Raising A White Flag To The Competition

2014 Toyota Tundra

We all benefit from highly competitive battles. In the automotive sector, few campaigns are so closely fought as the decades-long struggle for supremacy in the fullsize half-ton pickup truck segment. The Ford F-150 has dominated for ages, but Chevrolet, Ram and GMC have been closing the gap with freshly redesigned trucks that are rocking the industry.

Today's half-ton trucks are better than they've ever been, and we have fierce competition to thank for that.

But where does the segment leave a truck from an automaker that has chosen to no longer fight and deliver its best product? What kind of vehicle comes from a company that has relinquished any desire to strive for the top of the class – one who is now content offering nothing more than minor updates and mediocrity in an aim to placate brand loyalists?

Such a calculated underachiever would look a lot like the 2014 Toyota Tundra.

2014 Toyota Tundra side view2014 Toyota Tundra front view2014 Toyota Tundra rear view

The looming economic crisis and loyal American truck buyers caused sales to fall to just 83,000 units.

Toyota introduced the completely redesigned second-generation Tundra at the 2006 Chicago Auto Show for the 2007 model year. Unlike the first-generation truck, this new Tundra was properly sized to compete with other full-size half-ton pickups in the segment. To wage the difficult battle against the Chevy Silverado, Dodge Ram, Ford F-150, GMC Sierra and Nissan Titan, Toyota fitted the body-on-frame truck with a fresh 5.7-liter V8 mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The new Tundra was much more competitive than Toyota's previous half-ton (sales peaked at just under 200,000 units in 2007) but the looming economic crisis and loyal American truck buyers caused sales to fall to just 83,000 units four years later.

Seven years after its introduction, at the 2013 Chicago Auto show earlier this year, Toyota introduced a refreshed Tundra set for sale as a 2014 model. "Tundra's new exterior design and new interior were inspired by customer feedback requesting a more chiseled exterior and refined interior, with improved driver ergonomics and easy-to-use technology, giving customers more of what they want," said the automaker. The reception for the mostly cosmetic changes was understandably lukewarm – especially amidst major redesigns by the fiercely competitive Detroit Three.

Six months after Chicago, with the ice and snow nothing but a memory, we found ourselves behind the wheel of the 2014 Toyota Tundra on a warm and soggy rain-soaked Pennsylvania trail.

2014 Toyota Tundra grille2014 Toyota Tundra wheel and tire2014 Toyota Tundra taillight2014 Toyota Tundra bed

A new soft-drop tailgate has "TUNDRA" embossed in the sheetmetal.

The exterior of the Tundra has lost much of its bubbly appearance in favor of a more "chiseled and masculine truck look," says Toyota. Most noticeable is the front hood, raised 1.6 inches in height, and the new aggressive front grille (with a "mock-air inlet") that reaches down to the top of the bumper. The resculpted front bumper is now a three-piece modular design, allowing consumers easier repair if a section is damaged (the bumper improvement is carried over to the rear as well). Other changes include single-bulb headlamps, new quarter panels with integrated fender flares and a new soft-drop tailgate with "TUNDRA" embossed in the sheetmetal. There are also four new wheel designs ranging in diameter from 18 to 20 inches.

Toyota has worked hard on the Tundra's aerodynamics. Look closely to find tiny vortex generators (they look like small speedbumps) on the mirror bases and taillamps. These increase turbulence in the air passing over the body to reduce drag and aid high-speed stability.

The interior has also been redesigned and modernized to have a "true truck look," says the automaker. Continuing that objective, the dash and doors have been restyled with more soft-touch surfaces and the instrument panel upgraded and moved over slightly to improve ergonomics. There is a new, larger center console and with additional power outlets (AUX, USB and 12-volt) above the console tray, and the infotainment system has been updated with Toyota's latest Entune system. Four-door CrewMax models have also been fitted with a "tip-up" rear seat cushion to improve load capacity and utility.

