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2014 Toyota Tundra Pick Up Truck Road Test Review by Martha Hindes

2014 Toyota Tundra Pick Up Truck Road Test Review

By Martha Hindes

Drive the Tail of the Dragon in a 2014 Toyota Tundra pickup truck? Why not? That might sound insane for anyone with hot wheels who has challenged the infamous, unrelenting ribbon of two-lane roadway that snakes with whiplash authority along wild curves and switchbacks edging thousand foot drop-offs through the Great Smokey Mountains.

In case anyone doubts that's a possibility, our Road & Travel vehicle test did just that. It was a driving route arranged by Toyota to introduce the revised vehicle, including a portion of US 129 with the savage nickname and 318 harrowing turns and curves that run some 11 miles from North Carolina until it ends in Blount County, Tennessee, or begins there depending on one's perspective. And in case anyone in our group missed the implication that Toyota's redesigned pickup truck had the rocks to tackle a section of this road monster, they had a silver Tundra fitted with a dragon tail in the pickup bed sitting on the sidelines to coax us on.

We had traveled by modern jet to Knoxville, Tenn. before heading out to perfectly manicured Blackberry Farm resort, our hub of activity during the two days of the Tundra's driving launch. The day's drive began with a leisurely cruise past the farm's lush fields and vista reminiscent of a scene from The Sound of Music. Populated with horses for trail rides and sheep for the farm's homemade sheep milk cheeses, it also is home to a pair of ill-tempered guard llamas meant to keep coyotes from the surrounding forests at bay.

As we entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, tourists who had stopped to rubberneck following a bear sighting limited us to a 5 mph crawl. But once past that logjam, we picked up speed and rolled for a while through gentle foothills on nicely curved roads, gaining altitude as we went, while noticing the easy handling and comfortable ride as we traveled. It was a pickup, it seemed, designed as much for comfort as its ability to haul. We didn't need to wait long to test its workhorse DNA, however.

The Tundra’s on our drive were all Toyota's maximum 5.7-liter V8 crew cab versions, mated with 6-speed automatics with overdrive, equipped to deal with thin air, steep inclines and lead footed auto writers.

We were well into mountainous terrain as our morning test drive route turned off pavement and onto a one-way gravel road called Rich Mountain Road, deeply shaded as it tunneled through old growth forest.  And with no one ahead of us to limit our momentum, we let the Tundra loose, aggressively following along tight turns, ridges, rises and swales that undulated along the side of the mountain, occasionally catching daytime running light glare in our mirrors from other Tundra’s following in the distance that strove to catch up.

There was no stretch of straightaway on the 9.5 miles of road, just one deep curve that blended into the next curve and kept steering at a maximum, without feeling over loaded. The Tundra gripped solidly and felt firmly controlled.

An occasional yellow warning light flicker suggested we should have changed to four-wheel-drive before we started. But that's not something you do with your foot on the accelerator at speed while gauging the road as it disappears a short distance ahead around rock outcroppings. But even without it, the Tundra dug deep and kept us securely on the gravel without any wild slides or slips off the roadway. We figure we'd given the ABS system a pretty good workout on the course.

Our driving partner confirmed it. "You were hauling ass," he said as we pulled back onto pavement at the gravel road's end, ready to head to our lunch stop. We knew we would need energy for a trailer tow test ahead and -- ultimately -- a chance to tame the dragon.

The lunch stop lent an opportunity to check out some of the Tundra's plusher than previous interior amenities, including faux wood trim on the top-line 1794 edition that, despite its classy appearance, undoubtedly was faux. The 1794 name is for the founding year of the ranch that now is the site of Toyota's San Antonio truck assembly plant that produces the Tundra, so there's a purpose for the name choice. We found it an interesting concept, a handsome vehicle, and a date that's a little awkward to remember.

Inside, the Tundra is the first 2014 Toyota model to get the upgraded Entune, and it would have taken a full day checking its features to give it justice.

But briefly, the system melds multimedia and audio system with a color touchscreen and wraps together audio, phone, navigation, Sirius XM radio, text-to-speech, voice recognition and more. Weather, Bing searches, Pandora songs, expanded contacts storage and search are part of the package.

