I suspect Toyota's U.S. management team would be happy if Motor Trend -- and the other members of what it calls "the enthusiast media" -- would just quietly go away. Of course, they are way too PR savvy to say so out loud, but the distinct vibe you get these days at Toyota's U.S. headquarters in Torrance, California, is that automotive media brands such as Motor Trend are a pain in the ass that never give Toyota an even break, because Toyota doesn't build "enthusiasts' cars."
It's a curious perception, especially as in the past decade alone two Toyotas -- the 2004 Prius and 2007 Camry -- have been named the Motor Trend Car of the Year. Other COTY winners in the same period have included the Chrysler 300, Honda Civic, Ford Fusion, and Volkswagen Passat. Enthusiasts' cars? Hardly. But all of them are cars with a spark of passion and personality, a spark that's missing from too many Toyotas. Not all, however: A recent trip back to Australia gave me the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a big-hearted Toyota I love, in the landscape that made it a legend. The U.S.-spec 2014 Toyota Land Cruiser is shown below.
The Toyota Land Cruiser was first sold in Australia in the late 1950s, and built a reputation for toughness and reliability in a country where, outside of the coastal fringe, bitumen roads weren't that common. Back then, outback Australia was Land Rover country, but as the British car industry collapsed into chaos in the '70s and Land Rover suffered from quality and distribution problems, Toyota stepped into the breach. By the early 1990s, there were some months when Toyota 4x4s claimed 100 percent of the light truck market in the Northern Territory, Australia's most remote and least populated state. For context, imagine that every single 4x4 sold in Alaska last month was a Jeep.
The latest 200 Series Land Cruiser I picked up in Darwin, capital of the Northern Terrority and a city whose closest neighbors are Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, was a top-of-the-range Sahara. Unlike U.S.-market models, however, this 200 Series was powered by Toyota's first V-8 diesel, the 4.5-liter 1VD-FTV, which with twin turbochargers delivers 261 hp at 3400 rpm and 479 lb-ft of torque between 1600 and 2600 rpm.
With its wood and leather trim, a cool-box in the center console, and a 36.5-gallon fuel tank, the Sahara is the Rolls-Royce of the outback: quiet, comfortable, capable. One minute we'd be crawling in low range through 3 feet of water as we crossed a crocodile-infested river, and the next we'd be cruising at 70 mph, trailing a billowing cloud of red dust as we skimmed across the endless washboard roads. On the one bitumen road that runs almost 2000 miles south to Adelaide, the big Toyota breezed past the 176-ft-long triple-trailer road trains without breaking a sweat.
There are times when the Land Cruiser handles a bit like a water buffalo in a boghole -- the new Range Rover has much more precise steering and better body control. But on-road finesse is not why you buy a Land Cruiser. You buy one because in a country where the relentless pounding from outback roads will literally shake a Jeep to bits, where the next gas station could be 350 miles away, where a quarter inch of rain can turn talcum-powder dust into bottomless mud, a Land Cruiser will get you home.
My vehicle had come from Sydney to Darwin in convoy with a new Range Rover and a Mercedes-Benz GL via the Simpson Desert, a 2500-mile run that includes some of the outback's most isolated tracks. The Rangie blew both rear shocks, and the Benz developed a mysterious clunk in the front suspension. The Land Cruiser felt like it had just driven off the showroom floor. The Toyota prep guys in Darwin did little more than wash the worst of the dust off and hand me the keys. When I fired up that V-8 diesel for the first time, it was as if the big fella growled, "OK, where d'you want to go now?"
A whole continent beckoned.