2008 Toyota Land Cruiser VX-R

The Good:
– Pretty strong engine
– Rides and drives like a car
– Strong off-road performer
The Bad:
– Looks like a jellybean
– Cramped third row
– Expensive in VX-R trim

The Toyota Land Cruiser is a vehicle we love to hate. It has many fans among people who want a reliable family wagon, those who love to go bash dunes, those who are too afraid to buy anything but Toyota, those who think tailgating is cool, or those who modify them into drag racers when something smaller would do just as well. The non-descript previous models are as common as the Corolla around here, and the new one tries to keep that anonymous look, and yet appears weirder than ever. This is not a vehicle that sells on its looks.

But then again, our 2008 tester garnered a lot of attention on the streets, as the new model is not that common yet. But it soon will be, because it is surprising how much we enjoyed driving a vehicle that we were expecting to hate.

The bulbous styling isn’t doing the new Land Cruiser any favours. Our loaded VX-R was already missing the lower front-bumper lip, probably broken off in a previous off-road excursion, which highlighted the new truck’s extended overhangs. Build quality was perfect, except for a loose rubber trim piece on the roof that we popped back in.

But more attention-grabbing is the interior. Full of aggressive shapes and upscale materials, the cabin offers more space and better luxury than any Chevy Tahoe. All Land Cruisers benefit from pliable plastic surfaces and larger interior dimensions, as well as a cool keyless entry and start-button system. Our top-spec VX-R even had leather, wood trim, power front seats, automatic a/c, remote engine start and a navigation system straight out of Lexus.

The seats are designed for fat asses so the bolstering didn’t help us much, but we appreciated the airy feeling thanks to tons of headroom and legroom in the first two rows, accessed by integrated side-steps. The third row is cramped, but average-sized adults can still somewhat breathe, and it can be accessed by effortlessly folding away the second-row seats. The real effort is slipping in, but we just left the 50/50-split third row easily folded up on the sidewalls of the luggage area, which is sadly necessary since there is no place for flat-folding seats underneath the floor. However, this solution is still better than the third row in the Tahoe, which has to be removed from the vehicle to increase cargo area. Other storage areas in the Cruiser include hidden cup-holders, bottle-holders in the doors, and a deep chiller under the front armrest, enough for six water bottles.

Other features standard in our VX-R, some of which are optionally available in lower trims, include power windows, electric mirrors, sunroof, cruise control, navigation, Bluetooth, upgraded stereo with changer, auto-dimming mirrors, remote start and a digital a/c. Having used the nav touchscreen in Lexus cars before, we easily used it to find our way in unfamiliar areas, although some maps were outdated. The integrated nine-speaker CD/MP3 stereo was excellent, as was the strong a/c with separate digital controls and vents for passengers in the first and second rows. The Bluetooth hands-free phone worked flawlessly, although programming the stereo via the touchscreen isn’t as intuitive. Oddly, there is a separate key fob for the optional remote engine-start system, along with the regular key fob for the keyless entry. On the safety front, dual front airbags are standard in all Cruisers, but side-curtain bags are standard in the VX-R and might be missing in some lower trims. Parking takes a bit of work, even with the optional reverse camera and sensors.

The gadgetry simply enhanced the feeling that we were driving a Lexus instead of a Toyota, especially when we could barely hear the refined 4.7-litre V8 engine after we started it up. With variable valve timing, it makes 271 hp at 5400 rpm and 410 Nm at 3400 rpm — figures finally good enough to challenge modern contenders. The V8 feels a bit lazy at the lowest revs, but it gets moving strongly after that, all the way to redline. Although the 2510 kg Tahoe Z71 appears to be more powerful, we got better acceleration and economy numbers with the 2590 kg Land Cruiser. We charged from zero to 100 kph in 8.6 seconds, burning 21.4 litres per 100 km. Part of the reason may be Toyota’s modern five-speed automatic, which has a “power” mode, a 2nd-gear start mode and even manual-shifting ability. Another reason could be we tested the Tahoe in the summer, while this test took place in the winter, allowing any engine to perform better in cool weather. Nevertheless, the Cruiser is still a petrol-hog, with two fuel tanks to satisfy its hunger, but its performance is now satisfactory enough to compensate.

Highway comfort levels are impressive for a truck with independent front and solid-axle rear suspension, probably because our fancy VX-R was equipped with the optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System, which apparently improves road handling, while retaining off-road articulation. It is very quiet at 120 kph and body motions are kept to a bare minimum over bumps, good enough to not disturb a sleeping baby. And yet, body roll around curves is so well-controlled that we were taking corners as quickly as the last Corolla we tested. That is damn impressive for a large behemoth, and substantially better than the rock-and-roll Tahoe Z71, while bettering the larger Infiniti QX56. The soft steering feels dead, the strong disc brakes lack pedal feedback, and squealing understeer creeps in if pushed too far, but its grip limits are reasonably high due to the wide 285/65 tyres wrapping the 17-inch rims. The optional stability control, automatic all-wheel-drive system and ABS brakes all should keep things safe, should things get too much for the tyres.

But those same tyres make the new Land Cruiser a truly great offroader. Its automatic all-wheel-drive system can distribute power to each wheel as needed, and we hardly ever bogged down during our off-road run in soft sand. Our Cruiser also came with a locking centre differential that works only in low-range mode, and there is a mention of some optional rear locking diff in the instruction manual that our car didn’t have. The long front and rear require some care on sharp slopes, but this gave us a chance to try out the optional crawl-control feature. With lots of clunky-clattering sounds, we crawled down a slope with our feet off the pedals, and the system even has three speed settings. It nicely rounded off a total package that does seriously well on the rough stuff, even if the car kept beeping all sorts of warnings at us as we pushed it.

While the previous long-running Land Cruiser was overrated and underpowered, this new one, in VX-R form, absolutely deserves any accolades it gets. It does well on the highway, handles well enough, and rules on sand. It looks like a turd but, as lying chicks like to say, looks don’t matter. It’s what is inside that counts. No doubt, most people will buy the basic V6 models, but to enjoy the total Land Cruiser experience, only the expensive VX-R will do. If you are thinking about getting a luxury 4WD, this Toyota is a good proposition. And this Toyota is also going on our recommended list.

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