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Toyota heavyweight packs real off-road punch

 

Scrambling up a soaking wet grassy field in driving rain, Toyota’s Land Cruiser makes easy work of a slippery situation.

Clunking and graunching of electronics, and beeps and flashing warning lights on the dashboard are a whisker off-putting, these useful aids – vehicle stability control and active traction control – make off-road motoring a breeze. This is what the beefy Toyota is all about – an immensely capable and rugged vehicle that’s at its best when the going gets rough. Out of the mist appears a current model Range Rover. It certainly has more style than the Cruiser but you know that given the choice to drive either around the world, you’d go with the Toyota. The latest Land Cruiser 200 has softer frontal styling and a less than handsome rear end. There are no styling advances on its predecessor which you might argue was tidier looking. Lighter and faster in a straight line than an equivalently-powered Range Rover, the 200 diesel has a 210kph top speed and will reach 100kph in 8.2 seconds. But though it’s a champion off-road, the 200 is less commendable on-road, and outshone by the Range Rover. It lacks poise and control on the highway, its low geared steering slow to respond and lacking feel. Add generous body roll, and the Cruiser is happier easing along a motorway rather than tackling a twisty, sealed mountain pass. Yet it’s a proper off-road warrior, not a soft crossover vehicle.


A new Torsen centre differential splits torque 40:60, front/rear, and the torque-split ratio changes automatically between 50:50 and 30:70 depending on conditions. Hydroformed chassis members and high strength steel in the frame improve robustness and help provide 40 per cent better torsional and 20 per cent better bending rigidity. The iron block, alloy head, 32-valve V8 diesel is a masterpiece. The direct injection, DOHC motor’s twin turbochargers provide the Land Cruiser with seemingly endless power and torque. It sweeps to 50kph in under three seconds, and mid-range urge is all that you’d ever want. With 650Nm of torque available from 1600rpm, the strong performance is hardly surprising; the 4.5-litre engine develops 195kW of power. The gearbox is a smooth six-speed automatic with full time four-wheel drive.


Toyota quotes combined cycle fuel consumption of 10.2 litres/100km (27.7mpg) but that’s well beyond our on-road average of 13.8 litres/100km (20.5mpg). If big is best, the eight-seater Land Cruiser is right for you. It looks, feels and is big – really big. Though the 200 seems to shrink in the country, it feels bulky in town, leaving the driver thankful for front/rear park distance beepers and rear-mounted camera for reversing. A large, eight-inch interface screen for the TV monitor, set into the centre console, is also used for the satellite navigation system and DVD player, as well as a touch screen to operate the audio and ventilation/heating controls. Front seat support is only fair, but the cabin is well finished and precisely engineered. The split third seating row folds can be folded to each side of the rear load area. Going against the current climate, sales of flagship Land Cruisers are up more than 40 per cent when most rivals are selling in lower numbers than they were last year. That could be a reaction to the new generation model’s arrival, and could also be attributed to the long-standing appeal of Toyota’s most respected off-roader.


The $109,500 VX version I’ve been driving is $16,000 cheaper than the VX Ltd with the clever Australian developed Kinetic dynamic suspension that boosts ground clearance from 225mm to 255mm. For an extra $3500 the entry-level VX can be upgraded to include that suspension, and another $1100 buys a glass sunroof. Fuel tank capacity diminishes from a massive 138 litres on standard models to 93 litres when the Kinetic suspension is fitted. Rivals include the Range Rover TDV8 ($144,990) and Land Rover Discovery TDV6 at virtually the same price as the Toyota. Although they’re in a similar price bracket, the BMW X5 diesel ($119,900), Audi Q7 TDi ($122,900) and Mercedes ML320 CDi ($117,900) clearly appeal to a different audience. Mitsubishi’s Pajero is second in class to the Land Cruiser with sales well up on last year. But it effectively sells into a different class, with the most expensive Pajero priced at $76,990.


Labelled the king of all roads, the 200 series Land Cruiser is the result of five years’ development involving 1500 engineers. Toyota reckoned the new model was such a leap forward from the long-standing 100 series (introduced in 1998) that the model number description was doubled. The idea of using 110 or 130 to designate the vehicle could have resulted in customer confusion with Land Rover Defender 110 and 130. Given the leaning towards diesel, Toyota wisely left the 4.7-litre petrol V8 version out of the New Zealand equation. Land Cruisers have won acclaim for their international exploits – the United Nations runs 12,000 of them, operating each one for at least five years in some of the most difficult territory in the world. It’d be hard to find a better testimonial.

Big SUV sales remain stable

Three months’ sales figures don’t provide a definitive answer, but you can read some trends into the outcome of the first quarter sales in 2008. You’d expect demand for bigger Sport Utility Vehicles or 4WDs to be subdued in a slowing economy with rising fuel prices. But though luxury SUVs were off by 5.7 per cent, the Motor Industry Association reports that big SUV class volumes are much the same as in 2007’s first quarter. Defining which SUVs are large and which are luxury is open to argument. The Land Cruiser 200 is classified in the large category when most people clearly rate cars over $100,000 as luxury vehicles. Whatever, total SUV sales in New Zealand so far this year dropped five per cent while the entire new vehicle market rose by the same percentage. Local diesel SUV sales are up 30 per cent this year while petrol SUV sales are down.


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