First Drive: Toyota LandCruiser 300 prototype

The 300 Series is just months away from hitting showrooms, but we were lucky enough to score a day behind the wheel of a prototype, months before the production cars were unmasked

Toyota LandCruiser 300 Series prototype

It would be a rare privilege for anyone to be among the first people outside of the manufacturer’s company to drive an all-new vehicle. But that’s just what a select group of Australian motoring journalists were when they gathered at the Australian Automotive Research Centre (AARC), near Anglesea in Victoria on a cold, wet day back in May.

Such is the importance of the Australian market to Japanese auto-giant Toyota when it comes to its four-wheel drive vehicles, that this small group of press were the first non-Toyota employees to drive one of its LandCruiser 300 Series prototypes. Rarefied ground indeed.

Toyota Australia engineers had been working on the 300 Series program for more than seven years up to this date, because back in Japan, they see Australia as the ‘Home of LandCruiser’ and the local terrain as the perfect ground for testing.

UPDATE, October 14 2021: The LC300 has now made its proper Australian debut, and you can read and watch our full first-drive review here.

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Before a spanner was turned to build a prototype, or a sketch drawn of what a new LandCruiser might look like, Toyota looked hard at what the new car needed to be. For this they went back to the customer and spoke to many existing LandCruiser owners in all parts of Australia to see why they owned a LandCruiser, how they used it, and what they might want from a new one.

“It’s all about the customer. What they do with it and where they drive it,” said TMCA Chief of Evaluation and testing, Ray Munday, as we gathered in a secretive shed that Toyota leases full-time at AARC.

What came from this research was that Australian LandCruiser owners wanted a diesel engine and they bought a Cruiser for its durability and comfort when driving over long distances.

The Chief Engineer for Land Cruiser, Takami Yokoo, said that when he participated in a ’round Australia durability drive of Toyota vehicles back in 2014, he found the 200 to be: “Much more tiring to drive than I expected. When driving on corrugated dirt roads or the seemingly endless Stuart Highway, you have to pay constant attention to how the car handles. It was my desire to resolve this that inspired manufacturing cars with the development team.”

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The 200 Series was the benchmark for the new Cruiser, and any new Cruiser should be as capable as the last one. The chief engineer also mentioned the 80 Series as a ‘guidepost’ when developing the new car. The 80 is still regarded by many long-time LandCruiser owners as being the best of the breed.

Feedback from owners revealed they were happy with the size of the 200 Series and, as such, the 300 remains very similar in overall dimension. This came in handy when building prototypes of the new vehicle, as they were able to adapt a 200 Series body to the 300 chassis and drivetrain with limited modifications.

Such test ‘mules’ have been running in Australia for the past seven years and, while most of that development driving was conducted on private properties and facilities such as the AARC, there were times when they were needed to be driven on public roads. Footage shows a 200-bodied prototype travelling in what appears to be the Victorian High Country, where the public are driving by totally oblivious to what was beneath the 200 skin. Other testing locations included Australian deserts and tropical regions.

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While Toyota has always had a few ‘favourite’ properties in Central Australia that it uses for R&D and testing, COVID-induced lockdowns and border closures made using them more difficult and pushed the engineers to find private properties they could use in rural Victoria.

A private test facility like the AARC is made for such classified testing and is used by many new-car manufacturers. On entry, you need to leave any phones, laptops or cameras at the gate and sign a non-disclosure agreement regarding anything you might see or drive within its grounds.

On this day, Toyota had the only 300 Series prototype in the country for us to drive, with a pair of 200s along for comparison. The prototype had shed most of its camouflage but was still covered in a matte-black vinyl wrap, so we were able to get a good look at what was to come. This was before the official images of the 300 were released; although, a litany of leaked images and spy photos left little to the imagination.

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A few things that were of immediate interest before we drove the car were the alloy bullbar fitted with a Warn winch. The winch-compatible bar was a prototype and we confirmed the 300 will be available with the winch option in the Toyota Genuine Accessories bar. Another popular accessory on LandCruisers is a tow bar, and the 300 has the tow bar wiring already integrated into its wiring harness.

Toyota developed its range of Genuine Accessories alongside the development of the 300 Series itself, to have the best integration of them on the vehicle. This is opposed to creating them after the car was finished and making them fit.

The other interesting thing was the tyres fitted to the car. They look small and, in fact, are smaller than those used on the 200. Toyota has chosen to reduce the size of the standard tyre on LandCruisers to a 265/65-R18. That’s down from a 285/60-18, which won’t be popular with owners looking to legally fit larger tyres on their 300. Toyota worked with tyre companies to develop tyres specifically suited to the 300.

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Inside the prototype 300, parts of the dash were missing and the rear passenger footwells were full of data-logging equipment hooked up to a multitude of sensors via a nest of cables. It was explained that such prototypes are some of the most valuable cars on the planet, not simply for the fact that so many of the parts on them are handmade and fitted, but also the data they have attained from the many thousands of kilometres of testing.

Obvious were the new dashboard with its huge 12-inch screen, the stubby gear shifter for the 10-speed transmission, and the dials and switchgear for the multi-terrain selector which are easier to access than they were in the 200.

After a rock toss to determine who would be the first person outside of Toyota to drive the 300, we paired up and were sent out to the facility’s many and varied tracks. I didn’t win the honour but was sure to team up with the winner, so I would be next in line at the first driver swap.

