Cars, Bikes & Boats

Lord of the lands

In the battle to dominate the worldwide 4WD market, there is really only one winner, reports Jonathan Margolis.

October 05 2009
Jonathan Margolis

We are in one of the remotest spots in Australia, two full days’ hard driving on rutted red tracks from the nearest proper town. And I’m privileged to be talking with an elderly Aboriginal lady, her dark brown face an aerial view of rivers, folds and crevasses. She is telling me how, once a year, she and her family journey miles out into the bush for several days from the settlement where they live to reacquaint themselves with nature, away from the world of fridges and air conditioners.

I listen in awe. It’s like a private Discovery Channel documentary. “So,” I say reverentially, “when you go together into the bush, do you all walk for many days?” The woman looks at me as if I’m a fascinating relic from the Stone Age. “No, no, no,” she says, her wise eyes fixed on the horizon. She pauses, then smiles. She is surely on the point of revealing some age-old secret of the universe. Well, in a way, perhaps she is. “Toyota… Land… Cruiser,” she says.

As the words come out of the old lady’s mouth, I think that if there were a more telling demonstration of the way Japan’s 56-year-old version of the Land Rover (itself a version of the wartime American Jeep) has come utterly to dominate harsh terrain driving globally, I’d like to see it. And I did. In the subsequent three days deep in the Outback, I kept an informal record of every vehicle we encountered, aside from road trains and trucks. The tally when I gave up was: Toyota Land Cruiser 177 (including our rented one), other Toyota (including Utes or pickups) 26, other Japanese 4WDs and Utes 12, Land Rovers 1 (an ancient Defender from before they were called Defender), Jeeps 0, other European (Mercedes, Volvo, whatever) 0.

Just how has Toyota, from a country in which the roads are as smooth as glass, so humiliated every other 4WD maker, most notably the Brits’ beloved Land Rover? The Land Cruiser’s near monopoly of 4WDs has made the excellent Land Rover a minuscule niche product everywhere I’ve been since that Outback awakening – everywhere except, oddly, rural Romania, where Land Rover is king as much as it is in the English shires. The Land Cruiser’s hegemony is the most striking world domination of a market by one car since the VW Beetle’s crushing (from the early 1950s) of the Morris Minor 1000, which was supposedly a world vehicle but sometimes struggled in the tropics.

A look at Land Cruiser sales figures when I visited Toyota HQ in Nagoya to investigate the success of the Rancru, as it’s known in Japan, said it all. The statistics are enough to put Tata, Land Rover’s Indian parent company since March 2008, off its dosas. Let’s remember a few points when digesting this. First, 4WDs are, rightly or wrongly, not popular at the moment. Second, new car sales the world over are appalling. Third, Toyota in particular, as the world’s biggest carmaker, has been especially hammered by the downturn. Fourth, Japan is in a bad way generally and domestic sales of Land Cruisers are less than a third of what they were 10 years ago. Fifth, Land Cruiser and Land Rover Defender and Range Rover “from-to” prices are very broadly similar everywhere, so the Japanese don’t even have a price advantage.

And consider this: global sales of Toyota Land Cruisers in 2006 were 271,060, in 2007 they were 290,840, in 2008 (and that’s up to the year end, long after the crunch crunched) 332,090 – that’s almost 15 per cent up last year, even including reduced Japanese sales. And Land Rover? For all models, including the cheaper Freelander, Land Rover in 2006 sold 193,000, 226,500 in 2007, and 187,000 in 2008 – the latter being a 17 per cent drop in the same period as “troubled” Toyota achieved a 15 per cent rise. These are eloquent numbers. No wonder that in China, the Land Cruiser is known as the Shamowang – King of the Desert, while in South America it’s El Macho and in the Middle East, it’s simply the nearest mechanical thing to a camel.

Things get ever worse for the British product when we come to the image of Land Rover against the Land Cruiser’s. To sum up, the Land Cruiser’s image seems unassailable, while the guiltless Land Rover can barely put a green-wellied foot right. It always amuses me that Volkswagen has done so well for some 60 years despite the VW name and the Beetle concept having been the work of Adolf Hitler. The Land Cruiser has thrived similarly despite being closely associated with every genocidal maniac in the world. Andy McNab once told me Land Cruisers are called “Taliban-mobiles” in the SAS, and it’s fair to say you’re nobody in the mass-murdering business unless you have a shiny new Saddam Hussein-style Land Cruiser to be driven around in.

