The concept of a luxury vehicle with serious off-road capability has always seemed a bit silly to me…Why would any well-heeled owner choose to soil his sumptuous and expensive machine by subjecting it to the rigours of bundu bashing?
Consider the new Toyota Land Cruiser Prado, which provides a level of opulence suitable to one of the market’s most aspirational nameplates. I wasn’t won over by the looks of the previous Prado, which had grown long in the tooth by the time its successor arrived for this week’s media launch at the West Coast, but this new one has chest hair, albeit a neatly trimmed tuft mostly obscured by a tightly-fitting Amos Longfellow shirt.
There is something refreshingly timeless about the squared off edges of the Prado, including the upright trapezoidal headlamps, chunky grille and robust well-arches. Even the rear light binnacles seem to have been stacked on top of one another like the Choice Assorted cookie tins one tends to see on sale at major supermarkets just before Christmas…
From behind the wheel, the driver has access to virtually all the modern conveniences of a luxury saloon, including electrically-adjustable leather seats and steering column (with memory functions), folding and heated side mirrors, swivelling headlamps with pop-out washers, front-, side- and reverse view cameras, a 14 speaker sound system, satellite navigation and keyless entry and start.
Heck, there is even a minder mirror to keep an eye on the sprogs on the second row of seats, the latter of which can slide forward to free up more legroom for the third row of passengers, recline or fold forward for extra loading space. The two-seater third row faces forward and electrically folds away into the floor at the push of a button – either on the inside of the C-pillar on the left side of the vehicle or at the entrance of the luggage bay.
Therefore, the Prado can either serve as a seven seater with negligible luggage room, a five-seater with a luggage cover, or a capacious panel van when you and your partner want to go away on a less-than-basic camping weekend.
Hmm, but before I create the impression that the Prado is a willing and otherwise demure MPV – a role it will arguably fulfil for the majority of its lifetime – let me stress that its Land Cruiser underpinnings aren’t just there for show.
The media launch of the Prado included a challenging off-road course at the Klein Tafelberg farm on the West Coast and provided seasoned off-road campaigners (my peers) and decidedly part-time off-road exponents (yours truly) an opportunity to see what the Prado can do off the beaten track. After all, the 4×4 fraternity isn’t known as the “Defender and Prado set” without reason.
In terms of on-road performance, both petrol and diesel versions of the Prado VX benefit from increased power outputs. The steering feel has been noticeably improved and even though I still find the low-speed ride a bit jerky, medium to high-speed stability and ride comfort levels are good and the brakes effective, if a trifle sharp.
Having said that, the Kinetic Dynamic Suspension and Multi-Terrain Select systems really come to the fore when Prado is put to task in variable conditions. Yes, the suspension adjustment buttons are frustratingly obscured by the steering wheel column and located low (just in front of the driver’s left knee). And, should one want to select different modes for the terrain select system, you need to scroll through a menu displayed on the instrument binnacle by using a toggle on the steering wheel (instead of a knob in the centre console).
However, the Crawl and downhill assist systems not only help to limit the chances of getting stuck and damage being done to vehicles in the harshest conditions, they also give off-road novices the opportunity to concentrate on their driving inputs and throttle control. Yes, I got stuck in deep sand with the Prado on three occasions (the first one was a real doozy!), but each time the fault was with my driving technique – not the vehicle.
On a demanding course which caught out several experienced drivers, I traversed sandy and rocky paths and inclines without too much drama (and a little verbal guidance from a former colleague). Steep inclines or descents? No problem, just take things easy… and the same goes for rock crawling, when it’s best to imagine the vehicle’s four wheels as your hands and knees and tackle each obstacle as one boulder or rut at a time. At the end, I finished the course at the wheel of a Prado with a smile etched on my face…
And that, to me, is the strongest attribute of the new Prado… Many will argue that it is unlikely that many of the Prado’s brethren will ever see as much off-road action as the Prados on the media launch did. But then that is somewhat beside the point. This new model must rate as one of the finest combinations of luxury vehicle and 4×4.
Many of its rivals pride themselves on their on-road sophistication and build quality (with a mere nod to occasional off-road capability), and others have plenty of off-road cred, but can’t back that up with build quality and/or on-road sophistication. Cheap it may not be, but the Prado VX is well-quipped, superbly built and moreover, eminently capable.
I really don’t see how anyone would ever want a bigger, more luxurious SUV unless to make a vulgar statement of their status in life…