Sadly, athletes and autos show their age when they hit 40.

So, too, do trucks, mini-vans and sport-utility vehicles, such as the Toyota Land Yacht . . . oops. . . Cruiser, the Japanese automaker’s top-of-the-line SUV, which also is the basis for the top-of-the-line LX450 sport-ute from Toyota’s luxury Lexus division.

It’s not that the Land Cruiser is squeaky, creaky or feeble at 40. But it is 40.

The 4.5-liter, 24-valve, 212-horsepower, in-line 6-cylinder engine more than admirably propels the nearly 5,000-pound ute from the light or into the passing lane or along the merger ramp. But you pay the price in feeding it; the 13-mile-per-gallon city/15-m.p.g. highway rating doesn’t allow you to stray far or long from a fuel pump even with a 25-gallon tank.

Adding to its case of consumption is the fact that the Land Cruiser offers full-time four-wheel-drive, meaning neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor sand nor steep mountains should keep it from its appointed rounds, unless you are more than 25 gallons from the next filling station.

Land Cruiser is one of those big, high-priced SUVs that survived several decades before others came out with competing big, high-priced SUVs–from the in-house LX450 to the SLX from Acura, the Navigator from Lincoln, Expedition from Ford and ML320 from Mercedes, to name just a few.

It has lots going for it, in addition to the ability to tow more than 10,000 pounds (in doing so, we suggest not looking at the fuel gauge). It can travel in all seasons and hold six adults with their luggage or golf clubs.

The backs of the second-row seats fold flat for more cargo capacity or fold and tip forward for even more space. And by tipping forward, you gain easy entry to the third row. When tipped, however, the metal seat fasteners rising uncovered from the floor serve as mini obstacles to loading and carrying objects without snagging them.

In what would be the traditional third row, the jump seats fold down from the side walls, so they can be stashed to carry more cargo.

A drawback, however: The seats are strapped to the side walls, and there’s enough play in them that they thump when you’re coming out of most corners and turns–an annoyance in a $40,000 machine.

One of the attractions of a 4WD SUV is that it sits high for added road clearance along with a panoramic view of the road and scenery. But when road surfaces are dry, and large P275/70R16 tires are added, the height and raised center of gravity can leave you feeling wobbly in a sharp turn at speed.

For a 4WD SUV, which tends to ride a bit rough and truck-like, the Land Cruiser suspension provided a surprisingly pleasant cushion against road harshness in vertical movement on uneven pavement. Very luxury sedan-like ride from this big brute ute.

And Land Cruiser comes with dual air bags and four-wheel anti-lock brakes as standar d, which, with full-time 4WD, makes for a complete package.

A couple of problems, however, one being a rather narrow cabin in which the door armrests and the very large center console compartmentalizes front-seat occupants. We would like a little more room to roam–or at least stretch.

And what’s the reason for four (count ’em, four) coin holders in the center console. The console also has two cupholders, but one is immediately behind the gearshift lever, the other under the driver’s elbow below the seat. Coins you can get to; cups are a challenge.

Finally, there is a fine line between “recognizable” styling and “way-too-conservative-and-isn’t-it-about-time-for-a-change-after-40-years” design.

Too often automotive designers insist the new model should look like the old one so consumers can recognize it. If people can find their way home at night in the dark, you’d think they’d be able to distinguish a new design in the vehicle they drive to that ho se.

Land Cruiser needs a makeover and one is coming. A major redesign is in the works for shortly after the first of the year, which means a remake for the Lexus LX450 as well. The Lexus reportedly will be designated the LX470, signifying an engine change from the 4.5-liter to a 4.7-liter, which would mean Land Cruiser will get new power as well.

Land Cruiser needs fresh styling, more interior room, improved mileage and revised interior layout so you can reach a cup as easily as you can a quarter and can lay a sheet of plywood on the floor without it getting pockmarks from the metal-seat fasteners.

A redesign and upgrade of features and equipment is even more important now that Mercedes-Benz is coming out with its stylish, roomy, comfortable, fuel-efficient (17 m.p.g. city/21 m.p.g. highway with a 215-h.p. 6) and technology-/gadget-laden ML320 sport-ute starting at $35,000, which compares with a $41,068 base for the Land Cruiser before the $5,549 anniversary package is added.

>> 1997 Toyota Land Cruiser Wheelbase: 112.2 inches Length: 189.9 inches Engine: 4.5-liter, 212-h.p., 24-valve 6 Transmission: 4-speed automatic EPA mileage: 13 m.p.g. city/15 m.p.g. highway Base price: $41,068 Price as tested: $49,492. Includes $5,549 for 40th Anniversary package with automatic climate control, leather power seats, slide-open rear quarter windows, privacy glass, leather-wrapped steering wheel, bodyside moldings, 40th anniversary badging and floor mats and alloy wheels; $945 for premium AM/FM with cassette/CD and nine speakers; $825 for front- and rear-locking differentials; and $1,105 for power tilt/slide moonroof. Add $420 for freight. Pluses: A yacht that can haul a yacht. Full-time four-wheel-drive. Potent 4.5-liter engine. Stands high for down-the-road vision. Suspension cushions vertical movement to reduce cabin harshness. Rear seats store in side wall when not needed to increase stowage room. Dual air bags and ABS standard. Minuses: With full-time 4WD and potent engine it thirsts for fuel. Stands so high you feel top heavy at times, like in turns. Rear seats along side walls thump in corners and turns in the raised position. In need of styling remake. >>

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