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2003 Toyota Tundra: Reconnecting with an old friend

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2003 Toyota Tundra
Steve Wheeler’s 2003 Toyota Tundra

Back when I was in college at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, I commuted a dozen miles or so down Highland Road along the banks of Ward’s Creek in a 1971 MG Midget.

“Thank you, Jesus,” I’d say every time the little red ragtop wheezed into the student parking lot outside of LSU’s Tiger Stadium – aka Death Valley – where I’d gather my books from the passenger seat and trudge off to journalism class.

That the MG might not make it 12 miles to LSU was always a possibility. The little red convertible was in rough shape, and it left me on the side of the bayou more than once.

I hadn’t worried about being stranded by an automobile for a long time, primarily because as an auto journalist, I got shiny new press cars or trucks in my driveway every Monday.

But then came “The Rona,” and the press cars have stopped, allowing me to reconnect with an old friend, my 2003 Toyota Tundra pickup. The truck largely sat parked while I cavorted for more than 15 years with the newest models automakers had to offer.

Getting reacquainted

Now that I’ve spent the recent 10-month COVID-19 quarantine driving my old friend, I’ve realized I haven’t missed the shiny new cars much at all. It’s been great getting comfortable again in my Tundra.

Back in 2003, Tundra was not a household name in the truck world. Ford, Chevrolet and GMC were the big truck players, but I sidestepped the big boys and picked out a sporty white Tundra with the new stepside bed. A quick 17 years later, I’m still smiling.

My Tundra has nearly 210,000 miles, and it still starts and runs like the day I drove it from the showroom.

Steve Wheeler’s 2003 Toyota Tundra with the ProNet tailgate. (Photo by Steve Wheeler)

The stepside trim was a new bed offering in 2003, introduced to counter Ford’s stepside truck. It has really cool taillights, one of which I replaced after a minor rear-end mishap. Gone too is the tailgate, replaced by a ProNet tailgate as the result of the aforementioned mishap.

The stepside bed has an interior width of more than 49 inches, meaning it hasn’t kept me from loading stacks of 4×8 plywood and just about anything else I have needed to fit.

Driving ‘til the wheels fall off

When I bought my truck late in 2003, I coughed up the extra money to have a leather interior installed by the dealer. I knew full well that I needed durable seating surfaces because I planned to drive this truck until it rusted to the ground or the wheels fell off. Neither has happened so far.

The Tundra has been unbelievably reliable over the years, cranking up every time. The only times it hasn’t started were when I had a dead or failing battery. Knock on wood, I’m planning to drive it until the previous paragraph materializes.

The key to longevity in the Tundra, or any vehicle, is to maintain it according to factory recommendations. Timely oil changes are critical. I also replaced the timing belt as recommended at about 100,000 miles. I was blown away when the old timing belt came out looking brand new. I’ve faithfully maintained this truck, but must admit, it hasn’t been through as many car washes as it should have, and the clearcoat finish is about gone.

2003 Toyota Tundra
The interior of Steve Wheeler’s 2003 Toyota Tundra. (Photo by Steve Wheeler)

Major repairs, though, have not been needed. I did bust a knuckle once changing the fogged-out headlights (Toyota has had issues with headlights). And I’ve had two windshields replaced thanks to rocks tossed by big rigs out the highway.

And that’s about it. Everything else on the truck is original and still works.

I’ve regularly pulled some semi-heavy loads (tractors and boats weighing up to 6,000 pounds) with the 4.7-liter V-8 in the Tundra. The small V-8 still has some pretty decent tug with 240 horses and 315 pound-feet of torque. My Tundra is rated to tow up to 7,100 pounds with an 1,800-pound payload, and it delivers 15 MPG in the city and 18 MPG on the highway.

Back when full-size was midsize

Toyota, which has long had a reputation for building reliable cars, introduced the Tundra pickup more than 17 years ago. Today, the full-size 2003 Tundra is about the same size as the current midsize Tacoma. Half-tons today are goliaths with incredible power and torque.

But right at this moment, I don’t need one.

Me, I’ll keep my midsized, full-size Tundra with the small V-8. It may not be the biggest, baddest truck around, but it’s long paid for, it’s easy to park and it handles every chore around my farm. Not a single wheel has fallen off, and there’s almost no rust.

I’ll have to be paying attention though, the break-in period is almost up.

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