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2014 Toyota Tundra, toughening up: Motoramic Drives

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“It’s too bubbly,” said a respondent at a consumer clinic, talking about the ginormous Toyota Tundra pickup. “It doesn’t look very big.”

Ouch. That had to hurt.

Actually, we know it hurt, because in response to that comment and many similar ones Toyota received from customers over the years, Toyota heaped on the macho when redesigning the 2014 Toyota Tundra.

While Toyota is calling this the “third-generation” Tundra, it is not a completely new truck, but rather a “top-hat” refresh of the second-generation Tundra that Toyota has been building in San Antonio since 2007. Due in showrooms starting in September, the 2014 model brings new sheetmetal and a massively updated interior, but few changes you can’t see while standing up. Still, the new look effectively projects more than enough cajones to stand next to the freshened Dodge Ram, the ever-popular Ford F-150, and the all-new 2014 Chevy Silverado/GMC Sierra twins.

Changes to the Tundra’s styling are extensive, with the most obvious being the new front end. Each of the Tundra trims — which include SR, SR5, Limited, Platinum, and the new, range-topping 1794 Edition — gets its own freight train-sized grille, and the 1794 Edition comes drenched in enough chrome to be visible from space. The front and rear bumpers are new, too, featuring a modular three-piece design which can be easily replaced as it collects dents and scratches.

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Also new for 2014 are headlamps underscored by LED running lamps, and flared, beveled fenders that impart the body sides with a more muscular and toned appearance. Chunky, three-element taillamps flank the Tundra’s new tailgate, which now incorporates an aero-enhancing spoiler lip designed to enhance fuel economy. Our favorite bit can be found on the lower right corner of the tailgate, where the word “TUNDRA” is embossed in all caps as a bit of retro whimsy.

Similarly effective are the changes made inside the Tundra’s massive cabin. Much of the cheap, scratch-prone silver plastic on the dash and doors of last year’s Tundra has been replaced by higher grade materials that even includes quilted, diamond-pattern simulated leather on Platinum and 1794 trim levels (yes, quilting in a full-size truck). Even better, the previous asymmetrical dashboard layout that rendered the radio way over toward the passenger side has been replaced by a symmetrical design.

The infotainment systems themselves are now touch-screen style—6.1 inches for the base SR trim and seven inches for all others—which look a little small in the Tundra’s mile-wide dashboard, but on the upside, each system features some form of Toyota’s slick Entune functions as well as Bluetooth connectivity, voice recognition for phone commands, with higher trims getting navigation, predictive traffic information, a customizable home screen, and apps such as Bing, Pandora, Facebook Places and Yelp.

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We sampled all models except the stripper SR, and found that even the workaday SR5 featured nicely trimmed cloth seats and a sophisticated mix of materials on the dash and doors. The classy Limited grade gets woodgrain trim on the dash, as well as stitched faux leather. The more urban-themed Platinum grade gets the aforementioned diamond-stitched dash treatment and faux aluminum, while the new 1794 trim (which commemorates the founding year of the ranch in San Antonio on which the Tundra’s assembly plant is now situated) gets simulated maple trim and genuine stitched leather on the dashboard. Platinum and 1794 editions also receive Lexus-grade leather upholstery—black in the Platinum and saddle brown leather with ultra-suede inserts for the 1794.

A backup camera is now standard across the board, which should be music to the ears of anyone who has ever tried hooking a trailer without one (or parallel parking a full-size pickup, for that matter). The trailering crowd will also appreciate the relocated 4- and 7-pin trailer power port, which is integrated into the rear bumper step conveniently nestled between the license plate and the bulb that illuminates it, meaning that the pin connectors are illuminated, too.

Driving the Tundra revealed a familiar character. Toyota brought only V-8 models to the preview drive, and we found that the carryover 4.6-liter V-8, which makes 310 hp and 327 lb-ft of torque, has no problem motivating the huge truck with authority — at least when empty. Loaded with gear, passengers, and a trailer, we expect it might not feel so capable. That’s where the meaty 5.7-liter V-8, also carryover from 2012, comes in. With 381 hp and 401 lb-ft of torque (and a gorgeous exhaust note to boot), the 5.7 has no problem carrying heavy loads. Both engines come mated to a six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability and, surprisingly, a separate “sport” mode that holds gears a bit longer to keep the driver in the meat of the power band more often.

Standard and Double Cab models can be ordered with a 4.0-liter V-6 with 270 hp and 278 lb-ft of torque, paired to a five-speed automatic. Toyota did not bring this powertrain along for the preview drive, but given that the 4.6-liter V-8 didn’t seem to have much power to spare, we wouldn’t necessarily recommend this mill unless fuel economy and cost are higher considerations than capability and performance.

While Toyota still does not offer heavy duty or diesel-powered versions of the Tundra, it means for the Tundra to work hard, with maximum payload figures for Tundras equipped with the 5.7-liter ranging between 1,410 pounds and two tons, and tow capacities of 10,000 pounds and up. We don’t have the space to break down the towing and hauling specs of every powertrain and cab configuration, but suffice it to say that, on paper, they can all get out of their own way, and take a lot of stuff along with them.

Out on the road, the 2014 Tundra can't avoid the jiggly ride quality of full-size trucks with empty beds, but thanks to rear suspension revisions, it keeps its cool in corners. Steering is a little slow off-center, but the brakes are strong, at least once the driver depresses the pedal far enough down; a crisper-feeling brake pedal would be welcome.

Another shortcoming of the Tundra involves outward vision, particularly in longer cab configurations where the distant rear window and further back, the high tailgate make for a slim view through the rearview mirror. Up front, the view over the domed hood from so high a perch also does not afford the driver much of an idea where the front stops or where the wheels are tracking, rendering lane-keeping a drive-by-feel situation. One area where Toyota has clearly done its homework is in the noise department, as the Tundra is wonderfully quiet at all road speeds.

Pricing has yet to be released, but all told, the Tundra update can be considered a success. It got stronger styling and a great interior with upgraded materials and a host of handy technology. And if nothing else, it doesn’t look bubbly.

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