2009 Toyota Land Cruiser - Click above for high-res image gallery

Once upon a time, if you were expecting company and they drove a Toyota Land Cruiser, you'd have Teva prints in your carpet and the smell of patchouli filling your house. Their refrigerator cheese selection probably included one with the word "Whiz" in it, and if things got too warm, your guests would unzip their Vatican pants at the knees and stuff the legs into their oversized shorts pockets. No more. With a starting price of $64,755, the 2009 Toyota Land Cruiser is a certifiable luxury proposition that only gets close to grime when tackling a grass-covered hill at the local little-league soccer field. Yet in spite of its juggernaut proportions and new personality, after a week in the 'Cruiser, it's obvious why Toyota's biggest SUV sells: it's a giant Camry that seats eight and eats volcanoes.


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Before we begin we should probably put the eigth generation Land Cruiser in context. With a price matching that of a Cayenne S (once you option the Porsche comparably), U.S.-spec Land Cruisers are usually bought by people who won't treat it like U.N. peacekeepers. In fact, much the same way as its upscale Lexus LX570 cousin, not only do Land Cruisers not get dirty, they often look brand-new years after they've been bought. That encourages some folks to call them out for being one of the chosen chariots of suburban moms, the kind who fill their 5,700-pound, eight-person earth-mover with nothing more than a purse and a bottle of water.



But that's the wrong way to look at it, because the U.S. 'Cruiser isn't about utility anymore. Oh, it remains obscenely spacious and monstrously capable, but utility isn't the bulls-eye it once was. Crazy as it might sound, it's better to think of the Land Cruiser as a Range Rover, or even a Ferrari or Bentley. It's a halo vehicle by Toyota's own admission, cashing in on the decades of unstoppable credibility it earned back when wealthy mothers wouldn't have anything to do with it. It even sells in halo vehicle numbers: there were 3,801 examples sold in 2008. That's roughly three months of Range Rover sales, and about 500 fewer units than Ferrari and Bentley's combined sales. And with that comes halo-car reasoning – anyone spending $65K on an SUV isn't doing so because he or she really needs it...



So what does a Land Cruiser buyer get for all that dosh? Off-road, they get a vehicle that strides through the wilderness as ably Mother Nature herself. The 'Cruiser remains a body-on-frame truck, and the frame has been bolstered with beefier, high-strength-steel longitudinal sections. Between the frame and the road are double wishbones with coil-overs up front, and a four-link coil-spring with a solid axle and Panhard rod out back. Suspension travel is 9.05 inches up front and 9.45 inches in the rear.



The real coup, though, is the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS). Two interconnected hydraulic control cylinders are located in the front and rear of the vehicle. They take their inputs from the vertical positions of the front and rear wheels, and they control the engagement of the stabilizer bar. When the Land Cruiser is on the road and the front and rear wheels are level, the pressure in both cylinders is equal and the stabilizer bar remains engaged in order to cut down on body roll. Off-road, on uneven terrain, when the pressure in the cylinders is unequal, the mechanical movement of the hydraulic pistons effectively unhooks the stabilizer bars, allowing more roll, but giving the wheels a chance to stay in touch with the Earth. As we experienced during the Land Cruiser versus H2 comparo last year, the system works a treat; with 27 inches of vertical rear-wheel articulation, when we had the H2 rocking on two wheels, the Land Cruiser just stuck its leg out a little further and found solid ground. It's basic and extremely effective.



Another basic but extremely effective off-road feature is the CRAWL control. Put the truck in low-range and select one of three speeds, and the 'Cruiser will make its way over the most unseemly obstacles by controlling engine speed and braking. No need to figure out which differential button to press, no worries about your feathering technique with accelerator and brake. The crawl mode even works in reverse at three different speeds. Yet for all its convenience – and we admit to using it a couple of times – if you enjoy off-roading, it really does kill the thrill. Successfully navigate a nasty stretch of impediments and all you can really congratulate yourself on is that you managed to keep breathing and stay alive, because otherwise you did absolutely nothing. Frankly, unless there's a risk of getting beached or going over a cliff, you don't even need to steer. The truck will find its way through. Admittedly, in other countries at least, that's exactly what a Land Cruiser is for: to get you through whatever stands between you and the goal. It does it now just as well, and much more simply, than ever.



