - as well as more convenient. Gone is the massive stretch to the climate and audio controls. Instead, drivers will find that everything is within an easy reach.
Toyota's typical switchgear makes an appearance, meaning most controls are particularly easy to sort out - that's something we can't always say about rivals. A 7-inch touchscreen in the center stack controls Toyota's Entune infotainment suite; navigation and audio functions are easy enough to sort through and we found Bluetooth integration to be particularly good. One downside is that the screen seems more susceptible to washing out in harsh light than some in the segment.
Redundant audio controls on the steering wheel make up for a lack of hard buttons on the head unit, although we really would like to see other truck builders follow Ford's lead by adding separate radio preset switches.
A second small LCD screen sits in the instrument cluster to dole out trip computer functions. While it is effective, it isn't as elegant as the LCDs found elsewhere.
One place where the Toyota really stands above is in its stretch-out space, however. All five passengers have plenty of room, especially those in the second row.
Fit and finish felt terrific in our tester, but we weren't impressed with the material choices. Though everything is nicely grained, hard touch plastics abound on the door panels, center console and dashboard. At this price point, GM and Ram both offer up much ritzier materials.
But does it go?
We've never found reason to complain about Toyota's 5.7-liter V8 engine - at least not until we visited a gas station (and then, shortly thereafter, another gas station). Cranking out 381 horsepower and 401 lb-ft. of torque, the V8 isn't super high tech in its operation - it lacks direct injection, cylinder dispaclement or turbochargers like some rivals' motors. But what the 5.7 lacks in fancy features it more than makes up in raw power.
This is a fast truck, its power made all the more usable by a quick-shifting six-speed automatic gearbox. Slipped into sport mode - admittedly not the most applicable name - the automatic comes even more alive.
Unfortunately, the downside to this story is the Tundra's miserable fuel consumption. We saw as little as 11 mpg in hard driving, but we were able to match the EPA figures of 13/17 (15 mpg combined) once we drove more sanely. Still, that's well off the pace set by competitors offering upwards of 20 mpg with about the same power.
The Tundra also makes use of conventional hydraulic power steering rather than the electric setups of its rivals. If there's one market segment where electric steering really makes sense, it is with pickups. As a result, the Tundra's tiller felt a little heavy in parking situations. Not by any means the world's most communicative setup, the steering was nonetheless accurate and direct enough to impart a generally nimble feel in town and a high degree of stability on the road.
Even with the Bilstein-branded shocks underneath, the Tundra's independent front and leaf-sprung rear suspension absorbed rough stuff with aplomb. No question that this is a nice riding truck, even if it trails the Ram for outright comfort. Road noise was also kept to a minimum on the highway.
We didn't tow with our tester, but previous experiences have revealed a robust powertrain generally up to most tasks. One downside to the Tundra for heavy haulers is that its frame isn't fully boxed, meaning it allows for a little more flexibility than that in rivals. If you're a light duty user, you'll find this flex to be acceptable - but those who really use their trucks in serious situations might be better off with a Detroit brand.
We ventured down a rocky dirt road in our test truck and found that its good ground clearance and Toyota-specific Michelin tires gave it more capability than we expected. Moreover, Toyota's fast-acting A-TRAC traction control system and automatic limited slip differential meant that grip was never a problem. This traction control is the same as you'll find in Toyota's more dedicated off roaders like the Land Cruiser and 4Runner, so its chops are well proven.
Leftlane's bottom line
Recommending a vehicle based on its low price is sort of like damning it with faint praise. And, frankly, it's not something we often have to do with a Toyota (in part because they usually command something of a premium).
Certainly, Toyota could have gone a lot further with the Tundra's refresh, but there's still a lot to like about this full-size truck. But, most of all, we like its reasonable price of entry. Tundra, consider yourself damned with faint praise.
2014 Toyota Tundra Limited CrewMax 4x4 base price, $41,895. As tested, $44,295.
Premium Package, $595; TRD Off Road package, $100; Running boards, $345; Bedliner, $365; Destination, $995.
Photos by Andrew Ganz.