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New Toyota Tundra lands in Australia

THE most advanced pick-up truck ever sold in Australia has arrived, and it's come from an unlikely source. The latest Toyota Tundra can dictate text messages while you're on the move, has a blind-spot warning system once exclusive to luxury cars, and a "cross-traffic alert" that detects other moving vehicles as you reverse out of a parking spot.

But you won't find the Toyota HiLux's bigger brother at a Toyota dealer. The US-only model has come to Australia via Queensland-based right-hand-drive conversion specialists Performax, who've been moving steering wheels from left to right for 25 years.

The company that started out converting Corvettes now dominates the heavy duty pick-up market, importing, converting and selling about 300 Chevrolet Silverado pick-ups each year -- despite most of them costing in excess of $140,000, three times their US price.

Performax also converts a small number of Dodge Ram pick-ups and, later this year, is due to get government approval to begin importing, converting and selling the new Ford F-Series, North America's top-selling pick-up for the past 34 years.

Because of the popularity of the Toyota HiLux locally, Performax began importing the Tundra from the US in 2012, even though it's not available with a diesel engine, which is favoured by most ute buyers and those needing to tow.

The Tundra is powered exclusively by a 5.7 litre, quad-cam petrol V8 (284kW and 543Nm) mated to six-speed automatic transmission and an on-demand four-wheel drive system. Because the Tundra is classified as a "truck", it can legally tow 4 tonnes, whereas the Ford Ranger, Mazda BT-50, and Holden Colorado tow capacities peak at 3500kg.

Priced from $118,990, the 2014 Toyota Tundra Platinum is more than twice the price of a top-line HiLux. But it undercuts the Chevrolet Silverado -- powered by a massive 6.6-litre turbo diesel V8 with 1037Nm of torque and able to tow 11 tonnes -- by about $15,000.

Performax says it expects to sell between 50 and 100 Toyota Tundras each year. "Even though the Tundra is not available with a diesel engine, buyers just love that Toyota badge," says Performax general manager Glenn Soper. "It turns almost as many heads as the Camaro. Ute drivers almost snap their necks to get a look at it."

To convert the Tundra and other vehicles Performax welds in a new firewall (between the cabin and the engine bay), makes a bespoke steering system that uses the original's internal parts, and uses computer and actual 3D modeling to create a mirror image of the dashboard and ventilation systems.

The crash worthiness of converted vehicles is still unknown in Australia. Converted US pick-ups do not need to be crash-tested to determine whether they meet Australian standards because they are classified as a heavy vehicle. But the company says all airbags and airbag sensors are retained and should perform as the manufacturer intended.

The Australian New Car Assessment Program or any other independent authority is yet to crash test a US vehicle that has been converted to right-hand-drive.

Meanwhile, Toyota Australia says it is no closer to importing the Tundra into Australia because it believes it would not sell enough of them to justify the engineering cost to develop a factory-built right-hand-drive model. The lack of a diesel engine also blunts its chances, given that the ute market overwhelmingly favours diesel.