2014 Toyota Tundra 4x4 Limited: Driven

January 6, 2014
Is Toyota at odds with itself with its huge Tundra pickups?

We recently revisited the 2014 Toyota Tundra, in CrewMax form with the TRD Off-Road Package, at High Gear Media's Portland, Oregon outpost and found ourselves weighing this Texas-assembled model's strengths on one hand, and its flaws on another--and all the while wondering why the Tundra feels like it tries harder [read: too hard] to be a macho truck than to be a Toyota.

If you do much time in town, one of the hurdles to enjoying and appreciating it is that it's so dang huge. We're not fans of what the full-size truck format has become, and how these trucks have grown larger than city streets, parking spaces, highway lanes, and driveways can easily accommodate. Today's full-size trucks are like the Heavy Duty ones of yesterday—and shockingly large.

“This is insane…this is for people who don't live near other humans,” gasped a friend upon walking up to the Tundra from the front.

It's the sort of response that the Tundra's front end will elicit, whether you're at a big-box store in the suburbs or a crosswalk in the city. The refresh introduced an even more imposing-looking grille design [that we're really not fans of, if you hadn't guessed], and squared off some of the rear corners. And with it, Toyota otherwise gave the Tundra a very thoughtful, detail-oriented refresh for 2014 that's agreeable—even charming—once you're out on the open road, among the forests, farms, and ranches.

Great ride quality, strong and relaxed powertrain

But no matter where we were, ride quality is one of those traits that warmed us up to the Tundra. Even with the TRD Off-Road Package, our test Tundra rode very smoothly with an empty load; quite possibly, it's the best-riding of the current crop of full-sizers when the bed's empty.

Another reason is the powertrain. We really liked the responsive yet relaxed character of the big 5.7-liter V-8 engine, making 381 horsepower and 401 lb-ft of torque. Toyota got rid of the silly-quick accelerator tip-in that the Tundra had last time I drove it. The power and torque numbers are the same, but it all works much better; whether we had an empty load, or three aboard with some weekend project junk in back, the engine and transmission were quick to respond, and with oodles of nice, controllable low-rev torque, there was seldom a need to downshift. Save that for the trailer-towing, right?

As nice as the engine's power and torque characteristics are, though, we couldn't get past its ever-present engine note—especially its coarse, disenchanting sound when you're pushing it a bit harder. Only the Nissan Titan offers a greater level of ever-present engine noise; not even Ram, with its retro-branded Hemi V-8, believes that you want this much ever-present, while the F-150 and Silverado feel positively refined in that respect.

While we won't ever try to hold a big pickup to any of the standards of precision and performance of a sport sedan, there are simply too many things about the Tundra's driving experience that lack what we'd expect to be the 'right' feel and feedback. The steering felt light and detached, and truly like the tiller on a boat at low speeds. And while the brakes are very strong and capable, the brake-pedal feel itself leaves lots to be desired.

It's very thirsty, too

More unpleasant news: The Tundra is a very thirsty truck. In about 110 miles of driving with the Tundra—most of it suburban, with quite a few short trips, admittedly, but an empty bed most of the time—we averaged about 13 miles per gallon.

It's disappointing at face value, as well as for some other reasons. Toyota, the company of the Prius, lacks any fuel-saving technology in their biggest trucks. Most GM's full-sizers (and some trucks from Ram) have cylinder deactivation that allows their V-6s and V-8s to run as fours when coasting. And Ford has its EcoBoost (turbo) V-6 that has V-8-like performance when lightly loaded can get close to 20 mpg in real-world driving.

We know this engine will probably do better, compared to some small-displacement V-8s, or maybe a competing V-6, when it's pulling a horse trailer; but the reality is that most trucks are driven most of their miles with a nearly empty load.

Also, Toyota does offer a smaller 4.7-liter V-8 on the Tundra, but the last time we tried a Tundra with it we're afraid we didn't do much better.

Roomy, functional cabin design is 'Entune' with users

That said, the Tundra's cabin is a very pleasant place. Buttons and knobs are large and easy to use—even with gloves—and we appreciate the simple layout and great driving position. The Entune premium audio system with seven-inch display navigation system on our truck was also well laid-out, intuitive, and visually attractive. Front seats are on the wide side, yet the lower cushions feel shorter than what you get in other full-size trucks—an odd oversight in a model that seems to be benchmarking the big trucks from Ford, GM, and Chrysler (Ram).

Which leads to a strength of the CrewMax layout we had. With full-size—yes, seriously full-size—doors in back, you can easily get in and out of a very spacious back-seat area, with well-contoured (adult-contoured) seats that adjust, and a pull-down center armrest. It's better than the back seats we can recall in Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra, Ram 1500, or Ford F-150—and certainly compared to the Ram 1500.

And it's too close to call now in terms of cabin materials. The entire interior feels a solid step up from last year's Tundra, with tight build quality and no rattles in our test truck.

Our Tundra 4x4 Limited CrewMax arrived with a $44,295 bottom-line price, which included running boards; the Limited Premium Package (power windows, auto up/down front windows, illuminated entry, rear parking sensors, and a glass breakage sensor); and the TRD Off-Road Package (18-inch TRD off-road alloy wheels, Bilstein shocks, rear privacy glass, and skid plates).

That's in addition to Limited equipment, which includes a 4WDemand part-time 4WD system with electronically controlled transfer case and Auto LSD (limited-slip differential), a Tow/Haul mode with engine-oil and trans-oil coolers, a rear backup camera, power leather seats (heated in front), split-folding rear seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, and that Entune system with seven-inch display, navigation, an App Suite, HD Radio, and Bluetooth and USB connectivity.

In pursuit of a lucrative market

At the time we got our first drive this past summer, my colleague Nelson Ireson summed up that the styling definitely has its merits; yet in other respects there may be better options in the full-size trucks from the Big Three.

Now I understand what he was reporting. The Tundra still feels like a model that's chasing a market, not one that's at the core of a market.

To take it a step further, if Toyota took a step away imposing look and space/size race, they'd realize that they're in a race they can't (and won't) win. And if they instead made a full-size truck that stepped up the look and feel of the Tacoma, a mid-size mainstay with rock-solid resale value and an owner base as loyal as can be, we wouldn't be still trying to figure the Tundra out.

While the current 2014 Tundra is competent and pleasant, with a more manageable, more efficient (and not gasp-inducing) full-size truck, Toyota could have a leader.

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