By on October 17, 2006

868348-r1-02-22a.jpgOff-road capable SUV’s are an increasingly rare breed. More and more of our roads are occupied by SUV look-a-likes that can hardly ford a burst water main or clamber over a vicious pothole– never mind tackle the great American outback. Flying in the face of this trend towards soft-roaders and CUV’s, Toyota recently launched their mud-plugging, rock-crawling FJ Cruiser. Huh? The carmaker responsible for more “cute utes” and hybrid half-breeds than any other now wants to mix it up in the rough stuff? No wonder the Japanese automaker invited TTAC to run one of their rigs at a two-day mudfest in Mount Olive, Alabama: Toyota's dirt cred needs a little help.

The FJ Cruiser is, um, unmistakable. Toyota’s designers have created a brightly colored, ruggedly retro, radically rad, four-wheeling rig. What Hummer achieves with boxy shapes and sharp lines, Toyota realizes with bulbous bulges and gentle curves. Love it or hate it, the FJ’s in-your-face style demands an opinion. Of course, drivers with dirt behind their ears believe that beauty is as beauty does. As far as they’re concerned, the FJ could look like a MINI on stilts if it delivered the goods where angels fear to tread.

07_fj_cruiser61.jpgThe old Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser, spiritual inspiration for the modern FJ, was tough as nails. Like nails, the only thing that seemed to be able to beat them into submission was the corruption of time. To keep the new FJ from rusting and blowing away, the FJ is built with copious quantities of anti-corrosion steel, and then swathed in anti-rust wax, sealers and anti-chip paint. Wheel wells also receive thick PVC linings for extra protection. Only time will tell if time will take its toll, but we fancy the FJ’s chances of outlasting its owners’ sacroiliacs.

When it comes to off-roading, what you can’t see can hurt you. Unfortunately, the FJ’s front window offers all the forward visibility of a Soviet T-70. Thanks to its elephantine C-pillars and the short rear window (partially obscured by the tailgate-mounted spare tire), rearward vision is also atrocious.

07_fj_cruiser_26_001.jpgThe view is even worse from the backseat. Unlike many of its competitors, the FJ does not elevate the rear seats stadium-style. The small suicide door mounted side windows are relatively high; an average-height person has a limited view-– mostly of treetops. As with most genuine 4X4’s, the driver’s seat must be moved forward and the seatback straightened. Clearing your knees past the steering column when climbing into the driver’s seat is an exercise in humiliation.

Toyota supplied our trucks in Black Cherry Pearl and Sun Fusion, outfitted with every available off-road option: Goodyear All-Terrain T/A tires, skid plates and side rock rails. Just for fun, the Japanese automaker’s PR budget also paid for a TRD Performance Exhaust system that gives the FJ engine a husky, Wrangler-esque rasp. Aftermarket push bars and cable winches complete the mucho macho mojo.

Once underway, FJ’s Active Traction [Jackson] Control keeps the power ported to wheels with traction in nearly every situation. (A locked rear differential is only a button push away.) The generous independent front suspension provides 19.25” of articulation, while the solid coil-over rear setup allows 21.46” rear articulation. Translation: the FJ can crawl any one wheel onto a boulder twice the size of a basketball without any of the other three wheels losing contact with the ground.

07_fj_cruiser66.jpgThe set-up also means you can take radical pictures of the FJ posed over profoundly uneven surfaces with one wheel stuffed into its wheel well while the opposite stretches to meet the ground; you know, the kind of stuff that really gets committed dirt-nerds going.

Gray Rock ORV is a Mecca for extreme four-wheeling in the southeastern states. Trail difficulty is rated on a scale to 5. Level 5 “roads” are extreme trails that require extremely modified vehicles. Most stock SUV’s are suitable for trails rated between 2 and 3 in difficulty. To demonstrate the FJ’s capabilities, Toyota’s guides navigated our group through trails as difficult as Level 4: routes that are normally avoided by owners still making payments.

868348-r1-17-7a.jpgCrowds of hardcore off-road drivers dismounted from their Mad Max machines to watch the FJ clear obstacles through The Canyon and Bump-n-Grind trails.  Several of the initially cynical onlookers expressed their amazement that a [mostly] stock SUV could handle such brutal trails. It wasn’t always pretty or fast, but the FJ pulled its way over every obstacle attempted.

After clambering over hill and dale, I can well believe Toyota’s claim that two modded FJ’s surmounted California’s vaunted Rubicon Trail. Clearly, Toyota wants the off-roading world to know that the FJ Cruiser is the real deal. It’s a shame most FJ’s will never turn a wheel in anger, but it’s a credit to the brand’s determination– and success– that they still want at least one vehicle that can.  

[Toyota paid for Mr. Montgomery's airfare, accomodation, transfers and meals.] 

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34 Comments on “Toyota FJ Cruiser: Off-Road Test...”

  • avatar

    Being an Off-road enthusiast, Can i get the strippy model with no traction control, the carpet ripped out, and a removable top? It seems like a great truck it just has way too many options that it doesn’t need.

