The M1A2 Abrams tank has better visibility than the 2009 FJ Cruiser.
It’s not really a fair comparison — the tank includes high-tech optics to operate its 120 mm smooth bore gun and the FJ Cruiser has a windshield slightly larger than a basement window.
Having had the opportunity to ride in the tank recently, I can tell you that it can spin its turret in a few seconds, providing 360 degrees of vision, and that it would never be parallel parked.
The FJ Cruiser, meanwhile, now comes with a backup camera and sonar to help with backing up but even after a week of testing the FJ, I felt apprehensive pulling into a parking space with cars on both sides. As you approach, the car on the right nearly disappears from sight. The one thing both vehicles truly share is that they were designed for big open spaces. They just weren’t made for zipping through city streets and squeezing into nooks or crannies.
The FJ feels like a good deal, when you see the starting price right below $25,000. However, sticker shock can occur quickly when you start including add-ons. My nicely loaded 4×4 included a number of options such as keyless entry, running boards, towing package, roof rack, a locking rear differential and back camera mounted in the rearview mirror and topped out at $33,000.
For me, the FJ has a cartoonish feel to its exterior. Every piece of it seems slightly exaggerated. Its design points back to the legendary FJ40, which roamed the plains of Africa in search of wildebeests and elephants. The modern FJ keeps its headlights uncomfortably close together, which seems to make it look even wider. The body style is unique and no one will mistake it for anything other than an FJ. The signature white roof also adds an interesting touch.
The big, squared off wheel wells covered in plastic cladding add to the rough riding looks and were designed to accommodate up to 32-inch wheels.
Toyota uses suicide-type doors for the second row, which means the hinges are on the opposite side of the door from most vehicles. They can only be opened if the front doors are already open, similar to the way many extended cab pickups work. However, the second row doors are tricky to open because you have to reach all the way inside the vehicle to pull the handle and when you do open them, they open with a slant downward, as if they were going to fall off.
Even with the additional space, climbing into the back is no easy feat. The high floor makes it more difficult to step up and the front seats gobble up a lot of space. The back is not where I’d want to be.
Once you’re strapped into the FJ, though, it provides a very good ride.
The 4-liter V-6 generates 239 horsepower and 278 pound-feet of torque, which is more than enough power to push around this 4,000 pound off-road vehicle. (For 2010 models arriving at dealerships soon, Toyota will add 19 more horses through additional tuning and dual variable valve timing.)
On regular roads, the FJ feels a little stiff and bouncy — a result of the big tires and steel frame. The road noise is bearable, but still quite noticeable. It can cruise easily on the highway, though I couldn’t imagine taking long trips in the Cruiser.
All of the attributes that make it slightly clumsy on the road, however, make it exceptional off-road. Toyota has packed the FJ with capabilities. Riding on 32-inch tires, you have 9.1 inches of ground clearance. In previous test drives, there was never a hill or trail the FJ Cruiser could not overcome. Weekend mudders will love the FJ. The only thing holding it back are optional rocker panels, which I’d suggest removing before you hit the trail or risk the trail removing them for you. But if you don’t know the difference between a trail head and a Starbucks, there’s no reason to buy this vehicle.
Inside the FJ Cruiser, the feel is spartan but comfortable. The small front windshield makes it difficult to see much and the three little windshield wipers are distracting. When I drove it in the rain, I laughed when the wipers kicked on.
While it may take you to the wilderness, the FJ wants to provide you with as many comforts of home as possible. The upgraded eight-speaker stereo, known as FJammer, includes an audio jack for a personal music device.
The cloth seats are comfortable, but could use some better bolstering, especially if you’re going to do some serious off-roading. And the plastic flooring means it’s easy to clean if you spend a lot of time tracking mud into the vehicle.
There’s something extreme about the feel inside the FJ Cruiser, as if Toyota is trying too hard to say how rugged it is. The heavy metal looking trim, the exposed metal, the big knobs made for manly hands wearing gloves all detract from the interior feel instead of adding to it. Ruggedness isn’t something you design with a certain look; it’s designed with a certain feel. The interior of the FJ Cruiser feels fake. Whenever I see a shiny new FJ Cruiser in a parking lot or driving down the road, I wonder if that person really knows what his vehicle can do on a steep hill or muddy field.
Off-roaders don’t detail their vehicles, they abuse them.
However, for the few FJ owners who spend more time in the mud than they do on asphalt, they will be richly rewarded with a fun, very capable vehicle.
And for those willing to hold out until the end of September, they’ll be rewarded with a mildly updated 2010 FJ Cruiser. Aside from the additional power and a 1 mile per gallon jump in city mileage, from about 15 mpg, the new model year will bring outside mirrors with illumination markers, smoked rear privacy glass and steering wheel audio controls.
Very capable and stylishly freaky, the FJ Cruiser offers a lot, as long as you have space to play. Like the tank, it has a purpose, and using it for anything else doesn’t make much sense.
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