Driven: Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series protoype

Our first taste of the new Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series came behind the wheel of a top secret prototype.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place

The Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series is the hottest property right now and we’ve been lucky enough to score some seat time in a top secret prototype.

Few cars have as much excitement swirling around them as the all-new LandCruiser 300-Series. After all, it’s been 14 years since a new Cruiser came along.

The opportunity to jump behind the wheel of one of the prototypes is clearly a very rare occasion, something made possible by the extensive engineering work done in Australia.

Australia was the first place a LandCruiser 300-Series prototype was tested.

As the senior manager of vehicle evaluation Paul Diamandis explains, “80 percent of the world’s on- and off-road conditions” are in Australia.

READ MORE: Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series pricing and specifications confirmed
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In what almost seems like a dig at some other off-roaders, he explains that LandCruiser drivers aren’t “hobby drivers”.

“They need such vehicles for their daily lives and work,” says Diamandis, a man who has helped hone many Toyota’s, especially of the off-road variety.

“We’ve gone to the most remote regions … an unprecedented amount of development,” was how he explained the six-year process to bring a new LandCruiser to market.

We arrived late on the scene, but well before the LandCruiser had officially been shown to the world.

For months we’ve been subject to a confidentiality agreement that meant we couldn’t tell anyone we’d even seen or driven it.

But that’s now lifted and we can give you a peek behind the top secret Toyota curtain.

LC300 takes on Australia

The new 300-Series first began testing in Australia in 2015. Eaverly prototypes used the body of a 200-Series but with new LC300 running gear underneath.

It’s an enormous responsibility, and one vehicle evaluation manager Ray Munday doesn’t take lightly.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series protype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
Early 300-Series protoypes used the body of a 200-Series but with the new stuff underneath, as explained by vehicle evaluation manager Ray Munday

“The LandCruiser is an integral part of the heritage and value of Toyota.”

As the development program evolved more complete cars were used, albeit with cladding and camouflage to keep cameras guessing.

Not that they had to. In the six years Toyota was driving the new model on Australian roads – from the country and desert to the tropics – no spy photos emerged.

Instead, all the leaks came from overseas.

Our exclusive experience came at the Australian Automotive Research Centre towards the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.

No phones, no cameras and no computers are the rules upon entry.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
New and old: The LandCruiser prototype in a nondescript shed that was the home base for testing of the new 300-Series

Once there, we’re directed to a shed that is as unassuming as they get; it could be housing hay or tractors on any farm between Melbourne and Darwin. But the other development vehicles buzzing around the proving ground are a reminder that there’s plenty going on under high security.

Meet the LC300 prototype beast

Our sole development car was a well-used black car still covered in cladding and with the Toyota logos stickered over.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
Australia tested more 300-Series protoypes than any other country

It also had three roof racks, a tow bar and a bulbar, some of the accessories many owners will throw at it.

We also had access to two 200-Series, including one matching the loaded-up spec of our 300.

As for the exact specification level of our 300, there are six to choose from on the new LandCruiser menu. But our car was an in-betweener: its leather and wood trim was representative of the new Sahara ZX but its mechanical package was closer to the equally-new GR Sport.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
Camouflage and cladding were added to protect the look of the 300-Series during development, but no spy shots were ever snapped in Australia

While it was largely representative of the cars due to appear in dealerships in November in terms of the way it drove, there was also tweaking and tuning to be done during the final throes of the development phase. It also hadn’t had a bath in a long time, was dripping in sensors and had some pre-production plastic finishes. Again, this car isn’t here to win best-on-ground, it’s here to help develop what is Toyota’s most important new model.

300-Series: Sizing up and slimming down

On first approach there are plenty of similarities, especially with size.

The new LandCruiser is almost identical dimensionally to the 200-Series it replaces.

The wheelbase is identical, at 2850mm and it’s the same 1980mm width.

The shape hasn’t changed radically, although every panel is new and the tail lights look quite different. Plus the headlights are slimmer and have been raised, in part to reduce the chances of damage off-road or in the even of a kangaroo strike.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
There’s not much size difference between the outgoing 200-Series (left) and the new 300-Series

And the 300 is actually 10mm shorter than the 200-Series, at 4980mm. Its 1950mm height is just 20mm shy of most 200-Series variants (the Sahara is 25mm lower).

