Toyota Landcruiser Prado: The off-road devil

Seven months back, in July 2009, I had put the monster Landcruiser through its paces in its natural surroundings. During the photo shoot, no matter how hard I tried to push the LC, it hit back with its amazing capabilities, asking for more every time. The vehicle turned out to be a huge attraction on the road, primarily due to its over generous proportions which also meant we had a small living room on the inside to comfortably laze in. My only grouse, apart from its boat like handling, was its astronomical price thanks to our ridiculously high import duties. So when Toyota sent us the new Prado, which at Rs 53 lakh (ex-showroom) is more than 1/3rd cheaper than its elder sibling, it seemed it had already won my heart even before I took it for a spin. Did it?

The Prado is generally seen as a fresher, modern and younger sibling to the LC. It is slightly smaller on the outside, though still bigger than most of the other offerings in this price bracket. True to its LC heritage, it carries a lot of muscle and flab all around, though it manages to look sleeker while still retaining its jaw dropping looks. We got one in pearl white with tinted, no black glasses that gave it a typical Arab look – enough to make people take notice of you and get out of the way in case you happen to appear in their rear view mirrors with headlamps flashing. The Prado rides on wide and chunky 285/60 section Dunlops mounted on 18-inch alloy wheels with generous wheel arches, another trait picked up from the LC. The big, pulled back headlamps look fresh with the twin-barrel effect while the huge grille with vertical chrome slots can make toddlers shriek. But all this seems to work for the ones looking for an ego massage on the go. There is no ‘beauty’ in this vehicle – its styling is imposed by the sheer weight of numbers. Even with such proportions, how Toyota has managed to give it a drag co-efficient of just 0.35Cd amazes me! A clever feature is the twin-split tail gate wherein the rear windscreen opens up like a hatch which helps put in small luggage and shopping bags without having to open the whole tail gate and blocking half a lane on the right.

Most Toyotas I have sat in seem to have interiors which are functional rather than outright luxurious. This theme is carried onto the Prado as well. The insides get the full leather treatment, though they look overly black, not a bad thing in my opinion. The layout of the fascia is pretty decent and may look outdated in comparison to the likes of the Merc ML or the Audi Q7, but then the Prado isn’t a luxu-cum-sporty SUV. In fact, the interiors remind you of the Discovery 3 at times. Ahem ahem. The insides are typical Toyota, offering a sense of well-crafted durability with nice touches all around. For starters, you have huge grab rails all around for ease of getting in. The seats are very comfortable and there are switches or knobs for every imaginable function. You can have individual climate controls for all the three rows, adjust the suspension, lock the differential, switch to 4L, heat your seats, switch off the stability control, et al. The vertical central console even with the array of switches doesn’t feel clattered though. The armrest also doubles up as the opener for the huge refrigerator. Both the front seats get electronic adjustment with memory for the driver’s seat. The second row offers a lot of legroom and the seats can be reclined for further comfort. The last row, best for children, has a very practical and well thought of feature – with a press of a button, the seats automatically fold down completely to give you a flat loading bay. Look around and you notice the AC220V plug charger – campers rejoice!

The Prado boasts of keyless entry cum ignition. The big start-stop button on the right does the honour of bringing the famed 3.0-litre oil burner to life. Noise insulation is very impressive. On the move, at moderate throttle inputs, the diesel drone is
well damped. During the car’s launch a couple of months back, a lot of people seemed to be unhappy with the engine offering. It might be the same unit doing duty on the smaller Fortuner, but this one gets an additional 20 percent or 67Nm of torque. The Prado was never meant to be an enthusiast’s SUV and truly it isn’t one. Weighing 185 kilos more than the Fortuner with the same amount of power, the Prado takes it own sweet time gathering pace, taking just over 13 seconds for the 0-100km/h dash. However, drive it without any expectations of winning traffic light GPs and it doesn’t disappoint. In fact, the five-speed auto ‘box works pretty well and the juicy low and midrange impressed us during city stints. Highway driving at around 120-130km/h leaves no reason to complain. However, don’t even think about getting into a race if you see a German rival closing in for the Prado gives up at an indicated 160km/h with the needle refusing to budge forward, no matter how hard you go down on the right pedal. The D-4D motor is quite efficient though, delivering 7.5kmpl in the city and 13kmpl on the highway – decent figures for a heavy SUV with an auto ‘box.

Pitching and body roll are a common theme for most off-roaders with such a huge clearance. With the Prado’s suspension setup, which is inclined more towards comfort, there is simply no point putting the huge SUV enthusiastically around corners. The rear instantly steps out and a whole lot of drama follows before you lift off the accelerator and give up. Even during high speed lane changing maneuvers, you always have to be careful with steering inputs. Shifting to the Sport mode does help, but you are always aware of the top heavy nature of this vehicle. The Prado comes with KDSS (Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System) that works through an electronic control unit which takes variables like speed, yaw rate, steering angle and acceleration. It then adjusts the suspension travel accordingly via hydraulic cylinders attached to the stabilizer bars in the front and rear. Though this is claimed to translate into reduced roll and smoother cornering on road, the fact is that the Prado sends shivers down your spine each time you attack the twisties enthusiastically. The double-wishbone front and multi-link (five point) rear suspension setup plus the vague and lazy steering however are tuned more towards eating up potholes, undulations and rough patches. Even at close to a ton, dropping two wheels off the road for overtaking doesn’t really shake up the Prado. In fact, the long travel suspension gives you the confidence for not slowing down for speed breakers as well.

For many (google the net for comments), the Prado might be a heavy, clumsy, truck like dinosaur that is excellent for towing airplanes but totally over engineered for the requirements of most owners. However, all this engineering seems to come into effect the moment you go off the road. Instantly, you are baffled, left amazed by its capabilities. Select 4L, raise the height and you are off. The proven body on frame (ladder chassis) construction proves its mettle during serious off-roading. It also proves as a platform for the heavily revised long travel, all-coil suspension arrangement. The diesel engine, which seems to run out of breath when pedal to metal, starts showing its brilliant torquey nature while going up steep rocky mountainsides. Though the adjustable suspension doesn’t really go up a lot in the high mode, the clearance is enough to go over big rocks and boulders. After an evening full of exploring untouched territory, it goes without saying that the Prado’s off-road prowess is way beyond the level that an average as well as an adventurous buyer will require. Toyota isn’t offering the multi-terrain select switch for the Indian model which would have further given the Prado immense potential to venture into the worst of road conditions.

The Prado comes with the usual bits like ABS, EBD (Electronic Brake Distribution), BA (Brake Assist), DAC (Downhill Assist Control), traction control, etc. Safety features include seven airbags with a knee airbag for the driver. For most, there may be better, read quicker, agile and modern options out there in the market. But look at it this way – the Prado is laden with features, is overly specced, has the right kind of image, is a legend and will run efficiently for decades with minimal problems and maximum reliability. Its image on the road, the kind of attention it gathers and its ability to take you across the Thar or the Himalayas is unparalleled. It seems to drive quite well too but don’t expect it to be a fast and able handler. The real appeal of SUVs like the Prado lies in their ability to perform as workhorses in the harshest of conditions, day in and day out with zero complaints. That is when the reality hits you – how big is the market for such vehicles here in India? No issues, the Prado will still find customers for its sheer size and image alone. Only if the sticker price was lighter by a few lakhs…

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