Only a handful of Americans will buy a 2018 Toyota Land Cruiser. But ask anyone who knows this vehicle and they’ll talk about it with the kind of mystical reverence usually reserved for reciting folklore. So I threw this $87,000 legend off its laurels and into a sand storm to see how much heat it could really take.

(Full disclosure: I’ve been trying to get my hands on a current Land Cruiser for years. After a lot of asks, Toyota finally threw me the keys to one for a week. I washed and refueled it before giving it back.)

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The Cruiser is historically a weak seller in the United States, where in modern times it’s only been sold in one ultra-lux gas-guzzling trim level. But in places like Africa and Australia, where hardcore off-road driving is a fact of life, the Toyota Land Cruiser is the gold standard of personal conveyance. In fact, it’s not just an SUV, but a whole range of SUVs.

International expedition guide Magnus Eriksson broke it down for me when I was working for him in the land down under: “You wanna go bush, you get a ’Cruisah. Can’t afford that, you get a Patrol. Can’t afford that, you get a Pajero.”

So who were Jeeps for? “Idiots.”

And Land Rovers? “Fancy idiots.”

I don’t think he’d ever heard of a Mercedes G-Class.

I don’t subscribe to Eriksson’s blanket dismissal of non-Toyotas, but I will say his opinion on the matter was pretty much gospel among the pro drivers I dealt with in my days as an off-road guide in Australia.

Since then I’ve driven a few iterations of the Land Cruiser, but this was my first time with the U.S. market version of the current generation 200-Series. And I had the perfect mission for it: take two couples from Hollywood to the Hell on Earth known as Death Valley for a casual weekend of camping where I could climb rocks and, with any luck, make my passengers squeal in terror. And also, you know, find out if the truck’s any good.

What is it?

The Toyota Land Cruiser is an iconic SUV considered by many to be the ultimate combination of off-road capability and cockpit luxury.

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Like many such machines, the Cruiser started life in the 1950s as a simple two-door farm buggy-looking thing that casual observers would call “a jeep”, but the most recognizable classic Cruiser is probably the FJ40 that started life in the early ’60s, known colloquially as the “Shorty Forty.”

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The Shorty design was sold worldwide for more than two decades, and today is one of the most sought-after classic cars there is.

But also like most other model names, the Land Cruiser has grown and grown and grown since its first generation. Today’s 200-Series Land Cruiser is a 5,815-pound behemoth built around a steel frame and, in the U.S., a 5.7-liter V8 rated at 381 horsepower and 401 lb-ft of torque.

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It’s old, too; this current 200 has been around since 2007, though it’s had updates here and there since. And a bit bland in the looks department. While it could easily be mistaken for any boring crossover, it isn’t one, and comes with a high price tag accordingly.

It’s no illusion– the airbox is the size of a dang watermelon.

An eight-speed automatic puts that power to all four wheels all the time, with a locking center differential and a low-range for when things get real hairy.

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The SUV measures just under 195 inches end-to-end and seats eight if people are willing to get cozy, four if they want to be comfortable.

The Cruiser is also rated to drive through more than two feet of standing water, but we barely found two inches of it in Death Valley. All we found was sand. Sand, more sand, and a few big swaths of salt.

Casual Driving

Plodding through an urban environment in the Land Cruiser feels a lot like doing so in any other modern SUV, with one markedly notable difference: the weight of the steering wheel is palpable.

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Guiding this mechanized mammoth into a parking space is work. Which, in my opinion, makes it satisfying. But the average person on a grocery run might not feel that way.

At a healthy canter on the highway, the Land Cruiser is smooth and comfortable—until it comes time to turn. Even the gentle corners on Highway 395 made the truck list a little beyond the comfort zone of my passengers, and exit ramps will have everybody scrambling for the ceiling grab handles.

And while nobody would expect a vehicle this square and heavy to get good gas mileage, but the Cruiser’s rate of consumption is borderline alarming. The EPA says you should expect 13 mpg in the city and 18 on the highway. But in town, the instantaneous economy gauge was usually hanging out in the single digits.

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After almost 800 miles of total driving, more than half of which were very gentle highway miles, my overall average was under 15 mpg. I told you it’s old-school

Aggressive Driving

The culmination of the Cruiser’s greatness basically boils down to this: there is really no way to drive it that feels aggressive. It doesn’t matter if you’re towering over city traffic or clawing your way up a rocky slope that would make mountain goats get sweaty. The Land Cruiser simply... proceeds.

