Friday, February 13, 2009

Sitting on top of the world

Over the last weekend I needed a pickup truck. A large pile of brush had to be hauled out of my driveway and my daughter had purchased a new bed which was located about 20 miles away. I called my friends at Enterprise and asked them to fix me up. I had no idea what they were going to come up with. When I arrived there was the latest edition of Toyota's Tundra with 4 doors and a V8. The very vehicle that I suspect has driven them to their first operating loss as a corporation; ironically while they climbed over GM as the world's largest automaker for the first time. In large part this is the vehicle that has brought them both places.

For years Toyota has been making slow progress into the large truck market, the one US segment that they had not conquered. For the past several years the full size pickups from Ford and Chevy were not only their most profitable vehicles but also their most popular, outselling Camrys and Corollas year after year. This was not lost on Toyota though their small pickups were no match and could not lure away the lion's share of sales. The Tundra was introduced in the early 90's but with V6 power and no track record was a weak competitor. In the last 5 years Toyota has spent billions on developing what amounts to an F150 clone, even spending millions in NASCAR truck racing to prove it's worth. Their efforts paid off and the sales of their big trucks began to really take a bite out of American truck sales in the last couple of years. Then of course disaster struck for everyone, the only difference being that Toyota had plenty of credible product to fall back on and the Big Three did not. Not that anyone has been buying automotive product of any sort lately.

I'd forgotten how comfortable a ride these big trucks can be. The ride was cushy on those big truck tires, even with 19th century cart springs at the rear and an empty bed. The interior was a vast expanse of silver and black plastic and the amenities of the hour, namely 8 well labeled cup holders (including six labeled for "capped bottles" or cans only!) and a way to jack your MP3 player into the powerful sound system that featured a fairly opaque array of buttons to browse through your personal music selections. It all provided the appropriate "floaty" ride comfort over most surfaces though the long wheel base made it prone to a strange sort of see-saw sensation over the expansion joints of a particular concrete section of I-25. I was delighted to find the lower seat cushion was finally made long enough for American legs, still a weak point of most Japanese product.When I filled it up to return it on Sunday it had used 6.8 gallons in 122 miles. Better than I expected but I hadn't really tested the V8 or ventured beyond 65mph and most of those miles had been on the highway. Daniel was nonplussed as you can see from the photo. He enjoyed climbing in and out of the tall unit though it was a bit of a struggle. You would certainly want to buy the optional step if your children under 10 were riding daily or you if you yourself were under say 5'4" tall. This may be the first Japanese user unfriendly Japanese vehicle.

All in all it left the impression of driving a relic from the past. A very good relic but one whose time had most certainly passed. Even with world class build quality and the latest in modern technology it was a sort of rolling anachronism. Toyota at least has the will and the resources to soldier into the future. For the American companies who built their business model on this sort of vehicle the permafrost has most certainly melted and getting any traction at all is uncertain.

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