A Not-So-Vicious Cycle
Owning a car comes with emotional ups and downs. The ride is extra rocky if the nincompoop who built it is looking at you in the mirror.
I’m constantly swinging between the highs of revving out something I built with my own hands and the lows of chasing down never-ending electrical problems. In my case, I was able to find high-end components like the intake manifold, camshaft, and cylinder heads for my vehicle. Unfortunately, neither Mopar nor the aftermarket performance market has much to offer when it comes to the sensors that make everything play nicely together. That puts me under the hood to replace one sensor or another more often than I’d like.
During one of the lower points in this journey, I was frustrated enough to consider making my old truck a garage hobby and picking up something else for daily driving and road trips. Maybe it’s my rural New Hampshire roots talking, but I like the freedom of a burly off-roader. Anything I buy as a replacement would have to be capable on all kinds of terrain, and — above all else — supremely reliable. If it could be more comfortable than a 25-year-old Dodge, all the better.
Where does one turn to for ultimate reliability and four-wheel drive? A Toyota Land Cruiser, of course. I fired up the Google machine and began my search one night after pouring my evening cocktail. My search focused on 80-series Land Cruisers from the 1990s because they combine relative comfort with solid axles and ease of maintenance. Since I like a bit of power and am a sucker for anything weird, it would have to be a diesel imported from Japan.
Right-hand-drive diesel Land Cruisers aren’t exactly common in the U.S., and the people that have one to sell aren’t going to let it go cheaply. If I’m going to pay top dollar for a clean example, it had better be in tip-top shape. I rang up my resident Land Cruiser expert to get some advice. Then I dove deep into the chronicles of the IH8MUD forum — the place to be for all off-road Toyota people.
The HDJ81 Land Cruiser is indeed a beast of a machine, according to my research. It can crawl over just about anything, it can cover massive distances on a single tank of fuel, and the mileage limits of the 1HD-T engine are yet undiscovered. Half a million miles should be expected with regular maintenance, and some consider it to be capable of covering a million miles thanks to a Toyota engineer who came from the trucking world, where that is standard. About the only thing new owners should do is replace the bottom-end connecting rod bearings to protect the crankshaft from premature wear.
I scratched my chin and reflected on this information. Replacing those bearings isn’t too complicated and you can have it done for a grand or two, but that seemed like an extra strain on my budget. Besides, the 80-series Land Cruiser is almost exactly the same size as my pickup. Maybe something smaller would offer more variety in my life.
The natural alternative resides just one step down the food chain from the 80-series Land Cruiser: a 70-series Toyota Prado. If you haven’t seen these midsize SUVs, picture an attractive cross between a G-Wagon and a Jeep XJ Cherokee. Compared to the full-fat Land Cruiser, the Prado of the 1990s is smaller, less expensive, and much boxier in appearance. Back to the forums, I went.
Instead of the 1HD-T turbocharged straight-six diesel engine, the Prado got a turbocharged four-cylinder diesel. The little 1KZ-TE engine has powered Toyotas all over the world, but it does have an Achilles heel. From what I’ve read, it’s not a question of if the head will crack, but when. The culprit is the exhaust gas recirculation system. You see, in order to meet tightening emissions laws, Toyota resorted to diverting some of the exhaust gasses back into the intake manifold to be burned a second time. That might improve tailpipe measurements, but it also replaces ambient air with dirty air somewhere north of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That much heat is bad for cylinder heads, and when you factor in the thick carbon deposits that build up and choke airflow, it’s a ticking time bomb. All of this can be fixed, but it’s a messy job and few shops in the U.S. are interested in taking on a vehicle that was never sold in the domestic market. Prados are great little trucks, but they might not be right for my current budget.
It was at this point that it became clear to me that any vehicle I would be interested in would involve some degree of maintenance or modification, and choosing one that was originally available in this country would make life a lot easier. If gray-market Toyotas are out, the next best thing is a Mercedes G-wagon. Obviously, I couldn’t normally afford such a thing, but the G320 sold prior to the platform’s debut in the U.S. is much more affordable. Not only that, everything on the vehicle was available in the states at one point or another, meaning parts are less of an issue.
I bid farewell to IH8MUD and ventured into various American and foreign Mercedes forums, where owners raved about the luxurious interior and incredible off-road capabilities of the G320. Triple locking differentials, anyone? The six-cylinder gas engine is known to be reliable, if not exactly a powerhouse. The only real problems with these vehicles (aside from the social stigma) are the prices of replacement parts and the shop rates of Mercedes mechanics. Repairing a G-wagon is so expensive that it makes express shipping from Tokyo look cheap.
Judgemental glances don’t bother me, but I’m not sure this is the right time to take on the financial responsibility of owning a 30-year-old luxury off-roader. No, it dawned on me that what I need is cheap parts that I can find at any auto parts store or salvage yard. I need a vehicle I can fix in an afternoon with hand tools and an English-language repair manual.
At that moment, I slowly turned my head toward the window. After weeks of online research and sleepless nights, I had talked myself into the exact pickup that was in my driveway. Rest assured that the irony is not lost on me. Maybe the truth is that every vehicle has flaws. They’re all terrible, they all cost too much money, and they’re all wonderfully entertaining.
With renewed vigor, I hopped in the cab the next day and pointed the hail-damaged hood toward the highway. Never mind the occasional electrical issues. This truck has been paid off since 2004. It runs fine most of the time. Letting it rip to 5,000 RPM sounds absolutely fantastic.
It could be more comfortable, though, and a sunroof would be nice. You know, like the inside of a Lexus GX470…
Scott is a lover of motorized fun, whether on four wheels or two. A child of the ’90s, he has a particular soft spot for hatchbacks and believes all aging cars deserve a second chance at life. If he’s not behind a camera or a computer, he’s probably chasing down new coffee shops with his wife or throwing a frisbee for his dog.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.