Wednesday, May 28, 2008

2008 Toyota Sequoia SR5 4x4 Review

By Chris Haak


Although full-size, body-on-frame SUVs are a rapidly declining segment of the new vehicle market, thanks to the reality of gas prices that have more than doubled since 2005 and are showing no signs of falling, they are still members of a very large segment. There are many people who need the utility, towing capability, and passenger capacity of the Suburban/Yukon/Tahoe/Escalade, Expedition/Navigator, Armada, and Sequoia, although their segment of the market will never sell as many vehicles in future years as it did in the past 5-10 years until Katrina started the gas price march to $4.00 per gallon and beyond.

This brings me to my most recent test vehicle, a Toyota Sequoia SR5 4x4. Although I don't have a large family, or any current towing needs, I feel that I am uniquely qualified to comment on the vehicle, as I have driven versions of three-fourths of its closest competitors (missing only the Ford products), including thousands of miles of seat time in a 2007 Chevy Suburban and a test drive in a 2008 Infiniti QX56. I've also spent time in several crossovers - a growing segment that is gobbling up market share from their larger, heavier, thirstier brothers - including the Buick Enclave - as well as several minivans. Finally, my family and I own Toyota's own Sienna minivan. More on that comparison to come later.

The Sequoia is in its second generation and is based on the Tundra pickup (which is also in its second generation). As the Tundra grew from a 7/8ths-scale version of a domestic pickup into a full-scale version, the Sequoia did as well, which substantially improved interior space and performance, with no fuel economy penalty compared to the previous generation. The thing is huge, and can be intimidating in smaller garages (or public parking garages) where tight maneuvering and acute awareness of your vehicle's width and height are critical.

The outside of the Sequoia basically looks like the SUV version of the Tundra pickup that it effectively is. The grille and front bumper are different between the Sequoia and Tundra (with the Sequoia having a fully body-colored bumper, while some trim levels of the Tundra favor a chrome treatment on the bumper's lower half), and the Sequoia lacking the Tundra's phony vent at the top of the grille's arch. I prefer the Sequoia's cleaner look, but they're so similar that I had to compare photos to tell the difference, other than noticing that the fake vent was missing in the top of the Sequoia's grille.

My test vehicle was an SR5 4x4 model, which is below the Limited and Platinum models in the trim line hierarchy. Externally, there aren't many improvements in the higher-end models aside from larger wheels, but my test vehicle's dark blue exterior, with no adornments such as moldings or chrome strips, and 18 inch wheels (when the Platinum trim, as well as many competitors, has 20 inch wheels) seemed a little ho-hum. I'm all for good taste and a certain amount of restraint when it comes to vehicle styling, but the Sequoia's flanks are showing almost too much restraint. At least the Sequoia has deep-cut character lines on the lower portions of the doors, and the swept-back headlights and taillights lend a fairly modern look. Like the Tundra pickup, the Sequoia isn't quite as conservatively styled as its competition, although I'd argue that the Suburban's clean lines are more handsome.

The new 2008 Sequoia grew in nearly every dimension compared to the previous model. Although it's a very large vehicle and Toyota's engineers could have easily been tempted to "waste" interior space because there was so much to go around, they wisely applied many of the clever space maximization techniques that would have been applied to a smaller vehicle. For instance, thanks to independent rear suspension, the third row seats fold flat into the floor as their competitors (except for the GM trucks) do. Multiple clever storage cubbies abound, including dual glove boxes, a gigantic center console that has the ability to hold hanging files, and - if my count is correct - 17 cupholders for 8 seating positions. Further enhancing interior flexibility is the fact that the second row seats each slide forward or backward individually on tracks, so for owners who plan to use all of the seating positions (or at least all of the rows), the vehicle's available legroom can be allocated according to the needs of occupants in each row. For example, if the front seats are all the way back, the second row might have to be adjusted rearward a bit more than normal for occupants there. I appreciated that the Sequoia gave that flexibility.

It was also very easy to get into the third row; I remember growing up in the 1980s, my parents owned several Suburbans of the 1973-1991 era; to get into the third row (which didn't even have any footwell), your choices were to climb over the second row without folding it (OK for kids, but parents didn't like it), or fold the seat forward and the seatback flat. The Sequoia (as well as its contemporaries) have a much simpler method - just pull one lever on the side of the second row seat, and the bottom portion of the seat slides forward and the seatback leans forward, leaving a large opening which, combined with long rear doors, makes it pretty easy to enter the third row gracefully. Exiting gracefully, however, is more difficult. Your two choices are to face forward and limbo under the top of the door opening, or face backward and blindly hoping that your foot will hit something solid like a running board before your knee or shin hits the bottom of the door opening.

In terms of interior materials, I was frankly disappointed. There are very few, if any, soft-touch plastics. The entire upper dashboard was made of hard plastic, and the majority of the door panels and other touchpoints were as well. I was also unpleasantly surprised by the deletion of content in the SR5 relative to the Limited and Platinum models. For example, the SR5 had cloth seats, non-lighted visor mirrors, no retractable sun shades, no power liftgate, and a vinyl steering wheel (no leather wrap - which is included on the $18,000 Corolla I'm driving today).

Driving Experience
Obviously, the Sequoia is not a small, light vehicle. Expect to have to forego shorter or narrower parking spots at the mall. Forget about jumping into any small gaps in city traffic. However, once you get used to the size (which only took me a day or two), it really drives almost like a smaller vehicle, which is a complement to Toyota's chassis engineers. Other than the unavoidable step up into the front seat and the Grand Canyon-wide space between the front seats, it's almost possible to forget that you're in a three ton truck. The Sequoia is solid over uneven road surfaces and, thanks to independent rear suspension, felt almost car-like in its highway ride. The big guy doesn't particularly care for traveling quickly on back roads, but didn't feel unsafe or top-heavy at any point, so long as things were kept at a reasonable pace.