2014 Toyota Tundra interior2014 Toyota Tundra fuel economy display2014 Toyota Tundra USB and AUX input2014 Toyota Tundra folded rear seat

With the exception of a new transfer case and driveshaft, the mechanicals have mostly been left alone. The Tundra's frame (high-tensile steel boxed in the front with a C-channel under the cab and rearward for better weight distribution) and suspension (independent double-wishbone up front with a live axle in the rear) are unchanged, save for a set of retuned shock absorbers. And it's the same story with the hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion steering and ventilated disc brakes at all four corners.

We'd recommend giving up a couple MPG for the larger 5.7-liter V8.

The engines are carried over too. Those who aren't towing much will likely be content with the 4.0-liter V6 (rated at 270 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque) and five-speed automatic that are standard equipment on the entry-level model.

Most Tundras will arrive with one of two optional V8 engines. The first engine, displacing 4.6 liters, is rated at 310 horsepower and 327 pound-feet of torque. It's a nice powerplant, but we'd recommend giving up a couple MPG for the larger 5.7-liter V8, rated at 381 horsepower and 401 pound-feet of torque. Both optional V8s are bolted to a proven six-speed automatic transmission. Four-wheel drive models have an electronically controlled two-speed transfer case that requires the vehicle to be completely stopped and put into neutral to engage low range.

2014 Toyota Tundra engine

Unlike most other players in the fullsize pickup segment, Toyota rightfully brags that the Tundra is SAE J2807 compliant.

Unlike most other players in the fullsize pickup segment, Toyota rightfully brags that the Tundra is SAE J2807 compliant. This non-mandatory litmus test of towing strength challenges truckmakers to pull a real-world load (a heavy trailer plus a full load of passengers and cargo) under grueling conditions. Once the test is successfully completed, the new tow rating is calculated only after subtracting the vehicle's load. Toyota has been in compliance since 2011, but other manufacturers are just coming aboard now. Properly equipped, the Tundra can tow upwards of 10,400 pounds with a gross combined weight rating of 16,000 pounds.

The latest generation of the Texas-built Tundra will be offered in five different grades. Buyers will be familiar with the carryover SR, SR5, Limited and Platinum models, but Toyota has added an all-new premium 1794 Edition that features unique 20-inch wheels, saddle brown embossed leather and suede upholstery. The name pays tribute to the San Antonio ranch, founded in 1794, where the assembly plant is now located. You'll be able to have your five trim levels in three cab styles – two-door Regular Cab, four-door Double Cab and four-door CrewMax – and a choice of 4x2 and 4x4 powertrains.

Rather than spend just minutes in each of the dozen or so models, we split our time cleanly in half: morning was spent on the challenging off-road course in a Radiant Red SR5 Double Cab 4x4 optioned with the TRD Off-Road package, while the afternoon put us in a Blue Ribbon Metallic Limited Double Cab 4x4 on the (mostly) dry pavement. Both trucks we drove were equipped with the 5.7-liter V8 since Toyota estimates such a small percentage of owners will choose the V6.

2014 Toyota Tundra off-road2014 Toyota Tundra off-road2014 Toyota Tundra off-road2014 Toyota Tundra off-road

Visually, Toyota has achieved its mission objective in terms of a designing a more distinctive (if polarizing) exterior appearance. Even though it was a bit overwhelming at first, we quickly grew accustomed – even liked – the new façade and the embossed tailgate. The Tundra finally has some much-needed stage presence.

The Tundra finally has some much-needed stage presence.

The Tundra's redesigned interior is also a pleasing improvement over last year's model. The cabin materials feel more substantial and the ergonomics have been simplified. The meaty leather-wrapped steering wheel felt great in our hands and we liked the round, swiveling vents that allow better air distribution. We did discover, however, that those real metal rings quickly coat themselves with water droplets in humid air. The gauge cluster is also easier to read, with the new 3.1-inch color TFT display being particularly clear, and the Entune touchscreen is well placed for viewing from either seat and features a standard backup camera. Safety equipment stays largely the same as before, but the options list will now also include a segment-first blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert. Overall, we wished we were equally as smitten with this Toyota's driving dynamics as we were with its updated cabin, but that isn't the case.

