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Toyota Land Cruiser needs a full-size redesign to stay relevant

When we got to the snow tubing hill, the five tweens packed in back had a change of mind. Instead of cruising down the hill, they wanted to scale up the hill in the Toyota Land Cruiser.

The two adults were tempted too, despite the legal and ethical obstacles. Such is the temptation of driving a large SUV that rides like a truck and looks like a beast.

Delusions of conquest aside, the Land Cruiser is a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. For a tall, wide, ungainly vehicle that only fit in our garage if we remained inside to weigh it down, it's not that roomy inside. The 10-year-olds in the second row were crammed, and had they been family instead of friends their sense of personal space would have been violated. The two in the back seat didn't fare much better. The lack of roominess could be a problem for a family of six, say, on longer road trips or hauling the hockey team and gear around.

Despite its massive size, the LC is not an endangered species. The only thing endangering it is the competition. For more spacious family haulers that can trek off-road to the seasonal hunting grounds, GM's suite of full-size SUVs such as the GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Suburban are standard bearers. Add the Ford Expedition to the list, but it's overdue for a redesign.

The Land Cruiser feels more like a truck boxed in an SUV body. It's marketed upscale to distinguish it from the Sequoia (yes, Toyota is still making it), yet it's not in the same luxury class as the Cadillac Escalade, the Infiniti QX80, or the new Nissan Armada, which is nicer for the price of the QX80.

The only thing keeping the Land Cruiser chugging might be history. The 2017 celebrates its 60th anniversary of cruising in the States with no changes for Toyota's longest running model. The refreshed 2016 model accounted for its best year in sales since 2008, which was the last time it was redesigned, yet the 3,705 units sold was a fraction of the five-figure sales of most of the competition. The Yukon, Expedition, Suburban sold in the 50,000 range, even the aging Sequoia sold four times as much as the Land Cruiser, according to data from Goodcarbadcar.net.

While it has all the latest off-road assist systems, including downhill and hillstart assist, which maintain a speed to avoid rollbacks or quick drops, as well as low range crawling over the most rugged terrain, the jack-of-all-trades finds itself in no man's land. The LC is best as a hauler of things first, then a hauler of people. The 5.7-liter V-8 engine makes 401 pound-feet of torque, capable of towing 8,100 pounds. Toyota says 90 percent of the torque is available at just 2,200 rpm, which should make for smoother starts when yanking the trailer off the ramp, and the boat from the water, for example. The trailer towing package comes standard, and the eight-speed automatic transmission can be overridden into manual for steep descents.

Unfortunately we had nothing to haul except that secondary concern known as people. The LC is old-school in that regard. The third-row seats split in half, fold down, then can be flipped outward to lie flush against either wall. There have been many seating innovations since that was new. The second row is more versatile, with 40/20/40 split seats that can recline, slide forward and back and flip forward for easy entry to the rear. The seats must be in their deepest position to tumble and not hit the 11-inch entertainment screens mounted standard on the driver and passenger seat backs.

The old feel of the new Land Cruiser might be part of its appeal to loyalists; Land Cruisers are widely known to be one of the longest lasting vehicles on the market. That's as compelling a reason as any to keep the model alive.

Putting new features on this old dog is a trick that just doesn't add up. To stay relevant in the resurgent full-size SUV class, and to stay true to its truck-based conquering character and build off its long-lasting reputation, Toyota needs to climb that hill and redesign the LC.

rduffer@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @DufferRobert

2017 Toyota Land Cruiser at a glance

Vehicle type: Full-size SUV

Base price: $84,325

As tested: $84,325 (excluding $1,195 delivery)

Mpg: 13 city, 18 highway

Engine: 5.7-liter V-8

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Parting shot: The legend needs new life.

Correction: An earlier version listed the engine as a V-9, and 40/20/20 fold down seats. 

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