But the big change with the 300-Series is aluminium panels.

The roof, doors, bonnet and front guards.

The only exterior panels that are made of steel is the rear three-quarter that wraps around the rear wheels and heads up to the roof.

The reason? Repairability.

Engineers spent a lot of time visiting LandCruiser owners to ask what they wanted from a new LandCruiser and one of the big things was not only making it reliable but ensuring owners could conduct repairs on the run. The reality is steel is easier to bend back into (vague) shape and can be welded, something farmers in particular felt was important.

Not that any would have likely opted for aluminium as the main choice of metal for the body.

But the pressure to reduce weight of the LandCruiser was huge.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
Aluminium panels for all but the rear-three-quarter help reduce weight by almost 200kg

After all, the previous GXL, VX and Sahara tipped the scales at 2740kg, something that meant they could only take 610kg of people and luggage.

For many outback adventurers that made them a lot less useful than their seating capacity might suggest.

Another thing done to reduce weight as slimming the tyres by 20mm to 265mm wide.

Plus, Toyota reduced the capacity of the twin fuel tank from 138 litres to 110litres; keep in mind that kerb weight figures for cars include a full tank of fuel.

The result is a car that weighs 2505kg in GXL guise and 2560kg as a VX and Sahara.

So, even with a lower GVM (gross vehicle mass) the LandCruiser can carry more; payloads are between 700kg and 810kg.

V8 to V6: Under the bonnet

Before they end up in driveways, on farms and traversing the country there’s a lot of concern about the downsizing of the engine.

It’s understandable. Reliability is everything and Australians have been brought up on an automotive diet of bigger-is-better.

Instead of the 200’s 4.5-litre twin-turbo V8 the 300 gets a new 3.3-litre V6 twin-turbo diesel.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
New V6 twin-turbo diesel gets a “hot V”, with turbos inside the V of the engine… more grunt, than the V8 it replaces, too: 227kW/700Nm

Plus, it’s a hot V design. The turbos sit within the V of the engine. As well as benefits in the space the engine takes under the bonnet it helps reduce the distance air has to travel from the turbos to the intake, potentially reducing lag.

The numbers are up from 200kW/650Nm in the V8 to 227Nm/700Nm in the V6.

With fewer kilos to shift it’s no surprise that the 300-Series is a heartier, gruntier machine.

There’s ample pull across the rev range. The V6 is thrusting hard from 1500rpm and typically shifts gears between 4000 and 4100rpm.

But it’s the new 10-speed auto that plays a big part in the performance equation, too.

On full throttle take-offs the engine drops 600-700rpm between each change, so it’s far more likely to be in its sweet spot.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
300-Series is designed to tow 3500kg

Gear shifts are smooth, too, quickly shifting through the ratios. And engineers assure us it drops into 10th gear by the time you’re doing 100km/h. So all 10 ratios will be in play across the country.

The performance equation also comes into its own for country cruising, too.

Part of our short-but-sweet proving ground experience involved a twisting uphill section at around 80km/h.

Whereas the 200-Series floats between 1800 and 2200rpm, the LC300 is more likely to lock its torque converter and keep the engine ticking over at a more relaxed 1600rpm.

As well as the weight reduction, that’s one reason fuel use has dropped about 6 percent, from 9.5 litres per 100km to 8.9L/100km.

The new V6 is also quicker to respond in off-road situations, the turbos come on quicker, ensuring useful torque is on tap earlier.

Tow machine steps up

No issues with towing, either. The LandCruiser’s 3500kg towing limit hasn’t changed, but obviously what’s doing the towing has.

We tried both a 200-Series and a 300-Series with a 3000kg trailer attached.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
A 3000kg trailer proved light work for the new LandCruiser

Both had little problem getting things up to 100km/h, but the extra grunt of the 300 and its ability to keep the engine in its torquey zone made it a lot easier.

However, after heavy work the engine likes to roar away while idling, the fan whir quite noticeably with an almost metallic sound. Our development car was noticeably noisier than the 200-Series sitting alongside it, although engineers suggested that was one area more work was likely to be done.

