Avoidable Contact #59: What do we want? A Land Cruiser Prado! When do we want it? Already!

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Toyota Land Cruiser Prado Front Three-Quarter
Toyota GB

About 16 years ago I sat down for a very nice lunch at a very nice country club with a very nice friend of mine who had managed to become remarkably wealthy by his 30th birthday in much the same way that I had not. “You still buying and selling all those cars?” he inquired, idly. “Let me tell you about a car I’d like to own. The Nissan Skyline. I don’t need the GT-R version, the Godzilla. I just want a regular Skyline sedan. If I could get one of those here, I’d pay 50 or 60 grand for it, cash.”

“Like … the Japanese Domestic Market Skyline 350GT sedan?” I asked, quite innocently.

That,” he replied, motioning to me with his steak-laden fork, “is exactly the kind of thing I want. It’s just too bad the average fat American can’t wrap his head around that kind of car. Cause that’s what I want.”

“Then this is your lucky day!” I chirped in response. “The Skyline 350GT is now available at a dealership not five miles away from us!”

“Get out! What dealer is that? Some grey-market place that just opened?”

“Not at all! The dealership is called Infiniti Of Columbus. The car is called the Infiniti G35. I drove by this morning and there were, like, 50 of them. You see them on the road every day. There’s a $349/month lease plan running this month, 36,000 miles over 36 months, no money down—and like Curtis Mayfield said, you have a choice of colors!” My friend squinted at me in a way that let me know I’d significantly disappointed him.

“Well,” he snapped, “I don’t want anything like that.” And that was the end of our conversation for the day, irrespective of topic. I like to tell the story because it illustrates the American car enthusiast’s absolute conviction that the rest of the world has it better than we do when it comes to vehicle choice. The roots of this conviction can be traced back to the ’80s and ’90s, when U.S. emissions and crash regulations often prevented the entry of specialist vehicles while significantly restricting the choices available from European and Japanese automakers.

There were also plenty of cases where interesting vehicles didn’t make it here because there was no financial case to justify their import. Bringing a car here is tough. You have to crash a couple of them; you have to make the emissions work; and you have to make sure there is a plan in place to support their maintenance and repair for the entire defined warranty period. So, even if you think you can sell 500 Burgerkingring RS-GT1-Speciale variants of a particular car, you have to contend with the fact that someone in Montana might want to buy a new rear main seal for said vehicle eight years from now, and that person might be an attorney. (There is not a “10-year rule” regarding parts and service, as many people in and out of the auto industry often state. The law is that you have to maintain availability through the warranty period. Which is still a Herculean task when you consider just how spacious the United States can be.)

There’s still some great forbidden fruit in other countries, from first-generation Twingos to certain Ferraris to all the English race-cars-for-the-road from Caterham, Radical, et al. Nowadays, however, most of the good stuff comes over here—and it comes over here cheap. The United States leads most of the world in actual cost of ownership for automobiles. Our gas is cheap, taxes are low, and we are in possession of the world’s reserve currency and a money printer to go BRRRRRRRRRRRRR whenever we need it. This is about the only country in the world where regular middle-class working folks often find themselves able to stretch a bit for a Corvette or a 5-Series or an Alfa Milano. The role filled by the Corolla in most of the world is filled by the Camry here—and sometimes by the F-150. Trust me on this, I’ve been around the world and I, I, I … can’t find another country where automotive enthusiasm is so universally enjoyed.

Which is where the Land Cruiser Prado comes in. About 50 times a year—that’s not an exaggeration, it comes from me scanning my email archives—someone emails me complaining that “America doesn’t get the great off-roaders like the Defender and REAL Land Cruisers.” I have a stock response for these nice people, and 48 times out of 50 I just cut-and-paste it into my response. In this “copypasta” reply I explain that in most countries the Defender and Land Cruiser are used both for off-roading and traditional “truck work.” Here in the United States we have the Jeep Wrangler and a million “side-by-side” vehicles, all of which are generally more capable on the Rubicon Trails of the world than a stock Defender or Cruiser. For the “truck work,” we have the domestic half-ton, which has evolved over time to become just about the perfect vehicle for almost every task not involving a stopwatch or a San Francisco parking space.

