Toyota's Land Cruiser has always been exceptionally solid and more competent off-road than most, but it has been left behind in the sudden popularity of full-size sport-utility vehicles--literally and figuratively.
Why is this? Well, Land Cruisers don't come cheap. You pay a premium price for standard full-time four-wheel drive, locking differentials, plentiful ground clearance, and meticulous construction.
But another key disparity between the Land Cruiser and domestic full-size entries like the Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon, and Ford Expedition has been power. The Cruiser's old 4.5-liter inline 6-cylinder engine was robust, but it lacked the grunt of the V8s offered by Ford and General Motors.
The premium price remains, but the power disparity has pretty much disappeared. Extensively redesigned for 1998, the Land Cruiser and its Lexus LX 470 fraternal twin are propelled by a new 4.7-liter V8 engine. That upgrade, plus extensive chassis revisions, make the Land Cruiser a much more useful all-around driver, and an even stronger performer in tough terrain.
Our first hands-on encounter with the new Land Cruiser occurred in the wilds of southern California's Anza-Borrego Desert, and included more trundling around in rocky off-road terrain than most folks are likely to do in a lifetime of ownership. We were also able to drive the new Cruiser back-to-back with its predecessor.
Two enduring impressions emerged.
First, this vehicle can keep going in territory that would stop its U.S. rivals cold. Although the independent front suspension led Toyota to drop the Cruiser's locking front differential, it clawed its way through deep sand and clambered over small boulders without hesitation.
When something did scrape, we were confident that all the vulnerable mechanical elements were well protected. And on one particularly steep, rutted uphill, the new Cruiser breezed up on its first run, while the old one required three attempts to get to the top.
The second impression is the difference the extra power makes, not only in basic acceleration, but--even more important--in passing performance. There's real grunt under the hood now, and quiet, high-tech grunt at that. Although Ford was first to introduce overhead-cam technology to truck engines, the Land Cruiser has the first truck V8 to offer the efficiency of four valves per cylinder. The result is a small increase in fuel efficiency, despite the larger displacement and higher output.
As for on-road dynamics, there's not much to choose between this Land Cruiser and its predecessor. We'd like a little more road feel in the steering, but basically what you get is the deliberate reactions that go with lots of mass and a high center of gravity. Though predictable, the Land Cruiser will never be a slalom champ, something that's also true of its rivals.
Ride quality, however, is distinctly more supple than it was in the previous Land Cruiser. Braking performance is excellent, and interior noise levels are lower.
The Land Cruiser continues to rank at the top of the full-size SUV class in terms of price, and at the bottom in terms of cargo space. The third seat option, in our opinion, isn't really very useful--there's more third-seat legroom in a midsize Dodge Durango. We'd pass on this option and use that space for cargo.
Nevertheless, few sport-utilities offer more off-road capability, and none offer higher all-around quality.
With its rock-ribbed chassis, improved ride, and--most important of all--impressive V8 power, the new Land Cruiser has become one of the most desirable vehicles in its class.
Yes, the price is premium. But so is the package.