Detroit Auto Show: Japan to America; All Your Big Profits Are Belong to Us; Toyota Tundra is Nigh

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This is the moment the Big 2.5 have feared for years. Toyota has taken the gloves off and is giving the US consumer its (potentially perfect) version of "our truck." Unlike Nissan's half-hearted water toeing (Titian), the massive new Tundra will be available with a host of body configurations, engine choices and the ability to tow a small house around behind it. Seriously, the 5.7L gas engine makes over 400lbs. ft. of stump pull. But what we can't stress enough is the size of this beast. We were cracking up when presented with its rising sun massiveness in Los Angeles. In Detroit, it just gets bigger with the debut of the CrewMax four-door. They also showed up with a two-door, short bed Sport model. And judging by the "bigger is bester" commercials running on loop during the playoffs yesterday, Toyota fully understands this most 'backy chewin' lucrative of demographics.

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CrewMax:

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Sport:

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Spy Photos: Toyota Tundra Crew Max to Debut in Detroit [Internal]

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DISCUSSION

Pickup makers like to tout their different tacks on frame design, materials and construction. There's hydro-formed this, C-channel that, fully boxed the other, then welded versus one-piece, high-tensile steel against, well, whatever; for the record, the Tundra is a hybrid, unibody-on-frame, which is fully boxed in the front half, rolled C-channel in back. Truth is, though, what a driver really cares about is how it all comes together under the right foot, at the seat of the pants and at the hitch. And of all five-and-a-half (to cover Chevy and GMC) full-size, light-duty trucks in play, the Toyota Tundra heads the class.

A couple examples from the powertrain department make the point. The V6 and the 4.6-liter V8 are what has been state of the art for a number of years, as are many of the competition's engines, with variable intake valve timing, sequential fuel injection, knock sensors (allowing in most cases use of 87 octane gas), electronically managed throttle-by-wire and dual-length intake manifolds.

But the real news, and in the truest sense of that word, is in the 2007 Tundra's 5.7-liter V8. This all-new (there's that word again) V8 advances light-duty truck engine technology with the addition of variable exhaust valve timing. And not just timing, but phasing as well, also changing the speed of the valves' movement, the duration (how long the valves stay open) and the overlap between exhaust and intake. Careful manipulation of these dynamics achieves two, complementary goals, optimizing power and fuel economy and lessening stress of valve springs. Downstream, the two-into-one, dual exhaust system achieves balance between the two pipes by looping one back on itself inside the muffler, thus making them in fact the same length and, for the most part, equalizing back pressure so one bank of cylinders doesn't have to work any harder than the other in pumping combusted gases out of the engine.

There's more, but these examples make clear that Toyota's engineers didn't just cobble together some bits and pieces from the engine department's parts bins in building what's currently the most powerful V8 in the class. The benefits of this level of attention to detail are evident throughout the 2007 Tundra.

More generally, power delivery in the two V8 engines is linear, and surprisingly strong at low engine speed. This is especially so in the larger of the two, where 90 percent of the torque is on tap from 2400 revolutions per minute to 5500 rpm. Very impressive is the absence of any discernible surge associated with any of the intake manifold length transitions or valve-related variations.

Fuel economy is competitive, with the V6 4X2 earning an EPA-estimated 17 miles per gallon in the city and 20 mpg on the highway, the 5.7-liter V8 4X2 16/20 city/highway and the 4X4 14/18 city/highway; only the Silverado does the Tundra one better, with its 5.3-liter V8 4X2 earning a highway rating of 22 mpg.

Gear changes in the transmissions are smooth, but more apparent when trailering. Adaptive downshifts during braking on downhill grades are well managed, properly timed and helpful.

Based on a half-day of towing on interstates and country roads, there seems to be quite enough power, although the Tundra's optional brake controller lacks the sophistication of Ford's, which works more like a rheostat than an on/off switch, making for much smoother stops.

Opening and closing the tailgate is dramatically eased by the Tundra's ingenious tailgate assist. Not content with merely incorporating a torsion bar in the hinge assembly to make the tailgate feel lighter, the Tundra gets a gas-pressurized strut, concealed behind the left taillight, to damp the lowering and to assist the raising of the lockable tailgate. Talk about thoughtful and thorough.

Steering feedback is, well, odd. Not disturbing or uncertain, but odd. There's a softness on center, which tempts a driver to make corrections that prove to be unnecessary as directional stability is fine, then some resistance a bit off center, followed by a return of the softness through the turn. It's as if the steering control unit is trying to guess or anticipate what the driver wants and then actively assist, instead of just letting the driver intuitively manage the process.

Ride and handling are, simply, tops. Somehow, Toyota's suspension engineers have delivered a setup that from the driver's seat leaves no doubt it's a truck but by every other measure could be anything but.

Setting aside the odd feel at the wheel, response to steering inputs is sure and certain. Over severely uneven pavement, the live rear axle makes its presence known, but with minimal disruption of the truck's heading. Toyota credits this at least in part to an increased lateral stiffness from non-parallel leaf springs that tends to suppress load-induced rear steering.

Braking is solid, with firm pedal feel; the '07 Tundra's standard four-wheel discs are a first for a Toyota pickup.

The TRD Off-Road Package produces excellent handling, especially noticeable when driven quickly on winding, two-lane roads. If there's a pickup that deserves to be called a sports truck, this is it. The only competitor that's as much fun, albeit in an entirely different way, in a similar setting is the Dodge Ram SRT 10, but that's only because it's so far out of its element, so borderline out of control, that the experience can be almost breathtakingly exhilarating.

Tundra's maximum towing capacity of 10,800 pounds tops both the F-150 and Silverado by 300 pounds, the Nissan Titan by 1300 pounds and the Ram by 2050 pounds.