That response, while true and accurate, doesn’t satisfy everyone. Many of the unsatisfied responses bring up the Land Cruiser Prado. If you don’t know what that is, here’s a brief lesson: Toyota has made a “standard” Land Cruiser for a long time. Sometimes it’s called the “Land Cruiser Amazon.” It’s kind of a universal truck, available with many different bodies. Here in the states, we get a very nice version of the Land Cruiser in station wagon form at both Lexus dealers, where it is called the LX570, and at Toyota dealers, where it is called the … Land Cruiser. No matter where you buy it, you will pay close to a hundred thousand dollars for this vehicle. It’s often described as “one of the two cars to need no advertising whatsoever.” (The other is whatever the current mid-engine Ferrari happens to be.) A lot of very wealthy people buy them and run them into the ground. You have to be wealthy to buy one, and you also have to be wealthy to keep it running; the friend in the story at the top of this page owned and operated a Land Cruiser for two decades and it was always eating expensive parts despite its general reputation for durability.

For the last 20 years or so, Toyota has sold a slightly smaller, and somewhat cheaper, Land Cruiser to many of its markets. That Land Cruiser is called the “Prado” and it is also available in many forms, including a fetching-looking but fairly impractical three-door short-wheelbase wagon variant with a “barn door” rear portal. When people tell me that they want a Land Cruiser in this country, they really mean a Prado. Most places in the world, the Prado has rubber floors and a four-cylinder diesel engine. It is very, very, very slow. Very slow. Not fast.

Why doesn’t Toyota sell the Prado here for the real off-road enthusiasts who don’t want to pay $100,000 for a Land Cruiser? A good question indeed. Here’s the answer: They do. It’s called the Lexus GX460, which is essentially identical to a Prado with one exception: you get to ditch the stinker diesel and enjoy a 301-horsepower V-8. It starts at $53,000.

“Well, I don’t want to pay that kind of money for a Prado with luxury goodies.” That’s fair, but here’s the problem: A diesel Prado in Europe without any of the Lexus goodies costs … uh … between $60,000 and $75,000 after currency adjustment. So not only will Toyota cheerfully sell you a Prado with a nice interior and a first-rate dealer service experience, it does it for less than the vinyl-seat diesels elsewhere.

There’s an exception of sorts. Toyota U.K. sells a short-wheelbase, stick-shift, steel-wheel, vinyl-floor Prado Commercial for 29,000 GBP plus VAT. Which is … hold on … $43,000, a full eight or nine grand less than the out-the-door price of a base GX460 at a moderately aggressive Lexus dealer. The equivalent Jeep Wrangler is $26,800, and you get more of everything. But there’s clearly a little bit of room to bring in absolutely base-equipment Prados with vinyl floors and whatnot. With an EPA-approved V-6, you’d be looking at $40K.

Which is a little more than what a base Toyota 4Runner costs. The 4Runner, which is less widely distributed around the globe than the Land Cruisers, is basically a Prado with a low roof, different styling, and a V-6. You get more truck for your money with a 4Runner than any Prado Commercial buyer out there. A lot of overseas buyers are openly envious of the GX460 and 4Runner. They feel that Toyota is spoiling the U.S. market, both with choice and in sticker price. The evidence supports this assertion.

There’s a bit of a fetish among Lexus GX460 owners lately; they buy Prado badges and “downgrade” their vehicles. Some enterprising fellows are arranging cross-continental trades of body parts, the same way that owners of the Pontiac GTO/Holden Monaro used to trade bumpers and grilles so the U.S. guys could have the real Australian look and the Aussie guys could have a Pontiac. So you might see a Prado on the streets of Seattle or Raleigh. It’s really a Lexus. Which is really a Prado. So that’s fair.

For 98 percent of automotive enthusiasts, whether they are track rats or off-road fiends, America truly is the promised land. Try to remember that when you’re lusting over that rare slice of forbidden fruit. Most of the time we either get it cheaper or get it better. And our domestic specialties are usually more than equal to the foreign competition. I’d love to own a TVR Cerbera—but a Dodge Viper is cheaper, faster, and more reliable. You get the idea. The grass really isn’t greener anywhere else.

Last month I had lunch with my old friend. He’s still a lot more successful than I am, although I remain a full four inches taller, at least. To my surprise, he was driving a very nicely-turned-out Lexus GS350.

“Well, this is a change,” I noted.

“Yeah, I got rid of the Cruiser. Still have a GX460 kicking around. Which is basically a Prado, just not a penalty box inside.”

“That’s true,” I affirmed. “And this Lexus …”

“Yeah, it’s like a Toyota Crown Aristo. Except they don’t call it the Crown anymore. Even in Japan, it’s the Lexus GS now. That’s the power of branding, I guess. Even the Japanese Domestic Market …”

“… has been,” I helpfully suggested, “domesticated for Americans.”

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