Changing gear - Issue 170 - Magazine | Monocle

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It’s rare that the launch of a new vehicle excites enthusiasm beyond the auto industry but when Toyota unveiled its new Land Cruiser 250 last summer, the word  on the street was that the Japanese car giant had a classic on its hands. Its boxy lines, stripped-back aesthetic and absence of chrome announced a fresh direction for Toyota’s longest-running vehicle. The chief designer is Yoshito Watanabe, an amiable figure for whom the Land Cruiser holds a strong personal connection. On his desk in Toyota’s under-wraps design lab is a photo of himself as a 10-year-old standing in front of his father’s prize Land Cruiser 60. For a man whose team works on everything from a moon buggy to state- of-the-art mobility vehicles, this was his dream project. 

Yoshito Watanabe

For Toyota too, the Land Cruiser is rooted deep in its dna. The story goes back to 1951 when Japan was under US occupation and a call went out to Japanese car makers to produce a domestic equivalent to the Jeep. Toyota’s response was the Toyota Jeep BJ, a no-nonsense vehicle that was the first to make it up (and down) Mount Fuji. By 1954 that original vehicle had been tweaked and renamed the Land Cruiser, and was being exported, first to Pakistan and then to Saudi Arabia.

Since then there have been multiple models and myriad variations of the Land Cruiser; more than 11 million have been sold in more than 170 countries. Each iteration has its fans: the 40 series (which started in 1960) and its successor, the 70 (from 1984), are admired for their rugged functionality, while the 60 (1980 to 1990) and its successors pointed the Land Cruiser in more of a lifestyle direction. Its reputation for durability and easy maintenance in tough conditions have taken the Land Cruiser to the furthest corners of the globe. Aid workers have counted on its reliability in the harshest environments; Toyota has even made a special version for the United Nations.

And so to the new Land Cruiser 250, which, after much discussion, is a back-to-basics project. “When we were talking about the direction of the design, Akio Toyoda [Toyota’s chairman] told us that we should, ‘Go back to the origins of the Land Cruiser,’” says Watanabe. “There were no specifics as to what the ‘origin’ meant, or what he envisioned exactly, but it got us thinking about the essence of the Land Cruiser. His words were enough to give us the courage to make a major change in direction.”

Toyota’s Land Cruiser 250
Its spacious interior

The challenge was to create a vehicle that would keep the core traits of the Land Cruiser, be more environmentally friendly than its predecessors and with a broad enough appeal to sell in dozens of countries to customers with very different needs. “Over the years, there had been an evolution in a more luxurious direction,” says Watanabe. “We decided to strip away the excess so that we could offer the full performance to a wider range of customers.” Watanabe says the no-frills Land Cruiser 40 – the one that marked the transition from police to civilian vehicle – was the “spiritual starting point of this process”.

If functionality was essential, so too was recapturing the joy of driving. The sloping angles of modern cars that can make them feel claustrophobic have been replaced by a more upright stance which drivers will love; the bottom of the window frame has also been lowered by 3cm to increase road visibility. The headlights have been pushed towards the middle to minimise damage from debris on rough roads (“wide car fronts are fashionable, but we went in the opposite direction”). The bumper is made up of small parts like a jigsaw puzzle so that it can be repaired without having to junk the whole piece.

The inside is refreshingly pared back too. Instead of touch panels, Watanabe opted for proper buttons (“like keys on a piano”), which are easy to access and satisfying to use. The team talked to rally driver Akira Miura to see what works best when drivers are careering over rough terrain and therefore can’t look at the controls. Instead of urban metallics, the earthy colour palette includes a “desert sand” and smoky blue colourways. It took some convincing to persuade top management that the car would be better without Toyota’s triple oval logo but Watanabe got his way: the word “Toyota” appears in its place.

The new frame is lighter, the carbon footprint is lower and seat fabric uses thread made from recycled bottles from the Toyota office. There is a new hybrid option (as well as regular versions) and electric power steering – also a first. Watanabe anticipates enthusiasts will want to customise their Land Cruiser. The car can survive the worst conditions but might also be used in smooth urban settings. “It’s like owning a watch that can function on the moon,” he says. “There’s still pride in knowing that the car can do all these things even if you don’t put it to the test.”

Watanabe didn’t want to do a retro Land Cruiser. “All the different past designs are so iconic and many of them are still up and running, so there’s no point in just imitating.” His ambition was to create “a modern space that is comfortable even after hours of driving”. Watanabe says that many people were reluctant to make drastic changes to the existing model. We’re glad that he didn’t listen to those voices. The Land Cruiser 250 launches in Japan this spring: please form an orderly queue. 

Monocle comment: Automotive brands have been reluctant to celebrate the pleasures of driving, creating cars that dampen our enthusiasm for getting behind the wheel. But good design looks set to make a timely return.

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