    Or maybe i am still bitter that i can’t buy a new Samurai.

  • avatar

    With the exception of the visibility issue, the FJ appears to be a fantastic vehicle. Now, why can’t Land Rover update its Defender?

  • avatar

    I drove a competitor yesterday, the 2007 Wrangler Unlimited, but completely on-road. One big advantage of the Jeep: you can take off the doors and top (very nifty three-piece top) and fold down the windshield. Not that I did any of this in Michigan in October…

    In case anyone’s interested in my impressions:
    2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited review

    The FJ feels larger and bulkier, even though the two aren’t far apart in size (even in two-door form the new Wrangler is quite a bit larger than the old one,a nd the four-door is larger still). Other than this, the Toyota’s on-road handling is a bit better, probably thanks to the independent front suspension.

    But which one could be more easily driven along a Level 4 trail? I’ll have to track down the impressions of some serious off-roaders.

  • avatar

    scottie – At least with the stripper version of the FJ you can get a stick and no traction control. I’m pretty sure it’s not carpeted either, it’s has a rubber inside that can be hosed out. And it comes with cheap black steel wheels that you don’t have to feel bad replacing with your favorite beadlocks.

    I do wish you could remove the top like I can with my 4runner, but minus that, I think this is a great truck that’s ready for serious abuse directly off the show room floor (bested only by the Land Cruiser FZJ-80 and 100)

    Another nice thing is the underpinnings are mostly a Land Cruiser Prado, so you can import all the crazy Austrailian aftermarket stuff and have a great SHTF truck.

    Of course, I’m just repeating what I’ve read on the web. I can’t get near an FJ out here, they leave the lot (for 5-10K over sticker!) as soon as they’re unloaded from the truck.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I don’t care what you say. The damn thing is UGLY!

  • avatar

    I don’t respect Toyotas in general for all the too-oft repeated reasons, but I think they’ve got a vehicle here that I wouldn’t mind owning.

    Now if I could only get by their smug self-coronation as the smartest, greenest car company on earth, I might be able to congratulate them on a job well done on the FJ.

  • avatar

    i guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder because i think those things look great. i’ve seen a couple in person, one blue and one black. they both looked great, but the black one was my favorite. totally badass looking. this is probably the only suv i would consider buying. its a great value and gets pretty decent milage for the size. (plus it actually works off-road).

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    I was very excited about the FJ cruiser until I saw one up close. I don’t mind the quirky looks (except for the giant C pillar) but it didn’t impress me overall. All the ones around here list for $30k and for that money you can get a loaded Tacoma double-cab 4×4 with all the bells and whistles that will go the same places as the FJ and carry a lot more stuff while doing it.

    Michael, the Wrangler Unlimited is the first American vehicle in a long time that has got me interested. I have to ask: Did you experience any bad weather and if so, did the multi-piece top leak any? And what kind of MPG did you get?

  • avatar
    Ed S.

    “the underpinnings are mostly a Land Cruiser Prado” -miked

    Another successful badge engineering job by Toyota? Are the big 2.5 taking notes? I hope so…

  • avatar
    Ed S.

    “the Wrangler Unlimited is the first American vehicle in a long time that has got me interested” -Martin Albright

    Beside the convertible top, what does the Wrangler Unlimited do better then a 2001 Cherokee? I own a 1999 Cherokee and it is a great truck (great SUV, if you prefer). I’m not the primary driver because that style vehicle is not my preference, but when I have to use it to haul, tow, traverse hill and dale it gets the job done in just the right way, with economy and without complaint. I average 16 suburbs / 20 highway. 105K miles and not a single problem beyond wear items and regular service. $12K out the door in August ’02…what a vaue!

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Thank you very much for this piece, William. I myself just spent a week with a Toyota FJ Cruiser, but due to a busy week’s schedule in the city, was never able to spend even a half-day off-road with the thing. So your piece lets me know it’s the real deal. I personally thought the interior design was better than the exterior; but that’s just because the original FJ is so perfect to its function. The mileage wasn’t the best but then, it goes with the territory (of a real 4WD machine). If I was to move to Eastern Washington, Idaho or Montana, likely I’d buy one of the FJ Cruiser which I found extremely comfortable and easy to understand (all controls) as a driver.

  • avatar

    I personally love the look of the FJ. I guess its the type of look that you either love or hate. Which is unusual for Toyota, but I wouldnt’ be surprised to see more ideas like that from them. As this vehicle they look to be making fat profits on.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    Ed, you wrote:

    Beside the convertible top, what does the Wrangler Unlimited do better then a 2001 Cherokee?

    Well, the convertible top is a big deal. It allows you to transform the Jeep into a variety of configurations that a hard-top vehicle cannot match. It also means that when neccessary, it’s possible to strip off excess weight for better performance and CG off road.

    The main reason I like the new Wrangler unlimited, though, is because for years I’ve admired the Jeep CJ (and yes, I’m old enough to remember the CJ) and its Wrangler descendant from afar, but could never look at one seriously because it’s just too small. Now that they’ve stretched the Wrangler they’ve overcome the one objection that kept me away from it.

