How big is the Toyota Tundra CrewMax pickup? I’ve been picking Fiat 500s and Ford Fiestas out of its grille for the past week. I added a refrigerator and pool table in the backseat. I have to call a tugboat to help me navigate narrow fast-food drive-thru lanes.
I exaggerate, of course. I’m no stranger to big pickups (I tow my race cars to the track behind a big Dodge RAM 3500). They are the workhorse of American sportsmen, construction workers and landscapers. But as auto companies target pickups — like the upscale Tundra 1794 edition I tested — to urban cowboys (and cowgirls) as well as their traditional, more rural audience, drivers should understand the capabilities of the beast at the other end of their reins.
Like the enormously powerful and essentially street-legal race cars from Porsche, Corvette, SRT, et al, big pickups are a fish out of water in an urban environment. If you aren’t trained to handle the Corvette Z06’s 635 pound-feet of torque, you could wind up wrapped around a telephone pole in the blink of an eye. Fail to appreciate the footprint of a Tundra/Chevy Silverado/Ford F-150, and you’ll squash a Smart car like a watermelon.
In short, don’t assume that driver’s license you got at 16 prepares you for a 2 ½ ton, two-story tank with 380 horsepower under the hood. Respect it. Bond with it. Or it might bite you. Witness my neighborhood Popeye’s drive-thru where I nearly took off the side of the building with the Tundra’s supersized tail.
That said, the Tundra and its rivals are wonderfully capable animals. Pickups breed fierce loyalty among brands even as there is little to choose between them. The F-150, Silverado, RAM 1500 and Tundra all are about 140 inches in wheelbase, offer 10,000-pound towing capability and a variety of cab configurations.
Not surprisingly, Japanese trucks have labored in this most All-American of segments. While Ford, GM, and RAM dominate full-size pickup sales, the Tundra is a distant fourth.
Even as American brands have struggled against dependable Asian imports in the sedan segment (see Chrysler’s self-conscious “Imported from Detroit” ad line), Toyota has the opposite challenge with trucks. American pickups are as rock solid as Mount Rushmore, as dependable as Lassie, and as American as apple pie. So Toyota’s every move is a self-conscious attempt to fit in with the home boys.
For example? Toyota chose Texas to build its Tundra. Everything’s bigger in the Longhorn State (Texas joke: What did the Texan say upon visiting Niagara Falls? “We could fix that leak in five minutes.”). Everyone’s more patriotic and everything is done in a pickup. Even the Tundra’s 1794 badge on my high-end Tundra is a claim to American authenticity.
“The new 1794 Edition is a tribute to the ranch, founded in the year 1794, on which the Tundra plant is located in San Antonio,” reads Toyota’s press release. Yeah, these guys are obsessed.
But Toyota competing against Big Three trucks is like a Northwestern vs. Michigan State football game. Sure, Northwestern’s got a Big Ten team, but have you seen the depth of that State squad? Similarly, the Tundra’s quite competent five-model Tundra line must compete against the likes of Ford, which offers 10 variations of the F-150, and 15 variations of its F-250, F-350, and F-450 Super Duty line.
And it ain’t getting’ any easier as the F-150 is investing in more fuel-efficient aluminum trucks and GM is coming after Toyota’s midsize Tacoma with the Chevy Colorado and GM Canyon.
One-on-one in the open field, however, the Tundra 1794 is a match for any truck in class.
My white 1794 features the Tundra’s tougher 2014 look with a bigger, squared-off grille using more chrome than a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado with the Biarritz trim package. The truck’s layout makes it a rolling Swiss Army knife. The roomy CrewMax interior offers leather luxury for the family with a back seat big enough to hold three Big Ten linemen (my 5-foot 5-inch wife needed the running board and side door handle and a painter’s ladder to get in). Yet the vehicle is still rugged as a mule on the outside with terrain-gobbling 20-inch tires and a 5’6” x 5’6” rear short box that has plenty of room for the dogs or a load of mulch. Hook it up and the 5,860-pound Tundra will tow the Space Shuttle. Really. Google it.
On the road, the 1794 rides surprisingly stiff. I could feel the concrete joints along the Lodge, for example. Rivals like the RAM 1500 have added air springs which help smooth out the ride, though as a veteran of stiffly-sprung sport sedans, I found the haptic ride reassuring in a vehicle two-stories off the ground.
If not for the ride, the $50,000 1794 edition’s (the base Tundra starts at $27K) stuffed-with-every-electronic-googaw cab feels like a luxury sedan with twice the acreage. Urban cowboys will appreciate the more fuel-efficient two-wheel drive option in addition to the truck staples of 4WD and 4WD off-road. But in Michigan’s Winter from Hell, I usually traveled in 4WD despite its thirsty 13 mpg.
After a few days of cramped commutes trying to navigate too-small parking places and crowded suburban shopping strips (what was that noise? Dang, I squashed another Smart!), the Tundra pined for tundra and so I took it out to the dirt roads of West Bloomfield’s lake country. I usually tip-toe through these rutted wagon trials in second gear in my compact family sedans, but the Tundra attacks them with relish.
Potholes covered with three inches of fresh snow? No problem. With tires out of the Brobdingnagian shopping catalog, the Tundra manhandled these roads. Turn a 90-degree corner with throttle and the 4WD drive-with-traction control bit hard, catching a power slide then leaping forward. Did I forget to mention that big, 381 horsepower V-8? Bury your right foot out of a stoplight and it sounds like a cattle stampede through a Texas gorge. Glorious.
You can take the pickup out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the pickup.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne