Toyota is the world’s leading automaker by sales, and last year they even outsold General Motors in America (breaking GM’s incredible streak, which dates back to 1931). In terms of global sales, last year Toyota beat their nearest competitor, the equally massive Volkswagen, by 1.6 million cars sold; at this point in 2022 they’re already beating VW by 1 million.
Aside from masterful sourcing and lean manufacturing practices, Toyota has a fascinating ability: They’re able to let vehicles go for up to 15 years without a complete redesign, while still generating the sales that keep them at the top. The Sequoia, Toyota’s full-size SUV, hasn’t had a full re-design since the last Bush administration. But providing new vehicles with mere facelifts can only last so long, and today the company is officially unveiling the all-new 2023 Sequoia, which will be available for sale at the end of this summer.
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Last week Core77 was invited to Toyota’s headquarters in Plano, Texas, along with perhaps 100 other journalists, to drive and evaluate pre-production prototypes of the new Sequoia.
Following the discontinuation in the U.S. market of the Land Cruiser, the Sequioa is now Toyota’s flagship full-size SUV in North America. It shares a platform and some styling cues with the Tundra, Toyota’s full-size pickup truck, along with a surprising powerplant (more on that below, in “Driving Impressions.”) It also boasts a feature consumers are increasingly demanding, the third-row bench that allows the vehicle to carry 8 (or 7, if one opts for the second-row captain’s chairs).
The 2023 Sequoia carries over its predecessor’s four trim levels: The base-model SR5; the Limited and the Platinum, which each unlock additional luxury options; and the performance-minded TRD Pro, for those looking for a serious off-roader (i.e. no airdam for a better approach angle, skid plates for rock-banging, racy interior).
On top of that they’ve added a new, top-shelf Capstone trim level, which rivals a Lexus in terms of luxury, but maintains a more subdued Toyota style.
With so many journalists in attendance at the event and a limited amount of prototypes to go around, I didn’t get to drive every Sequoia trim level, but I got a good spread: The luxurious Capstone, the entry-level SR5, and the muscular TRD Pro.
Design Impressions, Exterior
The overall proportions of the vehicle look close to “correct” for a vehicle of this size–with a couple of notable exceptions, at least to my eye:
– The hoodline is higher than the beltline, presumably because that’s the way it is on the Tundra. And it’s presumably that way on the Tundra because that has become “the look” required of a full-size pickup, but I wish they’d made a distinction for the Sequoia. The arrangement produces a gargantuan “fist in the wind” grille that just looks too aggressive for my tastes.
– From some angles, the rear end of the car looks jarringly flat and vertical, whereas from other angles it appears fine. I don’t have any inside line on this, but that kind of visual inconsistency always makes me think too much time was spent in the CAD and not enough on the clay modeling.
As is nearly always the case with new cars, where they start to lose me is on the surfacing. The Sequoia borrows a styling cue from its Tundra stablemate, which are these embossed “eyebrows” over the fenders, almost like a fake fender flare that relies on negative space rather than positive. To me the creases penetrate too far into the body in its effort to express the gesture. Ditto with the flared rocker panels. I think these would’ve been better executed as subtle suggestions rather than shouted statements.
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However, I will say that at least there are no random creases slashing through the bodywork at odd angles. The character lines here and their placement at least look intentional, if not purposeful.
The surfacing on the front end has, in my opinion, entirely too much going on. There’s just a cascading series of surfaces and inlets from the headlights down to the airdam, with the competing elements destroying any opportunity for a comprehensible and recognizable gesture. It reads to me as chaos.
Altogether, the exterior design elements do project that this is a large, solid and fast vehicle. I just wish more restraint had been used.
Design Impressions, Interior
Toyota’s designers have really nailed the interior. I absolutely love it. The cabin is roomy, spacious and well-laid out, and the aesthetics are Teutonic and rational, communicating quality and solid build quality. The ergonomics and the fit-and-finish are all top-notch.
The seats have so many different adjustments that it took me almost a full minute of futzing to get it dialed in after taking the vehicle from a differently-shaped journalist, and I always want those options. The steering wheel is reassuringly chunky and comfortable, the controls all seem to fall to hand, and the vents are perfectly placed to blow onto your hands at 10-and-2 or 9-and-3. The Capstone model I drove had a heads-up display that lands exactly where you want it on the windshield, and there was no distracting reflection from the unseen bezel.
The massive, 14″ screen (standard on all trim levels except the SR5, where it’s optional) is perfectly placed, easy to reach, and offers a welcome amount of real estate for navigating. It makes me hate the screen in my current cars.
I always wonder why automakers bother to develop their own nav systems, when so many of us have smartphones that take care of that (Toyotas have both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto). On this trip, I found out: Driving out in the boonies of northern Texas, I lost cell service, and Toyota’s nav had to take up the slack. Their native nav is easy to read and, being GPS-based, of course never goes out.
Typically when I see a large touchscreen in a car, I get the sinking feeling that everything is meant to be done through the screen. Thankfully, Toyota’s designers have instead provided physical buttons for the temperature, fan speed, heated/ventilated seats, camera activation and more. And the volume control for the radio is a physical knob. Interestingly, some of the buttons—see the photo below—are piano-key-style, as in the case of the temperature and fan control, and these can be pressed up for “higher” and down for “lower.” This took a little getting used to, but if a knob won’t fit and the alternative is to do it through the touchscreen, I’ll take the piano keys all day. I’d previously experienced piano-style keys in a Lincoln Aviator, and from a space-saving perspective, I think they’re a brilliant physical solution in our increasingly-cramped dashboards.
This massive flat surface you see in the photo below is a hinged panel that hides the cupholders. In front of it is the wireless charging wall where you can prop your phone, and it’s designed to hold your phone at an angle so that you can actually see the screen. And a nice touch is the small plastic protrusion that prevents your phone from tipping sideways when you take a hard corner.
If you opt for the second-row captain’s chairs—some of the journalists who have young children assured me this is a must-have, for accessing the third row—it not only folds forward for access to the third row, as the second-row bench option does, but can also be flipped completely forward with the seat bottom.
Impressively, even the third row can be slid forwards or backwards by a few inches, for a little extra legroom. (That being said, no adult of average size will want to sit back there for a long.) You can even slide the seats forward from behind them (see the lever in the photo below), which is handy if you’re loading through the hatch and looking to increase the available room.
Behind the third row, there is actually a respectable amount of storage space:
And here Toyota’s designers have added some welcome functionality. On either side of the rear cargo area, you can see these molded grooves:
These accept a removable shelf that can be placed at different heights.
At the middle height, the shelf forms a level surface with the second- and third-row seating folded flat. This makes it convenient to slide large items inside.
The shelf, a Toyota rep told me, has a weight capacity of 220 pounds.
Throughout the cabin, all of the trim is rattle-free and tight (driving a new Tundra, on this same trip, showed me that’s not always the case with a new vehicle). One note is that in the Capstone, some of the plastic touch surfaces, like the storage tray atop the center console, looked and felt like high-quality ABS; in the base SR5, the same components seemed to be cheaper polypropylene, which in my experience scratches easily. The Capstone (photos below) also features leather surfaces on the dash which feel wonderful, and expensive.
The outgoing Sequoia had a 5.7-liter V8, as did the outgoing Tundra, but the 2023 Sequoia (and Tundra) have Toyota’s new i-FORCE MAX powerplant. Interestingly, this is a 3.4-liter twin-turbo V6 hybrid that makes 437 horsepower and a whopping 583 lb.-ft. of torque.
What I found interesting is that the hybrid arrangement is apparently not intended to deliver the crazy fuel economy of say, the Lexus NX 350h hybrid, which offers virtually the same performance as Lexus’ non-hybrid turbo NX 350 but gets a staggering 39 MPG versus the 350’s 25 MPG. Instead, the hybrid on the Sequoia smooths out the power transfer between gears. This is very noticeable, initially weird, and ultimately welcome.
The way that the hybrid arrangement manifests is in the driving experience. Driving the Sequoia almost feels like driving an electric vehicle, particularly from launch, where the torque feels instantaneous. It’s also very noticeable when you’re cruising at highway speed, then go to pass. If you’ve driven any full-size SUV before, you know what this typically feels like: You put your foot down, the engine takes a second to downshift, then clumsily lurches the vehicle forward. In contrast, when you’re already going fast in the Sequoia and hit the gas, the power delivery is immediate and smooth. You just feel boost, with no hint that there’s even a transmission.
The braking is Toyota-solid, though you’re still well aware that you’re slowing a massive vehicle. The handling is pretty darn good for a full-size SUV, with slightly less of the body roll you’d expect in the corners. The large side mirrors offer good visibility, and if you’re not used to driving such a large vehicle, the Lane Departure Alert–part of Toyota’s Safety Sense 2.5 suite of features, standard equipment on all Sequoias–lets you know with an audible alert (and occasionally, a subtle robo-tugging of the steering wheel) if you’re straying too close to the lane markers.
The trim level performance differences I observed were few, as every Sequoia has the same engine. What I did find is that the Capstone had less body roll than the base SR5, and the TRD Pro seemed to have less body roll still; while you won’t mistake the TRD Pro for a sports car, as its seats lack the side bolstering to keep you firmly in place during hard cornering, that would be the trim level to pursue if you enjoy spirited driving.
One other difference I noticed also had to do with the suspension tuning. When launching the Sequoia from zero—I’m talking hard foot-down—the SR5 sits back noticeably on its haunches, to the point where you can imagine the front wheels coming off of the ground. (They don’t, of course.) The Capstone keeps its composure better, delivering the sensation of acceleration without changing your eyeline much, and the TRD Pro does it better still.
All three trim levels I drove felt like they were delivering naturally-aspirated V8 power, with only the V6 engine note and the occasional faint whine of the turbos giving it away. Driving down one of Texas’ yee-ha highways, where the speed limit is 70 but seems like a mere suggestion, I passed frequently, and was impressed by the power and smoothness of the vehicle.
That comes at a cost, of course. At press time Toyota had still not received the EPA’s mileage rating for the Sequoia, but during my drives I activated the real-time mileage calculator on the dashboard. While I’ve found those are hardly reliable, it seemed to vacillate between 13 and 18 MPG, which would be abysmal if it were true; for their part, Toyota says they expect the mileage figures to be “extremely competitive at the top of the segment – and a huge improvement over the previous generation,” which isn’t saying much, as the outgoing Sequoia gets just 13 city / 17 highway. Admittedly, fuel economy is not why you buy a full-size SUV.
Which brings us to the subject of price, or at least the MSRP, assuming it’s not subverted in these crazy times:
TRD Pro (4×4 only available): $76,900
A Toyota rep says that they expect the Limited and Platinum to sell the most units. He also stated that the redesigned Sequoia is expected to triple current sales. That sounded hyperbolic to me, but given Toyota’s surprising ability to keep production going in the face of supply shortages—the company is able to deliver where competitors are falling short, and their dealers are reportedly selling everything they make—it seems within the realm of possibility. We’ll know more later this year.