2018 Land Cruiser Prado: Refreshed, still doing it tough

Toyota's top-selling old-school off road-attuned wagon is coming back in favour with the people who understand it best.


PRADO'S Ponsonby tractor days are over - today it's regaining social acceptability with an owner base who understand that treating it right means working it hard.

School run street-clogging and Chic St socialising is increasingly something that the second-largest Land Cruiser is leaving to 'softer' sorts of sports utility.

In fact, show pony strength is almost a secondary consideration to today's customer, with Toyota New Zealand attesting that most buyers are instead rating the model primarily on the merits of its hardnut workhorse capabilities. 

An interest that reaffirms that heavy duty towing and serious bush bashing is still important to Kiwis is such that Prado is regaining sales, a remarkable state of affairs given that for some years the consumer shift to SUVs designed as road cars are - that is, with monocoque/ unitary chassis construction - has been so pronounced.

And yet, even though the Prado is one of the last of the old-school body-on-frame 'dinosaurs' still around, it is showing no sign of beoming extinct.

Seven hundred and 75 Prados sold this year is a comeback, being a big growth over 2016. It won’t stop there, with TNZ targeting 1000 units in 2018. It’s already topping its sub-sector, with a good lead over the next-strongest Ford Everest and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

“Our initial plan for this year was 670 (units) because we were in run-out coming to this new generation,” says TNZ general manager of sales Steve Prangnell.

“But we’re tracking toward 775. We reckon on a 30 percent increase over this in 2018 … because of the size of it (the market).”

Obviously, this being a period of unprecedented demand for SUVs and crossovers is helping; every kind of vehicle is this segment is reaping reward in a market condition that accounts for more 50 percent of all new cars sales and is predicted to deliver 51,000 registrations to date this year.

Toyota, unsurprisingly, is almost as comfortably established as the strongest seller here as it is as the country’s top new passenger vehicle brand. Its full SUV family – CH-R, RAV4, Highlander, Fortuner, Prado and Land Cruiser 200 Series – cumulatively achieve 16 percent of the national SUV volume and most individual models top their sectors. But TNZ wants more: A target of an 18 percent share will require it to place 10,000-plus SUVs into the market next year – that’s a quarter of the total Toyota car volume expected in 2017.

Still, Prado could have been doing it tough, given that it sits in a category which provides a bigger scale of choice than any other - no fewer than 110 different models across the full price span.

Yet, TNZ suggests, the reason why it stands above most rivals is because it stays true to delivering something a lot of the new-age models has eschewed: An ability to put in a honest day's toil in the worst conditions the country can throw at it.

This talent was really put to the test on the update model's media launch this week; with the lineup being thrown at the Oteake Conversation Zone, a vast section of impressively rumpled South Island high country between Omarama and St Bathans.

The video here tells the story of our trek through this tough, spectacular terrain; a journey that included an ascent of a peak that is just 152 metres lower than the height of Mt Taranaki.

This is hardly foreign territory to Prado. The MacKenzie and Waitaki districts and most of central Otago is a rich ownership area for Toyota’s fully off-road rated product, with farmers giving huge preference to the brand’s two utes – the Hilux and 70-Series Cruiser traydeck. They’re a common sight away from the tourist traffic-rich main highways.

Some of these people would be lifelong Toyota diehards. Others will be returnees to the faith who, having perhaps had a couple of Cruisers, have subsequently then gone to the car-like models … and been disappointed.

Prangnell and TNZ general manager of new product Spencer Morris are delighted to welcome back any customers, the majority being private buyers, who’ve learned the hard way that the Prado provides a superior route to getting those big toiling jobs done more honestly.

“There is certainly demand around that top end for Prado and Land Cruiser 200. The 200-Series model is the biggest-selling model in the big luxury sector.”

So, the old-school fare has dodged a bullet? Toyota NZ isn’t saying that. Regardless that Prado and its ilk are finding new favour here, and continue to be primary choices in Africa and the Middle East, their kind IS on borrowed time.

There's brand agreement that, sooner or later, these land giants will be felled by ever-tightening international emissions and economy regulations; inevitably vehicles of this size, weight and thirst just won’t be able to tick the clean air, low-economy boxes. At least, not in their current internal combustion engine-driven formats.

It’s this threat that, assuredly, has triggered Mitsubishi to white-flag the Pajero and Nissan to become very vague about another Patrol.

It might also be the reason why this generation of Prado – the fourth for NZ, the fifth since the nameplate was created - has remained in production for longer than any of the four generations that preceded it. The predecessors all had seven-year life cycles so, conceivably, this one should have been replaced in 2016.

If TNZ knows of a model cycle end date, they’re not telling. Insofar as they are concerned, the Prado, the 200 Series (and that rig’s Lexus LX470 offspring) are going to be around for some time yet. However, there’s also feeling that, at the very least, the Prado and 200 will morph into one vehicle.

But that’s the future. The question, in the here and now, is: How does Prado feel after this refit? Well, it’s only fair to applaud Toyota for not yet reaching the point where all development has stopped.

This generation of Prado was already rather less wobbly on its pins than its predecessors and though the primary emphasis of this 2018 model year refresh – the second during its model life – has not prioritised the dynamic elements, it does seem to be a bit more assured, neater on the turn-in and imbued with improved steering and braking feel.

All the same, it is never going to be a vehicle that emphasises the ‘sport’ part of SUV in respect to its on-seal demeanour. You’d be a fool to imagine it’s up to chasing down, let alone rounding up, an X5 or a Q7.

