The Last of the V-8 Overlanders

Toyota only sells about 3,000 Land Cruisers a year in the United States these days. Thats less than 1percentof the volume of something like the RAV4 or Camry. The current model was launched way back in 2008and is significantly slower, less spacious, and uses more fuel than any of the three-row SUV competition, which all cost less money, too. So why did my fiance and Ijust buy one? Lets start with why the Land Cruiser is wrong for a lot of peopleand then move onto the things it gets very, very right.

Downsides to the Toyota Land Cruiser

Weight: The Land Cruiser weighs 5,815 pounds. To put that in perspective, the Toyota Tundra pickup, which has the same engine, starts out at 5,170 pounds. Something like the larger, more spacious Ford Expeditionweighs 5,443 pounds.

Fuel Economy: The Land Cruiser averages 14 miles per gallon, according to the EPA. Weve been getting ten. You can thank that weightand the simple 5.7-liter V-8it shares with the smaller Tundra for that. The bigger, faster Expedition averages 20 miles per gallon.

Design: I mean this in terms of pleasing the eye;inside and out, the Land Cruiser looks more like a Highlander thana luxury SUV. The exterior is utterly forgettable, while the interior suffers from parts-bin switchgearand a heavy reliance on silver-colored plastics.

Infotainment: Our 2020 Land Cruiser has what has to be the most outdated infotainment system still on sale in 2019. Theres a nine-inch touchscreen, but its resolution is poor, and it doesnt include Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. That means youre left with Toyotas own navigation program, which looks like it was developed inthe mid-2000s. The system can sync with our phones using Bluetooth, in order to play music and make phone calls, but cant display any details of what youre listening to on its screenor control anything but volume. It also lacks the ability to communicate with your phone when youre away from the vehicle, soyou cant use your phone to remote-start the Land Cruiser.

Third-Row Space: The first and second rows of seats in the Land Cruiser are extremely spacious and comfortable, even when filled to capacity. The third row? Not so much. Because the full-size spare is mounted underneath the vehiclebetween its frame rails, theres no room for the third row to fold into the floor. Instead,it splits in the middle, and both halves fold up to the sides. Sitting back there also feels like sitting on the floor, and as far as I can tell(and Im six foot two), there areapproximately zero inches of legroom. Theres no room behind the third row for luggage when its in use, and the seats impair cargo space significantly when folded up.

Price: The Land Cruiser starts at $85,315. The only option is a $2,220 rear-seat entertainment system, plus a special Heritage Edition that fits fancy wheels and some badges, for a total price of $87,645. Theres no way to get around that being an extremely large sum of money, particularly when you consider that this model has been around for almost 12 yearsand that it cant even connect to your phone properly.

That leather is as nice as youll find in a Range Rover. The rest of the interior isnt. (Photo: Toyota)

What the Land Cruiser Gets Right

Durability: Where any other Toyota is designed and durability-tested to fulfill a 15-year service life of typical on-road use, the company builds and tests the Land Cruiser to ensure it can survive 25 years of constant off-road use in good condition. Unlike virtually every other vehicle on the market, the Land Cruiser is not built down to a price, its built up to this requirement.

Serviceability: Because the Land Cruiser is fitted with the relatively simpleand very common 5.7-liter V-8 from the Tundra, well be able to find parts for it at every auto store in North America (and on many other continents). And any autoshop will have experience working on that power train. Ever waited a week for a part to get shipped from another country while you and your vehicle are stranded at a small mechanics shop in the middle of nowhere? I have, but that will never, ever happen with the Land Cruiser.

Ride Quality: Take one of the strongest ladder frames ever created, bolt a body on top with vibration-isolating rubber dampers, then fit the highest-quality suspension system your company knows how to make, and youre going to get a truck that rides like a bank vault floating through the air. This is one area where the Land Cruisers immense weight helps. Due to the high sprung-to-unsprung weight ratio, the movement of the wheels, tires, and rear axle hasremarkably little influence over the vehicles body. Thats why this live-rear-axle vehicle rides better than alternatives fitted with independent rear suspension.

Vision: Its fashionable right now to design cars and trucks with slim glass housesthats the portion of the vehicle wrapped in windows. But what looks cool on the outside translates to incredibly poor vision from the inside out. The Land Cruiser may not be trendy, but you can see out of its huge windows and windshield unimpaired, and that helps you navigate everything from city traffic to off-road obstacles with total confidence.

