The Toyota Land Cruiser is among the few vehicles on the market with serious off-road capability, towing capability and people-hauling capability.
The Land Cruiser seats up to eight people. It can transport large amounts of cargo over any kind of road or primitive trail, in any kind of weather, with speed, comfort and security. It can tow up to 8500 pounds with the right equipment. Plus, it offers a level of comfort and convenience that rivals luxury cars in this price range.
The 2009 Land Cruiser looks pretty much the same as Land Cruisers have looked for years, but in fact the Land Cruiser was completely redesigned and re-engineered for 2008. This latest version boasts a suite of safety features, state-of-the-art electronics, more power with better fuel economy, and innovative engineering advancements that permit outstanding performance in contrasting circumstances. The one small change for 2009 is the addition of privacy glass for the rear door and quarter windows.
More than just all-weather, the Land Cruiser offers legitimate all-terrain capability. Among the innovations making this possible is a brilliantly designed suspension that enhances performance on irregular terrain, yet does not compromise cornering or braking on paved roads.
But the Land Cruiser's high-utility, capability-driven design does come at a price. Its impressive capabilities requires more expensive materials, extensive developmental testing, and more engineering innovation. That makes the Land Cruiser the vehicle of choice for well-heeled customers who have a cabin in the woods, an adventurous vacation routine, or perhaps a whole lot of highway and dirt road between the family home and a camping trip. For their investment, Land Cruiser owners enjoy an exceptionally secure, comfortable SUV that can make extreme use seem routine.
Then there is the matter of quality. All Land Cruisers are built in small volumes in Japan. Production is shared between the Yoshiwara plant, in Aichi, Japan, (now manufacturing Prius, LX470 and 4Runner) and Toyota's vaunted Tahara plant, which mostly manufactures Lexus vehicles. These are Toyota's flagship manufacturing facilities. Standards at the Tahara plant, in particular, have been described in American newspapers as untouchable, approaching fewer than 10 defects per 1 million parts.
As a result, the Land Cruiser's reputation for durability and long-term value is likely to be continued. It is normal for four-wheel-drive vehicles to require unscheduled repairs due to greater complexity, and exposure to dust, water, and vibration. However, in the case of the Land Cruiser, we would be surprised to encounter many significant problems beyond normal maintenance.
Because of its iconic exterior design, Land Cruisers never look dated or go out of style. Used Land Cruisers are scarce and command high prices.
The Toyota Land Cruiser, with its upright bodywork and wide, flat hood, is unmistakably linked to the historic Land Cruiser line. Called Land Cruiser 200 internally, it was all-new for 2008. The exterior design retains the traditional distinct flare on the front fenders, horizontal four-slotted grille and rear liftgate of the previous-generation Land Cruiser. A slightly reduced, more sophisticated greenhouse and compound front headlamps are the most obvious differences, as is the lower, more fluid beltline as viewed from the side. LED tail lights are another contemporary touch.
The effect is to replace dated styling cues with contemporary design, without stepping outside of the Land Cruiser lineage. There is no bling factor in the Land Cruiser design, which is solid, stable and grounded in every sense of the word. It is designed to be impressive more for what it is, than how it looks.
This current Land Cruiser may look a lot like its (pre-2008) predecessors, but it's clear that every effort has been made to reduce wind noise and clean up the coefficient of drag. The wipers use an aero blade design for quiet operation, sweep a larger area, and retract low on the windshield to reduce wind noise. The mirrors are shaped and mounted so as to keep whistle to a minimum, and the rear tow hitch has a cover to clean up the rear bumper. Overall, it's just a little sleeker, which adds up to a more modern appearance. It's about 2.4 inches longer than the previous generation, which is mostly used to improve second row leg room.
Land Cruiser owners will feel perfectly at home, yet there is a modern, technical update to the cabin that integrates features that have trickled down from the Lexus LX 470. The overall sense is of conservative design tastes, with all features smoothly integrated, prioritizing value and quality over style. Every aspect of the interior reinforces a sense of security.
Much of this feeling exists on an unconscious level, generated by an unusually quiet cabin, a distinct lack of clutter, and the characteristic scent of leather. While the interior is not opulent in design, there is nothing cheap or garish about it. Attention to detail can be seen in the stitching on the leather and the tight seams between the components of the dash and console.
Front-row seats are medium-firm, supportive and highly adjustable. The driver's seat has 10-way adjustability with power lumbar support, and the steering wheel itself has power tilt and telescopic adjustments with generous range. Between the seats is a roomy center console, which has two levels inside. The Upgrade Package converts the center console into an air-conditioned cooler box.
Chrome-accented Optitron style gauges are mounted in a deeply shaded instrument pod, flanked by a multi-information display and shift position indicator. Subdued gray leather trim with slim silver accents and wood grain moldings are used throughout the cabin.
