Ordinarily I'm no great fan of truck-style four-wheel drive Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs).
Not as day-to-day transport, anyway; certainly not as vehicles to use chiefly in the city. I understand why people buy them - perceived safety, a commanding view over the traffic, plenty of room, good lugging power, not to mention their practical attributes as excellent tow vehicles and capable all-terrain transport.
But they wouldn't usually be my first choice as everyday transport.
I could make an exception for the Range Rover which blends luxury car interior with very nimble handling; I could also make an exception for some of the smaller SUVs.
But I'd chose a car any day over most full-sized, track-style SUVs for day-to-day commuting and city and suburban use.
Until I drove Toyota's new-generation Prado.
Toyota calls the new Prado "one of the most technically-advanced four-wheel drive vehicles" it has ever produced.
It was unveiled at the 2002 Paris Motor Show. The French connection extends to its styling which was done at Toyota's European Design Centre in the south of France. It's the first Land Cruiser to be styled outside Japan.
The looks are certainly there, the vehicle's lines smoother, more rounded, less truck-like than its predecessor's.
Its wrap-over headlights incorporate the turn lights and the taillight are sharply-styled.
Toyota says the Prado's newly-developed chassis is 60 percent stiffer than the previous model's.
The test Prado ran the superb 3.0-litre turbocharged diesel engine (a 4.0-litre V6 petrol motor is also available).
The intercooled motor produces 96kW of power at 3600rpm, and 343Nm of torque at 2000rpm.
The motor has lost much of the clatter normally associated with diesels. If you're standing outside the vehicle, you're left in no doubt that it's a diesel.
But in the cabin, at idling and cruising speeds, you're hard-pressed to pick up any telltale clatter. That only becomes noticeable when you're using great stompfuls of throttle.
The engine is superb, offering effortless performance. Power delivery is smooth and seamless.
The Prado will tackle all on-road challenges with aplomb, the engine's excellent torque ensuring smooth and unfussed progress.
The motor is usually mated to a four-speed automatic gearbox, though the test vehicle ran the optional five-speed manual.
It change gears smoothly and reasonably quickly and could be operated with just two fingertips.
Unlike many large Japanese SUVs, the new Prado has full-time four-wheel drive. That gives great security on wet roads and gravel.
Handling is good, though naturally there's some initial understeer on turn-in to corners.
The Prado goes where it's pointed and the power-assisted rack and pinion steering is more communicative than units you find in some big SUVs. You never feel remote from what the front wheels are doing.
Roadholding and grip are excellent and the Prado will gallop along securely at open road speeds. Naturally you need to keep in mind that it's an SUV, with a 207mm ground clearance and an overall height of 1865mm.
The RV rides on styled steel 17-inch wheels wearing 265/65 R17 tyres.
Ride quality is very good. You're still aware that you're riding in a relatively stiffly-sprung SUV, but the suspension is supple and comfortable enough to make the Prado more than viable as a day-to-day commuter.
On rough or gravel roads, the suspension soaks up the bumps and gives a very good ride.
The Prado is also surprisingly nimble and is probably the best full-sized SUV we've driven in tight city going, including parking buildings. There are no three-point turns with the big Toyota.
The cabin is well-furnished and comfortable, with good room and well-shaped seats.
The new Prado is larger and roomier than its predecessor.
But overall height has been slightly reduced giving a lower centre of gravity without sacrificing headroom.
The passenger compartment is wider and longer than before, with more leg and shoulder room.
The Prado has eight seats in a two-three-two configuration. The third row of seats can be reclined, folded away or removed completely. The second row can also be reclined and has a one-touch tumble function which allows the seats to be folded forward for easy entry to the rear row of seats.
Climate control air conditioning with independent driver and front passenger zones is standard.
Standard features include front and rear accessory power outlets, luggage tie-down hooks, outside air temperature display, power windows with one-touch up/down and anti-jam function, remote-control central door-locking and engine immobiliser, twin trip meters, and tilt steering.
The RV has a radio/cassette sound system with single-disc in-dash Compact Disc player with four speakers. I prefer single disc set-ups and found the Prado's to have excellent sound reproduction on a wide range of music, from Emmylou Harris through Miles Davis and Led Zeppelin to Handel.
Safety features include ABS anti-skid braking with Electronic Brake Force Distribution and Brake Assist. The brakes are discs on all four wheels.
The Prado RV has two-stage driver and passenger front airbags that inflate progressively depending on the severity of the collision and the seating positions.
I enjoyed the Prado diesel more than any other SUV I've driven, with the exception of the Range Rover. But the big Rover costs almost three-times ($177,000) the Prado RV's $66,500.
The Prado was a practical, comfortable, willing vehicle and it was with more than a touch of regret that I returned it after the road test.
Story and photographs by Mike Stock