2009 Toyota Tundra

Go Big or Go Home

2009 Toyota Tundra

In today’s world, you have to admire those who keep trying. Take the case with Toyota. Although it has won over countless car buyers in North America in the last three decades, the truck market has been a different story. The company was one of the first peddlers in this land with small pickups, along with Datsun and Mazda and although it has carved out a successful niche in that segment since, the full-size market has proved a far tougher nut to crack. Toyota’s first foray into the “big” segment was the T-100 – little remembered today and for good reason, since the company sold about four of them.

FAST FACTS

1. Redesigned for 2008 the latest Tundra is offered with three different cab and bed styles for a total of 16 unique models and 44 available configurations.

2. The big iForce 5.7-liter V-8, despite its quad overhead cams, makes a walloping 401 ft-lbs of torque at just 3600 rpm.

3. Five- or six-speed transmissions are offered with a choice of column or console mounted shifters

4. All current Tundras are built in the United States, in San Antonio, Texas and Princeton, Indiana

Next came the first generation (and U.S.-built) Tundra, which upped the ante, with a proper engine (V-8), more competitive pricing and a far greater range of features and equipment than was available on the T-100. Still, while this truck was a huge improvement, it didn’t win over that many Ford, GM or Dodge owners and both capability and stature paled next to the domestic competition. So for 2008 Toyota pulled the wraps off a redesigned second generation Tundra – a big brute whose aim was to carve a path a mile wide, pushing F-150s, Rams, Silverados and Sierras aside and into the ditch. Has it been successful? Read on.

BIGGER IS BETTER

According to Toyota, a primary reason the previous Tundra didn’t make a really huge dent in the market, was simply because wasn’t large enough. Thus for the current version, the company went all out. Our test rig, despite being a regular cab model with the long 8-foot 1-inch bed (double cabs are also offered – with forward opening doors like Dodge, plus a full CrewMax), was still massive, almost 210 inches long and nearly 80 inches wide. Further accentuating that is the styling, which is perhaps a little cartoonish – the big, bold chrome grille is one thing, but the truck is a little oddly proportioned, the fenders bulge in some strange places and the doors on the regular cab look as long as those on 1970 Pontiac Firebird.

Our test rig also came equipped with the optional trailering mirrors, which stick out even further, but can come in handy, especially considering the size of this rig. Exterior fit and finish isn’t bad, we give a thumbs up to paint quality, which is good, but the panels themselves don’t feel that sturdy, especially compared to say an F-150.

Jumping up into the cab – it’s quite a reach, even on 4×2 models and you’re greeted with a typical Toyota interior; that looks as if it was lifted right out of a Camry. You’ve got dual column stalks, which for a full-size rig is a tad unusual. The column mounted shift lever on our tester was simply huge, but easy to operate.

Interior fit and finish didn’t particularly impress, especially compared to the smaller Tacoma – the HVAC controls in particular felt rather flimsy. We couldn’t fault the driving position though and the seats are surprisingly comfy. Considering the length of the regular cab, there isn’t much useable space behind the chairs – Toyota has put in a hard plastic shelf back there, but we think a soft rubber mat would do better, since stuff kept sliding around every time we turned a corner. We also think that Toyota should ditch the carpet and install a soft rubber floor – this is a truck after all and that carpet will get destroyed from muddy boots and salted winter shoes – not to mention a rubber floor is much easier to clean.

FULL FORCE: OVERHEAD CAM iFORCE V8 MAKES SURPRISING TORQUE

Toyota offers three different engines on the current Tundra; the base engine is a 4.0-liter V-6 with 236 horsepower, while the next step is a 4.7-liter quad cam V-8 with 276 ponies (this will be replaced by a new 310hp 4.6-liter V-8 for 2010). Our test rig however, came with the big gun; the 381 horsepower 5.7-liter iForce V-8. For an overhead cam design it’s surprisingly torquey with 401 ft-lbs on tap, and coupled with the six-speed automatic transmission (which features a lock up torque converter for the top two ratios), pulls very strongly, like a big-cube pushrod engine. Step on the gas and whoa! Passing and merging are no problem and the regular cab feels a bit like a hot rod, but with 10 times the level of refinement. The exhaust note is pretty nice too and no time during our evaluation did we think the engine was struggling.

The transmission does a decent job, the shifts are on the whole satisfyingly smooth, but on occasion it’s slightly hesitant to downshift. It also likes to hold second gear on cold winter mornings, but gets better once things warm up. One thing we did notice is that fuel economy is surprisingly decent for such a large engine – Toyota quotes 17/24 miles per gallon city/highway and we averaged more than 20 on several occasions.

Toyota equips all Tundras with four-wheel disc brakes and standard ABS. They work pretty well and pedal feel is better than some of the domestic competition, particularly Ford and GM. Having said that, stopping distance isn’t that short (we got 141 feet from 60 mph to rest) and considering that aspect, rear discs are perhaps a bit much – especially since the front anchors do most the work. They’ll also likely prove maintenance intensive as the years go by, especially if you drive in nasty winter weather or like going off-road.

SCREAMING RUBBER

Thanks to the double wishbone front suspension and surprisingly well dialed in leaf sprung rear, highway ride is impressive and you can drive this truck from coast to coast, feeling just a relaxed at the end of your journey as at the start. Considering the Tundra’s sizeable girth (our tester weighed in at almost 5300 lbs) handling is not a strong suite, yet taken in context, the big truck does pretty well through the turns – the steering is actually rather quick.

The biggest issue is the tires – they don’t provide a huge amount of grip and are a main factor in pushing the truck wide thorough corners, howling in protest as it turns. In terms of everyday grip, the skins on our tester, (sized at 255/70/18), felt a bit like steam rollers and although in the dry aren’t bad, when conditions get slippery they tend to spin fairly easily, despite the efforts of the truck’s traction control system. The tires are also not very suitable for off-roading.

If any Tundra owners want to try that, we suggest investing in aftermarket rims ’n’ rubber. Here’s why. For our mud plugging, we decided to take the big Toyota on a few different surfaces, washboard, rutted roads and rocks. The one touch 4WD system is easy to engage, but if you lose momentum on a particularly boggy stretch – it might take a while to get moving again, since the stock tires just spin ad infinitum unless you’re super careful on the throttle. Ground clearance on our tester wasn’t tremendous; despite the truck’s overall height, but having said that, it didn’t provide a hindrance to our progress – unlike the tires.

One thing we did notice though, was frame shock. Although the steering linkage felt a lot sturdier than some other trucks over big bumps (notably Dodge), the back part of the chassis was creaking and wobbling like a schooner’s mast in a force 10 gale. Toyota doesn’t fully box the rear part of the frame, and as a result on bumpy surfaces, the back of the truck was just dancing all over the place – we think this is one area that needs considerable improvement – as this rig is designed for construction use and towing (properly equipped, it’s rated to pull up to 10,100 lbs). A weak frame will likely cause premature fatigue down the road, especially considering the amount of pounding and twisting truck chassis have to contend with on a regular basis.

In terms of actually towing, the Tundra makes light work of pulling a 5,500 lb trailer up hills, the engine always has plenty of thrust in reserve, though the transmission does take a while figuring out what it wants to do and is most comfortable once cruising velocity is reached. Toyota doesn’t offer an integrated trailer brake controller like GM or Ford, so you’ll need to shop smartly for one via the aftermarket.

THE VERDICT

Big and brazen, in a unique Japanese kind of way, the current Tundra is by far the most capable large pickup Toyota has yet produced. Offered in sixteen different models it’s very well priced – regular cab models begin at $22,490 while the top line Crew Max goes for $27,915 before options and taxes.

It’s also incredibly refined for a big truck and quite satisfying to drive in everyday situations, though in our opinion, the spotty fit and finish and creaky rear chassis, still put it slightly behind the domestic pack. However if there’s one thing you can count on, it’s the fact that Toyota tends to listen to its target audience and the next Tundra will no doubt be as improved over the current model as this one is over the last.

PLUS

Strong 5.7-liter V-8 engine Outstanding highway ride Very competitively priced

MINUS

Build quality not up to Toyota’s usual standards Barely adequate tires Excessive frame flex