The 5.7-liter V8-powered 2008 Toyota Land Cruiser represents the 50th anniversary of Cruiser sales in America.
Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. was founded in late 1957, but it didn't officially sell anything until 1958. One of the two models offered that year was the Land Cruiser, and the company sold exactly one. In the early 1960s, the FJ40 Land Cruiser 4x4 became Toyota's best-selling model and kept the lights on while the company figured out how to build cars Americans would buy.
Toyota's mantra of durability, quality and reliability all started with the Land Cruiser. It personifies what the 50th anniversary of Toyota in the U.S. should be all about.
A Growing Trend
Over the past 50 years, each successive new Land Cruiser has grown larger and more refined. It's a trend that has drawn praise from the increasingly well-heeled buyers who never engage low range, but it's equally brought jeers from the purists who want a go-anywhere mountain goat like the first FJ40. The debate came to a head in 1998 when the 100-series Land Cruiser replaced its traditional inline-6 engine and solid front axle with a V8 engine and independent front suspension.
Will the 2008 Land Cruiser, known as the 200-series, silence the critics? Probably not, but even at a new base price of $63,885, it's sure to satisfy the current crop of Land Cruiser owners, a group whose median annual household income exceeds $200,000.
The Land Cruiser's steady march toward an alarmingly large size continues despite alarmingly high gas prices. The 112.2-inch wheelbase remains, but the new 200-series is larger in every other direction. It is 2.4 inches longer, 1.2 inches wider, 0.8 inch taller and it sits on P285/60R18 tires spaced 0.8 inch farther apart.
Greater size begets greater weight, and the new Cruiser weighs 5,690 pounds — 265 more than last year.
Some of that weight comes from a beefed-up frame that is 40 percent stronger in torsion and 20 percent stronger in bending — traits that facilitate improvements in ride, handling and noise control. Section heights and widths of the fully boxed main rails and crossmembers have been increased throughout, and the rear crossmember has been significantly reinforced and configured as a fully integrated 2-inch receiver hitch.
All this increased mass seems to melt away under our right foot thanks to the fitment of the 5.7-liter V8 engine first seen in the new 2007 Toyota Tundra pickup. No wonder, because horsepower jumps to 381 — up 106 hp, an entire subcompact's worth. Meanwhile, torque output is now 401 pound-feet, 91 lb-ft more than last year.
Variable intake and exhaust timing for this new V8 actually makes this heavier, more powerful Land Cruiser greener. It's now in the class of Ultra-Low Emissions Vehicle (ULEV), and its fuel economy (normalized to 2008 methodology) improves from 12 to 13 mpg in the city and from 15 to 18 mpg on the highway.
Another part of the fuel-economy boost comes courtesy of an all-wheel-drive version of the Tundra's six-speed automatic transmission. The addition of two more ratios allows the new Land Cruiser to employ not one but two overdrive gears for more efficient freeway cruising.
Towing capability is an even bigger part of the Land Cruiser equation for 2008, as the extra grunt, extra gears and integrated trailer hitch allow the tow rating to be jacked up to 8,500 pounds. Trailer lighting and electric brake circuits are now fully integrated, and the factory-installed seven-pin receptacle is tucked up out of harm's way.
Let's Get This Show Off the Road
Once there's dirt under the tires, the 2008 Land Cruiser presents a mixed bag. Low-speed creeping is bolstered by exceptionally delicate throttle control of the big V8's considerable torque. Shorter 1st-gear and transfer-case ratios improve the overall crawl ratio from 31.6:1 to 34.1:1.
All-new electronic Crawl Control takes this good foundation a step further by integrating the standard ABS and A-TRAC systems and the electronic throttle into what amounts to an off-road cruise control. Three settings for different speeds are available, two of which are slower than the idle crawl speed. The slowest setting is less than 1 mph.
