BIG SKY, MT – It’s a pity most people buying the new ’08 Toyota Land Cruiser won’t ever fully experience all it can do, because, underneath its sedate sheet metal, is an impressive machine, packed with new technologies and powered by Toyota Motor Corp.’s grunting 5.7L V-8.

The auto maker says it has data showing some 36.5% of Land Cruiser owners take their vehicles off-road. However, insiders can’t quantify how many go off-road often or what exactly constitutes “off-roading.”

“That might include getting to their fancy cabin that’s on a dirt road,” notes Toyota SUV marketing manager Brian Smith.

Journalists here in this ski resort town got to experience off-roading at its most extreme, negotiating deep moguls and plowing down a mountain covered in loose rock that at its peak is just over 11,000 ft. (3,353 m) above sea level.

The latter maneuver was done with the aide of Toyota’s new CRAWL system, which is a driver-activated, low-speed form of cruise control.

With three settings: low (about 1 mph [2 km/h]), medium (about 2 mph [3 km/h]) and high (a little more than 3 mph [5 km/h]), CRAWL requires the driver to take his foot off the pedals and just steer.

Hardcore off-roaders probably will turn their nose up at the Big Brother technology. But for the (mostly) off-roading novices here, the cool CRAWL system is a welcome feature as we hang on for dear life inside a dusty, weary Land Cruiser.

Unlike a similar system available on the Land Cruiser’s nearest competitor, Land Rover’s Range Rover, CRAWL is usable on inclines and declines. Range Rover’s Hill Descent Control system doesn’t help on the way up.

The ’08 Land Cruiser rides on a modified, fully boxed version of the Tundra pickup’s frame.

It also shares Tundra’s largest engine, a 5.7L V-8 that generates 381 hp and 401 lb.-ft. (544 Nm) of torque, and its most advanced transmission, a 6-speed automatic.

It’s a winning combination in the Land Cruiser, with the throttle tip-in more aggressive than what the Tundra exhibited in test drives a year ago.

A minor complaint is a slight lack of torque in the low range, which could be more noticeable to those towing boats or campers (the new Land Cruiser’s tow rating is 8,500 lbs. [3,856 kg] up from 6,500 lbs. [2,948 kg] for the outgoing model).

Brake feel is firm and not too grabby, while steering is nicely weighted.

’08 Toyota Land Cruiser
Vehicle type Front-engine, 4-wheel drive 4-door SUV
Engine 5.7L DOHC V-8 with aluminum heads, block
Power (SAE net) 381 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Torque 401 lb.-ft. (544 Nm) @ 3,600 rpm
Compression ratio 10.2:1
Bore x stroke (mm) 94 x 102
Transmission 6-speed automatic with sequential shift
Wheelbase 112.2 ins. (285 cm)
Overall length 194.9 ins. (495 cm)
Overall width 77.6 ins. (197 cm)
Overall height 74 ins. (188 cm)
Curb weight 5,690 lbs./2,581 kg
Base price range $63,200
EPA fuel economy city/highway (mpg) 13/18 (18.1/13.1 L/100 km)
Market competition Land Rover Range Rover, Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator, Infiniti QX56, Mercedes-Benz G500
Pros Cons
Impressive performance Impressive thirst
Quality interior… but can't match lux competitors
Smooth-shifting transmission Engine could use more low-end torque

Wind noise is noticeable, despite the fact Toyota worked to beef up noise-, vibration- and harshness-damping materials. Some of that likely is attributable to the wide-open spaces of Montana and Wyoming.

The interior seats were comfortable; the standard third-row is collapsible but not removable, stowing against the sides of the rear cargo area.

Materials are nice, with a soft, fleecy – but non-rat-fur-like – headliner fabric and low-gloss plastics employed. But overall the Land Cruiser’s interior doesn’t compare to that of its more luxurious competitors.

Toyota, of course, has to walk a fine line with Land Cruiser, making sure it doesn’t intrude on the more upscale Lexus LX.

That’s one reason Land Cruiser doesn’t have heated and cooled seats. If buyers don’t want a sweaty back, they’ll have to fork over the extra dough for an LX.

The Land Cruiser wears another dull Toyota dress, featuring few stylistic changes from the outgoing sixth generation model, save for the Highlander-esque grille. But CRAWL and Toyota’s new hydraulic Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System make the large SUV a worthy entrant in the fullsize SUV market in the U.S., where Toyota expects it to compete with urban cruisers such as the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator.

At least the Land Cruiser, unlike those models and Toyota’s own Sequoia, is a gas-guzzler that can be used for a purpose other than Costco runs.

It’s an SUV that, shockingly enough, does what an SUV is meant to do.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com