Nice Guys Don't Always Finish Last
As an automotive journalist who switches cars more often than disposable razor blades, it takes quite a special ride to leave any kind of lasting impression on me. Today's test drive becomes tomorrow's written review; the following day's swap for a new vehicle begins the process all over again. As such, it says a great deal about the Land Cruiser that, more than a month after spending time with Toyota's top SUV, I still consider it one of the nicest vehicles I've ever driven.
Of course, with a vague world like "nice," you're probably asking yourself, "What the hell does he mean by 'nice?' This Brauer guy has got the journalistic creativity of a brick wall." That may be, but this is truly the best word to describe the Land Cruiser. Certainly there are specific traits that contribute to this SUV's remarkable package (which I will cover in detail momentarily), yet the overall impression while driving the Land Cruiser was, "Man, is this a nice vehicle."
Take the interior materials and layout, for instance. Even with standard equipment the Land Cruiser gets cloth bucket seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, front and rear cupholders, automatic climate control and a rear heater. Our test unit was upgraded with the $1,820 Leather Trim Package that adds leather seating material and headrests. It also had the Third Rear Seat option that includes power rear quarter windows, another set of cupholders and a child protector rear hatch lock.
Usually an SUV can't offer this much people moving capacity without giving up a certain amount of refinement or charm. You've got multiple rails and latches and levers that make the interior feel more like an airport shuttle bus than a privately owned automobile. Toyota, however, has managed to create a completely unobtrusive third-row bench that can offer seating for three additional passengers, when necessary, but otherwise remain tucked up against the sides of the cargo area. Transformation from five- to eight-passenger seating is relatively easy once you get the hang of it. Regrettably, the seat is only about two inches off the floor, which means anyone over four-feet tall will have to sit "longways" across the seat or risk having their knees at the same level as their head.
But, since the majority of passengers will spend their time in the front two rows anyway, this is where Toyota invested most of its time and energy. The result is a heated driver's seat that adjusts to almost any position imaginable and has a perfectly located center armrest. The same was true of the front passenger seat (except for the power adjustments). Even the second-row bench offered more support and room than expected with enough space for all but the tallest of back-seat riders.
Another Land Cruiser bonus was its ease of entry and exit. Between the low step-in height and much-appreciated grab handles, even my 5-foot-4-inch wife wife didn't mind climbing in and out during a three-day run from L.A. to Central California. Quiet and smooth highway manners, plus a commanding view of the road and an effective climate control system, made the 600-mile roundtrip pass almost unnoticed.
My only complaint regarding interior ergonomics is the location of the front and rear wiper controls. By combining them on the same stalk, Toyota has made figuring out how to clear the windshield during an unexpected cloudburst a bit too exciting. This is a problem that should diminish with familiarity, right? You'd think so, but even after I knew just how to pull and twist the stalk, I still activated the rear wiper more often than the front ones. Oh well, it doesn't rain that much in SoCal.
If the interior of the Land Cruiser is refined, the drivetrain is downright swanky. This is one of the few engines that can trick me into engaging the starter when it's already running. Can you say S-M-O-O-T-H? Maybe I've just driven too many VTEC Hondas recently, but I was amazed that this 4.7-liter V8 can create 230 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque while remaining as genteel as British royalty. And, like said royalty, it can go from polite prodding to forceful commands at a moment's notice. Tired of loafing along at 50 mph behind that RV with the Ohio plates? Just wait for the next passing lane, or dotted yellow line, and the 4700 Toyota V8 will catapult you and your loved ones around such meandering slowpokes faster than you can say Road Rage. Toyota claims that the Land Cruiser go from zero-to-60 in 9.9 seconds (a two-second improvement over the previous non-V8 powered models). We never got a chance to time our test unit but feel that number could be a bit pessimistic.
While the engine is pure delight, the Land Cruiser's tranny could use a minor tweak. Up- and downshifting was flawless, but for highway cruising the overdrive gear didn't seem "over" enough. The engine felt like it wanted to shift one more time even though it couldn't. With a highway mpg rating of only 16, we would suggest Toyota look into the possibility of changing the final gear ratio to improve both gas mileage and high-speed civility.
At lower speeds, the Land Cruiser drives as nicely as anything with an SUV title. Jeep's all-new Grand Cherokee, with its smaller size and weight, feels a bit more car-like, but in the Cruiser's class of full-sized sport-utility vehicles, nothing else compares. The only compromise in terms of easy driving comes from a large blind spot created by the roof pillar and rear-seat headrest. A small, close car could easily hide in this area; only by rocking back and forth while looking in the driver's side rear-view mirror could I hope to spot it. At one point I considered pulling the second bench's headrests, but never actually did.
Exterior styling is typical SUV, being both upright and boxy. The deep brown paint, officially called Mahogany by Toyota, was smooth and glossy and added to the Land Cruiser's upscale feel. Overall fit and finish was, in typical Toyota fashion, excellent.
When the one-week test period was over and it was time to return the Land Cruiser, I felt disappointed. As I said earlier, in this job you've always got another vehicle coming up to test and so seeing one go isn't that big of a deal. But losing the Land Cruiser was different because, in our short time together, I was able to take my wife and child on a mini-vacation to Morro Bay and Cambria, Calif., in absolute comfort and confidence. Even with the slight compromise in cargo space from the folded-up third seat, all my family's paraphernalia (including the powered swing and large, white-noise-producing air cleaner that make up my son's sleep apparatus) fit into the Land Cruiser without intruding on the regular seating area. A vehicle this capable of safe and sporty travel for a family outing is tough to let go. Especially when the sticker price means you'll never actually own one.
Of course, my somber mood while driving the Land Cruiser back to Toyota might have had something to do with the vehicle I was swapping for it: a RAV4.