Japanese Rival of Everyone’s Favorite F-150: Brief History of Toyota Tundra

One of the reasons Japanese automakers have been so successful in the US market is their ability to adapt their products to local preferences without compromising the fundamental values of their companies.

While Toyota’s initial success in the US market was driven by subcompact models (such as the Corolla), since the late 1990s, the Japanese giant has been offering more vehicles designed for the US, its geography, and tastes. Moreover, they were produced in the states. The Toyota Tundra pickup truck is one of the most striking examples. In Toyota’s North American pickup line, the Tundra, in its third generation, outsizes the Toyota Tacoma and is a direct competitor to the Ford F-150, RAM 1500, and Chevy Silverado. It was the Tundra that spawned the popular Sequoia full-size SUV. 

T100. The Beginning

The first, long before the Tundra, was the T100 truck. It was 1993 and Toyota’s first foray into the full-size pickup market. The company didn’t have much experience building pickups, so although the T100 bore the Toyota nameplate, they outsourced much of the engineering and design to the commercial vehicle subsidiary Hino. The T100 was a resounding commercial failure but also an invaluable experience. 

Annual sales peaked at 37,000 cars in 1995-1996, just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands sold by competitors. However, the T100 has been praised for its handling, quality, and reliability, with JD Power granting  it several awards (one of them Best Quality). The manufacturer realized that succeeding in the full-size pickup market required Toyota to maintain reliability and quality while adding more interior space, power, and towing traction.

Tundra of the first generation

The T100 was replaced by the first-generation Tundra, which significantly increased Toyota’s self-confidence. In May 1999, the pickup truck production was moved from Japan to the US, a plant in Indiana, where they are still produced. Toyota was proud of their new product and even wanted to call it the T150, but fears of litigation from Ford forced the Japanese manufacture to rename the model.

The first-generation Tundra had increased in size and became closer to its competitors. But the most impressive was the set of engines. The old 3.4-liter V6, inherited from the T100, became the base one. Above it appeared a competitive 4.7-liter V8 with 245 hp (427 Nm of torque). From the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Tundra received a Low Emission Vehicle rating. The old V6 was also later upgraded, increasing the working volume to 4.0 liters.

In addition, with the start of production of the first generation, the Tundra became available with a full double cab (since 2004 – in all versions and trim levels). Thanks to fixing bugs in the T100, Tundra sales grew, first exceeding the 100,000 mark, and then, in 2005, peaking at 126,000. But still, this figure was significantly lower than the Ford F-150, which sold about 900,000 pickups in 2005.

Second generation

The second generation Tundra, Toyota introduced in late 2006 as a 2007 model year vehicle, and in 2008 production was moved to a plant in Texas. In addition to another increase in size and modernized design, the main difference of the new Tundra was the augmented maximum towing force of 4.5 tones, with a new 5.7-liter V8 that produced 380 hp and 544 Nm of torque (in combination with a new six-speed automatic transmission). Toyota stated that its V8 is one of the most powerful engines in the class. In addition, a 4.0-liter upgraded V6 and a 4.7-liter 32-valve V8, which debuted on the previous generation Tundra, were offered.

In the second generation, the number of possible configurations reached thirty, with buyers able to choose between 4×2 and 4×4 drivetrains, as well as numerous cab styles, body lengths, and wheelbases. The new Tundra used thicker and stronger steel, reinforced body welds, and suspension mounts for improved ride, handling, and durability. In terms of safety, the second-generation of Toyota Tundra featured for the first time an Electronic Limited Slip Differential (A-LSD) and Stability Control as standard across the range, as well as adjustable head restraints and three-point seat belts for all passengers. 

Despite the improvements, average annual sales were comparable to the previous generation, reaching 196,000 units in 2007 and dropping to 80,000 in 2009, probably influenced by the economic crisis. However, in large used car dealerships such as Indy Auto Man in Indianapolis, the Toyota Tundra in good condition is quite common.

Third generation

Almost fifteen years later, in September 2021, the third generation of the Tundra arrived, a real leap forward in design, technology, and performance. Toyota introduced two completely new engines instead of outdated ones from earlier generations. The base was a 3.5-liter twin-turbocharged V6 with up to 388 hp and a torque of 649 Nm. However, a more interesting option is its hybrid version, called the i-Force Max, which reaches 435 hp and 790 Nm of torque, comparable to the V8 power of all modern competitors.

The Tundra, like its off-road counterpart, the Sequoia, has moved to the same TNGA-F platform on which the new Land Cruiser 300 is built. The leaf springs have been replaced with an adaptive multi-link suspension while the cabin has received a more sophisticated interior architecture and a technological upgrade, including 14 an inch infotainment display, over-the-air updates for the satellite navigation system, and a 12-inch digital instrument cluster. All models can now boast the Safety Sense 2.5 active safety package, which includes adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, automatic emergency braking, automatic high beams, and other standard safety features.

Initially, pickups were the heirs of work trucks, devoid of amenities and safety features, but those days are long gone. With three decades of production, the Toyota Tundra has become popular in the US and other countries and can share a podium with such a legend as the Land Cruiser.

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