BORREGO SPRINGS, California — While the vast majority of Land Cruisers sold in the United States will never see more challenging roads than when spring rains wash mud across their commuting route, the owners are driving one of the most capable off-road vehicles sold today.
Just look in the background in any CNN broadcast. If it takes place in a rough or inhospitable part of the world, there are bound to be Land Cruisers in the picture. You may not recognize them, since Toyota has used the name for everything from short-wheelbase, two-door vehicles to large pickups. But it’s a Land Cruiser nonetheless.
For more than 40 years, the Toyota Land Cruiser has earned a reputation as a rugged, full-size all-terrain vehicle. Toyota began selling the Cruiser in the U.S. in 1957, making it the single longest selling nameplate in the Toyota lineup. Land Cruiser is sold in more than 180 countries throughout the world, with more than 210,000 sold in the United States alone — the vehicle's top market.
Ragtag to riches
The Land Cruiser has progressed over the years from an economy off-road vehicle to a pricey Rodeo Drive cruiser. And again this year, the newest Land Cruiser is larger, heavier and substantially more powerful than its predecessor. Despite this, Land Cruiser delivers improved fuel efficiency, lower emissions and considerably quicker, more responsive acceleration.
An all-new 4.7-liter 32-valve DOHC V-8 engine powers Land Cruiser, with a full-time, two-speed four-wheel-drive system linked to a four-speed automatic overdrive transmission. It offers more power than the gutsy six it replaced and was more needed to provide smoothness than oomph.
The Cruiser's interior also underwent a complete transformation, with special emphasis on comfort, roominess, utility and luxury appointment. The interior length and width were increased considerably for improved passenger comfort and cargo storage. Front-seat travel was increased by nearly 2 inches and rear legroom by nearly 3 inches.
Toyota offers standard dual airbag Supplemental Restraint Systems (SRS), three-point height-adjustable front seat belts and ALR/ELR (Automatic Locking Retractor/Emergency Locking Retractor) seat belts in all outboard passenger seating positions on the Land Cruiser. Its extensive standard equipment list extends to include an adjustable steering wheel; power adjustable front seats; power windows, door locks and heated outside mirrors; air conditioning; three-in-one AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo sound system; 16-inch aluminum alloy wheels; cruise control; and an engine immobilizer security system.
For 1999, Cruiser adds an optional rear automatic climate-control system for greater passenger comfort. Land Cruiser options include alloy wheels, power tilt-and-slide moonroof, third-seat package (bringing total seating capacity up to seven), leather seating surfaces (which includes the third seat package), rear differential lock, and a Premium three-in-one ETR/cassette/CD player with programmable equalization.
Soft seats, but a tough truck
Underneath that lavish interior package, the Land Cruiser's suspension is built to survive both the rigors of off-road use and the potholes on the expressway. Significant strengthening and reduced flex of its new chassis design improves both highway and off-road ride quality, aided by a new independent torsion-bar front suspension and a rear suspension with coil springs and a stabilizer bar.
Equally impressive is the Cruiser's ABS system, which is operational even in low-range 4WD while the center differential is locked. The system is designed to enhance off-road braking performance, allowing ABS control on poor traction surfaces, while avoiding early activation on steep slopes. It does so by determining road conditions according to changes in vehicle acceleration and road roughness. As road roughness increases, ABS influence will decrease. The system also will determine the slope of the road. As the slope increases, ABS influence decreases.
All Land Cruisers are equipped with a four-speed electronically controlled transmission that uses an integrated second-gear start feature for use on soft or slippery surfaces. This is mated to a sophisticated full-time all-wheel-drive system with low-range 4WD.
Most four-wheel drive SUVs sold in the U.S. are equipped with conventional differentials that allow opposing wheels on an axle to turn independent of one another. If one wheel loses traction, the conventional differential will transfer all torque to that wheel, while the opposing wheel, receiving essentially no torque, is rendered useless.
In contrast, the Land Cruiser's system allows the driver to lock the rear differential. The Land Cruiser's optional locking-differential system is designed for use in extreme, poor-traction situations at low vehicle speeds and can only be engaged when the transfer case is shifted into low range. Once low range is selected, the center differential automatically locks, ensuring equal torque biasing between front and rear axles. With rear differentials switched to the locked position, both axles are driven in unison, with equal torque distribution.
How good is the Cruiser’s off-road ability? While in the California desert area we navigated dry washes, sand hills and arroyos. We enjoyed a high-speed drive across rough desert chauffeured by champion driver Ivan Stewart. One of our peers tried for a special camera perspective and wound up with a Cruiser perched on a crumbling ridge at an angle that would have rolled most urban intended sport-utes. Using the skill that he is famous for, Ivan drove it down the steep slope … don't try this at home, folks!