Long Live the King: The Landcruiser Remains the World's Best 4X4
With the 300 series coming later this year, I drive the current 200 series to see if the Landcruiser's humble identity and off-road supremacy lives on
As a small boy in the late 1990’s, family holidays meant hopping into our 80 series Toyota Landcruiser and traversing the harsh Australian outback. I have seen half the country – from Longreach to Lake Eyre – through the side window of a Landcruiser. Even back then I knew the vehicle that humbly and faithfully carted us across the unrelenting desert terrain was something special.
Many years later, though still before I was old enough to get a licence, my father let me drive the new family 100 series up and down sand dunes on Moreton Island. It was back before driveable beaches in Australia weren’t littered with weekend warriors with 1000-inch lift kits, and letting your kids take risks wasn’t irresponsible parenting. I took a big risk while at the helm of the Cruiser, trying to drive sideways along a dune steeper than the sails on the Sydney Opera House. The sand beneath the half-deflated Bridgestones broke like a levee breach, and set in motion a granular rapid down the side of the dune, taking the 2 and a half tonne Toyota with it.
With no eject button fitted to the 100 series, in a lucky stroke of instinct I counter steered against the flow of the sand and gave a light press of the accelerator. Whether or not it was the right thing to do, the Landcruiser calmly shimmied itself vertically up the dune, plopping itself on the other side of the crest as if it had merely gone over a speed hump.
Something tells me that no matter how I reacted, that reliable ol’ bastard Landcruiser would have stepped in, bailing me out of a perilous juncture in life like a wise and weathered grandfather who expects nothing but your safety and happiness in return. It’s the quiet confidence with which the Landcruiser can handle a high stakes situation that I have synonymised with the model since. It’s a beautiful thing. Freakish engineering built to withstand everything up to and including the apocalypse, enveloped in composure and humility.
Last week the chance came up to spend a bit of time in the current 200 series Landcruiser. Frankly, I was in two minds about driving it. On the one hand, I was looking forward to the inevitable nostalgia that would sweep over me in the big Toyota. On the other, knowing that so many condescending electronic aids have been added to the car, including electronic low range selection, active traction control and something called ‘crawl control’, I was worried these would all malfunction and the perception I’ve had of the model since childhood would be tarnished. Nevertheless, I stopped overthinking it and jumped in. If nothing else I’d get to flog about in the last of the V8 Landcruisers, and, well, there’s only one way to find out if the model continues to be the ultimate nothing-to-prove, everything-to-conquer 4WD.
It’s a funny time in history to be driving a 200 series. Due to the resurgence in 4X4 culture in Australia, the impending loss of 2 of the Landcruiser’s cylinders, and the overall price inflation in the used car market, the GXL I’m driving would fetch well over $100,000 second hand. I could go and pick up a C63 AMG or an R8 for that. I actually felt like a bit of a spectacle on the way up to the National Park where I’d planned to test out the car. Kind of how you feel driving a Range Rover, and not how I expected to feel driving a Landcruiser.
Aspects of the exterior styling also don’t help a bid to be subtle. The two raised columns running down the bonnet are unnecessary and distracting. There are offensive amounts of chrome on the front, the grill looking like it has been pried off a Dodge and Kwik-Gripped to the Toyota. The back end is appealing, but there’s something a bit off about it. Maybe it has spent too much time with a Prado and some off the arrogance has rubbed off on it. These features create the impression that the 200 series is compensating for something, when that is the last thing a Landcruiser should have to do. I must say, however, I’m being both picky and nasty. Overall, the 200 series is a beautiful thing. As pretty as a big brute can get.
The interior styling is near perfect. It’s basic, with a couple of bare-minimum modern car features like a large touchscreen display, satnav, a bunch of connectivity options and a reverse camera. Toyota had enough self-control to avoid making the steering wheel a NASA control panel, and instead just threw on a couple of essential buttons. The dials to adjust the off-road modes are modest and I think pleasant to look at. Crucially, the inside of the GXL I’m driving is uniformly grey and boring. I love it. The squareness of it evokes 60 Series Landcruiser, which has the best interior setup ever designed. Every review I have read about the 200 series has waffled on about how poorly equipped and taxi-like the dash area is. They are all absolutely missing the point. The interior ought to be drab. Toyota know that the Landcruiser driver has no time for Siri and satellites when they are busy mowing down bubble cars and towing hay bales over the Flinders Rangers.
Now, the driving. Ride comfort on the bitumen gets a big tick. You sit perched above everyone else on the road, plopped on a sponge while the humble rumble of the engine warms your heart. Having said that, as soon as I got a whiff of the latent power the 4.5 litre twin turbo V8 had on offer, I couldn’t help but give it a squirt. This beast of a car is pretty fun in a straight-line sprint. She gets up and goes, and its strange sensation. Zipping off the line with a hellish V8 gurgle and sporty and encouraging turbo spool makes the 200 series feel like the lovechild of a Humvee and a Golf GTI. Rightly so, however, the engine has been made for the torque, and 650Nm makes hills level and 7 metre boats empty box trailers.
