2008 Toyota Land Cruiser

Toyota hopes its newly redesigned 2008 Land Cruiser will triple slumping U.S. sales for the venerable SUV

Toyota's Land Cruiser has quite a legacy to live up to. Over several decades, the model that first brought the automaker attention in foreign markets, including the U.S. , and established the automaker's long-held reputation for reliability, has become much more spacious and comfortable, yet it's still upheld an impressive level of off-road ability.

The Land Cruiser's product lifecycles - and its development time - are about double those of the rest of Toyota's vehicle lines, according to company officials, because of the extensive global field testing that the flagship SUV is subjected to.

Though we seem to be able to devour every Camry and RAV4 that comes to be on our shores, the U.S. is not one of the main markets for the rugged Land Cruiser; within the U.S. market, Toyota only sells about 3000 Land Cruisers a year. One of the issues now is that the current Land Cruiser, which was introduced back in 1998, arguably feels a bit too close to the Sequoia, in look and feel, at a lower price. Today, Toyota sells about ten times as many Sequoias as Land Cruisers.

The Land Cruiser is, at last, completely redesigned for 2008, and Toyota hopes to nearly triple the number of Land Cruisers sold in the U.S. this year.

No radical departure

Honestly, the new Land Cruiser doesn't look that much different on the outside than the version it replaces. The Land Cruiser sees its proportions and sheetmetal change slightly, but within, the redesign is much more dramatic than its appearance might indicate. With this new-generation Cruiser Toyota is better differentiating it from its other SUVs by taking the technological high road. The new Land Cruiser joins quite a few other models in the SUV field by supplementing its heavy-duty hardware with some electronic gizmos that increase stability during some of the most precarious off-road maneuvers.

We're not just talking electronic stability control (ESC), or Hill Descent Control. Those are both standard on the Land Cruiser, along with Hill Start Assist, to increase stability on steep ascents, along with A-TRAC active traction control, which aids stability on low-traction surfaces. The real news is a feature called Crawl Control, which can actually make an inexperienced off-road driver look like a pro.

Sort of like a cruise control for low-speed off-roading on treacherous terrain - and sounding like what you really wish you could get for your toddler - Crawl Control keeps a very low vehicle speed, maintaining precious momentum and traction in a delicate way, through the throttle, brakes, and traction control, that few experienced off-road drivers could replicate. There are three speed modes, 1 km/h, 3 km/h, and 5 km/h (about 3.2 mph), accessed through a center-console switch. Crawl Control only operates in low range and can only be engaged when the vehicle is stopped.

A new Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) is also now adopted for all Land Cruisers. The system isn't electronically controlled; it instead uses hydraulic pressure between opposed reservoirs front-to-back, which function together, cleverly, as a stabilizer-bar system when front and rear pressure is similar but effectively detaching the stabilizer bar when wheel movement varies, allowing more wheel articulation and a smooth ride.

Steering has been improved as well. It's a hydraulic power-assisted rack-and-pinion system that's mechanically variable, and the system is cooled via an oil cooler and cooling fins. Ventilated disc brakes are used on all four wheels, and the fronts use four-piston calipers.

The transfer case that's included in all Land Cruisers is much like the one in the previous-generation vehicle. It provides a high or low range, with a Torsen center differential, and the center differential can be locked in either range. The diff lock can only be engaged from a stop, but high-low shifting is possible up to 62 mph. On road, the system defaults to a torque split that sends about 59 percent to the rear wheels, but that ratio can vary from 50 to 70 percent depending on slip.

The Land Cruiser's key off-road specs, including approach, departure, and breakover angles, along with ground clearance, are also essentially unchanged compared with the outgoing model. The approach angle is especially impressive, at 30 degrees.

The Land Cruiser's body-on-frame construction is also tougher than ever; it employs a fully boxed frame with eight cross members, some of them using hydroformed steel, for increased resistance to twisting and flexing. The rear suspension remains a four-link coil-spring setup, with solid axle and Panhard rod - allowing 9.45 inches of suspension travel; in front, Toyota foregoes the previous torsion-bar design - which was prone to damage in off-roading - in favor of a new coil-over shock and double A-arm design.

Crawl control in Big Sky

In Montana's Big Sky region, where we tested the Land Cruiser as part of a Toyota-sponsored press event, the automaker has set up one of the most technically demanding off-road courses we've ever experienced, with some boulder-clambering, deep trenches that brought wheel-articulation extremes, and situations so off-kilter that we teetered on two wheels - with nary a groan from the body.

At one time, we were left to descend a steep slope of loose boulders, with the rain starting to fall. We wondered at one time if we'd gotten ourselves in too precarious of a situation, but as we took shallow breaths the Crawl Control system didn't flinch, operating the stability control system and anti-lock brakes - its sound oddly percussive - getting us securely through. Miraculously, the system feathered the brakes on each wheel, allowing some slip on the rocks but not too much so as to compromise stability. It took a lot of faith in the system, as if we'd fishtailed even the slightest, a rollover would likely have been the outcome.

One of the hardest parts about using Crawl Control is that you have to suppress conventional wisdom and keep your foot off the brake and accelerator pedals. You're still responsible for steering, but as we experienced the system we thought that you're actually less likely to get into trouble with it; as the system was maintaining momentum and traction, we were able to focus more on taking the right path. Tap the brake pedal or bring the speed above about 6 mph, and the system disengages.