On-the-road and coddled inside is where the 'Cruiser makes its case to the moneyed matron. It might as well be an immense Camry that's nicer to be in, albeit one that has a lot more features along with an "it's safer because it's bigger" feeling.

The engine, with 381 hp and 401 lb-ft, is massively overpowered for off-road duty. But we couldn't help thinking that on-road it wasn't going to be enough for a 16-foot-long vehicle with a gross weight rating of 7,275 pounds. We were wrong. The six-speed adaptive transmission is quick to downshift, after which the truck simply picks up and goes. It's a bit like sitting on the back of an elephant and wondering, "How fast could this behemoth possibly go?" Then when it takes off, running faster than you ever could, you think "Oh. Well. That's not bad."



The controls are cotton candy light. Toyota seems to have geared them on the chance that you had only one finger and one toe available to drive the vehicle. You could probably turn the steering wheel by blowing on it, but there is enough slack between it and the wheels turning that you wouldn't hurt yourself doing it. The accelerator, like the crawl mode, appears to have three settings: nothing; okay, we're moving; and go, go, go, go, go! There isn't much in the way of feel while driving, but again, Land Cruiser buyers aren't in the hunt for feeling. When they want to change lanes, they really only care about turning that round thing in front of them and then turning it slightly the other way when the task is accomplished. The 'Cruiser passes that test, and the KDSS keeps things admirably level while doing it.



The Land Cruiser is also pleasantly quiet. The A-pillar has been filled with foam to reduce wind noise. The bushings between the body and the frame have been redesigned to keep road noise and vibration in check. A molding between the windshield and hood keeps air flowing over the vehicle and away from the windshield wipers. When stationary, it is genuinely hard to tell if the engine is running without checking the tachometer. Even when moving, it will only make its presence known when you punch the gas. From the driver's seat, the only thing you'll is the 14-speaker, 605-watt JBL sound system and, perhaps, a bleating child roaming somewhere among the prairie-sized cabin.



Full Disclosure: Toyota's own Sequoia is actually bigger than the Land Cruiser, but the latter is still expansive enough that it should have its own Department of the Interior. Three rows of leather-wrapped seating fit inside, and there remains room for some soft-sided bags even with the third row in use. The first two rows are warm and welcoming; the third – while much better than some ill-thought-out offerings from other makers – is still no place to put your adult friends if you can help it. If they do get sent back there, however, they'll at least have an easier time making the trek because the second row slides forward four inches, and the passenger side has a one-touch tumble mechanism so you can get it out of the way quickly. And when you decide to stack luggage back there instead of your friends (as it should be), the seats fold up and flip away courtesy of another one-touch button.



Up front, the center console has a reduced button count because of the touchscreen, but don't let that fool you – it's mission control and you're the NASA engineer. The screen has excellent resolution and all-condition visibility – the rearview camera is like watching television -- and provides controls for the aforementioned sound system as well as the telephone, calendar, navigation, maintenance, HVAC, and entertainment system. Beneath that are push-button controls for the four-zone climate system, the effects of which will be issued from the 28 vents spread like buckshot throughout the cabin.



Nor will the Land Cruiser be left out when it comes to whipped cream conveniences and safety. It's got keyless go, a moonroof, HomeLink and heated, power front seats, and you can get a heated second row, back-seat entertainment, parking sensors, headlamp washers, and a towing convertor to power trailer lights among numerous other options. Then there are the 11 airbags, active headrests, three-point seatbelts for all eight positions, traction control, stability control, brake assist and electronic brake force distribution.



So, is it worth the $65,000 cover price plus options? With a vehicle like the Land Cruiser - specifically, this American-spec model - that isn't really the issue. But if the Porsche Cayenne is too flashy, the Mercedes GL too dainty, and the Lexus LX570 too... Lexus, then the Land Cruiser is probably hulking over your sweet spot. It's ability to haul anything anywhere and let you forget you're doing it is a fine feat, and there are other vehicles that charge more to do less. The question is: Do you want to buy a Kilimanjaro on wheels that comes with a built-in lair that seats eight? If so, the mountain has come to you. All you'll need now are henchmen...


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