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Review: The 2002 Toyota Tundra TRD is an indestructible off-road beast

This 300k mile 4x4 beast is a comfortable way to wait out the apocalypse

11w ago
2.1K

For nearly as long as I can remember my dad has driven a 2002 Toyota Tundra TRD and it has never once broken down. This plush factory off-road special is the truck you want on your side. It's a luxury truck from before luxury trucks got too soft; it's got old school charm in a modern wrapper.

The Tundra is the perfect middle ground between a rugged utility vehicle and a cushy suburban commuter. It's easy enough to drive for its size but inspires a feeling that you're the most unstoppable force on the road. You just feel unstoppable and dangerously cool at the same time.

This review is based on my experience in and around a number of Toyota Tundras and Sequoias, namely my dad's 2002. His Tundra has 297,000 miles on it and is showing no signs of slowing down, but it's beginning to show its age a bit.

Photo: Toyota

Photo: Toyota

History

The first generation Toyota Tundra ran from 2000 to 2006, receiving a major midcycle update in 2003 that added a double cab and corrected the already dated front end styling of the original. I prefer the earlier grille but the updated version has aged very well. Previously, the gen 1 was only available in single or extended cab variants with only one bed length per cab; the uncommon stepside bed variant became the only way to get the extended cab after the refresh.

The Tundra shares its chassis, powertrain, and interior with the Sequoia SUV for both of its generations. I have extensive experience riding in Sequoias and they feel the exact same up until the second row, sharing the dashboard, seats, front door cards, and other trim pieces with their platform mate.

You can clearly see just how massive this vehicle is in a normal American sized parking spot

You can clearly see just how massive this vehicle is in a normal American sized parking spot

Driving Dynamics

It drives like a truck and feels like a truck but is more maneuverable than most full sizers. You're acutely aware of the sheer length of the vehicle when driving but it doesn't feel unwieldy. It responds to inputs with more precision than many of its contemporaries.

Despite the vehicle's considerable mass and long wheelbase, it steers like any other 90s-2000s Toyota just with more body roll. I've not driven many other trucks but I really enjoy the work Toyota did to make the Tundra easy to maneuver. The length sometimes becomes inconvenient but the light and precise steering with little on-center dead spot is supremely easy to use. Not much steering feel is transmitted but you can still place the front wheels. Additionally, the almost unparalleled visibility all-round makes parking less of a struggle than in many other full sized pickups.

One way to describe the Tundra is to picture everything a Ford Ranger is not. I have no experience with Tacomas but I can verify that the Ranger is flimsy, cheap, and underpowered in exactly the way the Tundra isn't. More polar opposites could not be imagined.

Most Tundras came with the optional 4.7 liter "I-Force" V8 producing 245 horsepower and 315 lb-ft of torque. Later models had as much as 280 horsepower. The four speed automatic with overdrive doesn't do the fuel economy any favors however and sacrifices some delay in throttle inputs for around-town smoothness. The later 5 speed automatic is surely an improvement, but what you really want is the 5 or 6 speed manual if fuel economy is a worry. Some trucks came with a 190 horsepower 3.4 liter V6 or 4.0 236 horsepower V6 but I wouldn't want one of those with a slushbox.

Even with the V8, the Tundra is quick without being decidedly fast. There's plenty of torque at all RPMs but the low revving 4.7 liter V8 is tuned to last a million miles and not flinch when towing a heavy trailer, not to knock your socks off. It is one of the best parts of the truck and I wouldn't change a thing. There's still plenty of power to spin the wheels with an unladen bed and the wall of torque is only slightly dampened by the inefficient automatic.

Perhaps most notably the 4.7 liter V8 is famous for being nearly indestructible. My dad's truck is still pulling strong at nearly 300,000 miles and it has never broken down other than a dead battery. It had a radiator need replacement once and needs a suspension overhaul but has otherwise subsided purely on regular service intervals. Few people don't have a friend-of-a-friend story of a Tundra/Sequoia reaching ludicrous mileage figures. A credible friend knew a V8 Sequoia that reached 500,000 miles and this story was recently topped by a similar narrative boasting 700,000 miles.

I prepared a brief startup and drive video to provide a visual. Around 30 seconds in you can hear the big lazy V8 rev a little.

I cannot speak for how it handles off-road conditions but the TRD specific higher ride height, special Bilstein shocks, wider track width, and meatier sidewalls indicates it is a capable beast indeed. It's got an electronically shifted low range transfer case for the 4x4 and more extensive underbody cladding, a great combination when the going gets rough. As far as I know, however, this specific Tundra can't boast to anything more intensive than climbing a rutted dirt path on one occasion. Very few of these were actually taken off-road because they were too expensive when new to justify beating them up.

The truck is most at home navigating the suburban highways and byways most owners use them to commute on. It's got a comfortable ride only occasionally interrupted by the rear leaf springs and solid axle with an unladen bed. Having so little weight on the rear can be expected to cause some bounciness, but I can confirm it's more composed than many of its contemporaries. The Tundra is a supremely confidence inspiring vehicle to pilot.

Interior

It's painfully 90s-2000s Toyota in here. There's lots of hard durable plastics and slick vinyl (?) padding. Most of these came with a much more durable cloth interior that is an unfortunate shade of bleh gray. The upscale 'Limited' trim has some notoriously fragile fake leather seats and a more attractive beige interior color scheme. While the cloth interiors are extremely durable and look good even on worn out high mile examples, I just can't get behind how dreary they look. Too bad there was no brown cloth interior option.

