Mountain Wheels: Take a trip in Toyota’s wayback machine, the Land Cruiser
The oldest old-school SUV experience there is, Toyota’s venerable behemoth, the Land Cruiser, stands alone in its perennial position atop of that company’s vehicular food chain. And if you guessed that the Land Cruiser, in production since 1951 and sold in the U.S. since 1957, does not look as though its current model has changed a whole lot recently, you’re absolutely right: the Land Cruiser 200 model, as it’s known internationally, dates back to 2007, and its last major facelift was in 2015.
But there’s something mysterious and special about this rolling time capsule, with a verifiably trail-busting heritage that still seems at odds with its highly-composed, latter-day demeanor. And in a place like Australia where Yukon Denali and their ilk are rare, Land Cruiser remains the uppermost of Outback-ready expedition vehicles — as is the case in the Middle East and other rugged environments around the globe.
Compared to all the high-gloss softies of the modern SUV world, Land Cruiser doesn’t even seem particularly family-friendly, on the surface. Sure, it will seat eight quite comfortably, especially when you drop those curious side-mounted safari seats in the third row, but the fact that even a rear-seat entertainment system is a somewhat declassee option for the one-model, fully equipped Land Cruiser line in America, you get the feeling you’re dealing with a different kind of machine.
Compared to the highest-end Range Rover, Land Cruiser positions itself as a slightly utilitarian off-roader for the moneyed set, with more all-wheel-drive and terrain controls than you’ll find in any family member, short of the dedicated off-road versions of the Toyota 4Runner.
The vehicle rides on 18-inch wheels sporting 285/60R18 mud tires, and is built for the kind of suspension articulation that can see it really crawl over boulders and tree trunks and wade deep streams. There’s a Torsen limited-slip locking center differential, which can split torque 40/60 for climbing and crawling power, plus a two-speed transfer case — and Toyota’s Multi-terrain select system, which can engage settings from sand to moguls (maybe not the snowy kind, I am guessing).
It doesn’t stop there, either — automated crawl control allows the Land Cruiser driver to focus on steering (or the side-view cameras, to keep an eye on rocks and obstacles) while the vehicle handles its own speed control, in both forward and reverse. And if you get into a bind in a very narrow spot, it also offers off-road turning assist, which uses the front brakes to essentially pivot the bulky vehicle around in a tighter-than-possible circle.
All of these functionalities are controlled by old-fashioned switchgear around the console-mounted shift column; Land Cruiser’s other controls are largely found in darkened buttons hidden beneath the dash line, some of which are so dark you might not even notice they’re there.
Since most drivers really don’t crawl over redwood tree trunks on their daily excursions, Land Cruiser has got to be as capable and composed on the road as a big American SUV, right?
Not quite. This classic box-on-frame monster is an actual challenge on the road, with its 5,815 pounds of curb weight felt at every moment — particularly at highway speed, and especially when driving the corners on the passes. It’s bouncy, heavy and occasionally a little challenging to keep in lane — even more so than a Sequoia or a TRD Pro 4Runner.
The Land Cruiser’s engine, a 381-horsepower 5.7-liter V-8, also needs to be coaxed heavily into uphill performance, dropping a few gears on the eight-speed automatic to get it rolling. Conversely, the girth means downhill speed control is also an issue, and I had to drop it even lower to stay at legal speeds while hurtling into Silverthorne. Weight plus V-8 also means fuel economy of about 15 all-around-MPG.
Again, Japanese prestige and its historic role as direct competition against British, German or maybe the Infiniti QX80 sort of trump rationale here, and with an $84,960 price tag, it’s definitely playing to a certain crowd.
It is, however, a pretty unique machine, and the versatility to tow up to 8,100 pounds of trailer (Land Cruiser generates 401 lb.-ft. of torque, most of it available at as low as 2,200 RPM) means you can take the trailer to Moab and then cruise like the biggest, craziest quad on the slickrock. I guess.
Your passengers may not find a lot to entertain themselves with while aboard, but they’ll appreciate the 28 air vents in the cabin, or perhaps be deafened by the standard Entune Premium JBL audio system, with 14 speakers. If you leave the gang at home and flatten the seats, you’ll have 81.7 cubic feet of storage — those safari seats remain an oddly bulky fixture.
It’s not to say that the platform can’t be massaged, either. In 2017, Toyota engineers built a Land Cruiser with a 2,000-horsepower engine and got former NASCAR driver Carl Edwards to run it up to 230 miles per hour. Goodness gracious me.
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It was your typical ranch truck that stopped next to us — dirty, dented and hauling a horse trailer. Inside, silhouetted by the sun, were two cowboy hats and a gun rack.