On the Road Review: Toyota Land Cruiser

Many American drivers recognize longevity and the history of memorable nameplates: Suburban, Impala, Mustang, Corvette, Jeep.

Before Toyota was well-known here, it had a model that still carries on today, the Land Cruiser.

Toyota first built a Jeep-like utility vehicle for combat forces in the Korean War in 1951. The “BJ” became the “Land Cruiser” in 1954 just as English automaker Land Rover developed its first off-roading-oriented vehicle.

In 1960, Toyota produced the J40-series Land Cruiser, the first civilized two-door model intended for mass consumer use. Through several iterations, soft-tops, hard-tops, two-door and four-door versions, the J40’s production ran until 1984 and became a mainstream off-roading force throughout the Western United States and the rest of the world.

Fast forward to 2017. Still a primary transportation mode in places where the roads are confused with cow paths, the Land Cruiser that we get is a luxury SUV with serious off-roading credentials. It has perhaps one rival at this price point and size, (excluding its Lexus-badged sibling, the LX570) the Land Rover Range Rover, in a market crowded with luxury SUVs that usually work better on the road, but would lag far behind when the pavement ends. In our market, this may be a smaller niche than rivals wish to pursue. Yet we must remember that Toyota is the second largest automaker in the world, serving many markets, like Australia, where the Land Cruiser is the best-selling 4X4 truck-based SUV.

The Land Cruiser’s best sales year here was 2000, when over 15,500 units were sold. Last year, barely 3,700 units escaped dealers’ showrooms, making the Land Cruiser the least popular model in the whole Toyota lineup in America. However, it just might be the most profitable vehicle Toyota sells here, countering the cost of those expensive Prius hybrids by a multiple of 3-1 perhaps. Green agenda or not, at the end of the day Toyota needs to be a profit-driven enterprise, and trucks like the Land Cruiser ensure that everyone gets paid and that consumers have all of their wants met.

The Land Cruiser is big, heavy and reliable as a stone. Its legendary history of service and durability is part of the reason that buyers continue to shell out large sums of money for a vehicle with extreme capabilities that might rarely be exploited. Try these numbers: 195 inches long, 112-inch wheelbase, 5,900 pounds, 381-hp 5.7-liter V-8, 8,200-pound tow rating. Despite the same engine as a Tundra pickup or Sequoia SUV — its more mainstream sibling from Toyota — the Land Cruiser’s list price is $85,420 — exactly double that of the Sequoia. In fact, the Lexus LX570 model — mechanically identical but with more gear and creature features — is only $3,400 more.

The cache of the Land Cruiser’s name and reputation warrants space in the market; after all, it does what it promises. Yet consumers chose the Lexus version last year 2,000 units more often, apparently preferring the legendary service levels found at the Lexus store. I seriously doubt that many Lexus drivers ever activated any of the driver-selectable traction modes available on these trucks.

Step into the Land Cruiser and some drivers can be forgiven the similar feel of a 4Runner — the step up to the raised floor is high, yet the relatively low roof produces a short-felling door opening that requires bending your upper body. The seats are posh — thick leather upholstered units with heat, cooling, memory and 10-way adjustability. The door closes with a solid thunk, your first display of the Land Cruiser’s rugged construction and hushed cabin.

Most controls are right from Toyota’s central-casting, familiar devices with simple markings, proper placement and superior efficiency. The new instrument cluster has selectable info panels plus a new 9-inch touchscreen with Toyota’s Entune offerings for info, entertainment and vehicle programs. Buttons are large, and the JBL-speakered audio system retains conventional tuning knobs. Score one for honesty in design.

The Land Cruiser’s console area is command central for your off-roading exploits. A-TRAC selections are for surface drive modes, there is hill descent and ascent control, CRAWL mode for automatic speed and brake modulation as well as low range for the full-time four-wheel-drive system, which employs a Torsen locking limited-slip center differential. Of course there are skid plates and tow hooks, but one feature unexpected — the front headlamps have washers for removing the inevitable crud from your forward view at night. It appears that Land Cruiser engineers actually use their trucks as designed.

The center console contains a center compartment that is cooled — for wine, film, ammo? — while visible and accessible storage slots are few for any roadworthy items that you carry. Given the plethora of luxury features and upgraded electronics now standard, the absence of a one-touch lane control function on the turn signal stalk seemed quite strange.

Ah yes, electronic driving aids, all the rage now as the industry races headlong into the fate of autonomous driving, a pursuit that seems rather contradictory to this truck’s primary mission. A concession to the reality of any vehicle of this type, most are primarily used for commuting, family travel, trips to the mall.

In this world, the Land Cruiser boasts of new aids: pre-collision braking, lane departure alert, rear cross-traffic alerts, blind-spot monitoring, dynamic cruise control, automatic high beams, automatic wipers, Toyota’s Safety Sense systems, plus a baker’s dozen of airbags. Buyers gain trailer sway control, front and rear parking assist, a rear camera, plus a power sunroof.

Buyers do not get a power liftgate because the Land Cruiser continues to use a hold-over design from its past — a split tailgate/liftgate arrangement that makes a great lower rear perch for sitting, working on gear or hauling longer items, yet makes reaching any gear deep in the cargo hold quite a stretch. The split third-row seats still fold up to the sides as well — another exercise left to the young and agile.

The Land Cruiser also gains a new eight-speed automatic transmission this year in an attempt to gain increased fuel economy. EPA highway estimates rise one mile per gallon to 13/18/15 mpg, with a realized fuel efficiency of 17.5 mpg during the Toyota’s visit. Considering the Land Cruiser’s mass and the full-time 4WD hardware, that is not a bad number — it exceeds our recent Tundra test with the same motor. However, American buyers don’t have the 4.5-liter diesel engine option available in other markets, a powertrain that surely would  improve fuel economy and come closer to the EPA estimates on the other full-size luxury SUVs that buyers might consider in this class, Range Rover, Escalade or Navigator — all trucks with equal or more power and better fuel economy.

The ride is stable and well-composed. Handling is predictable but slow, the Kinetic dynamic suspension tuning doing a fine job of managing a top-heavy chassis that is not compact-car agile. Steering feel could be more precise, yet this is a complaint that many vehicles produce in the age of electric-assist steering systems.

The Land Cruiser might not be the SUV for you or me, yet this is a truck deserving of respect. One, because it is a design that requires lots of perseverance to create a package that can be shared in hundreds of markets around the world and still work well at its primary role. Two, it is a model that does many things well, so it is honest and unpretentious in its execution. And three, the Land Cruiser remains an icon. Older models are still sought after for their service life and capabilities long after other contemporary vehicles are residing at the bone yard.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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