1998 Toyota Land Cruiser

By November 10, 1999
1998 Toyota Land Cruiser

Toyota's Land Cruiser has always been exceptionally solid and more competent off-road than most, but it has been left behind in the sudden popularity of full-size sport-utility vehicles–literally and figuratively.

Why is this? Well, Land Cruisers don't come cheap. You pay a premium price for standard full-time four-wheel drive, locking differentials, plentiful ground clearance, and meticulous construction.

But another key disparity between the Land Cruiser and domestic full-size entries like the Chevy Tahoe, GMC Yukon, and Ford Expedition has been power. The Cruiser's old 4.5-liter inline 6-cylinder engine was robust, but it lacked the grunt of the V8s offered by Ford and General Motors.

The premium price remains, but the power disparity has pretty much disappeared. Extensively redesigned for 1998, the Land Cruiser and its Lexus LX 470 fraternal twin are propelled by a new 4.7-liter V8 engine. That upgrade, plus extensive chassis revisions, make the Land Cruiser a much more useful all-around driver, and an even stronger performer in tough terrain.

Walkaround

It takes a keen eye to distinguish the new Land Cruiser from its predecessor. The shape is the same squarish two-box design, and Toyota hasn't seen any need to soften its edges. That's understandable, since Land Cruiser owners have been an exceptionally satisfied lot.

But there's a lot of change under the skin. An independent front suspension system has replaced the old solid axle and that's a plus in the ride and handling department. The chassis has been extensively reinforced; nine crossmembers are used in the ladder-type frame, compared to six for the previous edition.

One glance at this mobile trestle makes it clear that the Land Cruiser is designed to take a lot more punishment than most owners will ever dish out. The design of the front suspension shows that this vehicle can tread in very lumpy territory and the tender elements of that suspension are tucked above a massive skidplate. Ground clearance continues to be tops in class, and the suspension offers a bit more travel, which improves all-around ride quality, as well as performance in rocky or stump-strewn terrain.

It takes a little while to appreciate the chassis improvements, but you'll only need a couple of blocks to appreciate the difference in power. Loosely based on the Lexus GS/LS 400 4.0-liter V8, the new engine generates 230 horsepower, compared to 212 for the old straight 6; but its real advantage is torque–the low-end thrust that gets you moving when the light turns green, or when you're hauling something heavy.

And heavy is a word that describes the Land Cruiser, even when it's empty. The chassis improvements and bigger engine add up to a minimum curb weight of 4834 pounds. But with 320 pound-feet of torque–45 more than the 6-cylinder–the V8 lends a lot more urgency to forward progress. The time it takes to accelerate from 0-60 mph has been reduced to just under 10 seconds–an improvement of 2 seconds over the previous model.

This torque also increases the towing capacity to 6500 pounds; that's a hefty trailer, though the new Dodge Durango, Ford Expedition, and the GMC and Chevrolet Suburbans can pull even bigger loads.

Interior Features

Although its wheelbase is unchanged, the new Land Cruiser is 3.7 inches longer overall and almost a half-inch wider than its predecessor. That adds up to more room within. This is most apparent in the second row of seats, where legroom has been expanded by almost an inch. Full-size domestic competitors offer more leg and knee room in the second row, but we think most buyers will find the Land Cruiser's modest expansion enough to make the second seats habitable by adults.

The third-row seat–optional (for about $1500) in the Land Cruiser, standard in the LX 470–continues to be quite cramped, though it is suitable for children.

In addition to more room, the Land Cruiser looks more up to date inside, thanks to a contemporary dashboard design that closely resembles the one used in Toyota's smaller 4Runner. Control layout is typically Toyota–logically placed, well marked, and easy to use–and there's plenty of stowage for small stuff, including a glovebox capable of swallowing something bigger than a pair of gloves.

The seats, leather-clad in the Land Cruiser we tested, are firm, supportive, and nicely adjustable, and of course you get that commanding view of the road that sport-utility owners love so much. The only downside to the foregoing is the hood, which doesn't fall away much from the windshield to the front of the vehicle. Shorter drivers may find themselves doing a little neck-stretching to keep track of obstacles close to the front bumper. Being able to see the fenders is a benefit when picking your way along a narrow mountain trail, however.

Getting up to that commanding view entails a little more of a climb than it does in an Expedition or Chevy Tahoe. That's the price of real go-anywhere ground clearance–9.8 inches minimum–and we think the tradeoff is worth the small inconvenience.

As you'd expect of a vehicle in this price range, the Land Cruiser comes very well equipped–air conditioning, excellent audio, power everything–and interior materials are first-rate. The only major options are leather, a power moonroof, and a premium audio system. Our test vehicle had them all.

And as you'd expect of a Toyota, the Land Cruiser's assembly quality is beyond reproach.

Driving Impressions

Our first hands-on encounter with the new Land Cruiser occurred in the wilds of southern California's Anza-Borrego Desert, and included more trundling around in rocky off-road terrain than most folks are likely to do in a lifetime of ownership. We were also able to drive the new Cruiser back-to-back with its predecessor.

Two enduring impressions emerged.

First, this vehicle can keep going in territory that would stop its U.S. rivals cold. Although the independent front suspension led Toyota to drop the Cruiser's locking front differential, it clawed its way through deep sand and clambered over small boulders without hesitation.

When something did scrape, we were confident that all the vulnerable mechanical elements were well protected. And on one particularly steep, rutted uphill, the new Cruiser breezed up on its first run, while the old one required three attempts to get to the top.

The second impression is the difference the extra power makes, not only in basic acceleration, but–even more important–in passing performance. There's real grunt under the hood now, and quiet, high-tech grunt at that. Although Ford was first to introduce overhead-cam technology to truck engines, the Land Cruiser has the first truck V8 to offer the efficiency of four valves per cylinder. The result is a small increase in fuel efficiency, despite the larger displacement and higher output.

As for on-road dynamics, there's not much to choose between this Land Cruiser and its predecessor. We'd like a little more road feel in the steering, but basically what you get is the deliberate reactions that go with lots of mass and a high center of gravity. Though predictable, the Land Cruiser will never be a slalom champ, something that's also true of its rivals.

Ride quality, however, is distinctly more supple than it was in the previous Land Cruiser. Braking performance is excellent, and interior noise levels are lower.

Summary

The Land Cruiser continues to rank at the top of the full-size SUV class in terms of price, and at the bottom in terms of cargo space. The third seat option, in our opinion, isn't really very useful–there's more third-seat legroom in a midsize Dodge Durango. We'd pass on this option and use that space for cargo.

Nevertheless, few sport-utilities offer more off-road capability, and none offer higher all-around quality.

With its rock-ribbed chassis, improved ride, and–most important of all–impressive V8 power, the new Land Cruiser has become one of the most desirable vehicles in its class.

Yes, the price is premium. But so is the package.

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