Toyota's petrol Prado a serious off-roader

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The new Toyota Landcruiser Prado VX retains the brand's well-known off­-road capability, while improving its on­-road refinement. Photos: David Thomson

Petrol power is back on the menu for New Zealand's best-­selling and recently facelifted large SUV, the Toyota Landcruiser Prado. David Thomson has been putting it to the test on Otago roads and trails.

While others have looked to make their mark with ever softer large SUVs, Toyota's Landcruiser Prado has remained king of the sales charts by staying true to old­-fashioned 4WD values.

A midlife facelift of the current fourth­-generation Prado isn't about to change any of that, for while the facelift features styling tweaks inside and out and some new standard equipment items, the vehicle's core underpinnings remain almost unchanged.

The ''almost'' is included as an important qualifier, for at the same time as it has introduced the updated facelift model, Toyota New Zealand has taken the opportunity to include a petrol option in the Prado range for the first time since 2009.

The mid­spec VX is the only one of the three Prado variants to come with the petrol option, and its fairly hefty $94,780 tag is the same as Toyota's asking price for the VX diesel.

It was no surprise, then, that when Toyota dispatched the updated Prado south for assessment the company opted to supply the VX in V6 petrol version rather than the carry­over 3.0­-litre diesel.

Opting for the petrol provides substantially more power (202kW versus the diesel's 127kW), although the petrol's torque is both less (381Nm rather than 410Nm) and not produced in quantity until much higher in the rev range. Not surprisingly, economy takes a hit; the petrol manages an 11.5-­litre per 100km standard cycle return which is actually not bad for a petrol­-powered vehicle of this type, but well shy of the diesel's 8.5l/100km rating.

Whichever engine they opt for, buyers of the updated Prado are going to get a visually refreshed machine. A bold new five-­bar grille, prominently chromed, takes centre stage. The grille is flanked by heavily sculpted headlights that incorporate a quartet of small LED running lights in a strip running down each side of the grille. There are new light clusters at the rear too, along with new alloy wheels (with 265/60 R18 tyres in the case of the VX).

The cabin makeover provides new switchgear and instruments, including a prominent centre touchscreen that is the primary interface for the vehicle's multimedia systems. Access to the third row of seats is made easier by changes to the fold­forward mechanism for the middle row of seats.

This middle row, in turn, is mounted on rails to allow fore­-and-­aft adjustment for legroom.

The midlife upgrade also brings some boosts to standard equipment levels: like all other variants, the VX is now fitted with Trailer Sway Control, which deploys the Prado's stability systems to assist the driver if things start to go wrong when towing; it also picks up the four­-camera surround-view multi-­terrain monitoring system.

Other standard features on the VX include heated mirrors, rain­-sensing wipers, leather trim, power-­adjustable front seats, heated front and middle­-row seats, Bluetooth connectivity, cruise control, and tri­zone climate control. The test car was fitted with the optional satellite navigation package, which also substitutes a premium 14­speaker sound system for the VX's standard nine­ speaker set­up.

Drivesouth's past tests of Prado models have always included significant back-­country and off­-road motoring. This assessment continued that tradition with a trip from Dunedin across the Old Dunstan Road, and a return via some lesser-­known trails between the Maniototo and Strath Taieri.

Regardless of the terrain, there are some general areas in which the Prado stands tall: the cabin is spacious, well­ finished, and replete with handy storage bins and cubbies; the instrumentation is clear, and the key controls (including the Bluetooth interface) are instinctive to use; the new arrangements for the middle and rear seats also work a treat, and the press­-button release for the rear tailgate glass saves opening the heavy rear tailgate to load smaller items.

Driven at a moderate pace, the test car proved a comfortable highway cruiser; its Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) smoothed away surface imperfections nicely, both wind and road noise are well contained, and the engine impresses for its refinement when loafing along.

Steeper climbs reveal the limits of the engine, which needs to be worked quite hard to keep the 2.5­-tonne Prado powering along at a decent clip. The test vehicle also exhibited a tendency to load up at the front and understeer when pushed too hard into tighter highway bends, but the rear­end float that was characteristic of the pre-­facelift model has been tamed.

Thankfully the Prado's credentials as a seriously capable back­trail and offroad SUV remain undiminished.

The transition from on­road to off­road modes is simply accomplished, via the push of a button to lock the centre differential and, if need be, the twist of a dial to engage low ratio (the vehicle must be stopped, in neutral, for low ratio to engage).

The KDSS suspension system comes into its own when the going gets really tough, by decoupling the vehicle's anti­roll bars to increase suspension travel. The benefits of this are twofold: firstly, and most importantly, improved traction when traversing really rough or rutted surfaces; secondly, a greater level of comfort when doing so.

Having a forward-­view camera system and an on­screen graphic showing the angle of the front wheels was handy on the roughest sections of the test route, although to my mind there is still no substitute for a considered walk­through of any potentially nasty hazards, and using a reliable passenger as a guide if inch-­perfect placement of the wheels is vital.

The VX Prado is also equipped with hill descent control (another button­push to engage), though the full gamut of advanced driver aides for off­-roading are reserved for the VX Limited, which takes both crawl control and the multi-terrain select system (which optimises throttle, brake and suspension settings for specific surfaces).

Truth be known, though, if regular serious off­roading was on the cards, the most effective change one could make to the standard VX Prado would be to put it on a set of proper off­road tyres; the multi-terrain rubber fitted to the test car coped fine with my chosen route on a dry summer's day, but would have struggled over the same trail in slippery winter or spring conditions.

Oh, and even though it was interesting to drive the petrol, if I was buying, I would definitely go for the diesel.

Toyota's petrol Prado a serious off-roader
At a Glance

TOYOTA LANDCRUISER PRADO VX PETROL

Rating: Three and a-half stars

For: Off­road capability, on­road refinement, spacious cabin

Against: Heavy tailgate, thirst of petrol engine, pricey

Verdict: Steady as she goes for a rugged, reliable 4WD classic

SPECIFICATIONS

Price (as tested): $94,780

Engine: 4.0-­litre V6 VVTi petrol, max power 202kW@5600rpm, max torque 381Nm@4400rpm

Transmission: Five-­speed automatic, full­time four-­wheel drive with low ratio

Brakes and stability systems: ABS, DSC, EBD, HAC, DAC

Safety rating: Five-­star Euro NCAP

Wheels and tyres: Alloy wheels, 265/60 R18 tyres

Fuel and economy: Petrol, 11.5 litres per 100km on standard cycle

Dimensions: Length 4760mm, width 1885mm, height 1890mm