There were four driving exercises set up for us to trial: loops around the high speed test track (both towing and not towing); a winding road course; a gravel road course; and finally a steep off-road hill climb. We sampled these both as passenger and driver, and with the two 200s for comparison. One of the 200s was a bone-stock Sahara, while the other was fitted with a bullbar and roof rack – a bit more like the 300 prototype.

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Sitting behind the wheel of the 300, it instantly feels bigger than the previous car. Switching between the two and the feeling becomes more obvious; although, it’s not so much bigger but you do sit lower in the 300, which gives the feeling of more space. Being relatively tall I always drop the seat to its lowest position. In an LC200 that has my eye level in the top third of the windscreen, while in the 300 my eyeline is more centred on the screen. With more space around your head, the cabin feels bigger.

Siting in the second-row seats and the lower position is also apparent, but leg room is about the same in the 200 and 300 vehicles. The cargo area of this vehicle had stuff in there, but it was evident the third row now folds flat into the floor rather than up to the sides as it did in the 200. We were unable to have a closer look at it.

Pulling out on to the high-speed loop and the familiarity with the 200 dissipates as there’s no rumble of a V8 diesel engine, but a smoother and more subdued tone from the 700Nm/227kW 3.3-litre V6 diesel. It feels more sprightly than the V8 as it seamlessly shifts through the ratios in the 10-speed auto to reach our 120km/h speed limit. That feeling is reinforced without having actual data once we get into the 200 for the same laps.

What is also evident is the feeling of lightness in the 300. Toyota says that the new car is up to 200kg lighter than the 200, thanks to the use of aluminium panels and other weight-saving methods. Toyota also moved the engine back in the chassis and dropped it lower to lower the centre of gravity. The 300 felt more nimble, especially over the front axle which steered more directly and precise in a simulated emergency lane change as we headed down the track’s back straight.

This improved stability should make the 300 safer, more dynamic and easier to drive on the open road.

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Next up we hooked an enclosed trailer behind the 300 that we were told was loaded to weigh 3000kg. Pulling out on to the same road loop you could certainly feel the weight there as expected. The engine produces a more guttural roar under load now, and the transmission works wonders to keep the V6 diesel in its peak torque range.

We were limited to 80km/h with this load and the new Cruiser made easy work of the task. It pulled, steered and stopped with the prowess you would expect anything towing such a weight to.

Same trailer behind a 200 and the engine lets out its sweet V8 grumble as it takes on the load. You feel the transmission shifts more harshly, with a wider space between its six ratios compared to the 10-speed 300. It makes harder work of it and requires a heavier foot on the accelerator and more inputs on the steering wheel to keep it tracking straight and through the long bends. The 200’s V8 engine might have a more relaxed gait than the busier V6, but, overall, the 300 is more relaxing to drive than the older wagon.

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More relaxing is also how you would describe driving the 300 over rough and rutted roads when compared to the LC200. The new car retains the same coil-sprung independent front suspension (IFS) and coil live-axle rear end as the 200, but it is totally redesigned as fitted to the new TNGA chassis. Significantly, the trailing arms locating the rear axle are placed in a more parallel design in the new car, and this both helps control the movement of the rear end while also delivering more rear wheel travel when off-road.

The fresh suspension design is joined by a new version of the KDSS called E-KDSS. As the name suggests, it’s electronically controlled rather than the simple hydraulic KDSS system in the 200, and it can fully disconnect the front and rear sway bars to allow the individual wheel the most articulation when driving over large ruts and undulations. This helps keep the tyres in touch with the ground to improve traction.

The new chassis and suspension better controls the mass of the LC300 when travelling over both sealed and unsealed roads. It is no doubt helped by the reduced weight of the vehicle and the lower centre of mass, and the biggest difference is in the control of the rear end.

Yes, the rear will still step out over pot-holed and corrugated, low-friction surface roads, but not near as bad as a 200 does. Only the lighter unsprung weight of an independent suspension design would fix this, but that would restrict the articulation of the rear axle – and Toyota engineers wanted to improve this rather than compromise it. For this we should be thankful.

The improved levels of control and balance in the chassis make the LC300 easier to drive and more relaxed; as was Yokoo-san’s intention after his experiences driving in Australia.

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The off-road test was conducted on a hillside, where the marked course had us weaving up and down the slope. Unfortunately rain in the days before this had made the clay very slippery and limited the ability of the highway tyres fitted to the LandCruisers.

The engineers suggested we try out the hill descent control for the downhill. In the past, the Toyota HDC system had been noisy, jerky and off-putting, but the use of a larger accumulator in the system on the 300 has smoothed it out and made it bearable. It works well but is no replacement for good low range gearing and engine braking, both of which the LandCruiser has.

The turn-control system is also improved and we used that on the tight turn at the bottom of the hill. This system locks the inside rear wheel on tight turns to decrease the turn radius. It was helped here by the slippery surface.

A rutted hill climb is always the best test of a vehicle’s tractive ability and wheel travel, but the track deteriorated quickly as vehicles drove up it and broke through the crust, leaving a slippery slope underneath. The more cars that went up, and as the tyres clogged with mud, the worse it got, until it became impassable on the standard line.

But the 300 went up and showed its increased rear wheel travel and improved traction-control system worked very well. This car should be unstoppable with a decent set of tyres and its front and rear lockers engaged.

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The test of the 300 we got on this day was only a teaser and, as honoured as we were to be a part of it, we’re still left yearning for more and looking forward to getting some more wheel time in the 300 over many dusty kilometres.

With news since detailing the new LandCruiser’s expanded six-variant model range, starting from the $89,990 GX through to the $138,790 Sahara ZX, we can’t wait to put the full line-up through its paces later this year.


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