2018 Toyota Tundra SR5 Review: an Affordable Workhorse Truck, Frozen in Time

Toyota's full-size pickup is long overdue for a refresh, but if you want a work truck for, you know, work, the Tundra is good cheap labor.

Josh Condon / The Drive

Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: 2018 Toyota Tundra SR5.

WHAT: Toyota's full-size pickup, slotting above the midsize Tacoma.

WHERE: NYC to Pennsylvania. A decent four hours on the highway, total, plus some around-town puttering and driving on the excellent NJ and PA roads around the Poconos.

WHEN: The never-ending late winter of 2018; aka early May in the Northeast, aka Lousy Smarch Weather

Josh Condon / The Drive

Background

Even though Japan is mostly known for strict emissions regulations and a hard pivot towards renewable hydrogen, you don't get to be one of the world's largest automakers without building a big-ass truck for America, a country that can't get enough big-ass trucks. The Tundra is a workhorse both in capability and philosophy: the model is only available with a V-8 engine (either a 4.6-liter with 310 horsepower and 321 lb-ft, or a 5.7-liter with 381 hp and 401 lb-ft) which can only be mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, and can be configured on end among its three cab styles, two bed-lengths, and choice of rear-wheel or four-wheel-drive.

It's also a bit long in the tooth: the 2018 model-year Tundra is a continuation of long-ago refresh for a vehicle that's desperate for a full rethink. Demand and supply both run scorching hot for full-size pickups, and the Toyota feels ancient compared to recent all-new models from Ram, Chevy, and Ford, among others.

Exterior

  • The 2018 model has minor design tweaks to the front end, but I couldn't tell you what they are—it looks like the Tundra you remember. There's nothing notably handsome about the truck—it has a modern full-size's typical monolithic presence and towering grille, though it's a bit less sleek than competitors like redesigned Ford F-150 and Dodge Ram—though neither is it in any way offensive. 
  • There is one unique style note, especially in comparison to the F-150: the bulbous wheel arches give the truck a subtle stepside silhouette.
  • The dual row of honeycomb grille is a far better look than the billet version, which kind of makes the truck look like it's wearing some serious braces.
  • The lined, 6.5-foot bed (I refer to it as a "full" bed in the video, below, but in fact there's an 8.1-foot bed as an option for 2018; I was just happy it wasn't the stubby, 5.5-foot bed) has rail caps and a cargo lamp above the rear window, and the Easy Lift tailgate is, in fact, easy to operate.
  • You can manually control the headlight level, which is neat.
  • This was a stripped-down truck, and there weren't many options I missed, but a running board would have been useful. I'm 5'10" and move easily, but a modern full-size pickup is too enormous to be hauling yourself into it every time. Anyone with, say, hamstring or lower back issues would be effectively locked out of this truck.
  • In Magnetic Gray with 18-inch wheels, this looked every inch the contractor's special.
Josh Condon / The Drive

Interior

  • You do not see many press vehicles with cloth seats any more, but there they were. I found them quite comfortable—there wasn't that odd overheating that can happen to your back where it feels like you're wearing another sweater, but only on your back. But there was so much space up front I might as well have been sitting on a couch. If it were my work truck, though, I'd opt for easier-to-clean leather.
  • The need for a refresh is seen most acutely inside, which feels like a throwback: stalk shifter, an actual ignition with a metal key instead of an engine-start button, and bench seats. I enjoyed each of those old-school details, but the modern truck buyer wants all the conveniences of an SUV and then some, so the next-generation Tundra will most certainly get more bells and whistles.
  • There was plenty of room in back with the double cab, but if you want even more legroom you can opt for the CrewMax cab—that, however, limits you to the 5.5-foot cargo bed, which is too short for serious work.
  • The middle jumpseat can be folded flat between the two front seats, the back of the seat then transforms into an organizer with cupholders, an organizing drawer, and various small cubbyholes.
  • In any work truck, convenience and storage are key. The Tundra is lacking a bit here, with a dearth of type and number of power outlets and not much hidden storage. There is, however, this neat trick:
Checking Out Interior Features in the Tundra
The Drive

Technology

  • The 2018 Tundra gets a bunch of safety and driver-assist upgrades, including automated emergency braking, lane-departure and forward-collision warnings, and adaptive cruise control.
  • The Infotainment system is about as basic as it gets for anything that isn't a Subaru, but save for Apple Carplay or Android Auto (which I've never much cared about) it has everything you want in a truck like this—navigation, satellite radio, a back-up camera—and it all works intuitively and well.
  • If you're going to use the Tundra for hauling and towing—and this truck is built for the purpose—it has a lot of the features you want. The basics, like antilock braking and stability control, but also trailer-sway and trailer brake control.

The Bottom Line

I wound up with the Tundra at the last minute, and so I was unprepared to give the 2018 Tundra the test it wants, which would include moving apartments, towing horses, and helping a friend put an addition on her house. Instead, I just cruised around rural Pennsylvania, mostly stopping to look at old furniture and eat pancakes. For that, it was great: it's a bigger vehicle than I would ever want to buy, but it's comfortable and easy to maneuver for its size. If you don't mind the body wiggles inherent to a heavy, tall, softly-sprung long truck—and I don't at all—this is the type of truck that will have a nickname inside a year.

Also, the one thing I kept coming back to is the notion of perceived value. So much of that term now resides in luxury materials and gadgets, even when talking about a class of vehicle invented for farmers and tradesmen. While a small business owner would look at any truck with a different I, the first things I noticed about the Tundra were the outdated bits, like the huge stalk shifter and Sega Genesis infotainment system—and there are a lot of truck buyers looking at potential purchases with the same shallow gaze.

The lack of content is apparent and the Tundra loses to the newer competition on the bragging-rights truck specs, but you can still tow up to 10,500 pounds while comfortably transporting six people and, say, a couple dirt bikes in the bed, with an MSRP just a tick above $37,150. It's more than most people will ever need to use, and I found it charming, as well. (Note: I am notably amenable to and lenient on pickups.) 

Still, it can't tow 12,500 pounds, so as far as the hardcore truck-guy market is concerned, it might as well be a Toyota Prius.

Toyota Tundra SR5, By the Numbers:

Price as tested (including destination): $38,970

Powertrain: 5.7-liter V-8; 381 hp, 401 lb-ft; six-speed automatic transmission, 4WD

Fuel Economy (city/highway): 14 mpg (13/17)

Max Towing: 10,500 pounds

Cabin Is a Time-Capsule for the Year: 2009