I've gushed before about the 5.7 liter V8/six speed automatic combination in my review of a 2007 Tundra CrewMax, and all of that feedback still stands for the Sequoia. Acceleration and braking performance felt remarkably similar, which is not surprising, considering that the Sequoia SR5 4x4's curb weight is only about 5% (or 300 pounds) heavier than the Tundra CrewMax 4x4's. The six speed automatic was always in the right ratio for the situation at hand, and it shifted too slowly when in manual mode. That really didn't matter, though, because 381 horsepower and 401 lb-ft of torque is enough to overcome any situations where the transmission might be a gear or two higher than you'd want it in.

Steering feel was actually fairly accurate for a large truck. Since it's a traditional belt-driven setup instead of the electrically-operated units finding their way into smaller vehicles, it actually managed to feel better to me than several small cars I've driven. Navigating through the multi-story parking garage I use daily wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be - I just had to have confidence in my feel for the Sequoia's size when rounding sharp corners and aim the steering wheel. It (and I as its driver) survived a six-story descent from the top floor to the exit one busy afternoon, which meant twelve sharp right turns that required me to turn the wheel to a point near its lock; the only oddity was when there was a midsize sedan in front of me on a descending ramp, and I literally could not see the roof of the car over the Sequoia's hood, because it was below my level and the hood was so high. Luckily for me (and the driver of that car), I was aware that he was there and of course didn't bump him.

The enormous width of the Sequoia presents its own set of challenges; for instance, aside from having to look for wider parking spaces, putting it into a garage, or even patronizing some drive-through windows, sometimes requires folding the driver's mirror. The SR5 was not equipped with power folding mirrors, so I had to reach out to do that by hand. In spite of the wide mirrors, I managed to avoid whacking any objects with them. I attribute that again to respecting the size of the truck and being vigilantly aware of its width at all times.

As I do not own a boat, car trailer, horse trailer, or travel trailer, I was unable to test the Sequoia's towing capabilities. However, the maximum trailer weight for a Sequoia SR5 4x4 is 9,600 pounds (an even 10,000 for an SR5 4x2), which is a heck of a large trailer. I have no doubt that it would do a great job towing, with the combination of an intelligent transmission (with tow/haul mode), strong engine, and hefty curb weight (for stability).

Fuel Economy
Today's astronomical fuel prices have already winnowed the pretenders from the people who genuinely need a vehicle this large and capable. To that point, nobody buying a Sequoia does so for fuel economy reasons; however, its figures are class-competitive. The 5.7 liter V8/six-speed automatic combination is rated at 13 city/18highway for the 4x4 models and 14/19 for 4x2 models. These figures are slightly worse than the Tahoe's 14/19 for 4x4 models and 14/20 for 4x2 models with the less-powerful 5.3 liter engine, but better than the AWD GMC Yukon Denali's 12/18 with its comparably powerful engine and six speed automatic. The Ford Expedition's fuel economy is also in this neighborhood. The Nissan Armada 4x4 is rated at a class-worst 12 city/17 highway. In about 250 miles of mixed driving, including some heavy traffic, I got 13.5 miles per gallon, which is actually better than I was able to achieve in the Tundra with the same powertrain back in February. Perhaps I was getting more used to the V8's power and was able to keep my right foot out of the accelerator a little more.

While I actually didn't mind living with the Sequoia for a week, it certainly wasn't the ideal family vehicle for two adults and two small children. (A friend of a friend in the same situation as us has a new Suburban to haul their two children under age two in, and no, they don't tow anything). I can appreciate the vehicle's capabilities, and it's probably where you'd want to be if you knew you were going to collide with another vehicle, thanks to its considerable mass.

I'm not here to convince people to buy a minivan over a Sequoia, but just look at these specs for a moment. Comparing every interior dimension (leg/hip/shoulder room in all three rows, plus cargo volume behind each row) between the Sienna and Sequoia shows the Sienna winning the comparison in nearly every category. The only "wins" for the Sequoia were the width-dependent categories (hip room and shoulder room) in all three rows. However, the Sienna soundly trounces its cousin in terms of cargo volume: 43.6 versus 18.9 cubic feet behind the third row, 94.5 versus 66.6 cubic feet behind the second row, and 148.9 versus 120.8 cubic feet with both second and third row seats folded or removed. On top of that, the Sienna's curb weight is about 1,500 pounds lighter, so its fuel economy is 16/21 in the AWD and 17/23 in the FWD model. Lastly, According to TrueDelta, a Sienna Limited AWD is over $12,000 cheaper than a Sequoia Platinum 4x4 when equipment differences are taken into account. In fact, you can buy a fully-loaded Sienna with EVERYTHING for the same price as a relatively stripped Sequoia. I'd argue that in today's environmentally-conscious times, the "minivan stigma" is now less powerful than the "eww, you drive a full-size SUV" stigma. I'm not judging those who choose the big SUV over the van, but economically, it doesn't make much sense unless you need its capabilities. I'd like to re-iterate that I am not advocating the elimination of full-size SUVs from the marketplace or saying that people should not be allowed to buy them. I just don't see why people would.

If you need or want the size, safety, and capability of a full-size body on frame SUV, the Sequoia is a very credible effort from Toyota. I feel that the interior materials and design are a bit of a letdown asethetically, but the powertrain was awesome (if a bit thirsty), engine performance was superior, and the interior had a lot of clever storage cubbies. Meanwhile, if anyone would like to loan a large boat to me for a weekend to test the towing capabilities of the next large vehicle in my garage, please let me know.

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