Payne, Q&Auto: Eating dust with Tacoma’s chief engineer

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Toyota has been trying to change its image as a vanilla brand. You know the “bold” ads. Grizzled young buck in a Camry crashes a wedding. Makes off with the bride. Convinced?

It’s not a problem Toyota’s Tacoma shares.

In fact, if I dissed the mid-size pickup as “timid,” it would probably come over to my house and beat me up. The 4x4 is the roughest rodeo steer in town. While the handsome GM twins Colorado and Canyon woo city slickers, Tacoma Chief Engineer Mike Sweers wants you to throw a dirt bike in back and get dirty in the Outback. In fact, when he made the multi-million-dollar pitch for the first Tacoma remake in 10 years before CEO Akio Toyoda and his board, Sweers actually emphasized its “bad” qualities.

“It took me 30 minutes to explain that through a Japanese interpreter,” smiles the 52-year-old who works out of Toyota’s Technical Center in York Township.

Sweers got the green light, and now his truck’s physics-defying capabilities and enhanced interior have landed it as one of the nominees for North American Truck of the Year (I’m a juror). Sweers lives and breathes trucks — including inhaling dust for 1,270 miles of the brutal Baja off-road race last November as he co-drove a Toyota to first place in stock class. I sat down with the Grand Rapids native at the pickup’s Tacoma, Washington, launch to talk Tacoma, Baja and Leno.

Q: What’s with Toyota’s macho truck image?

Sweers: The first thing Toyota built was a truck (after World War II). Trucks are where we really built our reputation starting in the 1960s and then in the ’70s getting into off-road racing. I think off-road we are the winningest manufacturer in trucks.

Q: Desert racing?

Sweers: (Our) most famous driver is Ivan Stewart. He’s raced Baja 250, 500, 1000. It’s fun to hang out with Ivan because everyone knows him. When we were doing “Jay Leno’s Garage” ... I watched three teenagers (on the street) get wide-eyed and one comes over, and ignores Leno and takes a picture of Ivan in the truck.

Q: What does Baja do for Toyota?

Sweers: Baja is the pinnacle for off-road racing and vehicle durability. So in the Baja 1000 we had 270 entries — 120 trucks finished. In the stock class it’s all about: Can you take a stock vehicle and actually survive? You have every possible surface plus the heat, plus the jumps, rough roads, it’s crazy. After we won the race, we drove 1,100 miles back to L.A.

Q: GM is back in the mid-size pickup segment undercutting you in price. Why buy Tacoma?

Sweers: It’s the most aerodynamic, quietest, most capable truck at getting torque to the ground. Best off-road capability. Best approach angle at 32 degrees — theirs is 17.5. So they can’t really go off-road. They gave up approach angle for aerodynamics. Our No. 1 purchase reason is QDR: Quality, durability, reliability ... that’s what Toyota is known for. A Camry owner will say QDR means nothing is breaking. For a truck guy it’s different. It’s “I can go anywhere I want, and I can get back.”

Q: What’s Toyota’s engineering culture?

Sweers: We don’t do Flavor-of-the-Month Club. If we put new tech in a vehicle, it has to be totally proven out.

Q: What do you drive?

Sweers: I grew up on a farm ... learning to drive trucks. I’ve had trucks my whole life. I drive a Tundra Double-Cab 4x4 with an off-road package and long deck ... and I own a couple of 1970s AMC Javelins.

Q: Baja was your first taste of truck competition. What do you do for fun?

Sweers: We go run the dunes on Silver Lake (a Michigan off-road park). Go burn the logging trails in the UP. I take my Tundra. We run trials in Luther, Michigan, too. A lot of moguls, woods, steep climbing and descents. You’ll get between 25-35 degree grades. We test all over the world. Once, we went south of Nagoya (Japan) in the mountains, and we had one master off-road driver. He was a little crazy. “Okay Mike San, lets’ go,” he says. “No trail. Just climb mountain.” For eight hours I don’t think we had four wheels on the ground. I was in a pucker moment for eight hours. I had no idea my truck could do that.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne. See all his work at HenryPayne.com