EXPERT REVIEW

Orlando Sentinel's view


Bland? That might not be fair, but look at mainstream examples of Toyota styling such as the Corolla and Highlander, and you can certainly justify “safe.” This is a company that rarely stretches.

Which is why the original FJ Cruiser concept was so refreshing when it debuted at the Detroit Auto Show in 2003. Then at the Chicago Auto Show two years ago this month, Toyota updated the FJ Cruiser and said that it would go into production. Even more refreshing, that production version looked just like the concept, cartoonish colors, big tires and all.

Both its name and its retro design are nods to the angular, utilitarian Toyota Land Cruisers from the 1960s, but underneath, the FJ is entirely up-to-date. The basic platform is from the Toyota 4Runner, as is the engine, a 245-horsepower, 4.0-liter V-6. Transmission is a five-speed manual. You can get a rear-wheel-drive FJ Cruiser, but most are four-wheel-drive, as was the test vehicle: It’s a part-time four-wheel-drive, engaged by a dial on the dashboard.

Its profile suggests that the FJ is a two-door, but there are dual rear doors that open from the front to the rear. The larger front door has to be open for the rear door to open, like on many extended-cab pickups. The handle that opens the rear door is located annoyingly far to the rear, especially if you’re standing outside in the rain with an armful of groceries.

The rear seat works better for groceries than for adults, but if you need to put three people back there, you can. If you do that regularly, though, expect those passengers to discuss among themselves why you didn’t go ahead and buy the four-door 4Runner.

Up front, there’s plenty of room for driver and passenger. Instruments and controls are utilitarian, as are the “water-repellent” seats and what Toyota says is the “rubber-like cabin and cargo area flooring.” Rubberlike? Looks, feels and smells like rubber.

As you might guess from looking at it, rear visibility in the FJ Cruiser isn’t very good, and I would have liked larger side mirrors. The big rear-mounted spare tire limits the view through the back window, too. Part of the $1,840 “convenience package” on the test FJ was “rear parking sonar,” and it was helpful.

On the road, the FJ rides a lot better than I expected, likely because of how well the huge P265-70R-17 tires soak up bumps. The little bit of off-roading I did suggests that this is a very capable backwoods companion.

I liked the FJ a lot, and the price — $26,641 with all the features I’d want — is reasonable, which is not something I say much about Toyotas, and it’s well below a Hummer H3. Nicely done, Toyota.

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