When Toyota recently invited "Drive...He Said" and other midwestern automotive writers to Tennessee, our first reaction was, "Hey that's Nissan country [at least here in the U.S.].
But when we arrived at Blackberry Farm Resort , nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, just east of Knoxville, to preview the redesigned 2014 4-Runner and Tundra truck offerings, Franklin and Smyrna seemed far away.
Now for those who have never been, the Great Smokies are where nature's waterways meet mountain-ways in
And make for some of the most interesting driving, both on and off road, in the eastern part of the country.
The redesigned for 2014 Toyota 4-Runner SUV
It's hard to believe it but the Toyota 4-Runner SUV is now entering it's sixth generation. Unlike Jeep's off-road Grand Cherokee , 4-Runner never abandoned its heritage of a boxy shape. For 2014 front headlights impart a love-'em-or-hate-'em cats-eye design. The interior, at least in the Limited guise we sampled, has learned much from Lexus with top-level leathers and power amenities. Even if the largest available touch infotainment display with back-up camera measures but 6.1"-inches. We can't help but imagining a lady's pumps getting caught in the power extending/ retracting running boards. One measure of equality: all 2014 4-Runners get Bluetooth wireless connectivity.
Perhaps as more for ruggedness than outright tradition, of all mid-size SUV's designed from the ground-up for off-road duty, only the 4-Runner sticks with a full body-on-frame construction. Toyota's message: 4-Runner isn't a mere cutesy crossover-ute for soccer-shuffling. For that they offer the Highlander.
Call us satisfied that the 2014 4-Runner exhibits little on-road bobbing normally associated with a full-frame chassis. The level of resistance to sway in the curvies, despite a solid rear axle, is also a revelation for a 2.2 ton SUV with 9" of ground clearance. Both steering and braking are up to the task of tackling brisk interstate driving even on large 20" wheels. And the 270 hp gas VVT-i 4.0L V6 mated to 5-speed auto gearbox with available steering wheel paddle shifting moved the 4-Runner with as much verve as a Grand Cherokee with Pentastar V6. Only that the Jeep's 8-speed ZF transmission gives it the fuel economy edge.
Our 4-Runner Limited 4x2 went "off-roading" on 9 miles of un-paved Rich Mountain Road, off of the GSMNP Cades Cove. The optional X-REAS electronically adjustable suspension, with center control absorber to cross-link shocks at opposite corners, eliminated most of the side to side pitching which otherwise gets you close to losing your breakfast.
Starting at $32,800K for a 4x2-4-Runner, Toyota offers an option not available in the Grand Cherokee at any price: a third seating row.
They tell us that since 1984 Toyota has sold 1.98 million 4-Runners. And that of those some 75% are reportedly still on the road. Color us "not surprised."
The new-for-2014 Toyota Tundra
We were keen on the last Toyota Tundra we drove in Chicago snow. Since then Ram and Ford created a the "luxury pick-up" niche. Toyota went back to work on on it's full-size 1/2 ton pick-up built for Americans, by Americans in good ole' San Anton', Texas.
They pretty much left the drivetrain alone. Because Toyota claims that turbo-charging mid-displacement sixes, available in some of the competition, doesn't significantly beat the real-world fuel economy of a small block modern DOHC V8. And According to Rick LoFaso, Toyota USA Manager of Truck Operations, there's no word yet of a diesel option.
For 2014, Toyota "de-softened" the looks of the previous Tundra. Because, let's face it. No Tundra owner wants to be bullied for their "Bubbly" ride. To that end there's a squarer nose, wider and deeper grille, and sculpting in the rear quarters. Sweating the details the "Tundra" nameplate is now embossed into the tailgate.
After a later than expected departure from lunch at the Dancing Bear Lodge in Walland, TN, we hopped some 10.6"-inches onto the fixed running boards of a pre-production Toyota Tundra. It was fitted the TRD off-road hardware and the big-boy 5.7-Liter twin-cam V8 pushing 381 hp and 410 -pound-feet to all four wheels through a transfer case and planetary center electro-hydraulic differential.
Yeah, it's big. With the extended crew-cab whose rear-seats now fold up and back for bigger Lowe's shopping sprees. And at least as bad looking as a Ford F-150.
But inside there were the kinds of creature comforts we can get used to. Including the standard in $25,200 4x2 models, Entune app-capable 6.1" touch screen, Bluetooth and back-up camera. Our Limited Crew-Cab 4x4 had a 7"-inch touch LCD navigation screen with dual zone front climate control which appeased our companion journalist with a "Tundran" breeze.
Tundra soldiers on with a solid rear axle on leaf springs. Yet on brisk straights it exhibits less bobbing than a Ram 1500 Laramie 4x4 with indie rear. Towing some 10,000 pounds of boat to the Little Tennessee River will be easier given the relocated trailer power hookup and some massive 13.9" front rotors clamped by four-piston mono-block calipers.
Missing the turnoff from US 129 to Foothill Parkway, we headed straight into that beast of winding two-laned asphalt. They didn't nickname Blount County's Calderwood Highway, with all 318 curves in an 11 mile stretch, "Tail_of_the_Dragon" for nothing. Crossing the border into North Carolina, we made a 180° and headed back. All 5800-pounds of swaying Tundra had us regretting the extra ham-and-swiss-on-whole-wheat as we slap-shifted the fuss-free 6-speed manumatic between second and third some 318 times. The all-alloy engine barely let out a wimper, and it was darn tootin' quiet inside.
The view was spectacular. We're waiting for a confirmation that we set the solitary record for taking a 2014 Toyota Tundra through-and-back 636 turns of Calderwood Drive.
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