Full-size truck gets the job done - and then some
by: Jeff Basinger, For the Toyota Tundra, bigger is better, especially when competing in the full-size truck market,

Why does this always happen to me?

Whenever I'm testing a high-performance road car like the supercharged Jaguar XK or turbocharged BMW 750i, it rains all the time.

But when I have to take a long trip, I'm testing a truck.

Well, in the case of the 2010 Toyota Tundra, that wasn't such a bad deal after all. For a full-size truck, the Tundra is very comfortable to drive. The ride is generally smooth and the high seating position provides great views of upcoming traffic.

And equipped with the 4.6-liter V8, our test vehicle didn't get any worse gas mileage than most performance cars, even though it's much heavier and far less aerodynamic.

But best of all, it also rained most of the time we had the Tundra - and that's when it really excelled. No amount of water or wind slowed the big truck down. And we knew that if it got really bad, the Tundra could be switched from rear-wheel-drive to four-wheel-drive mode by just turning a dial on the dash.

Make no mistake, though, the Tundra is not for everyone. Especially in the four-door Crewmax configuration we tested, it is a very big truck, meaning that extra care needs to be taken when driven in heavy traffic. Just parking it takes planning. Parallel parking is easiest at the end of blocks.

The world has changed since Toyota led the Japanese mini-truck invasion over 40 years ago. The original Stout and subsequent Hi-Lux pickups of the 1960s were revolutionary. Far smaller and cheaper than the American trucks of the day, they nevertheless carried good-sized loads and could even be fitted with adequate camper shells. When gas prices soared during the Arab Oil Embargo of the 1970s, even Chevrolet, Chrysler and Ford began selling rebadged versions of fuel-efficient Japanese trucks.

But when gas prices eased in the 1980s, Toyota trucks started growing in size. First came the X-tra Cab versions that added storage space behind the seat. That was followed by the mid-size Tacoma, which featured far more interior space and creature comforts than the original mini-trucks.

Toyota got into the full-size truck market with the T-100 in 1993. Although substantially larger than the Tacoma, the T-100 was still slightly smaller than the American trucks it was going head-to-head against, however. If that was a competitive disadvantage, Toyota solved that problem in 1999 with the first generation of the Tundra, which was finally as big and powerful as the full-size American trucks.

The second-generation Tundra introduced in 2007 was even bigger and more powerful - a necessary step since the full-size Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford trucks had kept growing. This looked like a big mistake by all of the manufacturers when gas prices once again increased and the economy collapsed over the next few years. Full-size truck sales plummeted in 2008 and 2009, regardless of who made them. But as the economy has shown signs of recovering in 2010, full size truck sales are picking up and the Tundra is right in the mix.

It's easy to see why. The second-generation Tundra looks like a full-size truck should - serious and purposeful. The higher four-wheel-drive version practically needs a step ladder to get into, but once inside, the cabin is well designed and fitted. The cloth seats in our test model were cozy, the analog gauges were complete and informative, the cab was full of large and small storage compartments, and the big stereo and climate control system dials were big and easy to find, even on rainy nights.

Around town the Tundra's ride was a little bouncy. This is to be expected of large trucks that are not weighed down with full loads. It was not nearly as bone jarring as empty heavy-duty trucks, however.

Although the 4.6-liter V8 in our test truck was not the largest of the three engines available in the Tundra, it still had plenty of power. Mated to the six-speed automatic transmission, the 310-horsepower engine moved the truck smartly off the line and made freeway passing easy. The manual shift mode is more practical for heavy towing situations than stop light racing, however. No matter how it's equipped, the Tundra can't be considered a sports truck.

Unlike the original Toyota mini-trucks, the Tundra is available in wide range of models, including a two-door Regular Cab, a four-door Double Cab and an even larger four-door Crewmax. Trim levels range from the basic Work Truck package that features a vinyl bench seat and rubber floor coverings to the Toyota Racing Development Off-Road package that is practically ready for the Baja 500. All are available with four-wheel-drive.

Prices range from around $24,000 for the base Regular Cab model to over $40,000 for TRD versions with the 381-horsepower 5.7-liter V8. If you think that sounds like a lot to pay for a Japanese truck, remember the Tundra is a genuine full-size truck with a towing capacity of more than 10,000 pounds. How many mini-trucks do you think that is?

Facts and figures

• Model: Tundra.

• Manufacturer: Toyota.

• Class: Full-size truck.

• Layout: Front engine, rear and four-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-door, five passenger pickup.

• Engines: 4.0-liter V6 (236 hp, 266 lbs-ft); 4.6-liter V8 as tested (310 hp. 327 lb-ft); 5.7-liter V8 (381 hp, 401 lb-ft).

• Transmissions: 5-speed automatic; 6-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 15/20.

• Price: Beginning at approximately $24,000.

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