So that’s all well and good, but none of it is going to matter if the 200 is terrible off-road. After all, that’s the whole point of this car – to crush everything in its path without fuss or fanfare. After finally getting bored of toying with the Cruiser’s unexpected drag racing abilities, I ventured into the National Park. Sadly, I wasn't in the proper outback. I was on the very edge of the east coast about a 2-hour drive north of the Sydney CBD in your typical weekend away National Park. But it was weekday and I couldn't see a ranger, so I just had to get creative.
The first part of the track I chose is actually pretty tough. It’s steep and there’s plenty of loose gravel, and every 12 feet or so sits an awkwardly shaped 2-foot-high knuckle with a sudden dip on the other side. I left it in high range and just balanced the throttle through this part, mainly because a 100 series wouldn’t even blink going through that terrain. The 200 didn’t either, and ate it up like it was nothing. Excellent. For a while I barreled along a firm but sandy section of track with complete traction and stability, only veering off at different intervals to drive over a fallen tree or do a few rock hops.
A mate of mine told me to forget about crawl control for most obstacles, and reserve it for near-bog or properly bogged situations. Heeding that advice, I employed just the basics to tackle the trees and boulders. Lock the diff and knock it into low range. I was really pleased at how capable the 200 series was with these simple off-roading adjustments. I felt relieved that the car still allowed me to be in control, flicking between low range gears, but gave me that familiar sense that it’d still get the job done through heart and persistence alone.
Deeper in the National Park I was excited to see an access track normally dominated by illegal dirt bikers was open and clear. It’s blocked off nearly 365 days a year. The track is stupidly steep and stupidly uneven with the odd crevice. Again, merely locking the centre diff and using low range was sufficient to successfully negotiate this terrain. I briefly tried crawl control when I got a bit of slip in some deep gravel, but it almost seemed like overkill. I turned it off, and the traction control trying to be diplomatic with my accelerator thrashing eventually figured it out anyway.
Later in the day I ploughed the Cruiser into some sandy soil just above the beach dunes, getting as close to bogged as possible. It was time to see what crawl control is all about. To put it simply, crawl control is a computerised low range driving mode for extreme terrain which uses information from braking, wheel and stability control sensors to operate each wheel independently, and regulate engine and braking activity. Once I’d turned the setting on, I selected the lowest speed in which you can operate the system, and then let go of the brake. While turning the wheel from side to side, slowly but surely the Cruiser emerged from the bog like a corpse resurrecting itself. Once you feel like you’re out, you can take back full control of the car by pressing the accelerator, which I absolutely love. The crawl control, when used under these circumstances, is remarkable. It does require significantly less testosterone than burying your spare wheel and attaching the winch to it, but I can’t deny that this feature upholds and even improves the Landcruiser’s reputation of getting you out of anything without causing a scene. A rare instance in which modern electronics perpetuate an old legacy.
Back out on the tarmac roads that evening I felt no disappointment whatsoever. The 200 series had proven itself a worthy member of the Landcruiser family. The 200 is a pleasure to drive on regular public roads, and made light work of everything off road as well. It’ll beat any other comparable 4WD with conviction and without the hurrah. I’m not shy about saying it – the Landcruiser is still the world’s greatest 4X4. Despite my initial worries, there is no doubting that the electronically enhanced Toyota maintains the toughness and reliability for which it has become famous. But that fame is an important point.
I do believe the Landcruiser has lost not all, but some of its humility. With so many accolades and such a massive reputation it’s as though the Cruiser has picked up some flashy new tendencies, which at times overshine its humble old self. I liken it to a famous athlete. They may be a sportsman, but as the fame grows, they almost have no choice but to embrace the limelight and live a bold lifestyle. I suppose the Landcruiser needs the fancy add-ons to keep its place as best 4x4. Off-road technology has come a long way, and if the Cruiser didn’t have the best of it, it’d simply be overlooked. Nonetheless, the most important thing for me is that when you take the car for a bash in the tough Australian bush, it just feels like a good lad with a heart of gold. And that it does.
I wonder what the future holds for the Landcruiser. The 300 series will hit Australian shores later this year, and while my drive in the 200 gives me hope, the pictures coming out of Dubai give me anxiety. It’s looks are getting a bit silly, and the interior is a Range Rover knock-off. It’ll have even more electronics and driver aids. Yes it’s getting a power increase, and it should still be a monster off-road, but I think the Landcruiser is about to lose its characteristic low-profile. We will just have to wait and see.