“The front end was floating a bit at 370kph,” says Toyota’s pro driver, Craig Stanton. “Other than that, it was flawless.” Forgive us for being, y’know, chickens, but we’d suggest a bit of front-end floatiness isn’t something to brush over at 370kph. Not to Stanton and his comrades, though; their bravery has just seen this Toyota Land Cruiser claim the title of world’s fastest SUV.
It hit 370kph on a North American runway, stealing honors from Brabus, whose Bi-Turbo V12 GLK claims 340kph. “We thought, ‘why don’t we take a Land Cruiser, make it ultra-powerful, and just see how fast we can make it can go?'" says the manager of Toyota’s Motorsport Technical Cent34, Chuck Wade.
The answer, it turns out, is ‘very fast.’ But how do you make a near three-ton SUV faster than a LaFerrari?
Now, the Brabus’s route to going quickly was simple. Take the smallest, lightest Mercedes SUV and put a twin-turbo V12 in it. Simple. Toyota’s route, however, is a little less obvious. As standard, the Land Cruiser weighs 2.6 tons and has the aerodynamic profile of an outhouse. Short of gutting the V10 from a spare Lexus LFA—if there is such a thing—there’s no oversized engine in its locker for a transplant.
So Chuck’s team have set about fiddling with the Land Cruiser’s standard engine. In the US, that means a 375hp 5.7-liter V8 powered by gasoline which yields a 229kph top speed. Some way short of 340kph, then. So Chuck and his engineers are looking for power. Much more power. “Calculations show us 1,900hp will get us to the speeds we’d like to attain,” he tells us. “And the engine—as in the block and everything except the head gasket—is built to go to around 4,000hp. But with everything we’ve got built into it now, we’re probably going to be limited to about 3,000hp. Which is still good power. It can get you to work on time!”
The biggest change to the engine is its new turbos, which sit behind those gaping intakes sitting below each headlight. Described by the team as ‘volleyball-sized,’ they’re ball-bearing turbos made by Garrett, able to provide up to 55psi of pressure.
The Land Cruiser’s standard automatic gearbox has gone, replaced by a drag-minded three-speed gearbox with an overdrive. It’s built to handle 3,000hp. Chuck has fitted a Weissman Locker differential—“a bitchin’ diff,” he affirms—while the suspension is from Toyota’s aftermarket TRD team. It’s been revalved and resprung, while the car, you’ve no doubt noticed, sits around five inches lower than standard. Peer beneath and the exhaust setup is practically a work of art, though for the high-speed runs, there’s a clean underbelly panel fitted to aid aerodynamics.
You might have guessed the aero would need some work, but it’s also the area with some of the quickest gains. There are cameras rather than wing mirrors—“we don’t want elephant ears on the side of the car,” says Chuck—while the rear spoiler incorporates an adjustable Gurney flap. Getting the Land Speed Cruiser’s center of gravity as far back as possible has been key, because the front driveshafts have gone. This Land Cruiser may have eight times as much power as standard, but it’s rear-wheel drive only. Yikes.
It doesn’t weigh any less, even though the interior’s been trimmed down and the back seats removed. “It’s a 6,721kg vehicle still. We didn’t save weight. We didn’t make a race vehicle. It’s 2.7 tons full of fuel oil and driver. That’s good for traction. The real neat thing about its tires (Michelin Pilot Supersports) is that in their normal application, they’re run under a lot of downforce, so they’re built for weight.
“Ferraris and Lamborghinis and things… huge downforce. I looked at the tires for the Bugatti Veyron at first, and the guys said ‘don’t even think about it,’ because they’re hugely expensive. We got these Michelins totally off the shelf, I bought this one from Tire Rack. They asked how long we want to sustain high speed, and I said ‘just long enough to do the high speed’. These tires have got over 483kph in them.”
Given the relatively subtle bodykit, Chuck has suggested the Land Speed Cruiser is a sleeper. When he starts up that V8—the ignition taking a short while to catch, before the warehouse practically falls down around us when all eight cylinders fully kick into life—I conclude no one with a pulse could sleep with this thing around.
He takes me on his regular test route, essentially a rectangle around the block of this workshop, and it’s all on public roads. “If I go down this street too fast, that police car over there might turn around and follow, so I’ll just try to be a little careful here,” he bellows over the noise, as the engine idles at a stop light. Just as it creeps out of view, the lights change, and Chuck demonstrates a reasonable amount of first gear. On cold tires, it sends the Land Speed Cruiser into a power slide.
Fast forward a couple of months and Chuck’s pride and joy is at Mojave Air and Space port. The runway is 5km long. The team has split this into 2.4kms for the Land Speed Cruiser’s acceleration, and a whole 1.6kms for braking. Racer Craig Stanton is the driver tasked with ‘warming up’ the car ready for its record attempt.
Every single movement is super critical,” he says. “Spending three seconds coming off the throttle, spending three seconds transferring to the brake, so you’re super smooth and not dramatically transferring weight around the car.
“The first time I drove it was all-wheel drive and super stable. Then it was turning to rear-wheel drive and I was thinking ‘how’s this going to work? Is the back end going to step out with all that power, will the back just want to pass the front?’
“Then at our proving ground it was hitting almost 306kph! I could steer it and change lanes; 2,722kgs with a bit of aero, and it didn’t do anything funny or strange or out of character. And once you get onto the straightway at 306kph you have a head start.”
With an almost movie-like plot, the team’s chance to top 340kph doesn’t come until the very last run of the day, with only a small amount of the Land Speed Cruiser’s ethanol/fuel mix left. It’s fair to say the 118L tank has been emptied several times in the run up to its run.
The record run’s stunt pilot—recently retired NASCAR driver Carl Edwards—spookily sets 340kph on his first run, with barely an inch left for slowing the big Toyota from any higher speed. Which is where having a power figure so short of the engine’s limits suddenly seems a very good idea. With the boost pressure of the turbos raised, power can edge up from 1,900hp and Carl can hit a higher speed earlier. And he does exactly that, recording 370kph with braking room still to spare. It’s a script worthy of Hollywood.
Save for the slightly imperfect ending, because there’s no actual place in the record books awaiting Toyota. “Initially the team wanted to set a world record for the fastest SUV on planet earth,” says Dan Gardner, a Toyota spokesperson. “Guinness had some different ideas about definitions of the word SUV around the world, though, and they weren’t willing to recognize the category.” It’s also worth pointing out that while you can buy a 340kph Brabus, you can’t buy a Land Speed Cruiser.
“But we thought ‘let’s still do it by ourselves and record the data,’ we still want to say that this is the fastest. Lots of people can’t believe we did this, especially for such a large company with liability to think about. There are still a ton of people out there who want to do things that are inspiring, exciting and innovative.”
NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.