A while back I was reading the Wikipedia page for “Portal Axles” (just another Tuesday night), and there, under the short list of vehicles sold new from the factory with this unique axle setup, was one I had never heard of before: Not a Toyota Land Cruiser, but rather a Toyota Mega Cruiser. Was this a joke?
Much to my delight, it was not a joke: The Mega Cruiser is a real thing. And it gets even better: What is believed to be the only civilian model in the whole Western Hemisphere was, earlier this year, added to the collection at the Toyota Land Cruiser Heritage Museum, which is exactly 2.2 miles from my apartment in downtown Salt Lake City. I had to get my hands on this thing.
A little while ago, I managed to do just that.
A product of the Japanese economic bubble era of the late 1980s, the Mega Cruiser was essentially an off-road supercar. It incorporated every bit of 4×4 technology available on the market at the time: The aforementioned portal axles, fully independent suspension, a torquey diesel engine, full-time 4-wheel drive with locking front, center and rear differentials, inboard brakes set way up high against the differentials, a central tire inflation system for the rear wheels and 4-wheel steering.
Much like the venerable Hummer H1, the Mega Cruiser was first developed as an all-purpose military vehicle to support the Japanese Defense Forces. Its first iteration was the simplistic BXD10. Akin to the Humvee, the BXD10 was a military vehicle through and through, and it’s estimated that around 3,000 were built during the 1990s.
Sensing the potential for appeal to the public, Toyota then developed the civilian BXD20 Mega Cruiser shown here. In addition to serving as a flagship 4×4, the Mega Cruiser was to serve as a test bed for technology that was supposed to trickle down to the Land Cruiser and other Toyota trucks — but the project never quite got that far. Only 149 were built, and all were sold in Japan between 1996 and 2002. The museum’s Mega Cruiser is a 1996 model and is, for the most part, factory original. The previous owner took the liberty of removing the badges and “Mega Cruiser” stickers from the sides and rear hatch and installed an aftermarket head unit along with a few other electronic items. Also, the roof rack is thought to be an aftermarket accessory.
Under the hood of the Mega Cruiser is a 4.1-liter 4-cylinder turbodiesel that makes 153 horsepower and 282 lb-ft of torque — sent to the wheels through a 4-speed automatic transmission. The only other vehicle to utilize this engine is a version of the Toyota Coaster Minibus that sees service throughout much of the eastern hemisphere.
As this engine is meant primarily for torque and off-road prowess, the Mega Cruiser isn’t really interested in acceleration. While it can eventually get up to an acceptable highway cruising speed, the getting there part can take a while. Luckily, when you’re behind the wheel of a Mega Cruiser, the world bends to your will, and I’m pretty sure other motorists are legally required to pull over, get out of their cars and bow down as you pass by.
Relative to its most obvious rival, the Hummer H1, the Mega Cruiser is a foot longer and a few inches taller — but it’s also narrower and well over 1,000lbs lighter than its American counterpart. The Mega Cruiser makes better use of its interior space, as well, offering 4-across seating in the second row, achieved via two single seats on the sides and a 2-person bench seat in the middle, which gives it room for six passengers overall.
Two different roofs were offered on the civilian Mega Cruiser. This one has the standard flat roof, but there was also an optional high-roof, which made for even more interior space.
Adding to the weirdness of the Mega Cruiser are its 17.5-inch wheels. Finding tires for this thing is likely a bit of a challenge. There’s also a central tire inflation system for the rear wheels that can be used for airing up and down for off-road use without getting out of the vehicle. And as I’m sure you’re now wondering, the spare tire is compatible with this system.
Driving the Mega Cruiser was challenging, but not for the reasons you may think — despite its militaristic origins, it was surprisingly refined and well put together; exactly what you’d expect from a Toyota product.
It was hard to appreciate these attributes, though, until I got over the bizarre driving position.
I’d never driven a right-hand-drive vehicle before, and the dimensions of the Mega Cruiser aren’t exactly ideal for learning. Given that it’s rarer than a Bugatti Chiron, I really didn’t want to damage this thing.
Like the Hummer H1, the Mega Cruiser has a large transmission tunnel running through the passenger area, forcing the front seats to be positioned as far toward the outside extremes of the vehicle as possible. In a left-hand-drive vehicle of this size, this would be fine, as it would provide a great vantage point from which to align yourself with the center of the lane. In a right-hand-drive vehicle, though, this makes things incredibly difficult, as you’re forced to hold your position in the lane while basically riding along on the sidewalk.
Once adjusted to this unorthodox driving position, I was able to really appreciate how poised the Mega Cruiser was on the road. The 4-wheel steering makes a huge difference, giving this thing an extremely tight turning radius for its size. Behind the wheel of the Mega Cruiser, making a right or left turn at low speed is a really unique experience, as the whole vehicle comes around the turn a lot faster than you’re expecting. For a moment it feels as if the back end has come loose and you’re drifting around the turn.
Since this was a right-hand-drive vehicle, some of the controls were swapped, and the turn signals were on the right side of the steering column, while the windshield wiper stalk was on the left side. Predictably, while there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, I turned the windshield wipers on quite a few times over the course of my 15 minutes behind the wheel.
I’ve driven a Hummer H1, and it feels like an old military vehicle wearing civilian clothing. The Mega Cruiser, on the other hand, felt much like any other Toyota product from the mid 1990s. There were none of the rattles and creaks you might expect from a vehicle designed primarily for industrial servitude, and the suspension was, dare I say, smooth, allowing the Mega Cruiser to absorb potholes with little fuss.
The engine was a bit loud given its industrial origins, and the vehicle’s design is obviously utilitarian, but the materials used and overall fit and finish were on par with the level of quality one would expect from one of Toyota’s halo vehicles. This thing, while bizarre and unique by any standard, was completely passable as a means of every day transportation.
So that about sums up the Mega Cruiser. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is my all-time favorite vehicle and what a lucky coincidence that the only one on this side of the world lives within walking distance of my apartment. I want to thank everyone at the Land Cruiser Heritage Museum for letting me check it off my bucket list. Give them a call if you ever want to stop by the museum and check out the Mega Cruiser for yourself, along with the 60-or-so other Land Cruisers they have on display.
Chris O’Neill grew up in the Rust Belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for awhile, helping Germans design cars for Americans. Follow him on Instagram: @MountainWestCarSpotter.