LOUISVILLE, KY – One can’t help but notice all the pickup trucks on the road in this baseball-centric town.

There goes a Ford F-150 – and another. There’s a GMC Sierra HD – and an F-350.

Almost all the pickups spotted here during the media test drive for Toyota Motor Corp.’s new ’07 Tundra are from the U.S. Big Three, save for a couple midsize Toyota Tacomas and Nissan Frontiers.

This is a problem. But Toyota believes it is a problem the new Tundra can overcome.

After languishing in the shadows of its bigger competitors, Toyota finally steps up to the plate, giving its third-generation Tundra true fullsize dimensions.

The Japanese auto maker now is playing for keeps in the fullsize pickup segment and has fielded a team with few holes in the lineup.

It has added a monstrous new CrewMax trim, which has 0.3 ins. (0.8 cm) more rear-seat legroom than Chrysler Group’s Dodge Ram Mega Cab but is overall 19 ins. (48 cm) shorter.

There also is a powerful new 5.7L V-8, the reason for Toyota delaying ’07 Tundra deliveries until February. Toyota says it didn’t want to begin sales until the new mill was available.

With a total length of 228.7 ins. (581 cm) and a 145.7-in. (370-cm) wheelbase, the CrewMax, like the Mega Cab, only is available with a short bed, although Toyota’s short bed isn’t quite so short, gaining 2.7 ins. (6.9 cm). The Tundra bed, at 78.7 ins. (200 cm), is nearly 3 ins. (7.6 cm) longer than the Mega Cab’s.

The CrewMax is sure to impress with its cleanup-hitter proportions, and Toyota chose to save its unveiling for its press conference at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Still, the CrewMax is expected to be the sales runner-up.

The model Ward’s tested here, the Double Cab, which replaces the Access Cab of the previous Tundra lineup, will be the star of this team, accounting for an estimated 60% of total Tundra sales, Toyota says, with the CrewMax taking 30% of the mix and the Regular Cab the remaining 10%.

To quote a General Motors Corp. executive, the pickup sector often becomes a “game of inches,” and the Tundra largely holds its own in that field.

For instance, Toyota claims best-in-class legroom, 42.5 ins. (108 cm), and best-in-class shoulder room, 66.6 ins. (169 cm), for front-seat occupants in 4-door double- and crew cabs.

While the legroom was plentiful up front, the 40.2 ins. (102 cm) of head room, compared with 41.2 ins. (105 cm) in the new Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra Crew Cabs, seems inadequate, as the steeply raked windshield of the new Tundra eats up space.

On the road, the Tundra’s double A-arm front suspension and leaf-type rear suspension give the truck a calm disposition, especially on smoother-than-glass roads here.

Taking the Access Cab – with the new, long-stroke 5.7L iForce V-8 mated to Toyota’s new 6-speed automatic transmission – for a spin on the curvy back roads of rural central Kentucky is a treat as the truck carves up switchbacks surprisingly well, given its size and rugged nature.

Throwing the truck into repeated power slides is particularly fun. But after hearing a presentation prior to the drive on the supreme acceleration time of the new Tundra, media testers were less than impressed. The throttle needed to be mashed consistently to motivate the truck.

Those who drove the lighter Regular Cab with the 5.7L reported more impressive acceleration and overall performance.

Still, on paper, the 381 hp and 401 lb.-ft. (544 Nm) of torque of the all-aluminum DOHC V-8 surpass Dodge Ram’s famed Hemi 5.7L V-8, Silverado and Sierra’s heavily revised Vortec 6.0L V-8, Ford F-150’s 5.4L Triton V-8 and Nissan Titan’s Endurance 5.6L V-8.

However, the high-end, and subsequently niche-selling, ’07 GMC Sierra Denali’s new 6.2L V-8 (now standard in the Cadillac Escalade) will achieve 400 hp and 417 lb.-ft. (565 Nm) of torque when it comes out next spring, GM has said.

Still, the Tundra’s new V-8 will offer the highest specific output: 66.8 hp per liter.

Other engines available in the new Tundra include the 236-hp 4L V-6, standard in the Regular Cab model and installed in the former Tundra, the current Tacoma and new FJ Cruiser SUV.

Also optional for the B-cab and standard in the C- and D-cab models is the 271-hp 4.7L iForce V-8, which was the volume engine in the previous Tundra.

