We learned from the first-generation Xterra that image and perceived authenticity are more important than utility. That relatively crude old formula was a fat hit, where the more usable Honda Element and Pontiac Aztek struggled to attract the same buyers. (Authenticity might not have been the Aztek's biggest problem....) Toyota didn't make the same mistake — though only time will tell if sales will remain strong after the initial interest dies down.
Exterior & Styling
"FJ" honors the trim names used since the 1950s on the Toyota Land Cruiser (the original tough ones, not the cushy, luxury-lite, overpriced models of today). They stopped selling in the U.S. at roughly the same time the words "energy independence" were first uttered — a simpler time when "global warming" was something that came and went with the summers. The FJ resembles those older models, especially in the front.
Onlookers weren't crazy about my test vehicle's blue color, which many thought was cheap-looking, but overall it's the FJ's styling that's lighting people's fire. You might want to go back and read that again. A Toyota's styling is lighting people's fire. When have you heard that before? Toyota's and Honda's products have been exceptional in many ways, but their styling has held them back. If competing automakers aren't concerned about the FJ and what it represents, they're in deep doo-doo.
There are only a few exterior options. A white roof comes on any FJ for no extra cost. Dealer options include the roof rack, brush guards to protect the lights and body, and running boards. The standard black steel wheels can be upgraded to bright alloys, including a matching spare for the rear swing gate. Both wheel types are 17 inches.
Ride & Handling
The FJ has an independent front and non-independent rear suspension. Aside from being less expensive, the solid rear axle has some advantages in off-roading. On the road, the FJ rides more like a modern body-on-frame SUV than an older, less-refined truck. In short, more like a current Xterra than an original Xterra. Neither model has the carlike manners of a car-based, unibody SUV, though. The FJ feels tall, and there's a fair amount of body roll, perhaps due to the long suspension travel designed to keep the tires in touch with the ground on the most uneven surfaces.
The minimum ground clearance is 8.7 inches in the 4x2 and 9.6 inches for the 4x4. Skid plates for all the vulnerable bits are standard. The tires are 32 inches in diameter, the water-fording depth is 27.5 inches and the approach and departure angles are generous for attacking and departing steep inclines. I drove the FJ on an offroad course set up by Toyota, and it's clearly Toyota's most offroad-capable SUV, which should please the authenticity-oriented buyer. I could go into detail, but I try to review cars the way the overwhelming majority of people really use them. Let's just say the FJ Cruiser is more than qualified to scale Mount Irrelevant.
Going & Stopping
The FJ's heart is a transplant from the 4Runner SUV and pickup trucks, a 4.0-liter V-6 that delivers 239 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 278 pounds-feet of torque at 3,700 rpm. Transmission choices include a five-speed automatic and a six-speed manual. Though the manual is the option, it subtracts $410 from the suggested retail price. It's offered with four-wheel drive only.
I enjoyed driving both transmissions. The manual feels appropriate in a truck of this type, and its six gears are generous. With the engine's broad, robust torque range, it could probably get by with five gears, but we'll take the sixth and whatever flexibility and efficiency it brings. The automatic is typical Toyota: responsive, smooth and unobtrusive. Again, the engine's healthy output keeps the gearbox from having to dance too quickly.
The stick will be the choice of authenticionados. In addition to having a lower overall crawl ratio than the automatic for scrambling over rocks and such, there's a clutch-start cancel mode that allows the engine to start when the clutch pedal is released. The benefit here is that the FJ's engine can be stopped when in gear, locking all the wheels on any terrain or grade. After you hit the cancel switch, you can start the engine without depressing the clutch and losing your toehold. (You don't want to do this unless you're off road with the transfer case's low gear engaged.)
There are three drivelines: Rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive with the automatic transmission, and a different 4WD system with the manual transmission. The 4x2 is pretty simple: It uses ABS-based traction control to address slippage in the rear wheels. All FJs also come with an electronic stability system as standard equipment.
The manual has permanent 4WD for use on any surface, with a limited-slip center differential that sends 60 percent of the torque to the rear axle in normal driving. It can automatically transfer up to 70 percent back there, or a maximum of 53 percent to the front axle when slippage occurs. The transfer case lever can be used to lock the center diff for a 50/50 split, and to engage an additional low gear for off-roading. In normal use on snow and wet pavement, automatic mode should be more than enough. The 50/50 lock might help when stuck and in low gear.
The 4WD that's teamed with the automatic transmission is actually less sophisticated. Rear-wheel drive is the default mode. Here the transfer-case shifter engages a part-time, 50/50-split 4WD that's for use only on slick surfaces. (Dry pavement causes binding and possibly damage.) Another setting engages the low gear for off-roading. A locking rear differential, controlled by a dashboard button, is optional.
