"Two-in-one" products generally mean there's a compromise. A desktop replacement laptop is great until you've lugged its weighty frame through five airports in two weeks, a road-trail motorcycle is fine until you hit a really snarly stretch of dirt, and a keyboard that becomes a mouse when you turn it upside down, well, lets not even go there. So when Toyota introduced its new Prado Landcruiser mid-size 4WD as a "best of both worlds" solution for both the highway and the rough stuff I was a little skeptical. But after taking on all types of terrain - including, open roads, tight forest trails and a formidable purpose built 4x4 track - I may just have been convinced otherwise. The vehicle's versatile performance owes particular thanks to a sophisticated new suspension system and electronics suite, and although there's no point pretending that it can be a sports coupe one minute and a monster truck the next, as a two-in-one auto solution the fourth-gen Prado comes very, very close.
What's new?Well, pretty much everything. From the outside the new Prado hasn't changed radically and retains a distinctly Toyota look. The height has been lowered by 15mm, it's 10mm wider and 80mm longer than its predecessor, the waistline is higher and the sleeker lines have resulted in an improved drag coefficient - 0.35Cd as opposed to 0.37Cd on the previous model.
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On the inside, the cabin is longer, wider and there's more legroom for third-row seat passengers. There's also keyless entry and push button start, a very handy 220V accessory socket in the rear and you no longer have to wrestle with a lever to shift into low range - it's been replaced by a simple dial control on the center of the dash. Another useful addition is the lockable gas strut on the side opening rear door, meaning no more getting slammed in the back when a gust of wind catches the open door.
Standard equipment across the range includes ABS with Brake Assist, stability control, uphill and downhill assist, seven air bags, LEDs on the door-mirror indicators and rear lamps, plus Bluetooth compatibility and USB connectivity.
High-end models have park assist, a rear diff-lock, 18-inch alloys, heated seats, rain sensing wipers, parking sensors and four cameras including a new forward facing camera with a 190 degree field of view which, when combined with the steering angle overlay on the dash mounted 4.2" touch-screen monitor, becomes invaluable when cresting steep hills off-road. The spare wheel cover (which houses the rear facing camera) is also now standard on all models.
The top of the line Kakadu which we drove boasts many useful extras and desirable trinkets like radar (adaptive) cruise control, height adjustable air suspension, a 14-speaker Pioneer Audio system - which has close to the best, warmest bass I've heard in an off the shelf unit - refrigerated coolbox and a rear-seat entertainment system with three wireless headphone sets.
Three-door model a firstThe Prado is now being offered in the 3-door format with Toyota expecting the smaller variant to account for about 10% of sales. Billed as "the perfect vehicle for a couple to travel Australia", the three-door has greater towing capacity (3000kg as opposed to 2500kg on other models), is 360kg lighter and given its shorter wheelbase, less rear overhang and a higher-ramp over angle, it can go into some very tight places that the longer models can't - as we found out in the test track. When just carrying two people, the rear can be transformed into a useful 1.43 square meter storage area.
Under the hoodThe engine choices for the range are a 4.0-litre dual VVT-i petrol and 3.0-liter turbocharged common-rail direct-injection diesel, both of which can be married to six speed manual or five speed sequential shift auto. The Prado makes more that 200kW for the first time with the V6 getting 13 percent more power - 202kW at 5600rpm and 381Nm of torque at 4400rpm.
Toyota quotes fuel economy figures of 8.5 liters per 100km for the turbo diesel 5-door married to the auto transmission (11.5 for the petrol variant). As you might expect from a smaller vehicle, the three-door turbo diesel does slightly better at 8.3 liters per 100km.
Equipped for serious off-roadingToyota backs its claim of serious off-road capabilities with a long list of available features designed to take much of the guesswork (and some purists might say skill) out of the equation.
A combination of traction control and ABS technology takes the name "Multi-terrain assist". This gives the driver a choice of four surface modes - Mud and sand, Loose Rock, Mogul and Rock - which are adjustable via steering wheel mounted controls. Mud and sand work in high range as well as low range while the other three are low range only.
