Driving 20 minutes south of the heart of San Antonio, Texas, puts you in sight of one of the newest and largest pickup-truck manufacturing plants in the world. Once it's fully up and running, they'll build about 200,000 vehicles there, and with a few modifications, there's room to bump that to 300,000. However, what makes this particular plant special is that it has 21 other factories on the property. Right now, Toyota is probably the only automaker that could get its suppliers to do something like this, but the world's most modern production facility is here, and Toyota is hoping this gamble will allow it to take a good chunk out of what used to be the most American of automotive segments.
Don't be fooled for a second. This is one of the most spectacular marketing and public-relations campaigns to date. Everything Toyota has done in this country to this point has been building to this singular event--making a competitive product to compete with one of the most American of icons--the full-size pickup truck. Nissan tried it and failed. Honda tried it and fabulously failed. If there's a company able to make this happen, though, it's Toyota. It's measured every interior detail on the new Ford, every underbody spec from the new Chevy, and every bed dimension on the new Ram. Designed in this country, built (not just assembled, but built) in this country, and only sold in this country (and Canada), this new pickup is more impressive than any other import we've seen.
But is it any good?
We've had plenty of seat time, as you can read in our first head-to-head road test pitting the new Toyota against the newest GMT900 Chevy, a vehicle we thought of highly enough to name it our 2007 Truck of the Year. Both trucks are strong, and spending time behind the wheel of the Toyota especially will reinforce that notion. However, at least in Toyota's case, we'd caution that just getting good numbers isn't always enough to carry the day. Making a worthwhile pickup truck requires several intangibles.
It'll take me a while to warm to the Tundra's looks--clearly a Dodge derivative, with just a hint of something aquatic. Toyota's design direction is about "the force of fist" cutting through the air. Hmmm. Not sure I get that. However, what I do get are its towing and climbing abilities, and how fast it'll run a quarter mile.
Although not the only criterion for determining value, all our test vehicles go to the track (in our case, California Speedway) into the care and motivation of our world-class test crew. It's our first opportunity to see how much respect the builders have for their users.
It turns out the high-tech Tundra's 5.7-liter V-8 makes so much power, we couldn't get a solid run down the racetrack without spinning the tires. Still, a 0-to-60 time of 6.5 seconds isn't too shabby; by a good margin, it's the fastest time of any stock half-ton we've tested. But our test crew felt there was more power to be had, so they switched the Tundra's 4x4 system to four-wheel high range to disconnect the power-robbing electronics (even with stability control switched off, it still interfered with our testing procedures). With all four wheels locked in unison, perfectly splitting the engine torque through both driveshafts and then the tires, the 0-to-60 number improved about eight percent. Impressive, to say the least.
However, and this is a huge "however," Toyota will be the first to tell you in its loudest legalistic voice, you should never, never, never run a part-time four-wheel-drive pickup truck on a high-traction surface in four-wheel-drive high or low range. (Toyota hadn't printed up the owner's manuals at the time we had the truck at the track.) As it was, nothing bad happened, meaning nothing on the truck blew up.
We learned a lot about what this 381-horsepower half-ton pickup truck can do. But it does prompt us to wonder, especially when tossing the Chevy Silverado into the mix (its four-wheel-drive setup includes a separate all-wheel-drive setting), why would Toyota make such a powerful pickup but not allow the owner to make full use of it?
There's something to be said for a truck that allows the driver a degree of choice, even if one of those choices is to let the truck's computers figure out the best traction solution. In "Auto," the Chevy sends all the power to the rear wheels until it senses or anticipates wheelslip, then it electronically locks a series of clutch plates in the center differential, splitting the available engine power between the front and rear driveshaft, giving traction where it's needed--all in less than a split second. And when it determines there's enough grip on the rear wheels, it stops turning the front wheels and driveshaft and reverts back to a conventional rear-drive pickup. The Chevrolet owner's manual says you can leave the Silverado in the Auto setting for the life of the vehicle with no worry. We wouldn't recommend this last part, mainly because if you don't switch over to two-wheel drive, you won't be able to get the back end to come out and get a little sideways (something we find ourselves doing occasionally for photo shoots).
To be fair, Toyota's strategy is to rely on existing electronics and sensors to make sure a driver doesn't get into trouble, but an all-wheel-drive setting would be nice. Maybe there's still room for a little more change, even if it is a new world out there.