Prado at home on wild West Coast

COAST CRUISER: The Prado VX is fairly pricey to buy but it is very easy to appreciate its sheer excellence as a medium-large SUV especially in areas like the wild West Coast.
COAST CRUISER: The Prado VX is fairly pricey to buy but it is very easy to appreciate its sheer excellence as a medium-large SUV especially in areas like the wild West Coast.

Recently when Ged from Blackball married Amy from Hokitika, the ceremony took place on a farm at a small West Coast location called Awatuna.

Powertrain: Full time 4WD 4.0-litre 24-valve quad cam V6 petrol engine, with high-low ratio and five-speed automatic transmission.
Outputs: 202kW at 5600rpm, 381Nm at 4400rpm, 11.5L/100km, 271g/km CO2.
Chassis: Kinetic Dynamic Suspension System (KDSS) featuring fully independent double wishbone front suspension with coil springs and stabiliser bar at the front, four-link rigid axle with coil springs and stabiliser bar at the rear. Engine-speed sensitive power-assisted steering.
Safety: Full-time all-wheel drive. ABS brakes with brake- force distribution, brake assist, stability control, traction control, hill-start assist, downhill assist, and trailer sway control. Front, knee, side and curtain airbags. Parking sensors. Reversing camera with moving guide lines and wide-view front and side monitor.
Dimensions: L 4760, W 1885mm, H 1890mm, W/base 2790mm, kerb weight 2270kg.
Hot: Powerful and quiet drive, with excellent level of specification at the GX level. Superb offroad ability.
Not: Vehicle runs on 95 octane petrol and has an 87 litre fuel tank. That means it costs close to $200 to fill from empty. Official fuel consumption is 11.5L/100km.
Verdict: Prado VX is fairly pricey to buy, and the petrol model drinks high-octane fuel, but it is very easy to appreciate its sheer excellence as a medium-large SUV.
The event was memorable for several reasons, not the least because afterwards the breakfast was everything I'd dare hoped for from a Coast wedding - guests feasted on platters of whitebait fritters, paua patties, crayfish tails, venison kebabs, and a spit-roast lamb.

And another memorable feature of Ged and Amy's wedding was that just about every guest turned up in an SUV. All-wheel drive vehicles of all sizes lined the country road, the farm driveway and a small parking area. It seemed nobody dared turn up in a small hatchback for fear of being labelled a wuss.

But then again the West Coast is definitely SUV country. Of all the regions in New Zealand, maybe it is that remote, wild and weather-beaten strip of country that most suits the tough, higher-riding and all-wheel drive abilities of such vehicles.

It was fortunate then that we turned up in a Toyota Prado. It almost made us feel part of society there. I mean, it wasn't much more than a century ago that Hokitika boasted a population of 25,000 and had more than 100 pubs - 50 of them on one street alone - and even today the town has a sort of muscular off-roady feel about it.

Not only that, but it's also a good idea to have a decent sort of vehicle to get there. Drive from Christchurch to the West Coast along SH73 and you have to take on a route through the Southern Alps that encounters places such as Arthur's Pass and the spectacular Otira Viaduct. The route isn't anywhere as notorious as it used to be, but it is still a solid climb up and over mountain country, and the best way to deal to that is by using a vehicle with grunt.

And our Prado had grunt. It was a 4.0-litre V6 petrol-powered VX model that has just been introduced by Toyota New Zealand as part of a refreshed Prado lineup for 2014.

The biggest news about the refreshment project involves this vehicle, which is the only petrol-engined model in the Prado lineup. Featuring the same V6 as that aboard the FJ Cruiser, the petrol model was added to the Prado fleet in 2011 to meet the needs of potential buyers who didn't necessarily want diesel.

When it was introduced it was specified to the highest VX Limited grade, which meant it had all the bells and whistles but also the second-highest price - $106,980, which was just a thousand dollars less than the similarly specified turbo-diesel version.

But now the petrol model is not a Limited any more. Instead its level of specification has been reduced to the VX grade, and its price has reduced by $12,200 to $94,780 which is exactly the same price as an identically specified diesel VX. Meanwhile the diesel VX Limited has gone up in price to $109,780.

Toyota NZ says the change in the petrol Prado's specification is simply in response to what customers want.

"They say the level of specification in the lower grades is high enough anyway, so we decided to pitch the petrol model at the VX grade," explains the company's general manager of sales and operations Steve Prangnell.

Good point. What the VX doesn't have that the Limited does are a power sunroof, a memory function for the power- operated front seats, more controls on the steering wheel, dynamic radar cruise control, and a satellite navigation package that includes a grunty 14-speaker audio system.

