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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.
Thursday morning, Toyota is set to unveil a redesigned Tundra at the Chicago Auto Show, this time without lofty sales goals or talk of breaking into Detroit's lucrative stronghold.
The new 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 engines 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 like Ford — started building pickups in 1925 — a real 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.
While the Tundra in 2007 matched Detroit's trucks in power, towing capacity and fuel efficiency, it couldn't pull buyers away from Detroit's trucks because it wasn't any better, said Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst for Kelly Blue Book. To take sales from Detroit, Toyota would have to offer compelling features that make the Tundra different, or a lower price, he said.
"If you're just talking apples-to-apples, in my opinion, they'll never break into it," Jon Carey, co-owner of a drywall business near Ann Arbor, Mich., said of Toyota. Carey, whose business hauls drywall with two Ram pickups purchased in 2006, sees no reason to switch brands. "If they were giving the same price point, I don't know that I would necessarily switch. There would have to be some real reason behind it."
Even Jim Lentz, Toyota's highest-ranking U.S. executive, conceded in a recent interview 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 is in that segment."
Detroit's defense. GM new trucks, Ford upgrades the F-Series. GM another generation, so ford unveils Atlas.
Why so intent on keeping sales. Make 5,000 to 10,000 per pickup according to Schuster. Most lucrative segment of the market.
So Toyota stays because it makes money even on 101,000 sales.
Even Nissan makes money, according to Gutierrez. And plans to stay in market. Interivew with Nissan guy.