Once upon a time, Toyota looked ready to put a final knife into Detroit's automotive business by building the most American of vehicles, the full-size pickup truck. Just as it conquered cars and SUVs, Toyota's eventual dominance over the Old Three was considered a fait accompli by many observers. And yet here we are, seven years later, and Toyota has taken to refreshing it's Tundra for 2014 just to keep its small slice of the market from shrinking further. What went wrong?
When it first launched the full-size Tundra in 2006, Toyota set a goal of building more than 200,000 Tundras a year, talking up how the company had devoted itself to studying American consumers, going so far as to have the Japanese chief engineer make sure drivers could wear cowboy hats comfortably. And on paper, the trucks matched up well to the capabilities of the trucks from Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge.
But Toyota was unlucky and overconfident. The launch arrived just as the pickup market collapsed, smothered by the decline in homebuilding. In a first for Toyota, its models were less fuel-efficient than the competition. And Detroit had a several-decade head start on understanding truck buyers, the most loyal customers in the industry.
Last year, Toyota sold 101,621 Tundras — about 6 percent of the full-size market. An all-new Chevrolet model and aggressively redesigned Ram have made the battle for truck buyers more urgent than ever, and Ford continues to dominate. The new Tundra was meant to give Toyota some way of getting back into the conversation.
Much of the changes fall on the exterior and interior styling. Toyota calls the new look "chiseled," and touts how it makes the various trim levels announce themselves through different grilles. There's a new, near-luxury model called the "1794 edition" -- for the founding year of a Texas ranch that would later be bulldozed for the Tundra factory — which will likely cost near $50,000. And Toyota now stamps "Tundra" into the tailgate.
Under the hood, there are no changes, by design. Tundra Chief Engineer Mike Sweers says Toyota chose to stick with the traditional large-displacement engines — up to a 5.7-liter V-8 that can generate 381 hp — and not dare to venture into Ford EcoBoost-style turbos, which Sweers says gets no better fuel efficiency and offers less power. "There's no replacement for displacement," says the Toyota engineer who grew up in Michigan and works outside of Detroit, a living example of how Toyota rarely gives up.