Features: The buttons on the Land Cruiser are pulled out of of an economy car, the silver accents are all plastic, and the infotainment system is awful, but the compromises stop there. The center-console storage bin? Thats a powered fridge you can use to keep drinks or snacks chilled. Its big enough for a bottle of champagne. The cubby where the ashtray used to be? Thats a capacitive charger you can useto power up your Apple Watch. The steering wheel? Its heated. This SUV features every electronic driver aid possible this side of autonomous driving. The big touchscreen displays obstacles when youre off-road. Jeeps do that, too, but the Land Cruiser shows you whats to your sides and rearas well as whats in front of you. I have it set to do that on the road, too, any time we go below fivemiles per hour. I could go on, but the list would end up longer than this article. As I explained to my fiance, Virginia, if its a thing, the Land Cruiser has it. And unlike most other vehicles, it wont be a thing that will break.

Traction: The Land Cruiser is fitted with full-time four-wheel drive. That means it nominally operates in all-wheel drive, but at the push of a button, you can lock the center differentialand put it in four-wheel drive. That center diff is a Torsen design, which splits 40 percent of its torque to the front axleand 60 percent to the rear in normal driving. Should one wheel break traction, it can redirect up to 75 percent of that torque to the axle with the most traction. On a paved road, in the kind of winter weather weve been having here in Montana, thats the best arrangement possible. It allows the truck to find traction as we drive onconstantly varying surfaces. Locking the center diff splits torque 50/50; this achieves more traction than even a best-possible all-wheel-drivesystem like this one can, but it can only be employed in slippery conditions. On top of that, theres also a traction-control-based system that tweaks individual brake calipers to mimic the function of locking axle diffs, and even an off-road cruise-control system that manages traction for you while maintaining a constant (very low) speed.

Articulation and Angles: Sway bars transfer force from one side of a car to the other, helping to control body roll in corners. Thats a huge help in high-speed corners on the roadbut limits wheel articulation off-road. Sodisconnecting those sway bars on dirt helps your wheels stay in contact with the driving surface. Only a verysmall number of the most capable off-road vehicles are equipped with disconnecting sway bars. Andunlike other solutions, Toyota developed a system for the Land Cruiser that is entirely mechanicaland automatic to connect and disconnect them, meaning its much more robust than theelectronic alternative. In action, you never need to think about it; on the road, the vehicle corners flat, but over uneven obstacles, your wheels are capable of dropping further beneath the truck. This system pairs with what are extremely impressive approach, departure, and breakover angles for such a large SUV, along with a very short wheelbase, to grant the Land Cruiser off-road ability rivaling that of smaller, less refined vehicles, like a Jeep Wrangler.

Lighting: Every lighting element that Ivebeen able to find, inside and out, is LED. For stuff like the brake lights and interior lights, that means Ill never have to replace a bulb. Up frontit means the stock headlights are the best stock headlights Ive ever used. They have an incredibly wide spread of totally even, smooth coverageand project nearly as far down a dark road asan aftermarket lighting system.

Most SUVs like to pretend they can go off-road. The Land Cruiser is actually designed to go off-road, every day, for 25 years and still be in good shape at the end of all that. (Photo: Toyota)

Why We Need One

Where we live, in Bozeman, Montana, weather conditions are extremeand unpredictable. The nearest NOAA radar station is 175 miles away, in Great Falls, and cant penetrate the mountains surrounding it, so there are effectively no trustworthy weather forecasts for the area. Blizzards can happen any month of the year, and we drive off-road every single day to take the dogs for a hike, visit friends, and just get from point Ato point B. The road-critter situation here is very realand very dangerous.

And thats just here at home. We also drive all over the West Coast, from southern Baja to northern Alaska, while carrying all the camping gear youd expect, plus three big dogs. Heck, just between people and dogs, we load the truck up with 555 pounds every time we leave the driveway.

I cant think of a vehicle that can tackle all those challenges together, and do that not just for a few yearsbut for a few decades. In fact, a stock Land Cruiser cant either, which is why were modifying it. Another thing thats great about these things? Off-road accessories are widely available, and theres a solid knowledge base around getting the most out of this platform.

The third row is borderline useless and eats up valuable dog space when folded. Well remove it and fit a cargo barrier that will keep the mutts off the leather, while protecting all vehicle occupants in a crash. (Photo: Toyota)

What We Plan to Do

This is going to be Virginiasdaily driver. This SUV gives her the ability to drive around Montana, or anywhere else, in total confidence that she wont get stuck, break down, or have her truck disabled if she hits a deer. Sowe need more traction, the ability to self recover, and protection against those aforementioned road crittersas well as common off-road obstacles. And we intend to achieve those merits without ruining what makes the stock Land Cruiser so good in the first place. Illcover these changes periodically in future articles, hopefully informing your ability to create trucks that are also peerlessly capable off-roadbut which remain refined and safe on highways.