On-road: LandCruiser 300-Series

Like most off-roaders, most LandCruisers will spend most of their time on mostly smooth bitumen.

That is something not lost on Toyota engineers, which ranked on-road comfort and ease of driving as among the highest priorities for a car that already ticks plenty of off-road boxes.

Steering is markedly different to the 200-Series, mostly in its consistency. There are still hydraulics working to turn the wheels, but there’s an electric power steering system overlaying it to give Toyota the smarts for assisted steering as part of the lane keeping system.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
Dynamics have been stepped up with flatter handling and more consistent steering

Whereas the 200 has added weight on-centre, it loses that when you dial on some lock.

In the 300-Series it’s easier to flow through its arc, in turning making cruising more relaxed.

As before, the LandCruiser is among the quietest cars on the road. Excellent wind and tyre noise suppression set it up well for big comfy kays.

And while there’s still a live rear axle mated to an independent front-end, the LandCruiser is better planted.

While you’ll never forget there’s upwards of two-and-a-half tonnes to contend with, the new model contains that weight better.

Quick freeway-speed direction changes are more resolved and there’s less leaning.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
While it’s better to drive, the ride of the 300-Series is firmer than the 200 it replaces, at least in prototype guise

At city speeds, too, the steering is lighter, with that progression making manoeuvring easier.

But there are compromises, most notably with the way it deals with bumps.

The 300-Series has been stiffened in the suspension and it’s more likely to jiggle when it previously slurred. You feel more of what’s going on at ground level, even on bitumen.

That additional firmness is more noticeable in the middle row seat.

Fast gravel in the new LandCruiser

Our brief experience was limited to the AARC proving ground, so it was hardly an outback adventure.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
Big bumps and big hits are devoured by the new 300-Series

But it included some faster gravel – think 50-100km/h – with lumps, corrugations, mud holes and varying grip levels. All the sorts of things you’re likely to encounter on a station access road or on all manner of country and outback roads.

The 300-Series did plenty right, including devouring those corrugations and generally settling nicely over large hits.

But multiple big mid-corner bumps had the front-end bounding more than we’d expected.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
The new LandCruiser has been designed to cover big kilometres in supreme comfort

Toyota says there’s still fine tuning to be done, and it also wouldn’t have helped having a bulbar hanging off the front.

We look forward to seeing if that’s been improved when we get behind the wheel of the production-ready models in a couple of months.

Off-road: LandCruiser 300-Series

The 300-Series has an additional 10mm of ground clearance, for 235mm in total. And wheel articulation is claimed to be better than the model it steps in for, in part because of a more advanced KDSS (Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System) on those fitted with it; currently the GR Sport is the only model to get that tech.

The car we drove had both the KDSS and the triple locking differentials. It was armed for maximum attack.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
More clearance, better approach and departure angles and better wheel articulation promise better off-road prowess

None of which mattered when the tyres had filled with mud and the car was simply not progressing any further up a steep rutted hill.

To be fair, the only thing that would have got any car up there with similarly mud-filled tyres is speed. Attack it faster and you’d be a chance.

But given we didn’t need to we backed down and took another line, which the car did with ease.

It was difficult to gauge exactly how competent the 300-Series is going to be in challenging terrain, but it’s clear the DNA is there and it certainly hasn’t take a step backwards.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
Mud (and more mud) will eventually win out no matter how much traction and capability the car has

The numbers, too, tell a positive story.

For all but the Sahara ZX (which gets a different bumper) the approach angle is 32 degrees, 2 degrees up on the 200-Series. And the departure angle has improved by a whopping 5 degrees to 25 degrees, in part because the spare tyre is better tucked up underneath.

The engine, too, is nicely suited to some off-road challenges. Torque swells quicker than it does in the old V8 and the electronics are smarter and a heck of a lot quieter.