We didn't need to use navigation for our test drive, however.  A driving route was provided with cautionary instructions designed to keep us out of trouble. Back on the road, we recalled Toyota's warning not to hot dog when we got to the Tail. That despite the stability and ease with which the Tundra with trailer sway control had trailered an 8,100-pound load of road construction equipment onto the main highway and negotiated a wide U turn.

We realized as we headed for the day's final run that this still is a pickup truck treading territory normally reserved for sports cars and motorcycles that too often contribute to grim statistics in local news reports. And we had signed the requisite papers absolving Toyota of any responsibility if our heady attempt at taming got out of hand.

The section of the Dragon's Tail we drove was in the foothills area near the end of the trail, without the screaming squeal of tires launching out of impossible, banked turns at breakneck speed.  We had moved to an off-road overlook briefly to let some big bikes blow on by before we proceeded with some caution along the famed course.

But that didn't diminish the thrill. Not a bit. At road's end we had tamed -- to a degree -- one of the most challenging roads in America and done it in a half-ton pickup truck to boot.

What else can we say, but WOW!

SIDE BAR - Toyota Tundra Full Size Pick Up

In pickup hungry America, variety is a staple, including the versions of full-size pickup trucks people buy, from short to standard to long bed ones with regular or extended cabs and the amenities of a high end sedan.

To serve those choices, as Toyota's full-size 2014 Tundra aims for a dominant share of the lucrative U.S. pickup market it missed with earlier, less aggressive versions and U.S. economic woes, it offers five flavors in this anticipated refresh. All feature more authoritative exterior lines, added chrome trim including revamped trapezoidal grilles, improved interior treatments including instrument panels, plus the Tundra name branded into the rear gate. A new, reinforced, three-piece rear bumper allows the replacement of its parts in sections if a corner gets damaged. That inspiration came from Mike Sweers, chief engineer of Toyota pickup trucks, who owns a small Michigan farm and during the design process had a run-in with a tree stump.

This revised pickup starts with the base model SR, the only version with a regular in addition to an available double cab, and then gets beefier "professional gear" treatment with the SR5. Both ride on 18-inch wheels. The top three trims -- Limited, Platinum, and a handsome brown saddle leather/suede trimmed 1794 (ranch version obviously meant to take on Ford's toney F Series King Ranch edition) -- all have the 5.7-liter V8 as standard equipment and ride on 20 inch wheels (aluminum clad for the 1794).  All three have a 7,200 pound gross vehicle weight rating for solid towing ability.

Tundra comes with the same three powerplants as the 2013 edition. The 5.7-liter V8 churns out 381-horsepower and 401 lb-ft of torque and lives happily with regular, 87-octane fuel or higher or with E85 ethanol as an alternative. The 4.6-liter V8, with 6-speed automatic earns 310-horsepower and 327 lb-ft of torque. The 4.0-liter V6, with a 5-speed automatic, rates at 270-horsepower and 278 lb-ft of torque.  Off road control is augmented with power-assisted four-wheel anti-lock braking that includes electronic brake force distribution, brake assist, traction control and vehicle stability systems.

All three engines get good environmental marks, with the V6 rated at LEV II, the 4.6-liter V8 rated as ULEV II, and 5.7-liter V8 rated as ULEV II or ULEV II Tier 2 BIN 5 using ethanol. Throughout our test drive, despite reaching about a 6,000-foot altitude, the 5.7 never gasped for air.

Getting into fuel economy number comparisons for a pickup truck designed to haul or tow cargo, can be dicey. The Tundra sports what Toyota calls "realistic," and "real world" numbers, citing 16/20/17 for the two-wheel-drive V6 version, 15/19/16 for the 4.6-liter V8 (one less city and highway in 4 X 4), and 13/18/15 (one less in highway mode) for the 5.7-liter V8. Toyota says those numbers are comparable to other pickups' "fuel saving" engines.

Refreshing the Tundra for 2014 hasn't brought a price boost. The base SR starts at $25,920. Pricing for the volume SR5 double cab 4 X 2 with 5.7-liter V-8 stays at $30,965 base but includes $650 worth of new standard equipment. The top Platinum and 1794 versions have the same starting pricetag of $47,320. On average, overall pricing decreases $263, a 7 percent drop.

With pickups among the hot sellers for automakers in the U.S. this past summer,  especially with individual buyers, we think that Toyota put together a winning combination of improved  product, hold-the-line pricing and customer preferences at just the right time.

For more information on Toyota vehicles, click here.