Tires: We put the best-possible winter tireson the Land Cruiser the same day we bought it. Those are the Bridgestone Blizzak DM-V2s, which are purpose-built for heavier vehicles like crossovers and SUVs. Theyre already inspiring a huge amount of confidence. While driving on sheet ice at 5 A.M. the other morning, I had to perform an emergency swerve at 35 miles per hourto avoid a drunk driver. The tires only broke traction momentarily, remained controllable while sliding, and are the reason I was able to avoid crashing a brand-new vehicle. Well keep those on until the snow clears, then fit a larger set of all-terrain tires for summerbut make sure theyre small enough that the spare fits in the stock location.

Wheels: To make sure those larger off-road tires clear the fenders and sway bars, we need wheels with more offset. Butwheels built for off-roading tend to add a ton of weight in pursuit of the necessary strength. Im going to run a set that carry no weight penalty, to avoid sacrificing the trucks ride and handling.

Suspension: The Land Cruiser is 74 inches tall, and our garage has 77 inches of clearance. For that reason, and because we want to keep on-road handling as safe as it is in stock form, we plan on running a zero-lift suspension system. So why run one at all? Because high-quality aftermarket suspension systems are capable of offering better body controland improved ride quality both off-road and on. Theyre also designed to handle long periods of at-the-limit performance without overheatingand losing their ability to provide control as a result.

Protection: Because it builds its bumpers to the strictest vehicle-safety standards in the world, and because its been doing that for over 40 years, ARB makes the highest-quality aftermarket bumpers. I hit a 200-pound kangaroo with one at about 85 mph, and there wasnt a scratch on the truck. I cant imagine using anything else for our Land Cruiser. The companyalso makes a really nice rear bumper that foregoes the usual swing-out tire carrier. I dont want to deal with the hassle of opening a swing-out just to load the dogs into the car, and this thing adds protection without getting in the way. Well also replace the plastic side steps with real rock sliders, to protect the sides of the vehicle from a common off-road injury, and fit an aftermarket skid-plate system to guard important parts like the sump, transmission, and fuel tank from damage. All of these modificationswill also improve the trucks angles. A hitch-mount swing-out will bolt on and off, giving us the ability to carry additional fuel, a Hi-Lift jack, Maxtrax, and other bulky essentials outside the truckwithout adding weight or un-aerodynamic racks to our roof.

Lights: Even as good as the Land Cruisers stock lighting system is, quality off-road lights are brighter. These are essential for where we live, to help usspot animals with enough time to safely avoid themand to illuminate tricky trails at night.

Traction: The Land Cruisers electronic traction system is very goodand very easy to use. Iimagine itll be our go-to most of the time, but I still want to add locking axle differentials for those rare circumstances whennothing else will do. Well regear the truck when we fit those lockers, to retain the performance and fuel economy with the larger tires and added weight.

Recovery: The ARB front bumper will give us the ability to add a winch, along with those driving lights. Winches are another accessory that are rarely usedbut irreplaceable in extreme circumstances.

Interior: I plan to remove the third row entirelyand fit a strength-rated cargo barrier that bolts to the Land Cruisers frame behind the second row. This will give us the space necessary to comfortably haul around all ourdogsand also help keep them and us safe in a crash. I plan to leave the rest of the interior stockto avoid compromising the vehicles versatilityor adding unnecessary weight.

Roof: Putting giant tents and stuff on your roof is dumb. Sowell skip doing thatand maybe even shave the stock roof rails and antenna to gain a little extra fit-in-the-garage space.

Why Its the Last

According to my my oldcolleague Jonny Lieberman, Toyota will stop selling the Land Cruiser in the United States in 2022. The rest of the world will see an all-new design that year, and its possible that we may get the Lexus version of that vehicle. Other reports(and common sense) suggest that Toyota also plans to stop using the 5.7-liter V-8 in those next-generation Land Cruisersand the next Tundra, replacing it instead with a twin-turbo V-6and probably a hybrid gasoline-electric power train, too. While undoubtedly faster and more fuel efficient, its unlikely that those future vehicles will be as simple, durable, and easy to work on as the current truck. If this were a BMW or a Land Rover, more power and better fuel economy would outweigh the value of simplicity. But this isnt a BMW or Land Rover. We didnt buy one of those because the things that make them so nice for other drivers mean they dont meet our needs for a genuinely hard-use truck. Due to anever increasing pressure to improve fuel economyand fulfill the luxury expectations of high-end SUV buyers, its unlikely that Toyota will ever produce a vehicle like this Land Cruiser again. And thats why we plan on keeping this thing forever.