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Car reviews - Toyota - LandCruiser Prado - wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Impressive off-road ability, interior space and versatility, sophisticated safety features, decent fuel range
Room for improvement
Diesel lacks power and torque, increased weight, price

23 Nov 2009

THERE are few tests of a four-wheel drive’s rock-mashing might than a slippery, steep bush track, and Toyota picked every one it could find in NSW’s Central West on which to get journalists to drive its new Prado.

Yes the Prado shone - naturally - but the course chosen wasn’t the contrived, easy track sometimes hand-picked for such a 4WD launch. It was actually quite difficult and technical in places. Not quite the famous Rubicon Trail, sure, but refreshingly neither was it a couple of ditches dug in a flat paddock completed with bunting and hay bails.

So the Prado is good off-road, but who cares, you ask? About 44 per cent of Prado buyers care according to Toyota, which is far above the 10 to 15 per cent of genuine off-road use most manufacturers quote as being typical for 4WD wagon buyers.

That leaves 56 per cent, who might think low-range has something to do with eggs and probably care even less. What appeal does the new Prado hold for them?

Firstly, there’s the smooth new body. Even though the new Toyota SUV family look may be an acquired taste, it’s certainly not one the Australian buyer is gagging on. Last count had Toyota cleaning up on combined SUV sales and the new 150 Series isn’t pretty but it is devoid of the fussiness that some Japanese SUVs can suffer from. Except perhaps the toothy grille, which looks ready to burst out of the bonnet.

Getting in requires a bit of a climb up but the side steps standard on all but the GX help you with an easy leg up into the cabin. The driver of any number of recent Toyotas will feel right at home behind the wheel of the Prado, with the reassuring placement of controls and instruments just where you can see and use them.

There are no menu control wheels or voice-activated gizmos here - just lots of big buttons whose functions are mostly plastered in capital letters across them.

Quality is impressive in the Prado, with most of the furnishing feeling like Toyota didn’t dig out of the bargain bin for the interior trim and it’s all well put together.

The Prado is easy enough to see out of to the front and sides for a reasonably big truck with ample side mirrors and a short-ish bonnet, but you’ll need the reversing camera standard on all but the GX when backing up.

Seats are comfortable up front with a flat, sufficiently firm cushion and reasonable side support on the seatback. The second row is cavernous with the seat slide set back and while a little flat in the cushion it’ll accommodate three adults in a fair degree of comfort.

Whoever picks the short straw and gets the centre position will at least have some give in the seat cushion rather than the ironing board-firm seat of many such seats and have only a small transmission tunnel to contend with.

Third-row access is via the tilt/slide kerbside 40 percent-split seat and while you marvel at the ease with which the seat operates you’ll be wondering how many adults will actually use the third row as you squeeze though the aperture. The three-door model is not any easier to get into the back seat, but at least there is plenty of room once in there.

The five-seater’s third row is a clever fold-out design that still has adults sitting knees-up but at least you can slide the second row forward to allow a compromise on knee room.

With the third row folded into the floor the cargo area is a flat, squared-off area that has four tie-down points and on the right-side cargo floor a useful three-pin 100w/220V power socket. The second row firstly folds the seatbacks forwards to present a flat loading floor and then the back and base flips forward.

While the Toyota press release says the new strut-assisted side-swinging tailgate can be locked in any position, repeated attempts to do so and finally a consultation with the owner’s manual confirmed the suspicion that the door needs to be fully open to lock. That's not always easy when parked against a wall or in a row of tightly packed parked cars.

The 3.0-litre turbo-diesel is a relatively smooth unit and that doesn’t clatter as much as some diesels yet it’s becoming obvious that aside from a pretty good slow-speed response (once on boost, that is - it can be painfully slow off the mark) the diesel is lacking the numbers that other recent diesels have to give you confidence when overtaking or make it a relaxed hill-climber.

The five-speed auto is a little less than smooth in its first to second gearshift, and the Sport mode doesn’t seem much different in the way it picks up gears than when left in ‘D’. There is also a tendency for the auto to lock up the torque converter early and at about 80km/h at around 1600rpm a slight resonance sets in.

Despite the bigger numbers on the outputs sheet, the 4.0-litre V6 doesn’t feel much quicker than the engine it replaces. Still, it is a fairly smooth engine that teams well with its five-speed auto.

The Prado has light and fairly direct steering but like all of its ilk you can’t have expectations of tactile communicative steering. Or much handling prowess, for that matter, because although it’s not objectionable the Prado does also highlight that ride quality tends to be much better with an independent rear suspension design.

The Prado’s live axle also causes some sideways shuffling over corrugations and this is exaggerated in the shorter-wheelbase three-door model, which actually doesn’t pitch as much as you’d expect it to.

The Prado makes more sense when you go back to the beaten track to test its newfound increased off-roading skills.

To fully appreciate Toyota’s CRAWL low-speed, off-road ‘cruise control’ you have to be bumping along a boulder-strewn track. For the uninitiated, when CRAWL is engaged it sounds and feels a bit like a heavy door badly in need of oiling, but this is simply the anti-lock brake system being activated in rapid succession to ensure the speed remains as set and that traction is not lost. It’s the new technology version of the hand throttle and locking diffs, and it works.

The amazing thing about this is even if you’re an ‘expert’ four-wheel driver, you can appreciate the system’s ability to pick a constant speed and hold it while also maximising traction - the extent to which is impossible with manual application of throttle and activation of traction control.

You’re simply being bounced around too much to be able to hold the throttle openings you want. The only thing with CRAWL is when you decide to stop and apply the brake you get feedback from the brake pedal and it’s impossible to avoid a jerking stop. Better to disengage the system first, then apply brakes, it seems.

Driving back to Sydney in the Prado in climate-controlled comfort - while it was 42 degrees outside - after a day of playing in the bush around Orange, it became clear that the Prado is becoming a jack of all trades, in that it is now quite a masterful off-roader - in its technical ability, at least - and it’s easy and comfortable to drive on the road, too.

Its diesel engine is not what it could be, but in other respects, such as the roomy and versatile interior and off-road competence, the Prado 150 Series is an assertive step forward over its dominant predecessor.

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