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Let’s get the obvious out of the way straight up – the Toyota Prado must be in contention for the most hideously styled SUV on the market, its crown only challenged by whatever Ssangyong is currently wreaking on this segment.
Well, that’s my opinion. Not that Prado buyers give a toss, because looks clearly mean nothing to the hordes of cashed-up urbanites and free-wheeling nomads who simply can’t get enough of this SUV.
In fact, for such an off-road-capable machine, it seems a tad skewiff that the greater majority of these 2.5-tonne hard-core, four-wheel drive behemoths are sold through Toyota’s city-based dealerships.
And make no mistake, Prado is indeed a big seller, its popularity showing no sign of slowing down even as the current, fourth-generation model approaches its second refresh in around eight years.
In 2016, Toyota dealers found homes for 14,700 Prados – 98 per cent of which were turbo-diesels and the vast majority (72 per cent) of those wearing the low-to-mid-range GXL badge that’s priced from $61,190 before on-road costs.
Interestingly, both the VX and top-tier Kakadu variants, priced at $75,190 and 85,900 respectively, had an impressive 10 per cent share of total Prado sales. Let us do the math for you – that’s an annual revenue of nearly one billion dollars, just in Prado sales, and just in Australia.
But even with the high-priced Kakadu that we’re testing here, it’s not like buyers in this large SUV segment don’t have a healthy number of diesel-powered options to choose from – many of those options with the same seven-seat capacity as our particular Prado and all of them with more powerful engines and more kit.
But If a prestige badge is all-important to you, Jaguar has the F-Pace with a 3.0-litre twin-turbo diesel for $86,325, while sister company Land Rover has the upcoming new Discovery arriving in July with an all-diesel line up including the SD4 SE for $81,990, and the TD6 S for $84,960.
Even Nissan's luxury brand Infiniti has the QX70 3.0d S for $84,900 with more power and torque than the Prado.
Still, there’s more than one reason why more people choose the Prado over more luxurious, more powerful and better-equipped rivals, but mostly, it’s about Toyota’s reliability, build quality and proven residual values. And it’s been that way for ever and a day.
It’s also far from perfect, but live with it, even for just a week, and you’re almost ready to forgive some of the woeful inadequacies in your $86,000 Toyota SUV. And trust me, there are a few biggies.
Take the engine. It’s a 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel making a 130kW of direct-injected power and a reasonable 450Nm of torque. While Toyota’s product blurb describes the delivery as ‘silky smooth’, we’d liken it more to a Massey Ferguson tractor engine, with the same amount of noise and gruffness.
It’s not particularly sprightly, either, especially when pulling away from a set of lights, meaning, you’re inclined to drive it with a fairly heavy right foot, which tends to obliterate any notion of Toyota’s 8.0L per hundred kilometres’ claim.
You’ll also need to be extra cautious when overtaking, too, as there isn’t a lot to call upon, should you need to punch it from 100km/h or so.
All its similarly priced rivals get 3.0-litre six-cylinder diesels to haul around this kind of heft, and that would make more sense, given our Prado Kakadu’s 2445kg kerb weight. Still, it’s got a healthy 2500kg towing capacity – so horse floats, jet skis and even small runabouts are all within easy reach.
We’re also not huge fans of the ‘woodgrain-look’ steering wheel and various trim bits in the cabin, at least not for 86 thousand big ones, we’re not. Anything would look better than this stylised plastic material that’s not about to fool anyone.
And don’t bother trying to find your sunnies or any other item you may have misplaced around the cabin, at least not at night, as the interior lighting is so poor that even if the item was staring you in the face, you probably wouldn’t see it. LEDs would be a useful inclusion in the Prado, even in the base spec model, let alone the range-topper.
At least you get LED headlamps and daytime running lamps, which is great until you try the high-beam and wonder why you even bothered, given the pathetic light show from the halogen beam.
To be fair, though, no one could ever claim the Prado Kakadu isn’t well equipped. There’s a ton of kit in here, like an electric moonroof (good size too), leather accented upholstery with heated seating for front and second row seats, four cameras and multi-terrain monitor, cooler box, front and rear parking sensors, satellite navigation and a very decent 14-speaker audio system.
Additionally, there’s digital radio (DAB), three-zone climate control air-conditioning, privacy glass, heated and retractable side mirrors, privacy glass, keyless entry and start, and a Blu-ray rear seat entertainment system with three wireless headsets to boot.
Toyota has also equipped the Kakadu with a full suite of the latest safety kit systems including active cruise control, reversing camera with Back Guide, hill-start assist, downhill assist control, pre-collision safety system, blind-spot monitor, trailer sway control and rear cross-traffic alert.
And should you ever need to test the 4x4 capabilities of the Prado, Toyota has got you well and truly covered with a raft of off-road systems like CRAWL control, rear differential lock and Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) – a locally designed and developed off-road hydraulic suspension system, which effectively allows for maximum articulation by disconnecting the centre mounted stabiliser bar that joins the two sides of the vehicle.
Making the transition from on-road people mover to off-road expertise is Toyota’s proprietary multi-terrain select. It’s an easy-to-use system controlled by centrally-mounted rotary dial that can switch between five modes; mud and sand, loose rock, moguls, rock and dirt and rock. Each mode electronically adjusts various drive settings to suit the terrain.
Ride quality is simply superb – best described as a magic carpet on wheels, such is the Prado’s ability to absorb the toughest bumps and broken road without so much as a flinch by the chassis. It’s quite remarkable, to the point where you find yourself seeking out the nastiest of potholes just to be sure.
But with this level of on-road/off-road cushioning, there’s a price to be paid, at least in the handling department. That’s despite the Kakadu being equipped with adaptive suspension including a Sport mode.
There’s simply no getting around the physics of a 2.5-tonne, high-riding four-wheel-drive SUV turning in. There’s a fair bit of body roll to be expected, but then again, it’s not the sort of vehicle you’ll ever feel the need to manhandle in the same way you might a BMW M50d.
For most buyers, though, the Toyota Prado is far more the family minibus than many of its more road-focused rivals. And it does that with absolute aplomb. There’s just so much interior space available, you can’t ever imagine running out of room.
There’s an enormous amount of elbow space between the driver and front passenger, and rear head- and legroom (in the second row) is substantial for three full-size adults back there, given the tiny transmission tunnel bump.
Boot-mounted electrically operated switches make it a cinch to deploy the two third row seats, and while there’s less room back there, the seats themselves are actually quite comfortable and air vents feature in all three rows. Still, they’re more kid’s seats at the end of the day.
At almost five metres long and with rear seats that fold dead flat, the Prado can also swallow at least two 9-foot surfboards or the equivalent length ladder.
And boot space is just as vast, while the hinged single door tailgate means there’s a super-wide aperture for easy loading of large boxes and the like.
It’s by no means the perfect family-size SUV, not by a long shot. Yes, it’s still hideously ugly, can’t tow as much weight as a Jeep Grand Cherokee, and it’s not as cavernous as a Land Rover Discovery. But that doesn’t seem to have the slightest impact on sales. And not just one-off sales, either. Prado owners have a reputation for coming back for more, like three or four generations more, and then some.
So, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
Click on the Gallery tab for more photos by Sam Venn.