When it comes to new cars, I live vicariously through friends able to purchase something exotic or something with only two seats and a stonking mechanical sound track. With four kids, I must be more prosaic for abject ruin is but a severe bout of flu and a workers' comp claim away. So I must trawl the classifieds rather than accept freshly brewed coffee in a shiny new showroom. Thus, four years ago, my search for a seven seater appeared stark and somewhat depressing. The car needed to offer something outstanding, and if it was going to be this big it would need to tackle a fire track or beach with some degree of dexterity.
So thankfully the Tarago was out and I didn't have to stoop to a Chrysler Voyager. Toyota's Kluger and Land Cruiser fell next, the former incapable off-road and the latter too ugly. Holden's Captiva and Hyundai's Sante Fe were too small and I have never seen a Volvo XC90 anywhere other than outside a school gate. I considered Ford's Territory but its third row bench seat was just impractical and I was left with two choices.
Toyota's Prado or Land Rover's Discovery 3.
The Prado is a fine vehicle. It can go anywhere, like the Discovery. It seats seven, like the Discovery, but third row passengers had better be of restricted growth or small children. In the Discovery, men of six feet or more can fit in the third row without any hint of discomfort. When all seats are flattened, the load space is simply cavernous. But it was upon turning the key that I knew which one I preferred. One was a tractor, the other a limousine. The difference was that stark.
The Discovery 3's 2.7-litre turbo diesel is not perhaps as powerful or efficient as the 3 litre in the series 4, but it's still a fantastic engine. Frugal on longer trips, it returns less than 8 litres per 100 km, even fully laden with camping gear. Around town it's more like 13.5 but I can forgive it for that on Sydney's clogged up arteries. And when you need to pull out sharpish the turbo kicks in and you're away with a real shove in the back.
Then there's the ride. The air suspension system is one of the most accomplished around and it is without doubt the most comfortable car I have owned. Its all-terrain system is a joy to use, as you simply select the appropriate setting for the road conditions and let the car do the rest. Though so far I have only needed to use the sand and ice options, I have witnessed others tackle unimaginable surfaces and it just works.
So it's a fantastic vehicle then that never goes wrong? Well not exactly, its reliability has been likened to something out of a dog's rear end, so yes it does go wrong. Not smoking by the side of the road wrong, but its complex electronics have been prone to gremlins.
I guess it's a victim of its modernity. It knows when things are wearing out and tells you about it. Brake pads need changing, it pings you. Battery not charging, it pings you. Tyre pressures not perfect, it pings you. On long drives it can sound like you're on a plane with the seat belt sign going on and off. It's strangely comforting.
In the Prado, there is no such system. So you can be driving around without a care in world with the exact same issue as the Disco driver, the only difference being Prado man is ignorant of the problems and therefore thinks his car never goes wrong. Disco man is all too aware of them.
With some wood to hand, I bought a high mileage vehicle fully aware I was purchasing someone else's problem. At 235,000kms it was very high indeed for a 7 year old car, but most of those kilometres were on the motorway, meaning the engine had been spared the stop-start of city driving. So I was prepared to pay for a few repairs and at $27,000 it seemed a steal.
Now with slightly more than 300,000 on the clock I have caught up with the problems I inherited. Yes there have been expensive replacements and everything does seem to cost $500, no matter how small, but it feels almost as good as new and should remain in fine fettle for a long time to come. Now where did I put that piece of timber?