When people think of off-road vehicles, the two names which invariably come to mind are Land Rover and Jeep. Both of them have had a reputation for building rugged go-anywhere vehicles for more than 50 years. It might surprise those people to learn, however, that Toyota also has produced rugged off-roaders for more than 50 years.
The Land Cruiser has a history almost as long as Toyota itself, and this year sees the launch of the latest generation – a replacement for the Land Cruiser Colorado, slotting in the range below the giant Land Cruiser Amazon.
The large 4x4 vehicle sector has split in recent years with the emergence of the large lifestyle 'soft-roader', such as the Mercedes-Benz M-class, BMW X5, Lexus RX300 and soon, the Volvo XC90.
There are still plenty of proper workhorse off-roaders available though, including the Land Rover Discovery – which dominates the market – the Mitsubishi Shogun, Isuzu Trooper, Nissan Patrol and Jeep Grand Cherokee.
But Toyota believes it can double its UK sales of Land Cruiser models in this sector (excluding the Amazon) with the new model reaching 2,500 sales this year.
The diesel is on sale now – an updated version of the existing four-cylinder 3.0-litre common rail unit with a class-leading 161bhp. It will be joined by a 245bhp 4.0-litre V6 in March, boasting a higher torque output than the diesel.
The new model has been designed by Toyota's European studio, which also successfully beat the in-house team in Japan for the Yaris, Corolla, Avensis Verso and the new Avensis.
Gone are the old GX and VX trim levels, replaced by a Corolla-style LC2, LC3, LC4 and LC5 are used instead, in ascending order of luxury (the Corolla has T2, T3, T Spirit and T Sport).
The challenge for the Land Cruiser engineers was to ensure at the very least it was as accomplished in the most difficult off-road conditions, but also had much better on-road manners.
The high-spec models (LC5 equivalent) we drove at the launch included active traction control (A-TRC), vehicle stability control (VSC), hill-start assist control (HAC) and downhill assist control (DAC), as well as something called Toyota Electronically Modulated Suspension (TEMS). The latter allows the rear suspension to be raised and lowered and also has four settings for the dampers (two for comfort and two sport settings) to vary the level of ride comfort and body control.
All have permanent four-wheel drive with a low-ratio transfer box, and entry and core models (the most likely workhorse models) have a lockable rear differential as well as the locking centre diff found at the top end of the range. Nothing, it seems, could possibly stop one of these.
All cars have multiple airbags (eight in total), ABS with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and emergency braking assistance.
Toyota claims the Land Cruiser is well placed to take on its main rivals, the Discovery and Shogun, offering eight seats in the five-door where the others have seven, as well as standard 17-inch alloys, EBD and braking assistance, a CD player and tilt and reach adjustable steering.
Toyota also points out that the automatic versions of the LC4 and LC5 come with hill start assist control which helps starts up slippery slopes and is unique to the new model.
Fleet buyers of the new Land Cruiser are likely to be senior management who need off-road ability and probably need more than five seats (the five-seat three-door only accounts for 20% of sales).
The diesel/petrol split is 98% in favour of heavy oil, resulting in an expected minimal 50 units a year fitted with the new 4.0-litre V6 in the UK.
Behind the wheel
FROM some angles the new Land Cruiser, and particularly the three-door model, looks like an enormous Toyota RAV4.
But while the RAV4's off-road credentials are limited, the Land Cruiser has long had a reputation of being one of the few vehicles able to keep people mobile in extreme conditions.
The makeover on the outside brings Yaris-style headlamps, while mid and high-spec models include a styling pack, giving the car chunky wheel arches. The Land Cruiser has grown slightly with extra headroom and a little extra legroom, but the most noticeable difference inside is the dashboard.
It must now be the most car-like in its class, rejecting the hard plastics and utilitarian switches of the previous Land Cruiser Colorado.
The centre console is very much in the mould of the latest Toyotas such as the Avensis Verso and the new Avensis. It feels a very civilised place to sit. If I have a gripe about it, I think there are too many switches relating to the complex job of ensuring the Land Cruiser will take you virtually anywhere on land. They also appear to have been placed wherever there seems to be space.
My first foray into the wilds of southern Spain was in a five-door 3.0 D-4D auto, the four-speed transmission making good use of the torquey common rail diesel. Noise from the engine into the cabin is louder than in a normal car, but it also appears significantly worse than its main rivals.
While many Land Rover Discovery models use live axles with complex active suspension (called active cornering enhancement) to maintain safer body control, the Land Cruiser opts for double wishbones at the front and multi-link coil springs on a live axle at the rear.
Electronics and hydraulics govern the Disco's rate of body roll, but the Toyota is very much at the mercy of Newton's laws. However, the body roll is predictable and not so harsh as to make the occupants fear for their lives.
In fact, with perhaps the best steering I have ever encountered in a proper off-roader, the Land Cruiser holds things together quite well, although for on-road driving, keeping the top-spec model fitted with TEMS on one of the sport settings helped. Comfort mode offers supremely supple ride quality, but the car takes too long to return to upright after cornering.
Manual off-roaders often have stubborn gear levers that sometimes have to be tricked into changing gear. But when I tried the manual Land Cruiser, although the lever was a bit heavy duty, the change itself was short and precise.
We also had a purpose-built off-road course to contend with on a muddy motorcross track and even though the Land Cruiser was fitted with road tyres, it was an accomplished performer, tackling serious obstacles with aplomb.
THE new Land Cruiser offers a true off-roader with improved road manners and a premium quality interior. Where off-road talent is essential the car has the ability and the heritage to compete with more famous brands, with the added assurance of Toyota reliability.