Filling the truck up to its full 5 person capacity is inadvisable. The rear middle seat disconcertingly features only a lap belt that isn't even self adjusting. It's a shame since the middle seat of the nearly identical Sequoia can still comfortably fit an adult in a pinch thanks to its width and full three point safety belt. Once my family of 5 had to take the truck on vacation due to the unreliable Volvo breaking down and it definitely wasn't ideal. I wouldn't do it again but it was at least memorable. However, four people can be seated inside with a high degree of comfort despite the lack of rear seat legroom.

Even this top of the line Tundra with all the options is sparsely equipped by 2020 luxury truck standards but for its time it was quite plush indeed. Power driver seat, cruise control, 6 speaker cassette/CD stereo, front bucket seats, two 12 volt DC outlets, keyless entry, anti theft system, and fog lights was about it besides the TRD off-road goodies but that was pretty impressive for the era.

That said, the controls are very ergonomic and easy to use and are pleasingly tactile. The switchgear is durable with the exception of the HVAC control knobs which often lose their knobs and still look good even after nearly 20 years in the Georgia sun. It may not be the prettiest interior and many people dislike the swoopy dash design, but it's both functional and comfortable. It also boasts 6 cupholders without resorting to door pockets, impressive for a 5 passenger pickup from 2002.

But I'm willing to look past the dated aesthetics because. . .

. . . it has clamshell half doors! Otherwise known as the only appropriate door solution for extended cab pickups (something the second gen abandoned).

Clamshell half doors are the perfect setup for this vehicle and vastly increase its ease of use. The rear doors act as a B pillar when closed for the front doors so they do not open independently, which is perfectly fine. The back seats are a little cramped for longer drives but perfectly fine for occasional short trips. Most of the time, they're more useful as storage and this door setup makes it incredibly easy to load the rear with groceries or whatever other cargo you wish. You don't have to walk around a rear door to get to a cart.

Appearance

This is a very good looking truck. Resplendent in its Imperial Jade Mica paint, I think the simple lines and perfect proportions of the Tundra fall so much easier to the eye than more modern trucks. This was one of the last trucks designed before trucks started ballooning in size. The bed is long and not overly deep, the belt line is nearly a straight line, and it doesn't exude testosterone addled rage like the current crop of pickups.

However, I think the factory fender flares on pre facelift TRDS and all post facelift Tundras dramatically improve their appearance. It gives it a subtly more aggressive stance that just works. While I prefer the confident and more simple pre facelift grille, there isn't an ugly first gen Tundra. They are easily the best looking 2000s pickup in my book.

Among the visual changes the TRD package offers are body colored side mirrors, body colored bumper trim, body colored side molding, and a massive Toyota Racing Development sticker on the bed.

Utility

This is an extremely useful truck but the factory lift from the TRD package makes getting stuff in the bed a little more difficult than on standard trims. The liftover is just a little too high but the bed is still shallow enough that it's easier to load from the side than a modern pickup. My uncle's lower SR5 Tundra (pictured below) is significantly easier to load from the side.

The bed is 76.6 inches long on the more common Access Cab models and the single cab long bed has a 98.2 inch bed. With a width of 61.2 inches, even the shorter bed is plenty long enough to haul a load of lumber for a weekend project or bulky furniture. An easily accessible tie down at every corner makes loading and securing all manner of items easy.

Even the off-road tuned suspension is adept at dealing with towing trailers. They're decent tow rigs, though I don't have personal experience towing myself. The long wheelbase helps with stability and the torquey V8 just shrugs off even the heaviest loads.

In other words, it has all the capability you expect of the full sized pickup but combined with its already impressive road manners.

Note the lower ride height, black plastic trim, and lack of fender flares on this V8 SR5 model belonging to an uncle of mine.

Note the lower ride height, black plastic trim, and lack of fender flares on this V8 SR5 model belonging to an uncle of mine.

Issues

While Tundras are known to be mechanically nearly indestructible, particularly with the 4.7 V8, they are known to disintegrate upon contact with road salt. If one has spent even a brief amount of time in a snowy area, don't risk it. They suffer from crippling chassis rust to the extent that Toyota used to offer a complete chassis replacement recall.

In the southeast US, very few survive with their original paint intact. The dark green color that adorns my dad's truck in particular does not like any exposure to UV rays. It has always been parked under a cover its whole life but the paint on the roof is shot and the hood is starting to go too. Above, my uncle's equally green truck has almost run out of paint entirely with the hood being stripped to bare metal purely from the influence of the sun. Tundras and Sequoias painted white seem to be the only ones not to suffer from fragile paint.

Conclusion

The Tundra can do it all and more and you'll look good while doing it. It's difficult to convey just how well rounded this vehicle really is. It's a suburban commuter when you need it, an off-road monster when you want it, and it's a ton of fun to drive in the meantime. You'll struggle to reach its limits during any normal use; even when yanking a heavy trailer the truck barely breaks a sweat.

I have tremendous respect for the first generation Tundra. It's hard to find any faults to point out. The transmission really dates the driving experience and the frames occasionally snap in half from rust but they just go forever. It's hard to find fault with a vehicle that has been flawlessly dependable over nearly two decades with only oil changes and the occasional timing belt or spark plugs.

If you can find someone that is actually parting with their Tundra, they tend to valued significantly less than similar Tacomas while being more capable and more comfortable. But, like Tacomas, they're such great trucks people just don't part with them very often. I firmly believe they are the best used truck bargain out there if you can find one with an intact frame.

This review was also crossposted to Oppositelock's new home on The Hyphen.

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