ANZA BORREGO DESERT, Calif. -- We're trucking through rivers of sand in a wadi that winds through California's bleak Anza Borrego Desert, all tires scratching for traction on Toyota's go-anywhere SUV -- mighty Land Cruiser.
The hefty full-size SUV scores a generational upgrade for 2008 which brings a big boost in the engine compartment and an ingenious hydro-mechanical suspension system which improves performance on pavement as well as dirt -- or sand.
With a tall stance and boxy shape, it looks a lot like the previous iteration, but the 2008 Land Cruiser has been re-designed from its blunt-bumper prow to that clever clamshell tailgate.
It has a high-strength and super-rigid new frame structure, a larger and stronger but more efficient V8 engine tied to a new electronically controlled six-speed automatic transmission, extensive on-board safety equipment and high-tech vehicle control systems, plus a plush passenger compartment to accommodate seven on three tiers of seats with multiple zones for climate, comfort and road-time audio-video entertainment.
Our time spent behind the wheel of a redesigned Land Cruiser on California highways like the 78 through Ocotillo Wells plus off-road tests in the Borrego Sink, a state park devoted to four-wheeling trail blazers, easily demonstrates the improved agility and strength of Toyota's big wagon, which in previous issues was already recognized around the world as one of the toughest and most capable of all four-wheel-drive (4WD) sport-utility vehicles.
With its high stance, torque-heavy engine and a 4WD traction system capable of crossing the sands of a Kalahari Desert or mud mires of an outback Borneo swamp, Land Cruiser has always been able to carry you there and get you back in safety and good comfort.
It's the preferred vehicle we've observed scaling red-dirt hillocks on the Serengeti of Tanzania, dodging rhinos in the bush at Kruger National Park in South Africa and tracking Bengal tigers in the Ranthambore of India.
Now, though, this new generational design emerges with more power, more cabin space and more sophisticated components aboard, and a trek to Borrego's desert confirms that this newest Land Cruiser rendition amounts to everything its revered predecessors have been -- and a whole lot more.
As with past issues, the goal of Toyota engineers for designing the new Land Cruiser has remained consistent: "We would develop the world's best sport-utility vehicle," one of the designers confided. "It would be the largest, heaviest, best-equipped, most technically advanced and most luxurious Land Cruiser ever, but also deliver the highest level of off-road performance in the industry."
The result becomes, in a word, awesome.
Its classy external design enables Land Cruiser to stand out in a crowd of cars, not just from the tall stance but a visual character which looks strong and muscular. With slick lines and softly rolled edges, the overall shape seems vaguely akin to former versions, although specific changes streamline and modernize it.
The window-wrapped greenhouse is taller on 2008 editions, with compound headlamp clusters mounted on front corners and LED lamps applied at the tail.
And it's physically slightly larger -- by more than two inches in length, with those additional inches applied in the second tier of seats in the cabin to stretch the legroom for riders.
For an engine, Toyota turned to its big and powerful new truck -- Tundra -- to create a substantial boost in firepower.
The 5.7-liter aluminum V8 features dual independent VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence) and teams with a heavy-duty six-speed automatic transmission with sequential shift mode.
It produces 381 hp at 5600 rpm and trailer-hauling torque of 401 lb-ft at 3600 rpm.
When properly equipped, Land Cruiser earns a towing capacity of 8500 pounds.
Despite its strength, Land Cruiser's engine runs on 87-octane regular unleaded gasoline stowed in a 24.6-gallon fuel tank and shows EPA fuel economy figures up to 18 mpg for highway travel.
Every Land Cruiser stocks full-time 4WD equipment.
The chain-driven JF2A transfer case has a high-range mode for speed work on pavement and a low-range mode for slow-go crawling over rough terrain.
The high and low modes are controlled from a rotary dial located in the center stack of the dashboard.
A push-button switch locks the Torsen limited-slip locking center differential, which can vary the power to front and rear wheels. It normally channels 40 percent of the torque to the front wheels and 60 percent to the rear ones, although these proportions may change depending on the steering angle and slippage of the wheels.
Toyota maxes hardware for safety on Land Cruiser, with ten air bags aboard including curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above side windows for three rows, seat-mounted side air bags for outboard seats on the first two rows, even knee air bags for front riders.
Standard on every Land Cruiser is Toyota's Star Safety System, which includes an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and electronic brake assist (EBA), plus a vehicle stability control (VSC) device and four-wheel traction control, labeled active traction control (A-TRAC).
Also included is CRAWL Control, a tire pressure monitor system (TPMS) and intuitive parking assist.
CRAWL works with the transfer case set in low range regulating engine speed and output as well as brakes to send the vehicle forward or backward at a low speed. It incorporates downhill assist control (DAC), which aids in a steep descent without driver intervention.
Land Cruiser's redesigned cabin feels plush and luxurious, and multiple means to control noise and vibration result in a far more quiet and isolated compartment that's rare for a sport-ute.
The cabin layout sets a pair of bucket seats on the front row, a split folding bench on the second row, and split seats on the back row which fold sideways and stow on mounts to each side or may be removed.
There's a four-zone climate system aboard with 28 air vents, including individual climate controls for riders on the first two rows.
Land Cruiser for 2008 has more of everything aboard, but Toyota marks a new MSRP to $63,200.
Description: Full-size sport-utility vehicle
Trim designations: Land Cruiser
Wheelbase: 112.2 inches
Overall length: 194.9 inches
Engine size: DOHC 5.7-liter V8/VVT-i
Transmissions/speeds: Auto/6/Sequential Shift
Rear/front drive: 4WD/CRAWL/DAC
Steering: Power rack and pinion
Braking: Power 4-disc, ABS/EBD/EBA/VSC/A-TRAC/HAC
Air bags: 2 (front) Row 1, 4 (side) Row 1-2, 2 (knee) Row 1, 6 (side curtain) Row 1-2-3
Maximum GVWR: 7275 pounds
Maximum towing capacity: 8500 pounds
EPA mileage est. city/hwy:. 13/18 mpg
MSRP: $ 63,200