By Howard J. Elmer
Toyota has been trying to break into the Detroit-dominated pickup truck segment ever since the T100 was introduced in 1993. Toyota's cars have made huge inroads in North America and along with its dominance in much of the world, Toyota has become the largest automaker on the planet today. However, it still lags behind the Detroit Three when it comes to pickup sales.
Toyota's Tundra was freshened for 2014, but it hasn't really changed in any substantial way beyond the interior and exterior redesign.
During a 2013 press event when U.S. and Canadian automotive journalists got their first chance to drive the 2014 Tundra in San Antonio, Texas, we kept hearing "tried and true" from the engineers in response to most questions from the participants. This was a favorite response to questions about why Toyota didn't offer any new powertrains. And while the answers sounded a lot like white noise aimed at drowning out criticism, I could accept that the current Tundra had a decent engine and transmission combination, and a seven-year history of clean service behind it.
But then the assembled journalists were directed to the "off-road" portion of the test drive. This consisted of a dirt track around Toyota's truck plant that included one "hill climb" up a dead-dry mound of earth left behind from an excavation. Pathetic would be a nice way of describing this test track.
During an event dinner, Eric Descarries — a Montreal colleague — and I sat with some engineers and Stephen Beatty, the vice president of Toyota Canada Inc. One of the engineers asked us how we liked the 4x4 course. We launched into a colorful evaluation of what we called the "Tersel Track" because we figured an antique Tersel could navigate the course, in reverse, with two flat tires. After the merriment died down, Beatty asked us, "So where would you two drive the Tundra?" After a bit of brainstorming, we said Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada — in the spring when the Trans-Labrador Highway turns into 600 miles of slush and mud.
In December 2013, Beatty called me and asked if Descarries and I were still game to do a spring drive through Labrador. I said yes, so here's what happened.
Toyota offered us two 2014 Tundras, but to more thoroughly test Toyota's position that the carryover powertrain is plenty strong, we asked instead for a 2014 truck and an original 2007 Tundra. The second truck was bought back from an owner; it was a Limited model with 70,000 miles on the odometer. Both pickups sported almost identical 5.7-liter V-8s and the same transmission, so the comparison would be more than fair.
In addition, each vehicle took turns towing a 24-foot United Expressline trailer with twin axles and a gross vehicle weight rating of 7,700 pounds. The trailer carried a 2014 Yamaha Viper snowmobile (to use for off-road filming during our journey), extra tires, tools, gas cans, all the equipment for two videographers, as well as our personal luggage for 10 days on the road and an emergency container of heavy winter gear for each of us, just in case. Weightwise, we probably had 2,500 pounds of gear on top of the weight of the trailer, totaling just less than 5,000 pounds.
We set out from Toronto on April 2, heading northeast through Ontario (basically following the north shore of the St. Lawrence River) for 700 miles until we reached Baie-Comeau in Quebec. The first stretch offered a good four-lane paved highway to Quebec City. North of there it turned into two-lane blacktop, but more interestingly, the mountains began. A constant climb and drop of a thousand feet and more was the order of the day with the big V-8s alternately screaming and hushed while the transmissions held the trailer on the 10 to 13 percent downhill grades.
The first leg of the journey was mostly flat, straight highways, which showed us (quite definitively) that wind noise is substantially reduced in the 2014 Tundra. This type of driving (mostly between 65 and 75 mph) highlighted the improved steering feel of the 2014 Tundra, which is lighter and easier to handle with better on-center tracking than before. We also noted that keeping the 2014 model between the lane lines while fighting strong crosswinds is easier than with the 2007 model, which had a comparatively tighter and more fidgety response.
The newer chassis and suspension tuning complemented trailer control as well. Never did that big brick of a trailer push the 2014 truck around. It also carried a hidden bonus: The ride in both Tundras was much smoother with 4,000-plus pounds on the back. Thanks to all that weight pulling down on the leaf springs, the stiffer, choppy ride of the empty pickup felt calmer. Only when riding over large, wavelike bumps did the trailer cause the truck to bob like a hobbyhorse. The one thing that was irritating was the required aftermarket trailer brake controller hanging by the driver's knee. Toyota was the last manufacturer to offer an integrated system, and since it was offered as a late option for the 2014 model, our early test truck was not equipped with one.
This stretch of the trip, while long, was relatively easy. Turning north toward the interior of Quebec, we still had to cross 400 miles of primitive wilderness before we reached Labrador. And then the trip got interesting but we'll cover that in Part 2.
To see more photos and videos, go to the Tundra Labrador Facebook page.
Cars.com photos by Howard J. Elmer