Seeing where you are going is made easier with the Multi-terrain monitor - a system that links four cameras to an in-dash monitor with a choice of single and split views. The wide angle cameras are mounted front, rear and in the side mirror housing. Anyone who has ever felt the unnerving sensation of cresting and beginning the decent with nothing but blue sky visible through the windshield will appreciate both the front camera and the very clever steering angle overlay. This draws two boxes over the camera image on the screen which represent the wheel direction, meaning you can negotiate rocks and other obstacles that cant be seen from the driver's position as you creep down a steep slope
Crawl before you walkThis is where tech takes over - literally. Basically a low speed version of cruise control, CRAWL automatically controls the engine and brakes to maintain a constant speed and maximum traction over rough terrain. In practice this means that you can point the car at a nasty hill climb, tricky river crossing or hair-raising decent, slip the car into CRAWL mode and take your feet off the pedals. All the driver has to worry about is steering.
CRAWL has 5 speed options (up from 3 on the 200 series Landcruiser) controlled with a dial on the center console. And it works - more on that later. The only drawback is that it's only available on the top of the line 5-door and 3-door models.
Kinetic Dynamic SuspensionThe Kinetic Dynamic Suspension (KDSS) featured on the VX and Kakadu 5-door is also worth noting. An improved version of the system first featured in the Prado's larger cousin, the 200 series Landcruiser in 2007, KDSS is key to the vehicle's "best of both worlds" performance. It works through an electronic control unit which takes variables like speed, yaw rate, steering angle and acceleration and adjusts the suspension travel accordingly via hydraulic cylinders attached to the stabilizer bars front and rear. This translates to reduced roll and smoother cornering on road while still soaking up the bumps on the rough stuff.
Out on (and off) the roadGizmag test drove the Prado in Orange, a town around three hours drive west of Sydney, Australia. A fitting location given both the ready availability of tough terrain and the fact that Australia is now Toyota's second biggest export market for the Prado after China. The vehicle should also be well adapted to the terrain after the project's Chief engineer Makoto Arimoto and his team clocked 100,000 test kilometers in Australia, mostly on unsealed roads.
The first leg of our test was on the bitumen where the dynamic suspension system proved itself in smooth, flat cornering with minimal body roll. It's still a big, heavy vehicle with plenty of rubber for off-road adventures, so it's not razor sharp, but it's definitely solid through turns and in stark contrast to the older 4WD sitting in my garage at home.
Although the V6 has more poke, the torquey 3.0-liter turbocharged diesel (410Nm at 1600-2800rpm) delivered smooth acceleration all the way through the six-speed transmission. From a driver's perspective it's comfortable in terms of seat and steering wheel adjustment, visibility is good for a vehicle of this ilk, and cabin noise is very low.
But it was the off-road experience that we came for, and Toyota wasn't shy in ensuring the full-range of it's capabilities were on display.
Over a series of moguls, creek crossings and steep descents, the Prado didn't put a foot wrong, with the electronics package getting traction to the right wheels at the right time. The test track also showcased the advantage of the shorter 3-door with one section - a steep gully crossing with a tight turn thrown in - being off-limits to the 5-door models.
The CRAWL worked sensationally. The system does create a lot of noise as it creaks and groans over the bumps, but with the luxury of taking both feet off the pedals and simply steering, its easy to forgive that. The all-round camera system also comes into its own in these situations. The usefulness of the steering wheel overlay and front camera becomes obvious when there's large rocks to be avoided on a sharp downslope and the side mirror cameras help you squeeze through tight gaps. It's nice to know exactly what's around the vehicle and the system will certainly save on a few visits to the panel-beaters.
Changing camera views and the Multi-terrain assist mode is fairly intuitive, with easily accessible controls on the steering wheel. After a little practice there's no need to look at what you are doing, just glance at the screen dash to ensure you've got the right setting.
The side camera view is also handy on tight trails where there's heavy vegetation and large rocks on the side of the road - and that's where we headed next. Having already proved it could climb hills, the Prado did it again, this time longer on loose rock and clay surfaces. The suspension soaked up the bumps at higher speeds and traction was maintained nicely through trails, even where one side of the car was on a firmer surface and the other on loose gravel. The 220mm of ground clearance also meant the vehicle was untroubled on rocky surfaces.
A full day in the saddle of the new Prado has left me in no doubt that it's off-road prowess is way beyond the level the average buyer will require.... and it does it very comfortably. If anything, the worry is that it could get you too deep into difficult terrain and getting out might not be so easy. But really that's just common four-wheel driving sense, no amount of high-tech gear can ever replace the need for sensible preparation and both the skills and equipment for recovery.