The '08 Land Cruiser has evolved a long way from the rugged FJ-40s of years gone by. Gone are the removable hardtop, solid axles, manual transmissions, and burly leaf-spring suspensions. In their place are the leather-lined interior, independent and coil-sprung suspension, monster V-8 power, computer-controlled transmissions, and technologically advanced traction control systems that process what every wheel is doing while on or off road and calculates a method to keep the vehicle moving in a safe, efficient way.
At first glance, the Land Cruiser doesn't reveal its off-road ability. It's missing the big aggressive tires of the Hummers and Wrangler, and while it has skidplates, it lacks the ground clearance that some competitors have. But don't let the looks fool you (or should we say bore you), because the Toyota quietly carries a big stick. That stick comes in the form of 401 lb-ft of torque under the hood from its 5.7L V-8. And more often than not, big power under the hood can allow judges to not only have fun in the high-speed, hillclimb, and sand sections, but also propel a 3-ton pig of an SUV through rocky trails and silty dirt washes.
And then there is the traction control. We loved it and we hated it, and we hated that we sometimes loved it. The Crawl mode, where you can choose different rates of forward motion while in low range, allows you to let your foot off the gas and the rig will claw its way forward, requiring just steering advice from the driver seat. If traction ceases, the brakes activate to eliminate wheelspin, and if flexibility is needed, sway bars are released to let tires droop at will. We have long been distrustful of any of these performance nannies, but we loved that we could turn it all off if desired, and yet when left on we hated to admit that it actually worked better than we wanted it to. Damn the machine that can work so good that drivers are almost unneeded, but kudos to the engineers that actually figured out how to make it work, and work well.
This declaration of the '08 Toyota Land Cruiser as our 2008 4x4 of the Year will no doubt bring cries of contempt from some readers. We didn't expect it to win so handily, but consider that other than the Jeep, the Land Cruiser has more history in the dirt than the rest of the field has. Though many anticipated one of the American 4x4s (Hummer/Jeep) to win, the Cruiser finally had a trait the others lacked and which American four-wheelers have long cherished-seriously fun V-8 power.