KAILUA KONA, HI - In a time when every automaker seems on a frantic quest to satisfy the last as-yet-untapped market - you know, the one whose audience has patiently awaited the right combination of utility, fun, ruggedness, style and performance in a single package - Toyota Motor Corp. will attempt to tackle the automotive industry's most steadfast segment with its latest offering, the Tundra full-size pickup truck.
It's a most convincing attempt.
The biggest story with the Tundra, of course, is that it's the first Toyota pickup to cradle a V-8 - ever. And it's an engine that doesn't want for power. The optional iron-blocked, aluminum- headed 4.7L DOHC V-8 cranks out a peak 245 hp at 4,800 rpm. That's only 10 horses less than the 255 available from General Motors Corp. C/Ks' new 4.8L, 25 more than Ford F-Series' 4.6L V-8, and 15 more than Dodge Ram's 5.2L. The meaty 315 ft.-lbs. (427 Nm) of available torque make for satisfying off-the-line launches, too, pulling with authority from 2,500 to 5,000 rpm. Even the steep mountain slopes dotting the island here fail to sap the Tundra's ample power.
Some Toyota execs evidently required convincing before throwing a V-8 under the Tundra hood. "A V-8 was not a done deal at the outset of the Tundra project," says Toru Tanaka, Tundra chief engineer. "There were people at Toyota who thought that a V-8 was not necessary."
In a segment that hardly considers one a player without such an offering, sales of the Tundra's forebear, the T100, naturally - and unsurprisingly, to many - wallowed. Most American buyers all but ignored the T100, whose sales never topped 40,000, preferring instead to uphold loyalties to the Blue Oval of Ford or the Bowtie of Chevy. Not that the T100 wasn't a good truck; it simply wasn't "trucky" enough.
Toyota still refuses to call the T100 experiment a mistake. "(The T100) gave Toyota much-needed experience in a segment that it knew very little about," says Donald V. Esmond, group vice president and general manager of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. "In many ways, the T100 provided a valuable learning curve."
Evidently Toyota learned a lot. The results are evident all over the Tundra, from the frame's unyielding stiffness to its impressive 1,924 lbs. (873 kg) maximum payload and 7,200-lb. (3,300-kg) maximum towing capacities - as well as on the window sticker. A base model Tundra, equipped with the V-6, standard cab and 2-wheel drive, will cost $14,995. A stripped T100 couldn't be had for less than $15,000.
The Tundra's virtually NVH-free performance and immaculate interior layout is signature Toyota. A trek in the 2-wheel-drive version across the lava-laden terrain here produced no disconcerting body twists, and highway speeds transferred little wind, engine or road noise into the cabin.
The base Tundra harnesses power from Toyota's proven 190-hp 3.4L DOHC V-6, also found doing duty in the Tacoma and 4Runner sport/utility vehicle.
Model mix is limited to only a handful of combinations of cab styles, bed lengths, drive configurations, enginesand transmissions and towing and payload capacities. Both the V-6 and the V-8 will be available when Tundra goes on sale in early June with 2- or 4-wheel drive, 4-door extended cabs and a 4-speed automatic gearbox. The 6-passenger cab, however, will front only the shorter, 6.5-ft. (194-cm) bed, while the standard cab will be available solely with the 8-ft. (246-cm) bed. A 5-speed manual transmission will be available with the V-6.
Toyota has 90% of the Tundra's production slated for V-8 installation and even more for the extended cab. It expects roughly 55% to have 4-wheel drive.
Noticeably absent from the mix are any plans for 3/4- or 1-ton versions, or a work-specific diesel engine. Compared to the literally hundreds of configurations available with the Ford's F-Series, the dual offerings of GM's Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra and DaimlerChrysler Corp.'s Dodge Ram, Toyota will build the Tundra in but a fraction of the combinations. But because of its comparatively minuscule 100,000-unit production capacity - less than 15% of the segment-dominating F-Series output - and its recognition of the stranglehold the domestic truck triad has on the market, Toyota instead is tightening the Tundra's focus.
"In the full-size truck segment, the half-ton/extended cab/V-8 configuration is by far the most popular," says Mr. Esmond. "(Toyota's) model mix strategy is consistent with what we see as the true core of the half-ton, full-size pickup truck market."
Toyota is concentrating its efforts on giving, among others, Tacoma compact pickup buyers - of which there were more than 150,000 new ones last year alone - a larger vehicle to graduate into. Other target buyers include loyal Toyota (or other Japanese import) owners and lifelong passenger-car buyers looking for their first pickup.
One Toyota executive felt compelled to invoke the story of the Dodge Ram and its recent success against the big boys from Ford and GM. Can Toyota hope to replicate a similar kind of coup? he asks.
The honest answer is, not likely. When the redesigned Ram broke onto the full-size pickup truck scene in 1994, it took Dodge less than five years to snatch more than 20% of the market - nearly three times its puny 7% share in 1993. Much of the responsibility for the shift in market share came in the form of Chrysler-of-late's distinctive yet risky design philosophy, the balance to its historic neutral posture in the Chevy vs. Ford debate.
"This is a segment-loyal and brand-loyal consumer," says Mr. Esmond. "(The Tundra) will develop consideration among long-time full-size loyalists." Moreso, the Tundra eventually should be able to establish itself as a legitimate player in the segment, something the T100 never managed to do.