When off-roading, the Land Cruiser's firm ride can be jarring, yet the suspension has very impressive articulation when needed. The steering rack also feels very stout, with none of the shudder or noise that many of the newer car-based SUVs make. While, frankly, some of the crossovers we're encouraged to take off-road feel close to being totaled after being pushed to the outer range of their ability, the Land Cruiser we drove on the course felt like it could do it again and again for years.

A top engine, finally

The other big news for this year is the powertrain. After years of being saddled with a 4.7-liter V-8 that was smooth and refined but, despite recent power bumps, didn't give the Land Cruiser enough real-world torque to move its nearly 5500 pounds quickly, the Cruiser now gets the Tundra's top engine, a 5.7-liter V-8 making 381 horsepower and 401 pound-feet of torque. Despite the healthy bump in power, Toyota says that the new 5.7 gets better mileage - at 13 city, 18 highway - than the 4.7-liter did when converted to the new 2008 standards. It also passed ULEV-II standards.

Mated to the 5.7-liter engine is a six-speed automatic transmission with variable torque-converter control and improved engine braking response versus the previous Land Cruiser. Curiously, the increased downshifting not only helps throttle response and safety, but it also aids fuel economy by helping to keep the fuel injectors shut off.

The 5.7-liter's character suits the Land Cruiser well; there's plenty of torque for easygoing part-throttle acceleration, rapid passing, and yet the throttle is linear enough so that it's easy to modulate when creeping ahead just off idle. Even on our high-altitude driving route, we found plenty of pep, and the transmission shifted smoothly and confidently.

On road, the HDSS system helps the Land Cruiser corner flat, increasing its stability especially in the sweeping mid-speed canyon curves we encountered on a driving route in the vicinity of Yellowstone National Park . The suspension was hardly absorbent; it's quite a bit firmer than that of the Range Rover, but the benefit is more precise handling, especially at high speed. Furthermore, wind and road noise are remarkably absent, despite the big, boxy side mirrors. With its burly powertrain, sturdy hardware, and good roadholding, we imagine the Land Cruiser will be well suited to towing as well. It's rated to tow up to 8500 pounds.

The Land Cruiser gets seating for eight in three rows; the 50/50-split third-row seats easily fold and swing around to the side, while the 40/20/40-split second row folds and tumbles forward. The seat leather is sturdy and looks like it will wear well, but it's not at all plush, and while heated seats are standard in front and available for the second row there's no cooled or ventilated-seat option, unlike in the Land Cruiser's Lexus sibling, which will be called the LX570.

Those prioritizing safety will be pleased to know that the Land Cruiser has the most airbags of any current Toyota model. There are knee bags and frontal bags for driver and front passenger, side thorax bags for the first two rows, and roll-sensing side-curtain bags for all three rows.

Far from plush

While the Land Cruiser pulls out all the stops in terms of off-road ability, safety, and solid truck duty, it doesn't do so for its interior, which is nicely appointed but not especially fashionable or luxurious - sort of in the same way that the Avalon compares to other luxury cars. Positively, it's laid out quite simply and should stand up nicely to off-road knocks, with no major rattles and no especially delicate breakables.

Several features are unusual within its class, though, including a powerful four-zone climate control system (a boon for the model's Middle East and North African customers…Texas , too) and variable-speed power window controllers. All the usual premium SUV features are either standard or available, including a sonar backup aid and rearview monitor; pre-collision system; navigation system; rear-seat entertainment system; Smart Key entry and ignition; remote start; satellite radio; and a 605-watt, 14-speaker JBL audio system. A cooler box is also available for the center console.

The Land Cruiser will start at a MSRP of $63,200, and Toyota Motor Sales anticipates that a fully loaded one will come in at just under $70,000. That's a significant price jump from the 2007 model, but it does have increased standard equipment, the trick Crawl Control system, and more power and torque to offset the sticker shock.

The only lingering question now is, why not get the Lexus version, the LX570, which expected soon? It's anticipated that the LX570 will have much of the same hardware, with a more lavish interior and more standard luxury features. Plus you get the far superior Lexus dealership experience.

Toyota says that the type of customer is entirely different, with the Land Cruiser tending more toward the gearhead adventurer crowd and the Lexus bringing the running-board-and-flashy-wheels crowd, but among the former, how many do you know who can afford one new?

That aside, we can say for certain, for those who can afford it, that the built-to-last Land Cruiser really feels worth it.

2008 Toyota Land Cruiser

Base price: $63,200; est. $68,000 as tested

Engine: 5.7-liter V-8, 381 hp/401 lb-ft

Drivetrain: Six-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive

Length x width x height: 194.9 x 77.6 x 74.0 in

Wheelbase: 112.2 in

Curb weight: 5690 lb

Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 13/18 mpg

Safety equipment: Electronic stability control, active traction control, Crawl Control with Downhill Assist Control (DAC), and Hill Start Assist; driver and front passenger active front headrests; driver and front passenger knee bags, first and second-row outboard thorax side airbags, three-row roll-sensing side-curtain airbags; multi-terrain anti-lock braking with Electronic Brake-force Distribution and Brake Assist, Intuitive Parking Assist

Major standard equipment: Automatic climate control with independent rear system; power heated front seats; leather-trimmed upholstery; running boards; fog lamps; moonroof; Smart Key system; garage door opener; power windows/locks; tilt/telescoping steering wheel; cruise control; rear wiper and defogger; 605-watt, 14-speaker JBL sound system with six-disc changer

Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

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