Remember all that graunching and electronic pulsing in a 200-Series when you were using the downhill assist or activating the traction control? It’s mostly gone, the new car now noticeably more relaxed in the way it figures things out. Smarter, too, with the traction control better at sniffing out any hint of traction.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place

All but the base model get the latest iteration of Toyota’s Multi-Terrain Select, which includes modes for Dirt, Sand, Mud, Deep Snow and Rock. There’s also an auto mode, which has a guesstimate at what way to best maintain progress. MTS not only takes in more parameters – now including steering, as well as throttle response – but can also now be used in high range. That’s a biggie for those looking to do sand driving that didn’t necessarily need low range but could have done with some tweaking of the electronics.

LC300 bits and pieces

Popping the bonnet reveals a busy engine bay – it’ll be trickier to add a second battery – and things have been shuffled around.

The air box, for example, is now on the other side, so it means anyone wanting a snorkel (it comes standard on the GX) will have it running up the passenger side of the car.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
A snorkel on a 300-Series will run up the passenger side of the car

The fuel tank is also smaller with an 80-litre main tank and 30L sub-tank. Whereas the sub-tank was previously hidden above the spare wheel at the rear of the car, it’s now been moved to forward of the rear axle on the driver’s side.

Blame that on American safety regulations, which stipulate the fuel tank must sit forward of the back axle. Given the 300-Series shares its underpinnings with the upcoming Tundra – the large pickup truck for the US – the basics had to be tailored to those regulations.

Inside the new Cruiser

It’s from the driver’s seat where the interior differences are most dramatic in the 300-Series.

New front seats have better lateral support and feel better suited to long drives.

There’s also no shortage of storage, with deep door pockets and a large centre console. Grab handles make for easy entry into what is a tall cabin.

The switchgear and dash layout is all new. A 9.0-inch touchscreen for the GX and GXL and a 12.3-inch screen for VX, Sahara, Sahara ZX and GR Sport sits very high on the dash, keeping it close to the driver’s line of sight.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
Front seats are much better for comfort and lateral support and there’s no shortage of storage

Ventilation toggle switches sit below that, which perhaps demonstrates the importance Toyota places on them for a proper off-roader like the LandCruiser then there are touch buttons for the sound system below that (we’d far prefer a dial for the volume!).

The prototype we drove was not representative of cars that people will be buying within months, instead draped in sensors, wiring and unfinished plastics.

In the middle row seat there’s ample knee room although the floor is still quite high; blame it on all that ladder frame strength beneath the floor.

No shortage of ventilation, with separate rear controls in the development mule we tested (expect them in upper grade versions). There were also air vents in the roof, which send air to the third row.

Speaking of the third row, it’s all change there. Instead of seats that fold up against the side, they now fold into the floor, making for a much neater luggage area.

However, whereas you could previously get an eight-seat LandCruiser (something available in the 80-Series, 100-Series and 200-Series) the maximum capacity for the 300-Series is seven.

As for the tailgate, even that’s come in for a change, even if not everyone will like it. Instead of the split design, where a smaller piece folded down to create a temporary table or seat, it’s now a single piece.

LandCruiser 300: In summary…

If you’re chasing something radically different and packed with tech compared with the 200-Series, then you may be disappointed.

The 300 is not that car. Instead, it wholeheartedly embraces the thinking behind the 200-Series and evolves it and improves on it.

Toyota also says it has improved the reliability and durability in line with those steps in capability and pace. In spending a day with the engineers it was clear that so much has done with reliability and longevity in mind.

Why no auto locking diffs, as per Range Rover? “Durability”, was what one engineer told us. Toyota looked at the tech and evaluated it but couldn’t get it to work reliably over its durability cycles.

Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place
Toyota LandCruiser 300-Series prototype at the Australian Automotive Research Centre, where much of the development work took place

Similarly, adjustable height air suspension was considered, but decided against due to issues about how it would hold up in LandCruiser country.

All of which suggests much of what Toyota wants us to love about the new LandCruiser won’t come to light until many kilometres have passed under those (skinnier) tyres.

That’s when the 300-Series will have truly earnt the reputation to wear the LandCruiser badge.

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If it's on four wheels, Toby Hagon has probably driven it. From the latest supercars to rock-hopping off-roaders (or anything in between!) he loves a road trip and works on the thinking that no road is too long or windy. The former National Motoring Editor at Fairfax these days runs his own show, contributing to Wheels, Which Car, News Corp, Qantas magazine and ABC Radio, and MotoFomo.