The year: 2000, Leisure Wheels issue 11
The car: Toyota Land Cruiser Prado GX SWB
The scenario: The arrival of the short-wheelbase Prado towards the end of 1999 has enabled Toyota to fill an important gap in its comprehensive 4×4 arsenal, entering a segment represented then by the ancient but iconic Land Rover Defender, somewhat wacky-looking Nissan Terrano II and long-in-the-tooth Mitsubishi Pajero.
Land Cruiser Prado: Comfortable, Versatile, Fun
Suddenly the class has come alive in recent weeks and months. Nissan updated its Terrano with more compelling styling and appointments, while a spectacularly new Pajero “shortie” has weighed in with the option of petrol and turbo diesel propulsion, with or without Mitsubishi’s sophisticated new five-speed auto.
Of course, the Toyota has much in its favour, not least of which is painstaking market research into what the customer really wants, and the clever addition of the “Land Cruiser” prefix to the Prado model name, cashing in on an image of unsurpassed quality, ruggedness and off-road indomitability. With imported Toyota prices continuing to soar, pressured no doubt by the rand-yen relationship, the short wheel-base version also opens up Prado ownership to a wider customer base.
Features and Equipment √√√√
In common with the other Prado stablemates the three-door SWB boasts permanent four-wheel drive and a self-engaging centre diff lock, along with a list of standard equipment that includes ABS brakes, twin airbags, air-conditioning , a front-loading CD player, remote central locking and – count them – no less than eight cup holders!
You also get features you have every right to expect at the price. These include height-adjustable steering, electrically powered and heated exterior mirrors, a remote fuel cap, leather-cladding for the shifter and steering wheel, an accessory power point, reclining and folding rear-seats in a 60/40 configuration, a transponder-type immobiliser system, side steps and alloy wheels.
But you could argue that more technology is on offer elsewhere for similar money. The Pajero offers a five-speed automatic, and one with flick-of-the-wrist fore and aft shifting, or the fully automatic option, while you can have a five-door Land Rover Discovery 2 with electronic traction control and the ingenious ACE anti-roll control system. Or you could save money and choose the Terrano II with a similar level of specification.
Climb into the cloth-upholstered driver’s seat of the GX and chances are that unless you are a most unusual example of the 4×4 species, you’ll feel completely at home. The Prado is like that, everything seems to be in just the right place and working with typical Japanese effortless and precision. The steering adjusts vertically, with an array of adjustments for the driver’s pew that includes lumbar support and squab height, ensuring a position that proved comfy and supportive during long hours of testing.
There’s also useful stash space for oddments upfront, a handy centre console box housing four cup-holders for front and second seat passengers, with additional drink holders in the rear. The second row of seats, with its one-third, two-thirds split, is intended for up to three passengers, although in reality the wheel-arch intrusions and sculpting of the squabs make it more appropriate for two adults only. Each has the choice of cup holders in the lid of the centre console box in front and in a handy recess on either side of the car, where odds and ends can be stowed. There are also useful door pockets up front, magazine pockets in the back of the front seats and elasticised compartments for maps or books in the tailgate. Luggage space is reasonably generous for a short-wheel base vehicle, with the spare wheel slung out of the way on the rear door. Unfortunately, there is no luggage cover.
Perhaps the only serious trade-off in the transformation from five to three doors, apart from the reduced cabin volume, is the heavy B-pillar that creates irritating and potentially dangerous blind spots.
Despite South Africa’s relatively poor diesel quality, the swing to oil burners continues with the SWB Prado only offered in the superb 3.0 turbo-diesel that’s already won so many fans in the LWB Prado. It boasts 92 kW at 3/600 r/min and 295 Nm at 2400 r/min, torque comparing more than favourably with the 3, 4 litre V6 petrol Prado’s 298 Nm at 3 600 r/min. A revelation is also that it is hardly less refined, pulling strongly from little more than tick-over speed and seldom needing to be revved anywhere near the 4 400 red line.
Measure the performance of diesel and petrol against the stopwatch and you’d discover that the diesel is notably slower, but it doesn’t feel that way, a light touch on the throttle sending the test car surging forward eagerly. Obviously there’s also the benefit of superior fuel economy, with Toyota’s research indicating that customers see the diesel as a more serious off-road choice, perhaps explaining why both are not offered with this body configuration.
Extracting maximum performance is an undemanding business. The controls, and particularly the clutch, are pleasantly light, although there’s a slight notchiness to the gear change. We suspect that many might prefer the four-speed auto, with autos and turbo diesels invariably proving a happy marriage. Initially, we were disappointed that the rear differential lock had been deleted from the equipment list, although the lower mass and greater wieldiness of the shortie largely made up for the omission. Besides, a centre differential lock automatically engages when low range is selected, the test vehicle going everywhere we pointed it without protest. A bonus was the diesel’s eagerness from low revs, enabling you to coax it over most obstacles at a little more than idle speed.
Ride and Handling √√√√
You don’t expect exalted ride standards from a 4×4, and particularly not a short wheelbase example, but the Prado does a convincing job of smoothing most rough going. Small bumps are effectively, although it feels quite knobbly on some surfaces, bordering on harshness at times. But compare it to its obvious challengers and it does just fine, thank you.
The compromise is probably just right when you consider it will spend more time in the urban jungle , where it rewards with light , nimble responses and agility that many full-sized 4×4’s can’t match. Power-assisted rack and pinion steering places the Toyota accurately, with a good compromise between road feel and bump insulation. And when you really step up the pace it begins to lose a little composure, squealing and spinning its wheels under acceleration in a reminder that it is still a relatively heavy 4×4 with a high centre of gravity, rather than a sporty sedan.
Should sudden deceleration be called for, the disc brakes and ABS does their job commendably. Off-road the Prado shows its Toyota heritage with good all-round ability, and generous rear axle articulation, enabling it to keep its wheels in touch with terra firma most of the time, guaranteeing continued traction and momentum.
Extensive time at the wheel of the SWB Prado recently has convinced us of the essential “rightness” of the package, the Toyota proving an eager and willing companion when commuting to the office, doing the grocery shopping, or taming a challenging mountain trail. It is comfy, versatile and fun to be with. But we’d love to see a rear diff lock fitted and those irritating B-pillar blind spots reduced.