Raleigh, N.C. — IT doesn't surprise me that, after 14 years of stalking the American pickup market, Toyota has finally unleashed full-size pickup hell with its monstrous Toyota Tundra, a truck that goes nose to nose with big-ugly domestics Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado. Now that I have driven the redesigned 2007 Toyota Tundra — in its most gawdamighty-large configuration, the CrewMax 4X4 SR5 with the 5.7-liter V8 — I can't even raise an eyebrow. It's exactly what I thought it would be: a half-earnest, half-mocking tribute to the American pickup truck, bigger and saccharine-sweeter than its competitors, with major-league engineering (1,590-pound payload capacity in 4x4 trim) and focus-group features galore, including half a dozen of the biggest cup holders this side of the NFL.
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Actually, the whole truck has a weird pituitary quality to it. It's hard to survey the oversized rotary controls and massive seat cushions and not think of the sausage fingers and broad American backsides they were designed for.
What is astonishing to me is that people are buying these trucks by the trainload. I've spent the last two weeks in North Carolina, and I see these trucks everywhere. This is the South, NASCAR country, where truck loyalty is generational and one's Chevy versus Ford affiliation is expressed by cartoon decals in back windows, where Calvin is urinating on the rival brand. So whatever happened to truck-buyer loyalty? For that matter, whatever happened to good old "Buy American" xenophobia?
First, let's do the numbers: The pickup segment in the U.S. amounts to about 2 million sales annually, or about 13% of the overall vehicle market. Pickup segment sales have softened in 2007 due to higher fuel costs, but not by much. Toyota wants to sell 200,000 Tundras per year, representing 10% market share. The company, eager to diffuse any blowback in this most emotional of vehicle segments, has been at pains to say it wasn't challenging the domestics for numerical supremacy but merely nibbling at the edges of the market. In various statements to the press, Big Three execs have pronounced themselves "Not Worried." Whatever.
There have been problems with the new-and-engorged Tundra, on sale since February. Toyota has had to resort to incentives to move the sheet metal — up to $3,500 on some Tundras, in a market that's soft overall. Also, this spring, there was a minor but symbolic gaffe with a few faulty camshafts in the truck's 5.7-liter V8s. Even so, sales of Tundras continue to gain strength. For the first five months of 2007, for example, Tundra's sales mightily smote the other Asian transplant full-sizer, the Nissan Titan, 61,113 to 28,668.
The Tundra's success is amazing when you consider the context. This year, Toyota not only became the largest car company in the world but also the bestselling brand in the U.S. market, a title Ford or Chevy has held since 1907. The company is putting up factories in the U.S. like they were hotels in a Monopoly game. Plainly, by any metric you care to name, Toyota is caning the domestic automakers in grand and ignominious fashion.
How is it that Toyota has avoided being labeled an Asian carpetbagger?
You have to credit Toyota USA's intensive and multi-vectored marketing campaign that has unfolded over many years. Indeed, with its strange, reality-shaping suasion, you can only compare Toyota's marketing with statist propaganda. To boil the message down to its essence: Toyota has been in the U.S. for 50 years; it employs American workers and pays them good wages. Bottom line: Toyota is as American as it gets.
In the truck segment, this is a little more of a hard sell. Trucks are associated with work, and blue-collar buyers are more averse to buying foreign-nameplate vehicles. Enter NASCAR. When Toyota entered NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series in 2004, it was precisely to lay the psychological groundwork for the full-size Tundra. At first, there were howls from traditionalists but they died down quickly. This year, when Toyota entered Nextel Cup competition (the first overseas brand to compete in Cup), there was hardly a xenophobic squeak.
Along the way, Toyota has bowed and scraped to NASCAR fans, many of whom drive pickups. Note the tagline of the company's brand advertising run during the races: "Thanks for having us." Yes, thanks for having us and our millions of dollars.
The obsequiousness doesn't end there. The advertising for the new Tundra (built in San Antonio, Texas, or Princeton, Ind.) endlessly flatters Americans for their rootsy and soulful work ethos. The dramatic demonstrations — the Tundra pulling a 10,000-pound boxcar back over a cliff edge, for example — send a message: We build a truck macho enough for you hammer-swinging Americans. To button that idea, Toyota hired echt-American actor Sam Elliott to do the voice-over. Elliott couldn't be more gravelly if he were quarried on-site.
Compared with the Toyota ads, Chevy's advertising can only manage the defensive-sounding theme, penned by John Mellencamp: "This Is Our Country."
The net effect is that Toyota, by dint of careful and crafty message-shaping, has all but defused whatever nativism might reside in the pickup segment. You could drive one of these to an anti-immigration rally without anyone detecting the irony.
Toyota execs have called the Tundra the most important product in the company's history in the U.S., and culturally, that's dead right. But Toyota certainly didn't skimp on the engineering. The truck I drove was as solid as a crowbar. Tundra comes in three cab configurations: Regular (209.8 inches long with a regular bed), Double Cab (228.7 inches with a standard bed, 246.7 inches with a long bed) and CrewMax (228.7 inches, available only with a short bed). Three engines are available: a 4.0-liter V6 and a 4.7-liter V8 (both paired with a five-speed manual or automatic) and the big Kahuna, the i-Force 5.7-liter V8, with a max torque of 401 pound-feet and 381 horsepower smoothly channeled through a six-speed automatic. Our tester, with a back seat worthy of a Rolls-Royce, accelerated like a sports car. Zero-to-60 times are easily in the seven-second range.
The test vehicle had everything and then some: cold kit (heavy-duty battery and starter), six-disc audio changer and the TRD Offroad package, including trail-ready shocks and springs, skid plates and big muddies, among many other things, all wrapped in a suave aerodynamic package designed at Toyota's Calty Design Center. All told, it cost $36,850.
During my week with this truck, I detected no downsides at all. However, its fuel economy of 14/18 city/highway mpg is helping drive Toyota's CAFE numbers over a cliff worthy of one of its commercials. Toyota skeptics would like to point out that although the company is proclaiming itself as the savior of the planet, it is building ever more monster pickups and SUVs. This is a fair criticism.
Trucks are not my specialty, but if you pressed me, I'd say that between the Ford, Chevy, Toyota and Nissan, it's roughly a four-way tie in the big truck derby. Only the Dodge Ram seems patently inferior, and it's being frantically redesigned for a 2008 relaunch. But you have to hand it to Toyota. The Tundra is a state-of-the-art pickup, perfectly fettled and cunningly marketed to an audience that can't tell anymore where domestic ends and foreign begins.
Toyota builds trucks like a big guy
The 2007 Tundra competes in the large pickup market with all the right gadgets
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