Curbside Classic: 1997 Toyota T100 – Small Can Be A Big Problem

Full-size pickup trucks may be a uniquely American thing, but as someone who has lived my entire life in the United States, it’s a vehicle whose immense popularity I’ve never understood. Obviously I’m not the only one, as most of the rest of the world has never quite grasped the full-size pickup truck’s appeal either, something evidenced by non-American, mainly Japanese automakers’ attempts at creating one. Although more recent efforts from Honda, Nissan, and Toyota have been marginally successful in the U.S., this wasn’t always the case. Enter the 1992-1998 Toyota T100, America’s least commercially-successful Japanese “full-size” pickup truck.

Although I’m clearly not the best guide to stereotypical “American” things — I’ve never eaten a hamburger (gasp!), I don’t watch football, I detest country music — hear me out on why I simply can’t comprehend the full-size pickup’s appeal and popularity, for after all it’s by far the best-selling type of vehicle in the U.S. each year. Don’t get me wrong, as utilitarian commercial vehicles, the full-size pickup is a jack of all trades, offering an immense amount of utility, cargo and towing capacity in a package able to withstand a lot of abuse.

The part I don’t get, is why so Americans who will rarely if ever utilize full-size pickups for these purposes, continue purchasing them — and ever highly-optioned ones — as their daily drivers. As one who has driven and ridden in numerous full-size pickups over the years, I don’t find them particularly comfortable, they’re difficult to get up into and out of, their interiors suffer from horrible ergonomics, and above all, they’re especially difficult to maneuver and park because of their sheer size and poor weight distribution.

Recent years have seen full-size pickups follow the same trajectory as full-size SUVs: predominately purchased for their “king of the road” levels of size, visibility, and road isolation. Joining the full-size SUV in taking the place of once-popular full-size sedans and coupes, the full-size pickup is now commonly found with luxurious amenities and numerous “rough-and-tough” costume jewelry appearance packages (i.e. Trail Boss, King Ranch, Longhorn) that rival 1970s and 1980s Broughams in their levels of gaudiness.

Yet 25 years ago, pickup trucks were seen more respectably for the utilitarian work vehicles they were meant to be, and primarily bought for this reason. Regardless of their purpose, image, need to prove something or whatnot, full-size pickups then were a highly-lucrative segment then just as they are now. High on life, sales, profits, popularity and especially reputation, Toyota only saw it logical to break into this burgeoning full-size pickup market in the United States. Called T100, Toyota’s first “full-size” pickup truck debuted as a 1993 model.

In theory, a full-size pickup truck from Toyota in the early-1990s sounded like a recipe for success. However, in practice the T100 was a commercial failure, never selling more than 40,000 units in a single year when some Big Three competitors were selling upwards of 700,000. The reason being? It’s a rather simple one, but a big one: the T100 was too small.

Smaller in external length, height, and width than full-size pickups from the Big Three, the latter in particular made seating three full-size adults across the T100 regular cab’s standard front bench seat a rather tight affair. More crucial was the fact that the T100 lacked availability of an extended-length cab at its launch, limiting its passenger capacity to 3, or 2.75 depending on how you view it. Thankfully, the T100 boasted a standard 8×4 bed with its regular cab configuration, though this dropped to a 6.3-foot bed with the extended-length “Xtracab” that arrived in 1995. With the Xtracab, passenger capacity was at least increased to a maximum of 6, with the rear jump seats and available 60/40 front bench seat.

Unfortunately, the T100 was also grossly underpowered for its class. No V8 engine, a hallmark of full-size American pickups, was ever offered throughout its run, and the 3.0-litre V6 that was standard at its introduction made only 150 horsepower and 180 lb-ft torque — less than the six cylinders offered by Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford, and GMC. Furthermore, before the eventual addition of a more competitive 3.4-litre V6 making 190 horsepower and 220 lb-ft torque, as basically a slap in the face, Toyota downgraded the T100’s standard engine to a 2.7-litre inline-4.

Where the T100 excelled was in its refinement. In typical Toyota fashion for the era, the T100 boasted an interior of impeccable material and build quality that was vastly superior to anything in pickups from the Big Three. Toyota engineers also took considerable efforts to make the T100 a large truck whose handling and ride quality was more like that of a compact pickup, and even car-like. For the compact pickup driver who desired something a bit bigger or the car owner switching to their first truck, this was a good thing. Unfortunately, it was just something that few pickup buyers prioritized.

Toyota executives and product planners in Japan had a hard time understanding the needs and wants of American full-size pickup buyers, and the T100 made this clear. For years, Toyota had built the global successes of its passenger cars on the principal of efficiency — efficiency in space, efficiency in fuel consumption, efficiency in manufacturing practices — but the full-size pickup industry in the U.S. has never been one that prioritizes efficiency. Things like size, power, roomy interiors, towing capability, and often tough looks have always been the key motives of American pickup buyers, and for most, the T100 lacked adequacy in any of these.

There’s also another important point to raise, in that full-size pickup buyers are among the most loyal of all vehicle buyers. Try pitching a Chevrolet Silverado to a Ford F-150 owner (or vice-versa) and you’ll know what I mean… it’s like trying to get a Coca-Cola drinker to switch to Pepsi, or more fittingly, a Bud Light drinker to switch to Sapporo. For lack of sounding over-nationalistic, full-size pickup trucks are a uniquely American thing, and more so than any other vehicle, one associated with conservative American patriotism. Whether or not it was its intent, Toyota was careful not to step on the toes of established American full-size pickups with the T100, as it was the first international effort at a large pickup truck to enter the North American market.

No matter what way one slices and dices it, the Toyota T100 was not a very successful vehicle. Annual sales saw their highest levels in 1995 and 1996, with just over 37,000 units sold in each, respectively. Toyota sold a total of 141,531 of the Japanese-produced T100 in U.S over six model years (1993-1998), while its primary competitors sold multiple times that figure in any one of those same given years. Toyota would replace the T100 with the larger, V8-capable, and North American-produced Tundra in 1999. Although Toyota found greater success in the process, sales of its Tundra, as well as any other Japanese full-size pickup have never amounted to anything comparable to those of trucks from the Big Three in this very uniquely American segment.

Photographed in Hanson, Massachusetts – October 2019