Crawl Control works so well that it took a big chunk of the fun out of tackling rocks and moguls during our time negotiating the barren summertime ski slopes (black diamond, no less) of the Big Sky Resort in Montana. Uphill or down, we simply dialed in the desired speed, took our foot completely off the gas and brakes, pointed the steering where we wanted to go and listened to the actuators and brakes grunt as the computer expertly sorted out traction at each wheel.
Those looking for a challenge can turn the system off, but the previously cherished rear locking differential is no longer available to improve traction when you do.
Suspension of Disbelief
Perhaps the '08 Land Cruiser's most impressive off-road gizmo here is KDSS (Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System), an all-mechanical mechanism that automatically disconnects the stabilizer bars to improve off-road traction.
On pavement, both axles compress together during typical cornering, creating balanced pressure in a pair of hydraulic cylinders. Conversely, opposite-phase axle twist when cavorting off-road causes a large pressure imbalance that opens a valve, disabling the stabilizer bars.
The operation is imperceptible, and it extends maximum articulation across the rear axle to 27 inches, 4 inches more than last year's fixed-bar setup.
Since the bars can be disconnected, Toyota engineers finally are able to specify the substantially thicker stabilizer bars they've always wanted to flatten cornering on asphalt and improve stability — and this in turn allows the use of a much quicker 16.7:1 ratio for the steering gear. The steering wheel now affords only 3.14 turns lock to lock and the turning circle has shrunk to 38.7 feet.
Good-bye, yachtlike body roll. Hello, steering response. The 2008 Land Cruiser feels more solidly planted and responsive on the asphalt than any other.
Despite the inclusion of these clever off-road devices, it's the fundamentals that ultimately let down this Cruiser. Ground clearance drops to 8.9 inches — almost an inch less than the outgoing 100-series and 1.9 inches less than the 80-series that preceded them both.
Also compromised are the approach angle (from 31 to 30 degrees), the departure angle (24 to 20 degrees) and the breakover angle (24 to 21 degrees). Our test runs through Toyota's off-road demo course showed incredible suspension flexibility, but the sound of rocks dragging on the undercarriage and rear bumper was nearly always with us.
What this Cruiser needs is a height-adjustable suspension. But we've heard this system is reserved for the upcoming Lexus LX 570. What gives? We thought the Land Cruiser was the off-road icon and the Lexus was the gussied-up Aspen ski wagon. Now that Toyota plans to increase Land Cruiser sales in the U.S. from 3,000 per year to 8,000, it should give the Cruiser the impeccable off-road credentials it needs to stand apart in a limited market.
Interior improvements make this Land Cruiser more beautifully trimmed than the last, with a lot more features to boot. Four-zone automatic climate control is standard, as is a 14-speaker 605-watt JBL audio system, Smart Key system and a tilt-telescoping steering wheel.
Between the standard leather seats you can get a cooler box that's effectively chilled by the air-conditioner. An overhead rear-seat DVD system, touchscreen navigation with a back-up camera and Bluetooth are also available.
Three-row seating is standard, although the third-row seats provide a knees-up seating position that will be the first choice only for kids. They fold up against the sides of the cargo bay more easily than ever, but since they're no longer totally removable, the Cruiser's maximum cargo capacity drops from 90.8 to 81.7 cubic feet. The familiar two-piece hatch with mini-tailgate remains intact.
The 2008 Toyota Land Cruiser is a great premium SUV. It drives better than ever on the pavement, is comfortable and well-equipped, has enough off-road capability for most people and can tow a healthy load. But despite the inclusion of some fantastic off-road focused technologies, the overall emphasis continues to evolve away from Land and toward Cruiser.
This will probably sit pretty well with the majority of wealthy folks who can afford to buy a brand-new Land Cruiser. But Toyota should take heed of the fact that the Land Cruiser's much touted reputation as a hard-core expression of durability, quality and reliability seems increasingly dependent on the off-road capability of models built in the past. When the 2008 Toyota Land Cruiser is 10 or 15 years old, what will its reputation be then?
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.