Payne: Tough Toyota Tundra tames the suburban frontier

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
The 2019 Toyota Tundra is a great tool for Metro Detroit's rugged frontier roads.

The American truck market is where rugged pickups meet refined luxury — pickups like 2019 Toyota Tundra that I tested in Oakland Charter Township.

Which is appropriate because the township north of The Palace in Auburn Hills is where rugged farm country meets the frontier of luxurious development.

Here, successful Michiganians buy acres of farmland and woodland to build dream homes on the edge of Detroit’s metropolis. Huge 10,000-square-foot brick and stone homes spill across deforested yards. Gated communities back up against wooded streams. Modern castles reach for the sky on top of rocky hills.

These cloistered estates are conveniently located just minutes from shopping malls and interstates, yet they can only be reached by diabolical dirt roads that begin where the asphalt ends.

Dirt roads with names like Dutton and Brewster look like they were used in Normandy during the D-Day invasion. In February these arteries have been raked by the elements with bottomless potholes overlapping frozen mud ruts.

These are the byways for which my $46,610 Tundra tester with TRD Off-Road package was built.

I passed some of the most beautiful cribs I’ve seen, their owners struggling to reach them in sporty Cadillac CTS-Vs and lovely Volvo XC60s. A silver CTS-V looked like it would have preferred to be underwater than on this hellscape, its driver crawling along at 5 mph while the potholes beat the unibody chassis to a noodle.

My 381-horsepower, 5.7-liter V-8 Tundra drove by at 35 mph like Blake Griffin through a junior high team. Sitting on big-sidewall Michelins wrapped around 18-inch rims, the Tundra’s body-on-frame construction devoured the frozen mud moguls. The four-wheel-drive system churning like a buzz-saw through stale bread. BRRRAAAAWWWGH!

THONK! A rock thrown up by a tire clanged harmlessly off the steel skid-plate under the engine. The front tires skittered across an iced rut, the rear tires churning behind. This is how you commute to your remote domicile.

But arriving at your estate in a pickup doesn’t mean giving up luxury-car style. The Tundra is a handsome athlete.

Mind you, it’s no Ram 1500, which has all the truck boys drooling down at the rodeo. But its bold chrome grille, Midnight Black body armor and bling-tastic TRD off-road wheels demand respect.

The big fella has character, which is what you want filling up your dream home garage. The interior is as comfortable as your den with leather thrones, leather-wrapped steering wheel and an Entune Premium audio system pumping out your favorite tunes. My wife and her friends need a ladder to get into the rear seat, but once there, the short cab offers plenty of legroom (though I’d prefer a Crew Cab with its palatial backseat room).

The Tundra only pales in comparison to its Detroit competition, which is why the Toyota sold a mere 118,425 full-size pickups in 2018 compared to Ford (over 900,000), Chevy/GMC (over 800,000), and Ram (537,000). I know, I know, the Toyota only sells light-duty trucks while the Detroit Three sell Heavy Dutys and Super Dutys and Mega Kong Colossal Duties.

But the Tundra can’t even outsell its midsize little brother. The Tacoma more than doubled Tundra sales last year at 245,659. That’s right, the same brand that gets young buyers hooked on reliable Corollas/Camrys so that they buy five-door RAV4 SUVs when they have children can’t translate 246,000 Tacoma customers to buy full-size Tundras.

Well, it’s tough in the full-size pickup rodeo.

For one, the Tundra is long in the tooth compared to the Detroit megatrons. Its 381-horse V-8 and 6-speed transmission are a generation behind, say, the Chevy Silverado’s 420-horse V-8 or Ford F-150’s state-of-the-art 10-speed tranny.

My Tundra’s TRD package is tough as nails with Bilstein shocks. But the ride is a buckboard when on asphalt, unlike the comparable Ram Rebel’s comfy coil-spring rear setup. Throw the Tundra into a cloverleaf and — hold on, Bessy! — the numb steering and loose chassis make the lightweight Silverado feel like a Camaro by comparison.

The 2019 Toyota Tundra

Inside, the Tundra boasts nice wood and aluminum touches, but its dash, steering wheel and instrument layouts are antiquated next to the F-150’s thoughtful architecture. The Toyota’s clumsy automatic shifter feels stodgy. Even better are the Silverado and Ram with transmission solutions that open the center console to all kinds of mobile office space.

The 2019 Toyota Tundra

Show me a pickup and I’ll show you a neighbor who wants to borrow it — Please? Just for the weekend so I can get some mulch? — but even here the Toyota can’t innovate like the Detroit Three. It doesn’t have corner steps like the Silverado, MultiPro gate like the GMC Sierra or a best-in-class tow rating like the Ford.

What the Tundra does have is good ol’ Japanese value.

The V-8 may not have the Chevy’s low-end grunt, but the engine comes standard starting at just $35,000. Lots of trucks these days sport fuel-sippy four-bangers and V-6s, but a pickup and a V-8 go together like Thor and hammer.

Electronics are fast blurring the difference between luxury and mainstream, and the Japanese makers are at the forefront of this trend. The $19,000 Toyota Corolla sedan is loaded with standard features like adaptive cruise-control, automatic high-beams and lane-departure alert you can’t get on many luxury cars north of $50,000.

The 2019 Toyota Tundra

The Tundra comes equipped with this safety package at a price well below comparable Big Three competitors (though somehow Toyota hasn’t figured out Android Auto yet). Even the Tundra’s premium TRD off-road package — which includes Bilstein shocks, front tow hooks and floor mats — adds just $70 to the bottom line. Tesla floor mats cost $140, for goodness sake.

It’s all very impressive, and Toyota throws in its usual bulletproof reliability. It was the only full-size truck to get a 9 (out of 10) mechanical Initial Quality Rating from JD Power last year.

That’s reassuring as you ride your chrome-studded truck down the ox-cart roads of north Oakland on the way to your dream home.

Where Third World roads meet First World mansions, the Tundra pickup is an excellent bridge.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Toyota Tundra

Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear- or four-wheel drive, five-passenger pickup

Price: $33,015 base, including $1,495 destination fee ($46,610 4x4 Limited Double Cab as tested) 

Powerplant: 4.6-liter V-8 (standard engine); 5.7-liter V-8

Power: 310 horsepower, 327 pound-feet of torque (4.6-liter); 381 horsepower, 401 pound-feet of torque (5.7-liter)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic 

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.5 sec. (5.7L, Car and Driver); maximum towing, 9,900 pounds

Weight: 5,530 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 15 city/19 highway/16 combined (4.6-liter standard 4x2); 13 city/17 highway/14 combined (5.7-liter 4x4 as tested)

Report card

Highs: Standard features galore; Toyota tough

Lows: Lacks refinement of Detroit Three competitors; V-8 a generation behind

Overall: 3 stars