EXPERT REVIEW

Boston.com's view


After my first dance with the 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser in June, I began to have doubts about my assessment. Had there been too much court and spark based on a single twirl?

Other automotive writers said the FJ Cruiser was too boxy. They complained that it was too much like a truck, lacking the car-like ride of the modern SUV and crossover. And they said it had poor visibility from the rear quarters.

My biggest doubt was whether the FJ was suitable for everyday commuting. So I grabbed another one to take another spin.

Toyota has built a world-class off – road vehicle with the FJ. It’s reminiscent of the original Toyota Land Cruiser of more than 30 years ago, though — as would be expected — with far better technology.

This 2007 is supposed to be retro, so naturally it’s going to be boxy. The legendary Cruiser was boxy, too.

Yes, it is truck-like. That’s because Toyota set out to build a rugged off – road vehicle. Building this model to car-like specifications would have been like plopping the new Jeep Wrangler Rubicon atop a Chrysler 300 AWD platform and saying, “Here you go, folks. Be happy on the highway, but good luck off road.”

What I was looking for in the FJ this time around was not so much a sense of its off – road capabilities, but rather a closer look at how it would behave in everyday driving. It had already passed my tests in the local off – road spot I call “The Road That Ate My Hummer.”

So I drove it through traffic during Thanksgiving week. Hauled kids. Took it to soccer games. Went shopping on Black Friday. I romped over the back roads and rolling hills of my New Hampshire stomping grounds. And after all that driving, my assessment of the FJ as a car for commuting improved.

Yes, the view from the rear quarter panels is blocked. But I got used to using, and trusting, the big mirrors.

The doors that open backwards to provide entry to the rear seat also take some getting used to. But in the old Land Cruiser (and I owned one) we often gained access to the rear seats — which ran face-to-face along the rear side walls — by opening the rear gates and climbing in.

I found the FJ Cruiser to be quieter on the highway than I remembered.

It was smoother, more nimble, and a car I would not mind driving a long distance. I’d even take it all the way to Hell’s Revenge Trail in the off – road heaven of Moab, Utah. I know I’d be comfortable all the way out there, and I know it would travel the challenging trails there as only Jeeps, Land Rovers, Hummers, and a few others can.

Part of the FJ’s appeal has to do with the previously mentioned retro look — typified by the signature white top, slab side doors, and wrap around rear windows.

It’s powered by a smooth and quiet 4.0-liter V-6 with 239 horsepower and a utilitarian 278 lb.-ft. of torque.

A downside is the car’s need to use premium fuel for top performance. At just over 17 miles per gallon during testing (up slightly from earlier test driving), that’s costly these days.

You can buy a six-speed manual transmission or a five-speed automatic. I found that the automatic in the test car helped turn it into a more gentle everyday driver, especially because of the ability to manually drop into a lower gear, key for use when you’ve also dropped into low-range and locked the differentials for off – road crawling.

The FJ’s washable seats and floors, ample room for five passengers — or cargo — make it a flexible hauler of people and muddy or wet gear.

The interior, with square lines that are somewhat similar to a Hummer 3’s, appears Spartan at first, but you soon appreciate the utility of all the large plastic knobs and buttons. The driver’s seat has eight manual adjustments (the front passenger seat has four), and the rear seats fold flat to open up cargo space.

Electronic stability control is standard, as are ABS brakes.

Remarkably, Toyota has managed to put this package together for less than $30,000.

So is it a good commuter car? More so than I initially thought. It will cost a lot to fuel, and I would not make the long drive from my New Hampshire home to the Globe on a regular basis. But if I lived closer to work and wanted a comfortable ride for winter, I’d look at the FJ first.

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