by Scott Corlett
In Montana, the skies are big, the mountains are steep, and every twisty two-laner is mated with a deep-blue ribbon of fast-running water. In short, the perfect proving ground for a vehicle of the scale, prowess, and refinement of the all-new 2008 Toyota Land Cruiser. Fifty years ago, the Land Cruiser’s story began with the Land Cruiser BJ, an open-air affair designed to compete with Willys Jeeps. Nine or so generations later, the Land Cruiser still gets down-and-dirty with Wranglers, but only on the trail. Elsewhere, this Toyota keeps company with Rovers, Benzes, and—uh-oh—Lexuses.
In mid-September, in the southwest corner of Montana, I joined the folks from Toyota to test drive the new Land Cruiser. Before I left the tiny Bozeman airport, I knew I was in Brokeback country: strong jawlines were topped by cowboy hats, big feet were clad in stitched boots, and thick necks were ringed with bolo ties; carryon luggage consisted primarily of narrow tubes packed with fly-fishing gear; and long cases housing high-powered rifles rode the baggage carousel. At curbside, I half expected to find Jake Gyllenhaal grinning in his old Ford truck, waiting to head up for one of our “fishing trips.” Alas …
On a September morning, at 7600 feet, not only is Montana beautiful, she’s chilly. Shivering, I circled the new Land Cruiser and admired the metal, which is only a modest departure from the previous Cruiser exterior—still rugged and handsome; now a bit buffer, with a more dynamic stance. Due diligence done, I jumped in, pressed the start button, and jacked up the seat heater. I looked around the cabin and thought huh? In my haste to escape the cold, had I stumbled into a wayward Lexus SUV that had been roped into support duty for its down-market cousin’s launch? Even after a check of the steering wheel badge told me no, my eyes continued to chant otherwise: this cabin was all serious leather, all serious quality finishes, and all serious design detail.
I shifted the Cruiser’s standard, six-speed automatic transmission into big D and its fulltime 4WD into low range. I then started up the mountain, to the black-diamond ski slopes where Toyota’s engineers had laid a course of “technical challenges,” as they called the dirt moguls, rock piles, and vehicle-swallowing gullies. At the first challenge, still traveling uphill, the Land Cruiser rolled and jostled over a series of offset, parallel, waist-high hillocks like they were parking-lot speed bumps. “Want a rock? I can easily grab you one from off the ground,” my passenger sincerely asked during a moment of particularly sharp tilt, as he clung to the overhead handgrip and warily looked out his open window at the close earth.
At the summit, at nearly 9000 feet, snow was falling. Here, on a simulation of a boulder-strewn creek bed, Toyota’s new CRAWL Control system did almost all the work—think active cruise control for off-roading. With this system engaged, the Land Cruiser operates both the brake and the accelerator, shifting power to tires with traction, while you merely steer the inexorably moving vehicle. Although CRAWL is nifty for novices on rough patches, off-road purists will be thrilled to find an “off” switch, since this system drains a little too much of the fun from rock crawling.
After a quick lunch of dry-rub BBQ, I hit the highway to Yellowstone. Along the road, aspens blazed gold under a close sky. On this two-laner, I was sixteen again: at every opportunity, I floored the Cruiser and passed slowing-moving campers. The source of my exuberance was the Land Cruiser’s new engine, which adds a liter compared to the previous iteration, and is now a 5.7-liter V8. This increased displacement ups the horses to a performance-worthy 381 hp and the torque to a diesel-like 401 lb-ft. Despite the boost in power, fuel economy improves—albeit only to 13/18 mpg—and emissions earn a coveted ULEV-II rating.
On the pavement, the Land Cruiser is everything its name promises: a cruiser, and a dreamy one at that. The steering is precise, the cabin is whisper quiet, and roadway imperfections are dampened to gentle thump-thumps—all very Lexus-esque. Which brings us to the $63,000 question (yes, the Cruiser bases for 63 big ones—and that’s without the navigation or rear-seat entertainment systems): Given the Land Cruiser’s superb performance and luscious interior, other than for the added glitz and gizmos, why on earth will anyone pony up for the Lexus version, when it hits markets early next year?
After several stops for crossing herds of elk and photos of grazing bison, I arrived at Old Faithful. I parked and took a minute to look around the cabin again. Yes, I thought, with the Land Cruiser, you don’t even need a tent; you can just drive up a mountain, fold away the second and third rows of seating, and sleep in the back. Yep, I said to myself, plenty of space for Jake and I to stretch out. I smiled. Probably even room for Heath, too. I jumped out of the Land Cruiser and hurried to catch the next eruption.
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