By on April 28, 2006

 Toyota is the master of the pastiche. The company's designers never met a Mercedes they couldn't morph, or a Bangled BMW they couldn't bootleg. Granted, capturing the essence of a rival's design without ending up on a hard bench outside the World Intellectual Property Organization is something of an art form. But quite what Toyota had in mind with the FJ Cruiser is hard to fathom. In one sense, they're finally getting 'round to ripping themselves off: riffing on the FJ40 Land Cruiser's riff on the original Jeep. On the other hand, anyone who clocks the FJ Cruiser's brick-like bearing and doesn't think Hummer just isn't trying hard enough– which ain't something you can say about Toyota. Ever.

From the front, the FJ Cruiser is a Lego Transformer. Funky chunky bumpers– complete with molded silver "wings"– combine with a cylindrical light assembly, swooping sides and a gun slit front window to create a mondo-bizarre snap-to-fit aesthetic. The FJ's hood– which looks like a half-submerged bomber hangar– doesn't quite work. But it's Henry Moore to the side profile's Dali-esque dissonance. The FJ's rear windows makes the SUV look like it's sagging in the middle, while the gigantic C-pillars are almost as funny (both humorous and peculiar) as the mini-flares over the rear arches. And the FJ's back end makes the full-size spare hanging on the door look like a child's inflatable pool.

 In other words, it's a hit! In a world of bland, cookie-cutter vehicles, the FJ sticks out like a wacky retro concept vehicle produced by a company that's making so much money building bland, cookie-cutter vehicles it doesn't matter whether it sells or not. The FJ Cruiser's interior betrays its mutant origins in no uncertain terms. The wet-look plastic surrounding the radio and accenting the interior is show car overkill. The bog-standard Toyota steering wheel is equally convincing (and lamentable) proof that the bean counters had the last word. The FJ's bluish dials and tabletop instrument cluster split the difference.

As you'd expect, the FJ's sight lines are diabolical. If you're the kind of driver who doesn't know how to rely on your side mirrors, you're the kind of driver who shouldn't drive a Toyota FJ Cruiser into a school parking lot. Which would anger the kids; the FJ's rear seats are a perfectly-sized perch for tweenies to preen and be seen in Daddy's way cool lifestyle machine. Of course, there are advantages to being square; the FJ's rubber-floored way back is large enough to schlep a brace of labradors, a week's worth of camping gear or, with the second row tumbled forward, both. All to the accompaniment of the kickingest OEM stereo we've ever encountered.

 Turn the FJ's Camry-like key and the SUV's 4.0-liter six expels a coffee-can tuner drone out the rear pipe. It's yet another indication that the FJ Cruiser is the lite beer of SUV's: it can't decide whether it's aimed at buyers who want great taste or more hilling. Thump a bump, feel the FJ's ladder frame chassis and solid rear axle galumph along, and it's clear that the stylish SUV is, at its core, a truck. Well, that and decidedly slow progress, a prodigious thirst for dead dinoflagellates, enough wind noise to provide a soundtrack for a B-grade horror movie, a distinct reluctance to push past 70mph and the extra knob just ahead of the main shift gate, which offers a choice of high or low-range four-wheel drive with Torsen limited-slip locking differentials.

If you have any idea what all that means, you're in for a treat. You don't have to flog the FJ at a military off-road course to know that Toyota's entry-level 4X4 brings the noise (that damn blatting just never stops). But if you do, you will. Even in its street shoes, the relatively small FJ has all the boulder-bouncing, mud-plugging prowess of a Toyota 4Runner and Lexus GX470– with which it shares it well-protected mechanical underpinnings. Leave the blacktop behind and the FJ's lethargy is soon forgotten. A wave of torque pushes, pulls or digs you out the rough stuff. No question: the FJ Cruiser is a seriously capable piece of kit.

 And here's the kicker: all this for under $28k. City slickers can save a couple of grand by specifying the two-wheel drive slushbox version; which will still four-wheel you out of the muddy periphery of your daughter's soccer field (without messing with "extra" levers). To quote Richard Nixon's imaginary remark to his Watergate henchmen, that would be wrong. The FJ Cruiser was born to disappear from the admiring glances of fashion victims and mix it up in the outback. I mean, YOU try and parallel park the thing.

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