The front cabin is spacious enough, with ample legroom and headroom for all but the tallest drivers.
Second-row seating is comfortable and well appointed.
Third-row legroom and headroom is at a premium, however, so these seats are best occupied by smaller people. Access to the third row, via a tumble forward passenger-side seat, is not easy for adults.
Most of the time, it's likely that the third-row seats will be folded sideways and stowed on their mounts to allow for cargo. It's an arrangement that looks makeshift, but works quite well in practice. The mounting setup holds the seats tightly, braced with straps so they don't vibrate, and with the seats stowed flat quite a bit of room becomes available. If you really need all the room back there, you can remove the rear row altogether. While the Land Cruiser is not as spacious as, say, a Suburban, it is versatile enough to accommodate 81 cubic feet of cargo with some preparation.
The air conditioning system was designed to supply four climate control zones with 28 vents located throughout the cabin. First- and second-row passengers have individual controls, so they can stay comfortable if one side of the vehicle is exposed to the sun. The fan has seven speeds.
The JBL audio system does not produce perfect surround sound, but with 14 speakers, it fills the cabin well. The head unit is a Pioneer item; the system is MP3 and WMA compatible. With the optional navigation system, which we had on our test unit, the audio system is controlled via the eight-inch navigation touch screen. We're familiar with the way the audio and HVAC controls work with Toyota navigation systems, but even if we weren't, the touch screen arrangement seems reasonably intuitive. Most every menu is accessible with one or two touches and there are no joy-stick controls that require push-and-turn sequences. Our only beef with the navigation system is that Toyota does not permit changing a route or any other input on the fly. You have to pull over and put it in Park. The optional nine-inch LCD rear-seat entertainment system plays DVDs and has audio/video jacks for video games.
Keyless entry, an option we have come to adore, is available with either of the two available options packages. With the Bluetooth key fob anywhere on your person, doors click open at a touch of the handle.
To drive a Land Cruiser is to feel secure and in command. Especially on long trips, the Land Cruiser is relaxing to drive.
Press the start button and the gauges light up, needles bounce once, the steering wheel and mirrors return to previously set positions, and the V8 quietly hums to life. A gentle but insistent chime prompts seat-belt use.
Find Reverse, and the back-up camera displays what's behind you on the navigation screen. It's a welcome option, helping to make this SUV easier to park and safer for kids to play around.
In everyday driving, the Land Cruiser feels and behaves just like any other well appointed, full-size SUV. Civilized ride quality is achieved by use of coil-over spring-and-shock combinations in the front, and a four-link/coil spring setup in the rear. There is more travel at the rear than in the previous generation, which translates into better ride quality for passengers closer to the rear axle.
Steering, a rack-and-pinion setup, feels light at low speeds, which aids in maneuvering and parking. Because it is a variable-ratio system, at higher speeds it feels solid and progressive, not twitchy in any sense, with a distinct return-to-center tendency. We found it tracked well at cruising speeds along the scenic two-lane highways heading into Yellowstone National Park.
Driver's seating is generous and relaxing. If you get tired of one position, as we did after a few hours, the seat/wheel adjustability allowed us to rotate through a variety of driving postures. Because of a 24.6 gallon fuel capacity, theoretical range is somewhere between 320 and 440 miles per tank.
On the highway, the Land Cruiser offers sharp handling (for an SUV) and a secure environment. More precise than bigger trucks, and immune to smaller traffic on sheer bulk alone, the Land Cruiser will rarely feel threatened no matter how competitive the morning commute may become.
Throttle response is improved in the new generation, due to the use of the 5.7-liter V8, a 381-hp engine shared with the Tundra full-size pickup. This more powerful engine delivers 90 pound-feet more torque off the line than in the 2007 model, and improved fuel economy, especially on the highway where it is rated to deliver up to 18 mpg. Toyota has incorporated the latest variable valve timing technology, cam lobe design, and intake manifold tuning to optimize the engine for power output, fuel economy and reduced emissions. Like any good truck engine, the 5.7-liter makes more torque (401 pound-feet) than horsepower, allowing the Land Cruiser to loaf around at low rpm and still offer ready throttle response.
A good part of the drivability improvements are due to use of a slick six-speed automatic transmission. The transmission offers a very low first gear for heavy loads, and two overdrive gears at the top, including a super overdrive top gear that accounts for the smooth, efficient highway cruise mode. As we drove on a variety of highways and mountain roads, the transmission always seemed to be in the right gear, and without hunting back and forth. The automatic is computer controlled, constantly cross-checking with the engine's computer, to determine a shift pattern based on driving conditions. We noticed that, when decelerating down a long highway incline in sixth gear, the transmission would automatically downshift to fifth or even fourth gear to supply engine braking. It felt good and made it easier to drive.
