Intrigued by the recent explosion of interest in vintage SUVs, with prices surging on 1960s and 1970s Ford Broncos, Chevy Blazers, Jeep CJs and Land Rovers, I asked someone at Toyota, “Do you still make a Land Cruiser?”
So overshadowed in recent years by the massively popular Range Rovers, which now could replace the Mercedes-Benz as the cliche “California Chevy,” this venerable veteran has slipped a bit below the radar. As sport utility vehicle sales climbed, Land Cruiser sales stagnated. The total number of these Toyotas sold in the US dropped from an impressive 15,000 units in 2000 to a sorry 3,219 in 2018.
Toyota does, in fact, still make the Land Cruiser. With 2020 models arriving shortly in dealerships in the US, I decided to borrow one for a couple of weeks to see if the legendary road warrior still lived up to its legend.
The vehicle has a colourful history, stretching back to World War II, when the Japanese army captured an American Jeep in the Philippines and asked Toyota to copy it. After the war, the US Army asked Toyota to build more of them for service in the Korean War.
In 1957, the FJ40 version – which still looked a lot like an Army brat – became the first vehicle Toyota offered in the U.S.
Over time, the Land Cruiser looked less and less like a Jeep and more and more like an English Land Rover. Sales were steady, totalling more than 6 million units through 2018.
The early models were rough and ready, outfitted for service in difficult off-road locations. Perfect for camping or hunting, built to bear multiple guests and bales of equipment, the early models were long on capability and short on comfort.
The modern Cruiser, including the current model, is a big, lumbering luxury SUV – over 2 metres tall, over 2 metres wide, nearly 5 metres long and weighing just under 3 tons. It offers generous space, good visibility and all the comforts of home. The perch is high, sitting on 18-inch wheels that buy 8.9 inches of ground clearance and 68 cm of “fording depth.” The suspension is soft, the ride is quiet and the road feels far, far away.
For some, this will be a plus. For others, a minus.
On the freeway, skipping along at the maximum speed limit, I was pleased by the silence and the slushy steering. But on city streets, and much more so on unpaved roads, I felt disconnected from the surface over which I was travelling, driving without much feel and without much feedback from the tires.
Toyota loads its Land Cruiser with substantial bells, whistles, safety technology and off-road tools. Standard on the 2020 model – whose basics haven’t changed from 2019 – are adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, pedestrian detection, blind spot monitoring, automatic high beams and rain-sensing windshield wipers – plus trailer-sway control, because this Cruiser is a toy hauler, too, with 3,600 kg of towing capacity.
Standard niceties include heated and ventilated front seats, climate control for the rear seats, leather interior, a “cooler box” for chilling snacks and beverages in the centre console, and a seat-back entertainment system featuring wireless headphones for the back-seat passengers.
Off-road accoutrements include various four-wheel-drive settings, a handy “crawl” feature, which will do all the gas and brake pedal work in tricky slow-speed situations, and cameras that allow the driver to inspect the front, side and rear landscape (without leaving the cockpit) when the footing seems questionable.
Also standard is a full-size spare tire, slung under the rear of the vehicle – essential for any serious off-road exploring.
All in, that’s how Toyota justifies charging 86,000-dollar base for one of these bad boys. At that price, it’s parallel with the fancier Range Rovers from England – and a far cry from the rugged Jeep-like jalopies that made the Cruiser’s reputation.
Hoping to put the vehicle to more than a week-around-town test, I took a trip into the Angeles National Forest for an overnight camp-out. Since we were only two campers, we didn’t require more than two of the Cruiser’s seven available seats, or use much of the 25 cubic metres of storage space available when the rear seats are folded flat.
But we did use the off-road capabilities. When we arrived at the first campsite, after three miles of rough dirt road, we found too many other campers for our taste. Seeking solitude, we pressed on, and did another three miles of much rougher road. We drove where many SUVs would fear to tread, and had the next campsite all to ourselves.
The big Cruiser is offered with only one powertrain in the US. It’s a 5.7-liter V-8, connected to an eight-speed automatic transmission that makes 381 horsepower and a potent 401 pound-feet of torque.
To manage that power off the pavement, Toyota loads the Cruiser with full-time all-wheel drive, a locking differential, a hill start assist and very impressive suspension.
That gave us all the muscle we needed to rock-crawl our way comfortably into camp. But it came at a price. Around town, this guzzler gets only 13 miles to the gallon. If Toyota can sell a Tacoma pickup truck that gets 18 miles to the gallon – still woefully low – is 13 really the best it can do with a Land Cruiser?
In fairness to Toyota and those falling sales figures, this is a specialty vehicle. As the Cruiser has grown older, it has gotten bigger and become even more of a niche vehicle. Indeed, unless the owner has a family, and needs more than five seats, and needs massive cargo capacity and off-road ruggedness, what’s it for?
For 2020, Toyota will be offering a Heritage edition in addition to the standard model, with a special grille, bronzed wheels and a one-off Land Cruiser Heritage badge.
Maybe Toyota could better capitalize on the Land Cruiser heritage and bring back one of the smaller models, as Land Rover has done with its Defender. I bet sales would climb if Toyota were to offer an updated version of the FJ40 or FJ45 from its earlier years.