All three engines have Toyota’s intelligent variable valve timing (VVT-i) and meet Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) 2 emissions regulations, the auto maker says.

One of the most closely scouted specs of fullsize pickups is towing capacity, and the Tundra is no minor leaguer in this department, rated at a maximum 10,800 lbs. (4,899 kg) for the 2-wheel-drive Regular Cab with 5.7L V-8 and optional towing package.

Toyota claims segment leadership for towing, although the combination of the lowest-volume cab style with the likely highest volume engine (60% of the mix) is bound to have few takers.

In comparison, Chevy’s Regular Cab Silverado with a 5.3L V-8 has a maximum tow rating of 8,900 lbs. (4,037 kg) with 4-wheel-drive and either bed length.

In the 4-wheel-drive Tundra Double Cab with 5.7L V-8 tested here, the maximum towing capacity is 10,300 lbs. (4,672 kg), although the 9,500 lbs. (4,309 kg) of bricks being hauled sapped acceleration considerably.

GM claims segment-best towing capacity of 10,500 lbs. (4,763 kg) with its 6L V-8-powered Silverado Crew Cab with short box, 4WD and heavy-duty rear axle.

The ’07 Tundra has an all-new composite frame with rails that are 6 ins. (15 cm) wider than those of the previous Tundra. The front half is fully boxed, while the rear is an open C-channel design.

A rolled C-channel with top- and bottom-flange reinforcements is located underneath the cabin. The design is, in part, meant to reduce bending in major frontal crashes, Toyota says, adding the Tundra’s new frame also is more compatible with car bumpers.

The Tundra’s cargo box is all steel and the deepest, 22.2 ins. (56 cm), in the half-ton fullsize pickup segment, Toyota says. The tailgate is lockable and is damper-assisted, for those not possessing Barry Bonds’ strength.

At 13.9 ins. (35.3 cm), the Tundra’s front vented rotors are the largest in its class, Toyota says. Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, and the front discs have 4-piston opposed calipers. Rear 13.6-in. (34.5-cm) discs have single-piston calipers.

Toyota’s STAR safety system (which includes antilock brakes, emergency brake assist, electronic brake force distribution, vehicle stability control and traction control) is standard.

Also standard is an automatic limited-slip differential that allows for some wheel spin and provides better traction vs. clutch-type LSDs in deep sand or mud, Toyota says.

Four-wheel-drive Tundras have active traction control (A-TRAC), which senses wheel spin when both front and rear axles are locked together.

Inside, the new truck hits a home run compared with the cabin of the previous-generation Tundra.

Gone is the fuzzy cloth adorning the seats, replaced by a smoother, textured material. And the new cockpit has none of the flashing flubs found in the old truck.

Storage cubbies are plentiful, including a clever hanging file folder/laptop compartment between the bucket seats.

Toyota designed the new Tundra entirely in the U.S. at its Calty studio in California.

Facing the truck from the front, it becomes clear the design mission was to outdo the Ram’s bodacious grille with an over-the-top front end of its own. Toyota wants the truck to be “unmistakable at 300 yards (274 m).” Mission accomplished.

The Tundra’s sheet metal has grown on us, despite the puniness of the greenhouse relative to the mass below the beltline.

Gaps between the zinc-coated body panels are intentionally larger than average. Toyota says the intent is to make the truck “look bolder” and more masculine.

The ’07 Tundra is available in 31 configurations, including three trims: DX (standard on Regular Cabs), SR5 and Limited, both of which are offered on Double Cab and CrewMax models. The SR5 trim also is an option on the Regular Cab.

Wheels are standard 18 inchers (available in steel or alloy, depending on trim), while 20-in. alloys, the largest ever offered by Toyota, are optional on the Limited trim.

All in all, the Tundra is a worthy competitor in the light-duty, fullsize truck sector.

However, the Tundra bench still lacks the depth and breadth of GM’s, Ford Motor Co.’s and Chrysler Group’s fullsize rosters, all of which offer heavy-duty models and diesel engines.

Although most large pickup buyers may gravitate to light-duty models, the Big Three’s HD trims are a crucial draw for particular buyers.

Potentially hampering Toyota’s target of 200,000 sales next year – as well as the entire fullsize pickup segment – is the slowdown in the construction sector, as real estate prices fall along with new housing starts.

But Toyota is betting its franchise on the success of its Tundra, and the truck proves Toyota finally is ready to play ball with the big boys.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com