I could do without all of that, apart from the sat-nav which really should be a standard item aboard any vehicle that retails for close to $95,000. But it was aboard our road test Prado anyway - it had been installed as a $3500 option. And we immediately needed it too as we tried to thread our way out from Toyota's central Christchurch dealership and through the closed-off streets and one-way lanes that are such a feature of the city's CBD as it recovers from the devastating earthquake of three years ago.

But at least we could see where we were going. Now, I know that big SUVs such as Prado regularly come in for heavy - and valid - criticism for being completely inappropriate for urban motoring. But when you've got a vehicle that's close to 2m tall and with a ground clearance of 207mm, it means those aboard are sitting high enough to see just about everything - and that's as much a benefit when you're negotiating your way around inner-city roadworks as it is when you're somewhere out in the rugged countryside.

But the great outdoors is the Prado's real forte, which quickly became obvious during the cruise to the West Coast. Its 4.0-litre quad-cam V6 offers plenty of power and torque, and that translated to very relaxed driving across the Canterbury plain and easily sufficient grunt to amble over Arthur's Pass.

It became even more obvious during a few more days spent trekking our way around the Coast, nosing our way through places such as the tiny villages of Woodstock and Rimu.

I love places such as these. Woodstock was established near the banks of the Hokitika River when gold was found there in 1865, but the gold soon petered out. And then more gold was found in the 1880s at the top of a big hill overlooking Woodstock, sparking instant creation of another settlement that was called Upper Woodstock - promptly changed, so the story goes, to Rimu once once the posties got sick of clambering up the big hill to deliver mail to the wrong settlements!

Rimu is just a quiet little place now, but at one stage it boasted 500 miners and their families, six pubs, two banks, two bakeries, a butcher, two churches and a convent school. As we motored through Rimu and Woodstock then along countryside that is obviously the tailings from the gold mining of years past, we wondered what life was like then. It must have been tough.

History tells us things were also tough at the village of Blackball, inland from Greymouth, which was created in the late 19th century when the Black Ball Shipping Line leased land there to mine not for gold, but coal. A manager of that mine was a Mr Hilton, and the main street was named after him. So too was the pub, which might have originally been called the Dominion Hotel but which soon became known as the Blackball Hilton.

In later years that had to change when the international hotel chain carrying the same family name objected. So the pub is now known as Formerly The Blackball Hilton - and it is one of the most famous watering holes in the South Island.

Not that we had a chance to sample it, however. We cruised into Blackball, parked the Prado on Hilton St, and wandered in for a beer. But there was nobody there to serve us. So we used the toilets, had a good look around, and headed off again.

By now the West Coast's famous wet and windy was closing in, so we decided to head north and inland to a new dot on the map - Murchison.

While the township isn't strictly part of the Coast - it's in the Tasman region instead - it does lie on the banks of the 170km Buller River which runs from Lake Rotoiti to Westport, so it's close enough. And it is also a great place to visit in an SUV, especially one with a trout rod on board, because Murchison is surrounded by wonderful unsealed roads that wind their way up into very scenic countryside.

This, I decided, is perfect country for the Toyota - it even suits the name Prado which is derived from the Portuguese word for meadow. So off we went, confident in the vehicle's abilities via its four-wheel drive system which features a Torsen-type LSD centre differential with centre differential lock, hill-start assist, downhill assist, and active traction control. At the VX level the Prado also has what is known as kinetic dynamic suspension, which aids performance both on and off the road.

If I had been towing a trailer, I would have been happy that the 2014 model introduces trailer sway control software which assists the driver to retain control if the system senses a dangerous situation occurring when towing. And if things get really bad, an emergency stop signal system - which flashes the brake lights under hard braking to alert following traffic of a potential incident - is also a standard feature.

Gee there are a lot of rivers around Murchison - we should have realised that as we drove to the town along a portion of SH6 known as the Four Rivers Highway. Every valley seems to offer stretches of the most beautiful fishing water. I quite believe locals when they say you could spend six months in Murchison and not fish the same place more than once. Not that it did us any good of course - we failed to catch anything. So we headed back to town and parked outside Murchison Meats, the famous little butchery that has been in existence since 1847 and wins awards for producing some of New Zealand's best bacon, popped in and purchased some of the stuff.

A little later as we sat in our motel room and munched on bacon and eggs instead of trout and looked outside at the facelifted Prado with its slightly changed grille, new daytime running lights and redesigned cluster of tail lights, it was easy to understand why residents of regions such as the West Coast are big on SUVs.

Such vehicles might not be essential, but they are very handy. But of course Ged, Amy and the rest of the crowd down Hokitika way, already know that.

Taranaki Daily News