It's April and we're finally just about through one of the worst winters in U.S. history. Our aging infrastructure wasn't in fantastic shape going into the polar vortex-cursed season but the thaw has made roads in Michigan look more akin to CNN war zone footage. Driving on the broken pavement is stressful. You spend most of your time meticulously scanning the roads, avoiding potholes and frost heaves. The experience makes you want to purchase a tank or a hovercraft for your daily commute.
In late February, I went to Washington, D.C. to visit my brother. He has a 2001 Toyota 4Runner with over 150,000 miles. The roads in DC are pretty poor but they didn't seem to bother the 4Runner. Stretches of pavement in back alleys that would have swallowed my wife's Mercedes-Benz E-Class wagon were no match for the Toyota. It just barreled over all with little care or concern.
In March, I traveled to the Bahamas and spent time in a 2014 Toyota Land Cruiser Prado. The Prado isn't available in the USA, but a posher version is sold at Lexus stores as the GX460. The 3.0-liter turbo diesel in the Toyota is slightly agricultural by modern oil-burning standards but engine fits the character of SUV and the big inline-4 offers an abundance of welcome, lazy torque. The Prado is a perfect size and tackled the ever-changing Caribbean roads brilliantly. It was also good for meandering down to the beach and exploring the lovely back trails.
These experiences got me thinking about Japanese, body-on-frame SUVs and their disappearance from the U.S. market. In the 1980s, vehicles like the Isuzu Trooper and Mitsubishi Montero were all the rage. They were boxy-cool and offered a ton of utility, combined with go-anywhere ability. Both the Montero and Trooper are long gone from the USA.
Suzuki was another player in this market, giving us quite a collection of SUVs. The Samurai was a classic, 1980s machine. Yes, it was a death trap but still classic. Then the Sidekick came along (and don't forget General Motors' version, the Geo Tracker). The Suzuki Grand Vitara was another. None of these vehicles were brilliant but they all offered decent to very good off-road ability, and they had character.
Then we have Nissan. The Pathfinder was an offering in the rugged SUV world. That too is dead, leaving the aging Xterra and especially geriatric Armada to carry the body-on-frame torch for the Japanese automaker. Sure, the Pathfinder is still a nameplate that's available at Nissan dealers but it's now pretty much like most other modern SUVs—it's a car-based crossover. So, it's basically a vehicle for minivan buyers who wouldn't be caught dead in a minivan.
To be fair, there is no doubt that the unibody crossover is the better choice for the majority of buyers. Still, I miss the rough and tumble, utilitarian character of an old school, body-on-frame SUV. The modern crossover tends to have a stiffer (but not generally stronger) chassis, usually resulting in better on-road handling. Crossovers also tend to be lighter, improving fuel economy. They're also easier to engineer to modern safety standards and a unibody chassis tends to be a superior setup for packaging.
Toyota seems to be the lone Japanese company fully sticking with the body-on-frame formula in the States. They still sell the legendary full-size Land Cruiser here, though sales are miniscule. Buyers likely aren't attracted to the Land Cruiser's $80,000 price tag and archaic third-row seat setup. Still, there is something very cool about the Land Cruiser, with its understated styling, legendary off-road talent, and reliability record. It offers much of the luxury of the Lexus LX570, but without the McMansion bling.
Another traditional SUV available at U.S. Toyota dealers is the Sequoia. It surely steals sales from the Land Cruiser, with its $65,000 price tag (comparatively equipped), same 5.7-liter V8, and three rows of seating. If you forgot about the Sequoia, don't worry. It's easy to overlook. The Sequoia is a dinosaur, with an interior full of cheap plastics. It's also no Land Cruiser in the rough stuff.
Speaking of rough stuff, Toyota also has the off-road ready FJ Cruiser (well, at least through the 2014 model year). It actually shares much of its underpinnings with the Land Cruiser Prado. I wasn't too keen on the FJ Cruiser when it launched in 2005 but its character and general funkiness has grown on me. That's usually not something you say about a modern Toyota.
Yet another body-on-frame Toyota is the 4Runner. Like the FJ Cruiser, it's related to the Land Cruiser Prado. The upcoming 2015 Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro -- shown at the Chicago Auto Show in February -- is especially interesting. The upgraded suspension (including Bilstein remote-reservoir shocks), 17-inch TRD wheels, and retro "TOYOTA" front grill badge are all nice touches.
I know the 4Runner isn't wonderful as far as ride and handling or interior packaging but it's still intriguing to me. It's also better than a tank or a hovercraft as far as ride and handling and interior packaging. I like how the 4Runner looks, despite the controversial 2014 facelift. It's also not too expensive. Sticking with the SR5 or Trail versions, you're below $37,000. If Toyota offers the TRD Pro model with 3rd row seats (available on the SR5 and Limited models) and full-time four-wheel drive (only presently fitted to the Limited), I think our roads in Michigan may warrant the 4Runner replacing our Benz wagon. I'd miss the Mercedes but the Mercedes wouldn't miss the potholes.