On-road, the Tundra felt heavy, ponderous and frankly archaic compared to others we have driven in this segment. While wind noise was kept under control, the ride was firm and sharp impacts jolted the undercarriage noisily. Handling was sluggish, and the half-ton drove with a heavy feel that didn't encourage us to push it even moderately on the twisty sections. The competition has been successfully taking the "truck" out of its half-ton offerings for some time now, leaving the Toyota feeling dated.

2014 Toyota Tundra lineup2014 Toyota Tundra off-road2014 Toyota Tundra off-road2014 Toyota Tundra off-road

The 5.7-liter is damn strong, but achieves its muscularity through displacement, not refinement.

While some in the class are using direct injection (GM), turbochargers (Ford) and eight-speed automatics (Ram) to improve fuel economy and drivability, Toyota's "updated" setup adopts none of the above. In response to a heavy foot, the Tundra accelerated with authority off the line and it had plenty of grunt for passing. Yet we would never consider the 5,600-pound truck on the "quick" end of the scale. There is no arguing with the V8's strength, as the 5.7-liter is damn strong, but it achieves its muscularity through displacement, not refinement. Fuel economy ratings have yet to be released for the 2014 model equipped with either engine, but we don't expect them to exceed or even meet the domestic competition. For reference, the outgoing 2013 Tundra 4x4 with the 5.7-liter V8 gets EPA ratings of 13 city miles per gallon city and 17 highway, with the 4x2 eking out an extra mpg on the freeway.

Off-road, the Tundra performed much more admirably. Models optioned with the TRD Off-Road package will be fitted with specially designed Michelin LTX AT2 tires made with a compound specifically engineered to improve performance after the pavement ends. The new tires clamored through the muck and climbed wet rocks and logs with ease, yet still kept their composure on the asphalt. It's a shame they aren't offered across the board, as models without the TRD package will ride on all-season Bridgestone tires. We had plenty of fun in the mud and water, but yearned for a grab handle on the A-pillar each time we stepped out of the cab on a slippery slope, and we missed the optional forward-facing camera offered on the Ford SVT Raptor when we crested blind hills.

Vehicle launches should be both exciting and fulfilling as we grasp new automotive systems, experience innovative technology and learn about the exhaustive research that brought the product to life. Yet after driving Toyota's updated half-ton pickup models over a variety of roads and terrain, the refreshed Tundra left us feeling, well... empty.

2014 Toyota Tundra rear 3/4 view

And, as is often the case, there is more to this story.

Even after selling a record 196,555 units in 2007, Toyota's slice of the half-ton pickup market was but a fraction of the volume of the Ford F-150 (690,589 units), Chevrolet Silverado (618,259 units) and Dodge Ram (364,177) that year, despite offering an arguably better product at the time. American truck owners have always been very loyal to their badge, and the Japanese reasoned that earning additional conquest sales would be a prohibitively expensive undertaking.

Toyota appears to have ceded to the competition.

At some point in the recent past, the fate of the 2014 Tundra was sealed - the company would not make an investment in an entirely new truck, the existing engines would be carried forward and the talked-about small displacement diesel powerplant would be shelved.

When pushed for sales estimates, Toyota said it expects to sell about 107,000 half-ton pickup truck this year and about 130,000 in 2014. But the numbers will level off at that point. Rather than spend the money to build the segment's best product to capture additional conquest sales, Toyota appears to have ceded to the competition. Stepping away from the hard-fought battle between the Detroit Three, it has chosen the path of least resistance - it will dial back its efforts and build the Tundra in Texas simply to satisfy the 100,000+ faithful Toyota owners who show up to buy one every year.

It's that premeditated, defeatist mindset that bought us this refreshed but half-hearted pickup we drove in Pennsylvania. So you'll have to forgive us for walking away from this Toyota with the same feeling.