What is the vehicle you're most likely to see in news clips from Middle-Eastern trouble spots or tales of discovery in darkest Africa? Probably a Toyota Land Cruiser, the 4x4 of choice for everyone from game warden to terrorist. It has become the world's universal off-roader, not least because it seemingly never goes wrong and is apparently unbreakable.
And now there's a new one. Before I continue, let me explain which Land Cruiser we are examining. Confusingly, there have been two strands to the breed since 1985, when this new car's ancestor arrived as the so-called Light Duty Series to supplement the yet more rugged Land Cruiser line that began in 1955 as Toyota's rival to the Land Rover. That earlier line is currently represented by a V8-engined behemoth, while the merely-large one under examination now is called D-4D.
So what's new? Most of it. The 3.0-litre, four cylinder engine is an evolution of the old one, and the basic architecture – a body attached to a strong, heavy, separate chassis frame by noise-insulating rubber mountings – is the same. So too is the suspension design, a heavy, solid axle at the rear, double wishbones at the front. However, the dampers are larger, the joints are more flexible and the top LC5 model has "active" anti-roll bars.
The body is a tall, seven-seater construction with impressive space, the expected driving position of high command and, from mid-range LC4 model upwards, automatic folding of the rearmost seat row by pushing a button. Scattered pieces of wood trim attempt to lift the ambience of the posher Land Cruisers but they sit ill with the machine's resolute air of functionality. That said, for the £44,795 asked for the LC5 you might expect some sweeteners, and these include an impressive sound and DVD system, leather trim and various devices to make the traversing of seemingly impenetrable terrain almost ridiculously easy.
Switches for such things and the screens with which to monitor them fill a very busy dashboard. Most of it is entirely unnecessary for the way most British owners of 4x4s use their vehicles, but if you're in the depths of Borneo you'd welcome them.
Put simply, the Land Cruiser matches all the selectable terrain-detecting technology of a Land Rover Discovery and adds more tricks of its own. At the heart is a permanent four-wheel drive system with a limited-slip centre differential to apportion outputs to front and rear axles. This can be locked solid if needed, as can the rear differential in the LC5. These functions, and the high and low ratio ranges, are selected by buttons ahead of the selector for the five-speed automatic transmission. You can also select (LC5 only, again) from Mud and Sand, Loose Rock, Rock and – yes – Mogul, which is a compromise setting. All allow different amounts of wheel slippage according to what is needed not to stop.
Then – in the LC5 – there's a new use for the active anti-roll system. Instead of the system resisting suspension compression for both wheels on the same side, as it does on-road when cornering, it does the opposite and allows maximum freedom of movement, and therefore optimum traction, by effectively disconnecting the anti-roll bars. And, again in the LC5, there's a "crawl mode" in which the Land Cruiser will pick its way along at a selected low speed, almost regardless of obstacles or gradients, with no need to touch brake or accelerator. And all the while you can see what's going on around and beneath on displays fed by all-round cameras and by sensors showing exactly where the front wheels are pointing. As an off-roader, the LC5 is completely brilliant.
And on the road? It feels big and reluctant to be hurried, but the steering is unexpectedly accurate, there's little sloppiness in the suspension and bumps are smothered effectively.
You wouldn't buy the Land Cruiser as a status-symbol 4x4, nor for regular road transport. But neither role is its purpose. It's a proper 4x4 intended for proper 4x4 things, and at those things it is superb. The LC5 is expensive, though. What I'd like to see is a lower-trim version with the LC5's extra off-road systems. Over to marketing, then.
Land Rover Discovery 3.0 TDV6 HSE: £47,695.
Dearer than LC5, more car-like on the road and luxurious inside. V6 engine is smooth and powerful, off-road ability among the best.
Nissan Pathfinder 2.5 dCi Tekna: £29,895.
LC-matching outputs from smaller engine, but pick-up truck roots show in poor refinement and a choppy ride. Good off-road.
Volkswagen Touareg 3.0 V6 TDI Altitude: £39,920.
Shares genes with Porsche Cayenne and Audi Q7. Capable on and off-road, looks good, feels good. New model coming.