In addition to all the standard and optional driveline-locking hardware, the 4x4 versions have Active TRACtion control. A-TRAC is a smarter version of the 4x2's ABS-based traction control. It clamps spinning wheels to redirect torque — especially between left and right wheels — but it allows some wheelspin. The 4x2's simpler TRAC system is more conservative, which can bog you down on loose surfaces, and it's baffled by some offroad situations, like a wheel spinning freely in the air.
(A-TRAC should not be confused with 8-track, a far less helpful technology. Coincidentally, 8-track audio tapes were in dashboards at the same time as America's first big push to save gasoline — and lasted about as long.)
The optional running boards are far enough below the truck's floor that they actually help you step up and in, which shorter folks are likely to appreciate, along with the grab handles on the A-pillars and above the doors. They'll be less enthusiastic about the dashboard, which rises high and nearly vertical. Luckily the driver's seat has a jack-style manual height adjustment lever. The steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope, and adjustable pedals aren't offered.
Rear visibility isn't great. The spare tire blocks the critical area directly behind you, and the D-pillar is wide. The C-pillar surely doesn't put the "see" in pillar. This is a truck in need of rear sonar parking assist. Fortunately you can get it, but only in the optional Convenience Package along with less critical features.
Supporting the FJ's rough image are water- and stain-resistant upholstery and a rubberized floor. Floor mats are available, but mine tended to slide around.
In general, the interior has the build quality expected of a Toyota, but the materials aren't exactly lush. The inside door handle has a nice, rubberized finish, but the rest is a bit hard. People deemed my test vehicle's optional body-colored blue plastic trim about as cheap inside as outside, and the faux silver isn't fooling anyone.
The backseat is reasonably accommodating but not exactly pleasant. The rear-hinged backdoors open only after the front doors. While the opening to the cabin is wide, getting in the backseat could be a lot easier. First, the release handle is on the rear door's inside panel, not in the doorjamb where it would be easily reached. Second, the front seat's seat belt retractors are on the rear door, so the front occupant must unbuckle or entry is blocked. Finally, there's no special provision on the front seats to slide them forward and out of the way. Once inside, passengers will find the backdoor out of reach. Toyota needs to add a strap or handle to make it easier to close.
Once inside, there's ample headroom and decent legroom, even for an adult. The backrest angle isn't adjustable, but it's comfortable enough. The worst I can say is it's like a cave back there because of the tinted windows that don't open and the expansive C-pillars, much like the recently retired Chevrolet Blazer two-door.
Considering that the standard tires are competent in offroad driving, they're admirably quiet on pavement. Noise levels are pretty good overall, the most noticeable being wind noise, which is hard to avoid when you have the aerodynamics of a shipping container.
As of this writing, the FJ Cruiser has undergone only frontal offset testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, our preferred test agency. It was rated Good, the highest possible. Side- and rear-impact tests are pending. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn't yet given the FJ a rollover rating, but there are features that address this possibility: The standard stability system can prevent some conditions that lead to rollover. Also, the optional side-airbag package is designed to detect a rollover and deploy curtain airbags along the side windows of front and rear seats. This protects occupants and helps prevent their ejection.
The airbag package also includes side-impact airbags that deploy from the front seats to protect their occupants' torsos. It's unfortunate that these safety items aren't standard equipment, but they generally aren't in this market segment, if they're offered at all.
Cargo & Towing
To maximize ground clearance and departure angle, Toyota couldn't mount the spare tire under the FJ Cruiser, and it would fill too much of the cargo hatch, so they mounted it to the truck's backside. This required a swing gate rather than a liftgate. The gate is big and heavy, but an air spring makes it manageable. Unfortunately, a swing gate requires more space behind the car. For this reason, the rear window raises independently for some degree of access. The gate opens toward the street, not the curb, which is rare and great to see on a Japanese vehicle. This means you don't have to load cargo while standing in traffic.
The cargo area has 27.9 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the 60/40-split backseat, and 66.8 cubic feet when it's folded forward. Folding it forward requires the bottom cushions to be flipped forward first, but then the cargo floor is relatively flat. The seatbacks are plastic, as is the hatch floor under a removable mat. Before you get carried away, don't believe the rumors that the truck can be "hosed out." Wiped out, yes, but hosing is likely to turn the underlying material into a petri dish.
Like many truck-based SUVs, the FJ's towing capacity is higher than that of most car-based models: 5,000 pounds. Its maximum payload is 1,325 pounds. The truck needs no special upgrades to handle the towing maximum — just a trailer hitch and wiring, which the dealer should offer.
FJ Cruiser in the Market
I was surprised by the model's reasonable base price. It includes such big-ticket items as the stability system, but so do more and more SUVs. The standard equipment list is fair. Power mirrors, keyless entry and cruise control are options, and the truck lacks a few niceties, such as sun visor extensions, lumbar adjustments and one-touch power windows (it's down only, on the driver's side). The FJ Cruiser already looks like a hit. Even if interest in truck-based SUVs continues to wane, it's likely to affect competing vehicles as much if not more.
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