Make no mistake, the Toyota Prado three-door looks somewhat like a cartoon caricature of a 4WD...
The latest (fourth) generation of the Toyota Prado has been on sale since 2009 and in 2012 it's on track to be Australia's most popular SUV despite prices that start at $55,590.
There are five-door and three-door versions of the popular wagon and it's available in two trim levels, the SX and ZR. The three-door, which we tested, features a wheelbase that is 335mm shorter than the five-door models (2790mm for the GX compared with 2455mm of the SX), and is 445mm shorter overall (4485mm versus 4930mm). It also showcases a slightly narrower track by 20mm (1605mm to 1585mm).
The Toyota Prado three-door doesn't really have any direct competition in Australia, not since the Mitsubishi Pajero three-door was phased out in 2009. There are some models that are similar in philosophy, such as the Jeep Wrangler Sport which is $24,440 cheaper than the Prado SX (starting at $31,590), and the lower-spec Land Rover Defender 90 which enters the market $11000 under the SX (available from $44,990).
To kick off, the entry-level SX comes with a higher-spec trim and more equipment than the equivalent GX five-door. Standard features include fog lights, roof rails, telescopic steering, premium steering wheel and gear knob, dual-zone climate control, steering wheel-mounted multimedia controls, alarm and a rear cargo blind, all of which the GX five-door misses out on.
Under the bonnet, the miniature Prado gets the same 3.0-litre turbo diesel engine as its bigger brothers, producing 127kW and 410Nm. It shares Toyota’s full-time four-wheel drive system which provides high- and low-range modes, and is supported by limited-slip cross axle differentials front and rear, as well asa lockable Torsen-type centre diff.
The base-model SX is packed full of standard features, including a reversing camera and reverse parking sensors, MP3/USB compatible stereo, 2nd Start (which puts the transmission into second gear, helping the car get out of extremely slippery conditions, like snow and ice), Idle Up (which raises the engine revs for generating greater electrical charge from the alternator), 17-inch alloy wheels, and vast protective plating underneath the car.
Safety-wise, it comes with ABS, Electronic Brake Assist, Active Traction Control, Vehicle Stability Control, seven airbags, active headlights and Electronic Brake Force Distribution (ANCAP hasn't actually rated the three-door Prado but the five-door model has been given five stars). On specification and equipment alone, the SX is a better deal than the GX.
Taking the brunt of the shortened wheelbase is reduced interior practicality. In the back, the rear seats in the Prado SX will accommodate three adults in a fairly similar fashion as the five-door. There's decent legroom as well as headroom but the rear seat passengers will be subjected to a bouncy ride.
It's entering the vehicle and heading for the rear seats when problems arise, as the front seats do not fold forward enough to allow adequate access. This, paired with the fact that the front doors on the three-door are no longer than those found on the five-door (usually coupes and two-doors feature longer front doors than their four-door brothers), means climbing in and out can become very irritating, especially climbing up to the high ride height.
The luggage space is also compromised thanks to the short-wheelbase design. Additionally, the rear door is very large and very heavy to open due to the full-sized spare wheel mounted on the outside. If the vehicle is parked on a hill or there's a slight breeze, you wouldn't want to be the object caught in a pincer movement - literally - when the door begins to swing shut. To counter this there is a lockable strut which will hold the door in the fully open position ... but you must remember to engage it.
With the rear seats in the upright position, there's enough room for a decent tent and some luggage in the back, but obviously nowhere near as much room as in the bigger five-door brother. The floor of the rear compartment is flat with little wasted space. Once the rear seats are folded away, there's ample room. The seats even flip right up to offer a completely flat loading surface that's actually quite large. (Here's a tip: if you are planning doing a long trip and only need the two front seats, you may want to think about removing the rear seats altogether.)
Also in the luggage area you'll find a conventional three-prong 220-volt power outlet which can be used to power various low-current devices using conventional 240-volt alternating current. Thanks to the onboard static inverter that converts 12V DC to 220V AC, you'll be able to power up things like fluoro lights, electronic devices and recharging camera and laptop batteries.
So how does the shorter wheelbase Prado feel to drive?
Shortening the Prado's wheelbase is a 'good news/bad news' story. It has a huge effect on the way the vehicle handles. On one hand its off-road capability is increased as the undercarriage is less likely to snag obstacles between the wheels (the 'breakover angle' of the SX is increased by three degrees compared with the five-door [25 degrees versus 22 degrees], which is quite a significant improvement of around 14 per cent). Because the vehicle's footprint is 'squarer' overall, it is quicker to turn and can be threaded through tracks and tight corners more easily.
On the road, however, the Prado SX's quicker steering response is conveyed through the vehicle's taller frame so it has a tendency to sway. It also pitches heavily while driving over traffic-calming measures like speed humps, and it can make you feel a bit seasick under braking. Swinging into roundabouts the vehicle gives off a brief, unsettled wobble as the live axle rear and independent front suspension struggles to cope with the weight transfer. As soon as the power is applied when exiting a corner, the four-wheel drive system pulls the chassis back into line and the platform becomes much more stable. The SX is fitted with 265mm tyres that tend to eliminate tramlining. These are 20mm wider than those found on the equivalent five-door GX (245mm).
The payoff here is sensational off-road ability. Skittish handling on-road, and heavy pitching, is common to most short-wheelbase 4x4s (for owners, it becomes less apparent once you acclimatise). If you are interested in doing proper, hardcore off-roading, you'll be pleased to hear that this is precisely where the Prado SX excels.
On test, the SX never skipped a beat once the going got rough. The limited-slip differentials meant the standard traction control system didn’t need to step in. Even on very slippery, wet uphill climbs in the mud, the four-wheel drive system took it all in its stride. And because of that square footprint, no underbody paint was left on any rocks or logs. Toyota really knows how to put together a heavy-duty off-road vehicle, and has been doing this with great success for years. With the SX, you can feel the heritage.
Engaging the Prado’s low-range transfer is as easy as turning a dial. Once engaged, climbing and descending ability is stretched far beyond the expectations of most new SUV buyers. Because the SX is short, it feels very active and ready to play while four-wheel driving. It feels like it wants to keep going and encourages you to do so with its 'can-do' attitude.
Only when we tackled some steep ascents that were embedded with traction-sapping slick rocks, in the rain, at Yalwal National Park (NSW), did the Prado show signs of struggle. Once the centre diff lock was engaged though, the front and the rear axles were locked at the same speed and the package smoothly made every climb we threw at it.
The Downhill Assist Control feature also worked quite well. On very slippery surfaces the technology kept the vehicle on track and stopped it running away by automatically applying brake power. Sticking to the low-range gear ratios is an equally safe option too.
A side benefit to the shortened wheelbase is that it makes the SX 230kg lighter compared with the equivalent five-door (2015kg over 2245kg for the auto GX). This means the three-door uses less fuel, offering an average fuel consumption rating of 8.3L/100km compared with the five-door's 8.5L/100km. It also performs better.
On test, the SX came surprisingly close to the ADR fuel figure with the trip computer reading 8.5L/100km for most of the trip. Expect to get around 800km out of a tank full of fuel under various driving conditions, including dense traffic, off-roading, highway and scooting about town. Not bad for a car; very good indeed for a two-tonne four-wheel drive.
The lighter weight of the three-door also increases the vehicle's acceleration potential. You'll be genuinely surprised at the torque delivery in traffic. The little Prado pulls away from a stop very well while highway overtaking ability is satisfactory. It almost feels zippy. There is turbo lag at low revs if you try selecting gears yourself using the tiptronic-style shifter. Fortunately, however, the five-speed automatic does a great job of selecting the right gears at the right time by itself in most situations, so there's almost always 410Nm at the ready if you leave it in 'D'.
It's easy to jump to conclusions upon first impressions of the Toyota Prado SX three-door. It fits into the market rather awkwardly. It's also fairly expensive compared with its closest rivals. But if you're in the market for a Prado but want to do a bit more off-roading than the average SUV buyer and only need two seats (or have only young children), then the Prado SX is a great package.
It's also a solid proposition for retirees who are about to embark on an extended getaway, and who need the torque and strong chassis of a big four-wheel drive. Taking the rear seats out would yield a massive cargo volume more than adequate for most travellers.
It all comes down to this: If you are serious about off-roading, the three-door Prado is something you should consider. But if you're not seriously planning on getting right into the rough stuff, there are plenty of small SUVs out there that are far more suitable to city, suburban driving and even highway driving. Our picks among the soft-road set include the Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester, Mazda CX-7, Nissan X-Trail and the Mitsubishi Outlander.
Toyota Prado SX (3dr), 3.0-litre turbo diesel, five-speed auto - $55,990
Toyota Prado ZR (3dr), 3.0-litre turbo diesel, five-speed auto - $65,904
Toyota Prado GX (3dr), 3.0-litre turbo diesel, six-speed manual - $55,990
Toyota Prado GX (5dr), 3.0-litre turbo diesel, five-speed auto - $55,990
Toyota Prado GXL (5dr), 4.0-litre petrol V6, six-speed manual - $60,904
Toyota Prado GXL (5dr), 4.0-litre petrol V6, five-speed auto - $63,404
Toyota Prado GXL (5dr), 3.0-litre turbo diesel, six-speed manual - $61,904
Toyota Prado GXL (5dr), 3.0-litre turbo diesel, five-speed auto - $61,904