KONA, Hawaii - This could be the most important and most challenging new vehicle Toyota has ever launched.
No entry has faced a more stalwart set of opponents with longer histories. Throughout its existence in America, Toyota Division has found new segments to plunder, places where customers weren't happy with the existing entries' designs or quality. Even the introduction of the Lexus Division was a comparatively easy challenge.
But now, with the Tundra, Toyota is tackling the full-sized pickup segment. It's a field that has the generations-long loyalty of folks who might not cotton to a new entrant.
Even if Toyota can get around the 'Buy Ford' or 'Buy Chevy' sentiment, it still must win over the segment's instilled 'Buy American' mentality - with a truck bearing an import badge even though it is assembled in Indiana.
Toyota knows the odds. Its first attempt, the underpowered, undersized, made-in-Japan T100, never sold more than 37,000 units in a year. With the entry of the Tundra in early June, Toyota wants nearly to triple that figure within a year.
'From the beginning, we knew that Tundra would need to make a statement. To be competitive would not be enough. Tundra would need to offer more of the things that full-sized pickup buyers demand,' said Toru Tanaka, Tundra chief engineer.
RATHER HAVE A V-8
Yet, amazingly, Toyota's product planners initially had to fight to get a V-8 engine. Tanaka said many in top management in Japan felt a big V-6 would be sufficient, clearly not considering the way Americans spurned the T100.
At a meeting in Denver early in the development of the truck, Tanaka was told by Toyota dealers that if the Tundra didn't have a V-8, 'you might as well go home.'
That was enough for Tanaka, who responded by equipping the Tundra with a 4.7-liter V-8 powerful enough to blow away the competition's base V-8 engines in acceleration tests done by Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc., and to beat or tie the competition's upgraded V-8 engines as well.
Toyota predicts 90 percent of the initial production run of the Tundra will be equipped with V-8s, said Don Esmond, Toyota Division general manager.
The Tundra will come in two-wheel or four-wheel-drive versions, with either a 3.4-liter V-6 or the 4.7-liter V-8. There will be a regular cab and an 8-foot bed and an extended cab and a 61/2-foot bed. A five-speed manual transmission is offered only with the V-6 engine. All models will come with 16-inch wheels. A rear bumper is standard.
The extended-cab version will account for 90 percent of the production run, with a 55 percent installation of four-wheel drive, Esmond predicted.
Toyota performed some other engineering feats with the Tundra:
Toyota calls the Tundra's frame 'the stiffest in the full-sized segment,' with each frame rail made from one continuous piece of steel. There are eight cross members, including an X-shaped one at the rear suspension for better lateral stability and rigidity. The frame is boxed over the front third.
Tundra's frame and impact-absorbing structure allow it to meet passenger-car safety standards.
The frame rails are at the lowest point in the middle of the truck, providing best-in-class ground clearance, almost 2 inches more than its nearest competitor, the company said.
The 32-valve V-8 meets California low-emission-vehicle standards, even though it is tuned to run on regular unleaded gas.
The Tundra uses a throttle-by-wire system, which eliminates the need for a separate idle control valve and cruise-control actuator. Should a fault occur, there is a mechanical override.
The front suspension is double wishbone with coil springs and gas shocks. The leaf-spring rear suspension has been tuned for tension rather than compression, which promotes understeer.
Brakes are four-piston caliper ventilated front discs - a segment first - and rear drums. Four-channel antilock braking is available.
Four-wheel-high and four-wheel-low gearing are selected by pushing a button on the instrument panel.
An optional Toyota Racing Development package includes specially fit B.F. Goodrich tires, Bilstein shocks and rising rate springs.
The 'Access Cab's' rear doors swing out past a right angle to provide a 33-inch opening. The rear doors can be opened from inside or outside, but the front door must be opened first.
All body electrical systems integrated directly into the control panel assembly. No relays are necessary.
Even though Toyota is playing modest with 100,000-unit sales expectations - compared with the volumes of Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge - it is being bold with what it expects from its plant in Princeton, Ind.
The plant went from groundbreaking to seeing its first production vehicle come off the line in just 31 months. A second shift will be added after just five months of operation. A sport-utility derived from the Tundra will come barely one year into building the truck.
NO BACKUP PLAN
Then there's the kicker: If Princeton fails, Toyota fails. There is no other Toyota plant that will build - or, for that matter, can build - the Tundra.
The Indiana plant 'is open for business, with a vehicle built from scratch. It has no backup factory, and it has no backup parts supply network. This is an enormous challenge that shows enormous confidence. (The plant) is in control of its destiny,' Tanaka said.
Toyota wants to draw Tundra buyers from the Toyota owner base, people who are buying their first big truck, buyers moving up from the compact pickup market and those who have been historically import owners.
Toyota can account for nearly 40,000 of its 100,000 units from within its own brand. That's the number of consumers who left Toyota for full-sized pickups in 1998, said John Weiner, Toyota truck product development manager.
The demographics portray Tundra owners as 40 years old, 71 percent married, 85 percent male, 40 percent with a college degree and with a household income of about $60,000, Esmond said.
'We know we won't turn the Ford buyer in the first year,' said Kevin Higgins, Toyota product marketing manager. 'But we hope they recognize the measurable difference in product performance.'
Full-line pricing has not been released. However, Toyota said the base V-6 model with manual transmission will cost $15,415, including destination. The 4x2 Ac-cess Cab with V-8 engine, automatic transmission and air con- ditioning will be $22,670, including freight.