SOME VEHICLES stand like rocks while the tides of fashion ebb and flow about them. Toyota”s flagship Amazon has cruised the world”s toughest spots for donkey”s years, but with a replacement likely in 2006, now is a good time to take stock of the legend.

Two good reasons to buy one? Sheer size and build quality. Though outgunned physically by today”s Range Rover, an Amazon still dispenses headroom and stretching space with largesse, taking five in comfort and two more in the two-and-nines at the back. The acreage of tarmac it covers and the diesel it burns (expect 19-24mpg) are not politically correct, but if you need space and presence the Amazon has it.

And it”s one of the most impressively put together off-roaders you”ll find, from the seamless cab trimming to the click-shut tailgate. There”s nary a squeak or rattle on the move. But then, at 47,170 on the road you”d expect nothing less.

That money buys a diesel auto. This and the other variants (a diesel manual and a V8 petrol) have an option list running only to stability/traction control, variable ratio steering and a fancy sound system, the first two standard on the V8 anyway.

The rest – and there is a lot of the rest – comes with every model. All is electric, naturally. Airbags are many. The seats are heated and memory capable. Wipers are rain sensing, the climate is controlled, navigation is by satellite. There”s even a reversing camera, for goodness” sake.

Tricked out in light grey leather, the cabin is cheerful, welcoming and a long way from terra firma unless the swanky air springing is set at access height. Tall front chairs show you the far-flung corners of the boxy body and deliver a relaxing driving position. The Amazon”s unique force field is busy in here, radiating a feeling of well-being which blurs iffy bits like the seat”s slipperiness and lack of real support, the arbitrary control layout and swelling, slightly tacky centre dash.

Weight (2.6t) and aerodynamics aren”t the big Toyota”s strong suits. Yet an insistent 201hp and 317lbf ft from the 4.2 litre turbodiesel six still punch it down the road pretty well, eased by a smooth-shifting five-speed autobox. Claims are for an 11.5sec sprint to 60mph and 112mph top speed. High gearing and limited wind noise add up to a loping cruise, but elsewhere the engine”s low, pervading growl and pedal-tingling vibes hurt refinement. Engine noise is the first real glimpse of time”s wrinkles.

The mask slips further with ride and handling. True, there is air springing with electronic control and variable damping, but it works with a beam back axle and a ladder chassis. Discount small-bump harshness and the Amazon rides with some style – sheer mass steamrollers it through and damping control is impressive – yet country bitumen has it fidgeting non-stop.

 The story is the same through corners, where the lazy, low-geared steering and shuffling suspension don”t encourage liberties. Instead dial down the speed, dial up the stereo and chill; that”s the best way.

TOOL OF CHOICE

 You can take an Amazon anywhere. Peel back the upper deck plush and you can see why this vehicle is the tool of choice in many parts of the globe – permanent 4WD, a true low range, fine axle travel, switchable locks for the centre and back diffs, variable body height. Nothing too fancy, all rolling on sizeable wheels and bolstered by the feeling that whatever you do, you probably won”t break it.

So where does the Amazon stand? At a crossroads. On the one hand, it”s up there with the best of them on quality, kit and off-road talent. On the other, it”s heading into the twilight on noise, refinement, ride and economy. It”ll be interesting to see where Toyota takes the legend next: let”s hope that the big bruiser”s rock-solid character isn”t lost on the journey.