While the Land Cruiser is a full-time 4WD truck, with a nominal torque bias of 40/60 front/rear, it drives and feels more like a rear-wheel-drive vehicle in normal conditions, with stable tracking and light, easy steering with no apparent torque steer. Should front wheels begin to slip, up to 70 percent of engine torque can be instantly biased to the rear. On the other hand, should the rear wheels begin to slip, the torque ratio changes to a maximum of 50/50, for ideal stability and balance. We did not encounter these kinds of conditions on our summer-day test drive, but our experience is that these types of drive-system transitions can be routinely handled by modern 4WD systems without most drivers taking notice.
Brakes are stout four-wheel discs, as they need to be with a vehicle of this size and weight. Pedal travel allows for a slight squish before the brakes begin to grip, at which point large calipers progressively haul down the Land Cruiser's 5800 pounds with minimal effort. The ABS also works on non-paved surfaces, and the brakes are improved by Toyota's Brake Force Distribution (an anti-spinout technology) and Brake Assist (shortens distances in panic stops).
And for those moments when push does come to shove, the Land Cruiser lives up to the capability requirements of a traditional, authentic four-wheel-drive truck.
We had the opportunity to drive the new Land Cruiser on challenging off-highway trails. These were to be found on and around the ski slopes of the Big Sky resort in Big Sky Montana, devoid of snow in mid-summer. To safely demonstrate the capabilities of the Land Cruiser in difficult terrain, a series of long, deeply rutted uphill trails were utilized, punctuated by sections of very loose, sharp-rock glaciers and tight, man-made obstacle courses.
We were surprised at the degree of risk; some of the trails we took were difficult, some frightening. One part, a breathtakingly steep, 300-foot downhill plunge across fractured shale, allowed for a test of electronic enhancements that control speed and stability. Considering that it could be fatal to lock the brakes on steep, loose surfaces, this situation did elicit some doubt in our minds. (“This is the route? Really? Better check the map . . . No, this is it . . . Gotta be kidding . . . “)
After a moment of debate (and a cry of Geronimo!), we dropped over the edge and found that a new Toyota system, Crawl Control, acts like ABS on steep downhills. It keeps the vehicle from rolling too fast, allowing the driver to select from three speed settings, depending on the surface condition and steepness of the hill. No braking is needed; the driver simply steers the vehicle. With practice, we found we could select from the three Crawl Control settings on the fly, using the system to maintain a comfortable speed as steepness varied.
We have seen similar systems on Land Rovers and other authentic 4×4 SUVs, but Toyota's Crawl Control seems to have evolved beyond what other SUVs have currently incorporated. The system does make a disconcerting noise as the brakes are selectively modulated, wheel-to-wheel, but we can vouch for the fact that it holds the vehicle to safe speeds even on the steepest downhills.
Other reasons why a Land Cruiser excels in rough terrain are more fundamental. It is proportioned with a wide track and very little body overhang, so it can climb slopes up to 45 degrees, sidehill up to 43 degrees without rolling over, and drive in and out of a 30-degree ditch, head-on. There are skid plates under the engine, transfer case and fuel tank, and two stout tow hooks in the front. The spare tire is a full-size tire, not a temporary spare. Frame strength, a fundamental durability requirement, has been increased by 40 percent over the previous model.
An example of build quality can be found in the exhaust system. It's stainless steel (expensive) to resist mud and water without rusting. It is hung using two additional ball joints located just forward of the main muffler that reduce vibration in the exhaust system, so it will be a long time before the exhaust will crack, fatigue or rattle.
Another significant advancement is a new, very clever suspension control technology. The suspension is built around a robust stabilizer bar that enhances handling on smooth, paved surfaces. Yet, under variable wheel movement, such as driving on deeply rutted surfaces, the stabilizer bar permits enhanced suspension articulation, allowing the rear wheels to stretch as much as 27 inches to stay on the ground. The system is not electronic, but hydro/mechanical, and requires no power source. The significance is that the benefits of a taut suspension can be available for everyday driving, without sacrificing the need for a very flexible suspension off road.
In Low range, there is the firm throttle response of torque on demand, but the throttle is not touchy at low speeds. This is the result of electronic throttle control that accounts for the lower gearing, so accelerator tip-in is more progressive. Power gets to the ground through stout axles with large ring gears and double row bearings. The full-time 4WD system has a generous low range ratio of 2.618 to 1, and a locking center differential that can be engaged in high range or low range. Between the low gearing, the Torsen center differential, the variable-roll-stiffness suspension and large tires, the Land Cruiser's design envelope offers the ability to get to any rational destination, regardless of conditions.
The Toyota Land Cruiser is distinguished by a rare mix of effortless highway performance, everyday comfort, and authentic, industrial-strength four-wheel-drive capability. It's built for those willing to pay for a very broad range of operating capabilities, more costly to buy, but you get what you pay for.
John Stewart filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after driving the Land Cruiser in Montana.