Travels

 

 

Brits conquer the West

 

Toyota’s bigger Texas-built Tundra proves a brilliant way to explore America


Story and photos by Amiran White
for The New Mexican 'Drive' Magazine


 

I was pumping gas when an old, white Ford pickup pulled up in the space opposite and a rather good-looking fellow jumped out. He nodded in my direction, and I smiled. After a few moments, I coyly took another glimpse at the man and caught him staring. I could feel my cheeks blushing.
“Is it everything they say?” he asked.
“I’m sorry?”
“The truck,” he said, pointing to the full-size Tundra I was filling up. “Does it have as much power as they advertise?”
“Oh,” I said, finally realizing what he had been staring at, “yes. Yes it does.” I grinned and rallied: “It kicks ass out there!”

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect to test-drive a new vehicle: My mother was coming to visit from England and we planned to drive around the Southwest, visiting some of the more amazing sights from the Grand Canyon to Monument Valley.
After driving the 2007 Toyota Tundra around town a bit, I knew it was going to be a fun week, but one dictated as much by the truck as by me. I went to the grocery store and realized that parking at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods was out: This truck asked for more than I’m used to — more space to park, more space to turn around, just more. And this Tundra didn’t even have the longer bed out back. When I went to pick up my mother at the airport, the first three floors of the parking garage were out of bounds for the truck, and we were relegated to the top floor with all the other big Fords, Dodges and Hummers. It was a packed floor.
“Goodness, you have become quite American,” said my mother as she looked at the truck, “it’s enormous.”
There’s a yearly road tax in England, which is determined in part by the size of a vehicle’s engine. A little hatchback might only cost you 40 British pounds, but a large SUV or a pickup like the Tundra could be several hundred. Needless to say, there are a lot more Minis and small sedans on the road in England.
To make the best use of its size, the seats in the back of the Tundra’s cab easily jump up and out of the way, creating space for my mother’s big, red suitcase. “I obviously should have brought more things with me,” my mother said as she peered into the bed of the truck.
Toyota’s trying to please everyone with this new Tundra, and you can get three lengths of beds, three different cab configurations and three engines, depending on your needs. The model I was driving had the Double Cab, which is big with four doors, though it’s only in the middle of the choices — there’s also a Regular Cab and the CrewMax, which has four full-size doors. Plenty of room for stuff or people in the back, and from the driver’s seat, I felt like I was a queen.
The only problem was that it was a base model — called SR5; the step up is Limited — and there were no running boards to help us into our seats. Trust me, you need the running boards. It took both my mother and I several days to learn how to pull ourselves up into the cab while still keeping a little dignity. By the end of the trip, we were both pros, with one arm bigger than the other from grabbing the available handles. We also caught on very quickly to the impracticalities of wearing skirts.

We woke bright and early the next day and began our road trip, stopping at amazing historic sites such as the Acoma Pueblo on our way west. We drove the
28 miles around the National Park’s Rainbow Desert and Petrified Forest, which was quite brilliant, made more so by the fact that the cab of the truck sat high enough to be perfect for sightseeing! We found an old chrome bumper with Route 66 on it, which my mother had to have a picture of, and then it was on to Flagstaff.
Though it was short on options, our Tundra did have the biggest engine: Toyota developed the new
5.7-liter V-8 specifically for its new largest truck, though the 4.0-liter V-6 and 4.7-liter V-8 from last year’s Tundra are also offered. The bragging rights the top engine earns, the things the fellow at the gas station was chattering about — 381 horsepower, 401 pound-feet of torque and the ability to tow an unsettling 10,600 pounds in this configuration — are necessary to compete in a market where it’s misleading to say the Detroit automakers dominate: They own it.
Toyota’s never done a truck meant to fully compete on these grounds. And that’s why, on the Tundra, as in Texas (where a new factory was built to make it, though ours came from the other plant in Indiana), everything’s bigger.
Inside, the huge buttons and dials are quite over the top, as are the wide, well-padded seats. But everything made quick sense, and those seats sure were comfortable over the long haul.
Thanks to that rip-roaring engine, the truck guzzles the gas, again compared with what I’m used to: A full tank cost me close to $60 and lasted 380 miles — and that was before the latest run-up in gas prices. There’s a very handy gadget on the dashboard that tells you how many miles you have left on the tank, which is especially useful since the miles just slip by in this Tundra.
If I got stuck behind a Cadillac with only knuckles and a pea cap showing, I just threw on the left-hand signal, and off we blasted. It was pretty amazing. We could have been going on a very steep upgrade, and it felt like a turbocharger was engaging to send us sailing past all the slow coaches in the right-hand lane. True, the gas might have lasted a little longer if I stayed right more often, but when in Rome ...

We stayed in downtown Flagstaff that night. The truck might be great on the open road, but in a small mining town, maneuvering the beast was tricky, and it took a while to find a space big enough to park in. I thought that would be my biggest challenge of the day, but when we checked into the old hotel Monte Vista, they gave us the room key plus a set each of earplugs. It turns out that the trains run through downtown Flagstaff at all hours of the night and keep you in the know with very loud whistles.
We were headed to the new Skywalk on the west side of the Grand Canyon. The Skywalk itself is an experience better left for another story, but the drive there took us on many miles of unpaved roads. My mother was very excited to see her first tumbleweeds, and I was excited that the truck had definitely found its milieu. It simply floated over the roads as though on a carpet, never losing traction or shuddering uncouthly. Made for America, to be sure.
We saw the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park and then, the cherry on top, Monument Valley. “Ooh look,” said my mother, “it’s just like in the movies.”
The unmistakable monuments loomed ever closer. Every few miles we’d stop, jump out, shoot pictures and hop back in. We were pros by now, though every now and again, I’d forget and park on a slope, causing troubles for one or both of us attempting to climb into the truck.

At the Monument Valley entrance in the Navajo Tribal Park, there were signs indicating that unless you had a four-wheel drive, you should park and take a shuttle around the park. Amazingly on a truck of this size and price, our Tundra wasn’t four-wheel drive — that’s another option that hadn’t been checked. But, with so much innate ability, it never needed it. We just grinned and kept driving. Yet again, the truck was brilliant. High enough for us to view the amazing red shale and sandstone buttes and pinnacles, rugged enough to take the often steep, unpaved and rocky road and comfortable enough for us to thoroughly enjoy the ride.
It was a most memorable trip, made more so by
a vehicle that could handle anything we put before it. I think it’s a fairly impractical size if you spend most of your time driving in towns, but if you’re on the open road a lot, work on a farm or need to haul huge amounts of stuff, this full-size pickup makes a convincing argument.
People back home might shake their heads at me for saying it, but this was one of the more comfortable drives I’ve ever had. Only in America.