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Humbled Toyota rolls out new Tundra

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By The Associated Press
Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
 

When Toyota's hefty new Tundra pickup went on sale in 2007, the Japanese automaker trumpeted it as a game-changer that would challenge Detroit for the only part of the market it still dominated.

“The truck that's changing it all,” was the tagline from an ad that featured the beefy Tundra pulling a 10,000-pound trailer up a steep ramp.

But in six years on the market, the Tundra hasn't changed much of anything. It did teach Toyota that unlike car buyers, American pickup owners are still fiercely loyal to their Fords, Chevrolets and Rams.

Toyota revealed a redesigned Tundra at the Chicago Auto Show, this time without lofty sales goals or talk of breaking into Detroit's lucrative stronghold.

The Tundra comes with an aggressive aerodynamic exterior, an all-new interior and a long list of practical and luxury features. But the choice of three engines is unchanged, and the company seems happy just to protect the Tundra's 5 percent share of the U.S. pickup market — especially when pickup sales are rising as the economy recovers from the Great Recession.

“They'll be part of the recovery,” says Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, an industry consulting firm. “I don't see them capturing any share from the Detroit guys.”

Before the 2007 redesign, the Tundra didn't measure up to the Ford F-Series, Chevrolet Silverado and Chrysler's Ram. It was smaller and didn't have the powerful engine needed to tow trailers or haul heavy loads. Sales in 2006— a huge year for trucks — were just under 125,000, respectable but only a fraction of the nearly 800,000 F-Series trucks sold by Ford.

But with the new truck, Toyota had set its sights on Detroit. It had a brawnier look with larger bed and a big 5.7-liter, 381-horsepower engine. Toyota executives brazenly predicted sales of 200,000 a year, almost doubling sales of the existing truck. In 2007, Toyota came close to the goal, hitting almost 197,000. But as Detroit updated its pickups with powerful engines, new transmissions and innovative features, Tundra sales fell, hitting a low of 83,000 in 2011.

Once truck buyers choose a brand, they tend to stick with it. That gives companies such as Ford — which started building pickups in 1925 — an advantage, since that loyalty has built up over several generations. Last year, 45 percent of F-150 buyers traded in a Ford pickup, according to Edmunds.com. By contrast, 38 percent of Tundra buyers traded in Toyota trucks. But since Ford sells more than six times as many pickups as Toyota, the Ford trade-in numbers are much higher.

Jim Lentz, Toyota's highest-ranking U.S. executive, concedes that it's doubtful Toyota will pick up market share with the new truck. “We are servicing a niche within full-size trucks with Tundra, and it does very well. It's been the perennial quality leader in the segment,” he said. “I think we're very comfortable with it in that segment.”

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