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Toyota angles to catch U.S. pickup truck surge with 2014 Tundra

By Deepa Seetharaman

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> unveiled a redesigned Tundra pickup truck on Thursday with a back-up camera, easier-to-use controls and other features designed to take advantage of the expected growth in the lucrative U.S. truck market.

Toyota last overhauled the Tundra in 2007 in an effort to crack a market for full-work trucks dominated by General Motors Co , Ford Motor Co and Chrysler Group LLC . At the time, Toyota executives referred to the Tundra as their most important product launch ever.

But the 2007 Tundra launch coincided with a slowdown in U.S. home construction that hurt truck sales that year and forced the Japanese automaker to pile on incentives to win over buyers.

This time, however, truck sales are on pace to outstrip the gains seen by the overall U.S. auto industry. Analysts expect the trend to persist this year as the housing market improves and automakers launch an array of new models.

"Last time around their timing was off," TrueCar.com analyst Jesse Toprak said, referring to Toyota. "This time, their timing is pretty good in terms of the housing market correlation."

STIFF COMPETITION

The 2014 Tundra, on display at the Chicago Auto Show, which opens for media previews on Thursday, faces stiff competition. Chrysler launched a redesigned Ram 1500 last fall, while GM will introduce redesigned versions of the Chevrolet Silverado and the GMC Sierra this spring.

Next year, Ford will have an overhauled F-150 truck, while Nissan Motor Co's <7201.T> U.S. arm will launch a redesigned Titan pickup truck.

Toyota also must appeal to today's consumers, who are less likely to be so-called lifestyle buyers, or those who are enamored of the truck's image but do not really need it for work, Toprak said.

Today's buyers are more concerned about the truck's capability and power than with a plush interior and visual style.

"It doesn't matter in terms of the styling of the truck - most truck buyers don't care about that stuff anyway," Toprak said. "What matters is the value proposition. That's what Tundra's lacked so far."

The Tundra accounted for 6 percent of the full-size U.S. truck market last year, while the F-Series made up 38.5 percent, auto research firm Edmunds.com said.

The Chevrolet Silverado held 25 percent U.S. market share in 2012. Ram was 17 percent last year, while the GMC Sierra was 9.4 percent, according to the Edmunds.com data.

The 2014 Tundra is expected to arrive in dealerships in September. As with the 2007 model, Toyota drew heavily on focus groups in its latest overhaul.

"Tundra's new exterior design and all-new interior were inspired by customer feedback requesting a more chiseled exterior and refined interior," Bill Fay, head of U.S. sales for the Toyota brand, said in a statement.

Toyota now offers Bluetooth wireless technology as a standard feature to make hands-free phone calls on the 2014 Tundra. The audio, heating and cooling controls are 2.6 inches closer to the driver to improve ergonomics in the new truck, Toyota said.

The vehicle also features an integrated spoiler in the deck to boost fuel efficiency. The front and rear bumper also come in three parts to help lower replacement costs.

(Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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