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Death Valley is a National Park, which means you can’t go bushwhacking wherever you want like you can in on BLM land like Johnson Valley. But it is a rugged wasteland, so some of the mapped “roads” just turn into dry riverbeds and those are full of rocks of assorted sizes.

Even on road-bias tires, the Land Cruiser easily scaled and scurried over everything. I couldn’t even get the suggestion of wheel slip driving in the vehicle’s default mode, but I locked the differential and put the transmission in low range just to test it.

With the transfer case effectively multiplying the V8’s torque, the Cruiser straight up vaulted over obstacles instead of simply scaling them. The Off-Road Turn Assist, “which tightens the turning radius by applying slight brake pressure to the inside rear wheel” is so effective that I’m pretty sure you could do a maypole dance in this truck without having to shift to reverse.

When using Turn Assist or Toyota’s terrain-selectable CRAWL system, which is basically off-road cruise control, the Land Cruiser is unsettlingly loud with creeks and groans while it does its most impressive tricks. It’s all part of the show; the sounds are just the off-road systems at work. But the cacophony is really the only indication that the truck is under duress.

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I figured the Land Cruiser would be a good crawler, but I was genuinely blown away by the truck’s smoothness over rough stuff at speed. Toyota calls its independent double-wishbone front and four-link rear setup a Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System. I didn’t think much of this until I flogged the Cruiser over miles and miles of rocky, sandy terrain shaped like corrugated metal.

At 40 mph, the truck just glided without bottoming or topping out once. It might not be able to keep up with a Raptor or a Colorado ZR2, but we were blowing the doors off of pickups and Jeeps and FJ Cruisers on sandy rocky tracks with ease.

What stands out

The first night of our Death Valley trip, we posted up with two tents eight miles into Cottonwood Canyon Road. That’s one of those dirt tracks that turns into a dry river I mentioned earlier. We cracked some beers we’d kept cold in the Land Cruiser’s center console refrigerator, enjoyed a star field that gleamed like Christmas and made merriment.

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The second night, the wind wrought rage upon us like I’ve never experienced. One second we were hanging out eating chili, and the next we were being pummeled with air-propelled sand.

Anything weighing less than steel was hurled into the night and our tents shook like the inflatable tube men in front of a used car lot. My friend Ryan somehow fell asleep while his nylon house was being beaten and battered by the wind, but my fianceé Sydney and I elected to seek refuge in the Land Cruiser.

We watched our camping gear get ravaged through the truck’s LED low beams before making the call to get the hell out of there.

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Ryan and his partner Emma groggily helped us pack the Cruiser by tossing everything into its cargo hold while wind whipped sand onto the leather interior. I did one last sweep of the scene and we drove out of the backcountry toward the gas station at Stovepipe Wells.

The view from our campsite on Cottonwood Canyon, before the sand kicked up.

The further we got from the protection of the hills east of Tuki Mountain, the thicker the air became with sand. And once we hit wide open desert the Cruiser was swallowed in a total whiteout.

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With visibility down to about a car length and pebbles pelting the starboard side of the truck, the moderately sandy track was escalating to a deeply sandy one more quickly than we could drive to safety and pavement. It pretty much looked like the truck would be buried before it could punch out of the desert.

But you know what? The Land Cruiser never felt any different underneath me. Without dropping to low range, using the locker, or any of Toyota’s fancy traction assistance tech, the truck walked through the sandstorm as easily as if it was puttering around a parking lot.

I didn’t bother reassuring my friends of this at the time. I was having too much fun pretending we were in the best part of Dante’s Peak.

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Once we finally did make it to the relative safety of the Stovepipe Wells parking lot, I caught a few hours of shuteye while Sydney stayed up in the right seat and watched other people’s tents get torn apart by the storm. Emma and Ryan snoozed in the back, giving us the chance to test the Land Cruiser as a home for four.

It’s not ideal, if I’m honest.

While the rear seats are heated and able to recline, the vehicle had been so hastily packed that both back seats had to remain upright. And since the front seats were fitted with giant video monitors, the front seats had to stay in driving posture, too to keep from crushing the people in back.

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I woke up at about 3 a.m. and decided I’d had enough of butt soreness, stretched, powered the 5.7-liter V8 up and pointed the truck back toward Los Angeles.