The 2.8-litre turbodiesel offers a handy 130kW and 450Nm, but is tuned mainly for low-down heft – with muscularity maxing from 1600 to 2400rpm - rather than high-rev pull (power peaks at 3400rpm). Also, Prado has not yet advanced beyond a six-speed auto and, of course, it has a lot of weight to haul.

So, with all these factors considered, unsurprisingly it’s no Ursan Bolt on the get-go while the highway pace is measured enough that, as we discovered when taking advantage of an overtaking lane en route back Queenstown, passing requires some forethought: It’s a biggy that when given its head, doesn’t instantaneously boogie. It continues to be a ship of the seal.

But it does seem to be quieter, offers good grip and, importantly, has now upgraded to meet modern expectations in respect to active safety.

While all three model grades – $79,490 GX, $88,990 VX and $99,990 VX Limited – deliver a 500kg boost in braked towing capacity (to 3000kg), a refreshed exterior and interior and an instrumentation upgrade, quite potentially of equal importance is the across-the-range implementation of a comprehensive suite of advanced safety measures that are increasingly being demanded by the world’s safety guardians.

Re-sculpturing the bonnet and front guards enhances downward visibility and makes it easier for the driver to locate the vehicle extremities, though that's almost happenstance. The primary reason for this change is to allow Prado to meet pedestrian impact regulations, a social responsibility that extends to all models now having a pre-collision safety system (PCS) previously restricted to the priciest edition.

Toyota’s determination to give Prado a better chance of avoiding accidents or, at least, mitigating their consequences means all models get autonomous emergency braking and pedestrian detection, active cruise control (ACC), lane departure alert and auto high beam. PCS and ACC across the board.

Setting up PCS to detect impact risks with pedestrians as well as vehicles means it provisions a camera behind the rear-view mirror and a radar in the grille. These monitors are enabled to give Prado the smarts to operate the brakes autonomously to reduce the vehicle's speed.

Lane departure alert monitors lane markings and helps prevent accidents and head-on collisions caused by a vehicle leaving its lane. If the vehicle starts to deviate from its lane without the indicators being used, the system alerts the driver with visual and audible warnings.

Further active safety upgrades see the VX and VX Limited gaining panoramic view monitor and multi-terrain monitor, blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert.
Automatic high beam can detect the headlights or taillights of vehicles ahead and automatically switch between high and low beams to avoid dazzling other drivers.

Beyond that, enhancements tick off pure practicality – with provision of a superior active centre differential – and comfort; VX buyers now access the ventilated front seats and cool box previously restricted to the flagship and the VX Limited uptakes a snazzy drive mode select and panoramic view monitor. The first offers five modes which, at the turn of a dial, can provide the driver with the ability to set their preferred powertrain, chassis and air-conditioning settings. The second enables the driver to select from front, rear and two side cameras to check vehicle blind spots and confirm their surroundings. It has a panoramic view that enables the driver to check for other vehicles at blind intersections.

The update also delivers styling changes, but nothing too major: A revised grille with broad vertical bars and slit-shaped cooling openings, flanked by restyled headlamps (Bi-LED on VX and VX Limited) with the main beams positioned inboard to avoid damage from obstacles when off-road driving. At the rear, there are new lamp clusters and a smaller garnish incorporated within the number-plate surround. 

Inside, there’s a redesigned dashboard, instrument binnacle and switchgear. The revised centre console incorporates a flush-surface air-conditioning control panel and has a low profile at the top for a sleeker appearance and improved forward visibility. 

All this is welcome, not just to newbies but aficionados who, let’s agree, would not be pleased if the extra comfort came at expense of its core ability. Assuredly, they has not happened. This remains one very tough nut.

Toyota NZ left its track selection to Tony Groome, a forestry industry advisor by profession but well-established as a top figure in Search and Rescue New Zealand and also highly respected as a professional off-roading instructor.

A lifelong love for getting out in the wild means this affable Feilding-ite has an incredible knowledge of what off-roading opportunity awaits the keen Kiwi explorer; he has also, as result of his adventures, established a huge network of contacts throughout the country.

This was invaluable for our own big day out; not only did we get to access a remarkable part of the country that any normal motorist would be utterly oblivious to but were also assisted – and very well fed with camp lunch – by the region’s local SAR people.

The Prado loved every minute, too. Toyota NZ’s senior people told me afterward they had not realised how tough the route was going to be; the dizzying initial climb and descent, the at times heavily rutted state of the tracks and also, the depth of some of the 28 water crossings, was a real eye-opener and there was some concern the model might be too heavily-tested.

As it happened, the Toyota simply took everything in its stride. We were fortunate, yes, that thunderstorms predicted for the day did not lay into the area until several hours after our passing. As it was, a couple of the crossings were already deeper than would normally be the case because of rain the night prior.

And this is the track in its ‘prime’ condition, remember. The route is closed for eight months of the year, due to snow – indeed, the last fall had come less than a fortnight before our drive. It was low-range all the way, often at no more than 20kmh, thumping and crashing all the way.

But none of the media-driven cars were flustered; the only issues arose with two of the support vehicles – a Hilux that became stuck in a rut, to be rescued by a Prado that later in the lost a tyre from a schist rock ripping the sidewall. The VXR Limited I drove was a sanctuary of luxury all the way; not one speck of dust or drop of stream water found its way into the cabin. No creaks or rattles, either.

All in all, it was a powerful reminder as to why Land Cruisers are so respected as top transport for taking on the world's most hostile conditions - and why it's a crime to shackle to them city-bound chic duty.