And how is this reflected in popular culture? Land Rover Defenders are used in the same way as evil Englishmen in Hollywood movies. Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland and Rendition were the last three movies I have seen starring Land Rovers, and they are weapons of terror in each. The last friendly portrayal of a Land Rover I can remember was in Born Free in 1966.

I find this all a bit odd. The Land Cruiser is a beautiful, magnificent vehicle. I was deeply impressed by the beaten-up model I drove in Australia. Although it was knackered, it was blessed by having no electronics at all, a deliberate policy – and a good one – to keep models used in the worst conditions as simple as possible. The top-of-the-range models I drove round Toyota’s test track in Nagoya were true luxury vehicles, on the other hand, and just as tough. In a top-of-the-range model we climbed a slope so steep I could not manage it when I tried to walk it in trainers. Yet the Land Rover Discovery 3 I drove another time in Oz was better looking and better appointed, the only offputting thing about it being the laughter of the locals at the idea of a pom taking a “Disco” into the desert. “You’ll die if you take that where you’re going,” one ocker told us. (We did take it and, as you’ll have gathered, we didn’t die.)

Part of the problem is that in that typically British way, the Land Rover has been talked down while the Japanese worship the Rancru – in the centre of the Nagoya track is a shrine. “Don’t you think it’s wonderful,” a Toyota test driver said, “that we have a shrine where we pray for the safety of 4WD driving? It is a religion in Japan.”

In Britain, however, we seize self-harmingly on every bad Land Rover story. Even when motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson wrote in March that after years of consideration he finally regarded the Range Rover as the world’s best vehicle – and had even bought one – we were waiting for the let-down joke. Clarkson, after all, was responsible for the greatest ever piece of Toyota PR, a segment on the BBC’s Top Gear in which a pickup retired from a farmyard survived after being drowned for five hours under the sea, having a caravan dropped on it from a great height, being battered several times by a wrecker’s ball and finally placed on top of a 240ft-high tower block while it was demolished by a controlled explosion. Rescued from the rubble, it started almost immediately and drove off.

As for Land Rover, the Brits glow in self-loathing when the occasional reliability survey puts the marque bottom of world (with Land Cruiser at the top). I wonder, though, if these surveys stand up to analysis. Everyone I know with a Land Rover reports few problems. But the idea that Land Cruisers are the world’s most dependable vehicles, ergo better than Land Rover, is the received wisdom in every culture, the Brits’ included. In California this anti-Land Rover thing is as bad as in Australia. West Coast off-road driving nuts with a “Yota” like to sport bumper stickers that read, “Land Rover Recovery Unit”. And back in the UK, one of the most common perennial media motoring features is on how the old Defender is rubbish, but we love it for its damp, English uselessness. Doubtless this notion will be given another airing when Land Rover finally releases its stunning-looking LRX model, currently a concept but hopefully heading into production in late 2010 (http://lrx.landrover.com).

But will Land Cruiser update to accommodate LRX, which is even more of a beauty than the Disco 3? I doubt anyone in Nagoya will be bothered. Toyota is an extraordinary company and Land Cruiser its most extraordinary product. If you ever get to Nagoya, go to its museum, learn about the company and the model’s fascinating history and you will come away convinced that the Land Cruiser deserves to be the ultimate winner. Try to see the private collection too, on the fourth and fifth floors of a warehouse, and see the oldest Land Cruiser in captivity, a 1957 model which is as cool as any vintage Landie.

Whatever the Land Rover sceptics say, Land Cruiser vs Land Rover is really the automotive equivalent of Manchester United vs Chelsea. But the Nagoya boys’ dedication to reliability, their Zen-like belief that the Land Cruiser is the world vehicle – a belief amply supported by the global public’s belief in it – is, I submit, as uncrushable as a Rancru.

It’s a shame, but this is one Britain may finally have to admit it has lost. When elderly Aboriginals in remote settlements know and respect a brand, it perhaps has the right to its winnings.

See also

Toyota