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Taking on Sani Pass: Toyota's refreshed Land Cruiser Prado driven

2017-11-15 08:28

Image: Motorpress

Janine Van der Post

'If you're going to take on the highest mountain pass in South Africa, you're going to want a vehicle that's capable, comfortable and able to conquer any terrain,' writes Janine van der Post as she drives Toyota's enhanced Land Cruiser Prado. 

KwaZulu-Natal - The Sani Pass has a rich heritage and remains the highest and most iconic pass in South Africa. 

David Alexander was the first person to ride along the pass on horseback in 1946-47 and claimed that "if the bridle path was fixed up a bit, they could get a Jeep up there". In 1948, Gerald Edmonds, a former RAF Spitfire pilot was the first person to ever drive the notorious Sani Pass, two years before the Pass itself was built sometime in 1950.

He and Brian Gray of course had some help from the Basuthos who often trekked the pass using animals such as mules, oxen, donkeys, horses and Basutho ponies, this according to author Patrick Coyne

Tackling the pass should be on the bucket list of any traveller, especially those who love 4x4s. I was given the opportunity to take on the iconic mountain route behind the wheel of the refreshed Toyota Land Cruiser.

While the Pass is supposedly a strictly 4x4 route, we spotted some fully-packed Toyota Hiace minibus vans coming down the road from the Lesotho border. Not to mention a driver in a fancy Mercedes pre-generation C-Class.

If you're unfamiliar with Sani Pass, statistically it out distances the next longest pass by 300m at about 9km long, out climbs at 2876m above sea level, and out performs all its closet competitors when its comes to the toughest gravel mountain passes in the country.

I had made sure I had packed my asthma pump, just in case my chest pulled tight due to the high altitude and bad winds. After all, it gets so chilly up there at the Lesotho border that snow is known to fall as late as October.

READ: Toyota refreshes Land Cruiser Prado - We have prices, details of the enhanced SUV

To aid our journey Toyota debuted its refreshed Land Cruiser Prado. Still in its fourth-generation, the Prado has been given some exterior enhancements such as the new, lower bonnet to improve visibility, new headlights and redesigned double C-shaped rear lights, all with daytime running lights. 

And what better vehicle to drive through the epic trip than in the most luxurious, yet hardcore off-roader of them all.

I was a bit nervous, I have heard horror tails of the infamous pass, yet it wasn't half as bad as what I expected it to be.

Yes at times there was no room for error with  sharp hairpin bends but for the most part, the climb was relatively uncomplicated. There are no walls, no raiings, and no run-off ground.

And that's most probably why the Prado has a utility rep of 65-years. The upgraded vehicle, we drove the new VX-L top grade, is so loaded with 4x4  technology and has great seating positions, that it's easily the most confortable SUV on the market.

When we first set off on our journey, the range was reading about 1200km on the tank. We drove almost 600km over two days and by the time we arrived back at the airport at the end of the launch, there was still half a tank left, if not more.

The Prado has a 150-litre fuel tank and on long roadtrips and ventures out in the bush in remote areas, this makes for one less thing to worry about.

The Prado retains the the 3.0-litre D-4D engine, good for 120kW/400Nm available between 1600-2800 rpm. It's mated to a five-speed automatic transmission with gear ratios optimized for low-speed tractability and off-road use while the 4.0-litre petrol unit is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. Maximum power is 202kW at 5600rpm, with peak torque of 381Nm at 4400rpm.


Features such as the multi-terrain system is imperative for a gigantic climb with various terrains. The MTS button, as it is known, is situated on the centre console, along with the crawl system button and also a 'second start' button.

Punch the MTS button and you can choose one of five different settings such as mud & sand, loose rock, mogul, rock & dirt and rock - when you literally have to climb over huge boulders with the vehicle. This system is operated by a centrally mounted rotary knob which allows the driver to select the correct mode depending on the ‘road’ ahead, on the fly.

My absolute favrouite by far, is the crawl function. When you push this button, the vehicle practically drives itself and all you have to do is focus on steering. Turn the same central dial for the MTS while using the crawl function and it then allows you to control the 'crawl' speed for five different settings. Goodies such as these allow even the most novice 4x4 driver feel like an old-hand.

Changing from 4H to 4L is simple too, albeit you can't do it on the fly, you just have to get the vehicle into neutral, turn the dial, and off you go.

Since we needed to proceed slower and needed much more torque to climb along the pass, 4 Low is crucial. What's also really neat is that whilst going up the pass, the Prado's monitor system automatically comes up on screen and displays the camera underneath the vehicle to show you if there are any mean rocks you should avoid. It also allows the driver to see which way the tyres are facing and the direction you're going in.

READ: Toyota SA updates iconic Land Cruiser 200

There's also another button on the console called 'second start' and although we didn't need it, I was intrigued. Toyota's SUV product manager Ben Pillay explained that this button was for sticky situations. For instance, when a vehicle is stuck in mud or a tough spot, when starting the vehicle and trying to pull away, there's so much traction that the tyres often spin. With the 'second start' it enables the vehicle to try and pull away in the next gear, allowing the vehicle to get out.

More safety features

The automaker says its VX-L grade versions of the new 2017 Prado are equipped with Toyota Safety Sense active technologies to help prevent accidents from happening, or mitigating the consequences if an impact does occur.

The package includes a Pre-Collision System (PCS) with pedestrian detection function, Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC), Lane Departure Alert (LDA) and Automatic High Beam (AHB). The Adaptive Cruise Control system uses radar sensors in the front grille to monitor the distance to the vehicle in front and applies corrective action via both throttle and brake inputs to maintain a specified ‘gap’.

Driver assistance systems include: Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Cross Traffic Alert (both VX and VX-L) and an upgraded tyre pressure warning system – with digital read out in the multi-information display.

There are seven standand airbags along with brake and stability control systems  such as ABS, EBD, Brake Assist, VSC, Trailer Sway Control and aforementioned Traction Control.

And when you not on the Sani Pass...

I can't stress enough just how incredibly comfortable the Prado is, whether you're driving, riding shotgun, or a passenger at back. With that said, it isn't the kind of car you'd want to chuck around in a corner. It's high centre of gravity causes some bodyroll and the car just feels better at a steady pace. 

We were caught in some rather morbid weather in Durban, including heavy rains and the thickest fog which made seeing anything in front of you almost impossible at times. And of course there are loads of trucks along the way through Pietermaritzburg en route to Sani Pass too. Because of the sheer size of the Land Cruiser, overtaking is not something you'd do with confidence, torque takes a while to kick and often left us stuck in crawling traffic for several kilometres.  

There really isn't anything to complain about, except that power figures remain unchanged and it would have been lovely if there could have been an increase with all the refreshed upgrades. We also searched all over the place for a second USB port and were absolutely disappointed that there's only one in such a premium vehicle. That and the fact that there's no electronic park brake but still a manual lever.

One thing is certain, if I am ever blessed to travel up the Sani Pass again, it would have to be in a Toyota Land Cruiser Prado. 

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