This might be where I appreciated the Cruiser’s comfort most. On our long, slow sojourn across the desert that big and soft front seat was a fine spot to stay relaxed-yet-alert. I set the radar-assisted adaptive cruise control to 62 mph and tucked in for the 200 mile trek home.

What’s Weak

You don’t have to accuse me of overpacking. I’ll just admit it.

For the Land Cruiser’s size, I feel like it could make better use of its cargo space. Namely, in deleting the third row of seats. Or at least making them totally removable.

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The three (yes, three, not two) way-back seats fold up and onto the sides of the cargo area, but since they’re just as soft and stuffed as the others, they take up a massive amount of room.

Believe it or not, you could put eight people in this truck without too much misery, as long as a few of them were small or kids, but then you wouldn’t have room for more luggage than a few backpacks. And when are you going to be taking eight people someplace with a Land Cruiser and not have an epic haul of gear to go with them?

The size of the fuel tank is also a major problem. Toyota claims the Land Cruiser carries 24.6 gallons, which is a lot, but not if you get 15 mpg. According to the dashboard the max cruising range was about 270 miles in good conditions, which drops close to 200 if you’re off-roading, which is not nearly enough for an overland adventure vehicle.

Titus Canyon’s an easy but beautiful 4WD trail. You better like this picture because I had to run up a whole pile of rocks to get it.

Case in point: we left Stovepipe Wells with what I knew was enough gas to get to the last station we passed on our way in. But the GPS inexplicably took us home another route, which I didn’t realize in the middle of the night. Largely by luck, we made it to the waystation at Mojave with about three gallons left. I was sweating bullets over range and this wasn’t even a hardcore overland adventure, we were just a few hours away from LA.

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It’s also worth pointing out that unless you really like trucks, daily driving this thing is annoyingly hard work. Between the steering weight that I mentioned and the heavy swaying this thing does on exit ramps, it takes a lot of patience to drive a Land Cruiser and I’m not sure many luxury vehicle customers would want to put up with it.

Speaking of steering, my last qualm is with the helm itself. The wood piece at the top is horrible. It’s hard to hold, and when you do, the texture is gross. I would, honestly, probably put one of those dumb steering wheel wraps on this truck if I owned it.

Value

The Toyota Land Cruiser enjoys a reputation is being one of, if not the, most elite blends of cockroach-toughness and luxury. After driving it from the city to seriously inhospitable terrain and back, I can confirm that the legends are accurate. If you really want an unstoppable 4x4 that’s also extremely comfortable and reliable, this is the best execution of that idea.

Too bad you need nearly $90,000 to experience it.

Obviously the Land Cruiser isn’t cheap, but it’s amazingly not a bad deal when you look at the market. After hours of consideration, I’ve concluded that this vehicle really only has one rival: the Mercedes-Benz G-Class.

The 2018 G550 Benz has a little more juice, its 4.0-liter biturbo V8 makes a claimed 416 HP and 450 lb-ft of torque. But it weighs about the same at the Toyota, has no third-row seat option, and honestly I think the Toyota is more comfortable. The seats are bigger and softer, anyway. Which my American backside appreciates.

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The Mercedes is also $124,595, meaning you could buy that or the Land Cruiser and $35,000 worth of gasoline, tires and camping gear to go wherever you wanted. That hermetically sealing “doors the close like a bank vault effect” people are always praising the G-Class for is almost as strong in the Cruiser, too.

And let’s be real, if you’re crossing the African savannah or Australia’s Simpson Desert, which would you rather bet your life on: a big naturally aspirated Toyota engine that’s been around for a decade, or something with two turbochargers?

Verdict

The only thing holding the 2018 Toyota Land Cruiser back from being the ultimate adventure vehicle out of the box is its tiny gas tank. But you could rectify that with a swing-out rear cargo carrier holding two jerry cans. If I bought this thing, I’d remove the third row seat outright, move the spare tire to a rear bumper-mounted carrier, put auxiliary fuel storage where the spare was, mount hardcore all-terrain tires all around and drive off the edge of the map.

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You could turn a lot of cars, trucks and SUVs into great overland travel vehicles for less than $87,000. But if you have the money to burn, the Land Cruiser is simply the best machine for the mission.

If you’re in a rush to scroll to the comments, sorry, there were just too many nice photos not to share: