Commander Data, Here's Your Stetson

Road test: 2000 Toyota Tundra SR5

When Japanese cars first washed up on America's shores, they were too small (so at first we threw them back.) They were also technically competent, well constructed, and brought with them almost everything the discriminating car buyer could want.

Except soul.

Over time, many Japanese makers learned what made a car more than just transportation. That's why Z-cars exist, and Miatas. And that passage to maturity cost none of their technical virtues.

Now that Japan's automakers have started to build full-size pickup trucks, we seem to be back at the beginning.

The first of the breed, Toyota's Tundra, is a full-size pickup (well, a 95% scale pickup, about which more later) every bit as well

constructed as Toyota's immensely-durable-if-mostly-vanilla passenger cars. And its technical competence often outshines its competitors.In engineering, at least, this is Star Truck: The Next Generation.

But do you remember Commander Data from the near-eponymous show? A simulacrum of a human, Data lacked only emotions. He was too perfect, humanity with the flaws pasteurized out. The Commander Data of pickups, the Tundra is so well engineered, so easy to drive, so well assembled, it almost ceases to be interesting. The Camry is a car-shaped transportation appliance; the Tundra is a truck-shaped transportation appliance. And, like the Camry, Corolla, or Data, soul is not an option.

Give Toyota credit: It takes nerve to go after the testosterone side of the car business by counter-programming. If Monday Night Football is tops in its rating period, don't show another football game; put on a Martha Stewart special. That's one way to success, and the Tundra follows this path less taken. It is a new-paradigm pickup, built not for the open range but the open mall. Instead of Marlboros tucked in its sleeve, it has Altoids in its fanny pack.

INSIDE & OUT

The differences start with what can only be described as a car interior. The lines of the instrument panel (particularly over the climate control) and the radio surround are soft and curved, unlike typical pickup practice. Appointments - even in this mid-level SR5 model - equal the quality of a Camry or Avalon, and appear designed for the city trucker rather than the country trucker. No hosing out this one. If you sent Binky and Muffin out to the south 40 to muck silage, this would be their truck. Call it a J. Crew cab.

Interior materials consist of somewhat shiny plastics, on the whole better than we've come to expect from Toyota. Door handles and pulls, though, lack the quality look one expects from any vehicle costing over twenty thousand dollars.

The difference continues on the outside, with styling owing more to the Lexus 300 line than to any current Toyota. Reflector type headlights with a very jewellike and polished appearance key a front end noticeably less aggressive than the competition, even if one leaves out the in-your-face Dodge Ram. It's a serene look, as if the Tundra is above the petty chores left to other pickups. That serenity continues when underway, with a ride more quiet and stately than most other pickups. But then you look out back, and there's all that empty bed to fill.

There's seats to fill behind you, too. Toyota calls Tundra's stretched cab an Access Cab. Like others in the field, two smaller rear doors give access to the rear seat. With full-size handles on the outside, not small pulls set into the door jamb, they allow easy, yes, access.

Once inside, the rear seat is tight on knee room, but nobody's invented the club cab truck that isn't and in the Tundra, rear seaters get to face forward. This mostly full-size stretch cab yields about as much knee room as the Nissan Frontier crew cab, with four full-size doors but a smaller truck. Sitting in the back seat with the front seat adjusted for 5'11" me, there is essentially no room between knees and front seat. On the other hand, the back of the seat is deliberately cushy, and your knees can stand it. The rear doors have flip out side windows.

Front seats are slightly contoured, although they don't provide much lower back support. Their sturdy-appearing velour might as well be Velcro, so firmly does it hold you in place. And yes, there is ample room for a third person between the seats - or, of course, for ol' Rufus.

A large flip-down center console opens to reveal a change holder and a large square compartment with a movable divider. Two cup holders are molded into it for average size and larger beverages. A similar tray in the center of the back seat offers two more cup holders and other storage.

One of the Tundra's three power ports bears a cigarette lighter, and all of them shut down when you turn off the key.

The instrument panel features oil and water temperature, 7000-rpm tachometer with the red line at 6250, 110 mile per hour speedometer, and battery and fuel gauges. The speedometer is full arc, the tachometer two-thirds, and the other gauges quarter arc, offset to left and right. It's backlit green, all easily readable at night.

If you like mysteries, try the Tundra's steering wheel. It is vinyl and slippery; okay, we've seen that before. But it also has six screw holes in the back, where your fingers go, so when that wheel is passing quickly through your hands, it catches your palm or your gloves. That is not logical, Captain.

Climate controls are very large (easily operated with gloves) with a large fan speed switch, a temperature switch, and a selector for where the air comes in.

The Tundra looks bigger than it is. Without anything around for comparison, it looks like a full-size truck. In fact, like Smokey Yunick's fabled 7/8 scale NASCAR Chevelle, it's smaller in most dimensions, but proportionally so. Here's how it compares to a Chevy Silverado:

Comparison Chart

Toyota Tundra
Access Cab

Chevrolet Silverado
Extended Cab Shortbed

Length (in.):
217.5
227.6
Width (in.):
75.2
78.5
Height (in.):
70.7
71.2
Weight (lbs.):
4088
4235
Wheelbase (in.):
128.3
143.5
Turning Circle (ft.):
44.9
46.6
Ground Clearance (in.):
10.6
8
Front Headroom (in.):
40.3
41
Rear Headroom (in.):
37
38.4
Front Leg Room (in.):
41.5
41.3
Rear Leg Room (in.):
29.6
33.7
Maximum Seating:
6
6

On average, that's 5% less truck, inside and out. However, does that matter? Does the overall size of a truck matter as long as you can ride comfortably, and carry all your stuff in the bed? You can certainly do those things with the Tundra.

Toyota's truck (built, we should certainly note, in the prefecture of Indiana), comes in three trim levels, two- or four-wheel drive, with standard or Access Cab. Plywood carriers (and you know who you are) need a standard cab, with its 98.2 inch bed; the rear seat cuts bed length to 76.5. Width on both beds is 61.2 inches, 49.3 between the wheel wells.

ON THE ROAD

The Toyota's size and weight make for a nimble truck. Good breeding helps; the front suspension sports a double wishbone layout, just like your Formula 1 hay haulers. The Tundra's leaf spring rear behaves fairly well during normal driving, but on uneven surfaces or metal strips, it can step lively.

Behavior is much more docile when you drop the throttle mid-corner, thanks in part to a fairly soft return spring. Firm rack and pinion steering has decent on center feel, although one can hardly call it well weighted in the manner of a sports car; you get rather more assist than a truck of this size requires. Braking, too, is a tad overboosted, but the front discs and rear drums acquitted themselves well, thanks in part to the increased contact patch of our Tundra's optional 265/70R16 Dunlop TG35 Grandtrek tires.

Through all maneuvering, the Tundra maintains its dignified demeanor. Body movements and outside sounds are well damped. At times, it's eerie, like when we realized that even over the roughest pavement, one sound was missing: The box. It flat does not rattle. In a week of steady use, we did not hear it once. Even the newest and most sophisticated competing pickups shake their booty audibly. The Tundra doesn't. That's the mark of a solid piece.

Our tested Tundra carried the standard engine, a 3.4 liter, 24 valve V-6 good for 190 horses. The six resisted all attempts to make it sound like the Farmall many competitors will readily imitate. We wished at times for more off-the-line grunt than the six delivered (through a four-speed automatic and a 4.093 rear), but it yielded 22.7 mpg on the highway, and 17.2 in hard local use. A 5-speed manual is available. (Indeed, we were surprised to see that our SR5 model bore an automatic; time was, the SR5 badge went on only the sportier Toyotas, with a 5-speed part of the package. Now it's just a trim designation.)

Optional power for the Tundra comes from a mighty Lexus (yes!) V-8, legendary for its smoothness and torque, and putting down 245 Clydesdales, with which Toyota claims the best acceleration in class. It's EPA rated at 15 and 19.

We found only one sample defect on our test truck, a driver's side seat belt retractor that seemed unwilling to achieve its life's destiny.

SUMMING UP

All in all, we like the Tundra, but with some qualifications. An almost full-size truck, the Tundra carries a full-size load of contradictions. Ride in it blindfolded, and you'd never guess it was a truck. It hauls full-size loads, but is nimble like a mid-size. It's put together very well, although some choices of materials and appointments seem odd in a work vehicle. It comes with a powerful V-8, but its V-6 variant is much less distinguished. For now, the Tundra is, perhaps, gender confused. Is it a truck or a car, a working vehicle or a play vehicle? For the PTA or FFA?

In some ways Toyota's Tundra is not a truck for the better; in some ways, it is not a truck for the worse. Price can be a concern with the Tundra. So, too, can character. But at base, we come back to the question: What is a truck? Must a truck be rough as well as tough? Are all cowboys John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, or can Cary Grant give it a try? Commander Data in a Stetson, the Tundra is nothing if not logical.

2000 Toyota Tundra 4x2 SR5 V6 Access Cab (phew!)
Base Price: 20,940 Price as Tested: 23,969


Price as tested includes all-weather guard package, 70; anti-lock brakes with daytime running lights, 630; convenience package (power mirrors, windows, and locks; dual sun visors with extensions; sliding rear window with privacy glass), 1310; 16x7" styled steel wheels with 265/70R16 tires, wheel ornaments and arch moldings, 220; bedliner, 299; carpet floor mats, 80; destination, 420.

 

J.J. Gertler's automobile reviews are available at www.hardrive.com