    Incidentally, with the multiple-configuration top, I’m guessing it’s only a short while before some enterprising company markets a hard “half cab”, panels for the back door slots and a tailgate kit that will allow an owner to tranform the Wrangler into a little pickup. Now that’s utility!

  • avatar

    I used to have a 1967 FJ40 in my possession. It had a manual 3-on-the-tree with a nifty pull knob t-case selector that had 4-H, 4-L, 2-H, 2-L. Odd ambulance doors in the back and a one piece fiberglass removable top(you would never get it back on so don’t try it).

    On a side note the original FJ had a 251ci inline 6 manufactured by General Motors. Transmission, T-case was also GM.

    Not surprisingly Toyota used the retro name FJ over the prior model that started it all 1951 called the “BJ”. Hmmm, I wonder why they dropped that name?

  • avatar
    Joe ShpoilShport

    1984: Because Hummer was already taken.

  • avatar

    A colleague here at work bought an FJ and took delivery a couple months ago. I love the damn thing.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Is too UGLY. If I had a dog that ugly, I would shave its hind end and make it walk backwards.

  • avatar

    I have a 1971 FJ40. Original F engine w/ 3 speed tranny. FJ refers to the engine designation. In this case, I think FJ Cruiser means “Fake Jeep.” Up into recently, Toyota was still making the original FJs in Brasil. I would rather have that or the TLC Icon version. This one is a poor attempt (even if it was based off the Prado platform). The Rubicon Wrangler is the best bet in this segment.

  • avatar

    1984 – the BJ would have a diesel engine, FJ gasoline. Doubt we’ll see a BJ Cruiser for sale, but would love to see toyota offer some of their diesel’s over here if they could get them to meet emissions.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    I’m driving one next week at… you guessed it, the COTY awards. Glad to hear it’s not a TWAT.

  • avatar

    I liked this when it first came out, but changed my opinion when I saw it in person. I hate the cheap plastic look of the fenders.

  • avatar

    For a buyer who is shorter than about 5’7″ and weighs no more than 120 pounds, this versatile vehicle isn’t such a bad choice. If you are larger than that, there would be no reason to consider the Toyota, in exactly the same sense that Toyota did not consider you, when they designed this midget-mobile.

    If you really want to go off-road, find something like a Scorpion, Daimler-Benz Unimog, Steyr Pinzgauer, modified Jeep, or a Dodge M37. None of these modern, production-engineered vehicles can be easily repaired in the field, and, for some odd reason, new vehicles are stuffed to the brim with all sorts of electrical gobbledygook and computers, which do not seem to fare well around that rarely-encountered substance known as “water.”


  • avatar

    Any idea why they had someone from Playmobile design the exterior?

  • avatar

    “Any idea why they had someone from Playmobile design the exterior?”

    For the same reason HUMMER got the folks from Tonka doing their design work.

  • avatar

    Superstition6: As a driver and owner of the FJ who is 6’3″, (considerably taller than 5’7″), I find it odd that I fit into the FJ very easily, with about 4″-6″ of headroom left over. Certainly not a tight fit. I’m curious as to why you think that the FJ is a “mini-mobile,” given that none of my (equally large) friends have ever had a problem fitting in it, even the back seat. It looks much smaller in pictures than it really is, and I’m sure that if you ever gotten up close to one, or sat in one, you wouldn’t have made such a ridiculous comment.

    With regard to your comment about “real off road cars,” its highly unlikely that the majority of the owners will flog a new car around. And yes, a $3k Jeep that’s got a huge lift and big tires will be able to do more. However, most of us normal people can’t afford a daily driver and a commited offroader. This car is an excellent compromise. Most will, like me, use it for weekend warrior type driving, with moderate off-roading, camping, and the like. I personally use it for scuba diving, and have found it to be a great car with loads of room and the added ability to access some of the more remote dive sites without any problems. I can’t tell you that much about off-road repairs because I’ve (not yet) never had to experience a part breaking on me. I have however, taken it through 2′ of water, and gotten it stuck in 2’6″ of mud without any problems besides a dirty fan belt. Next time, please test-drive (or at least sit in) the car before you comment on it.

  • avatar

    As cool as this thing looks, and even with it’s 6 speed manual, its just not practicle if you ever need to put anything but an inanimate object in the back seat. Its like a prison back there, and its a real deal killer if you have kids. The Xterra may not be as attractive, but it’s got a great back seat in comparison.

  • avatar

    I can not, under any stretch of the imagination, justify purchasing an SUV at this time in my life. I’ve got a decent small car, a truck, and looking at a bigger sedan for the wife. But if I was going to buy an SUV, the FJ would be it. I probably wouldn’t even cross shop anything against it, current Toyota recall be dammed. Washout interior, manual transmission, locker, and a huge number of existing Toyota enthusiasts make it a no-brainer.

  • avatar

    I drove the Wrangler Unlimited again a second time right after driving a Hummer H3. My impressions of the handling actually improved–it’s not bad considering what it is. And it rides a bit more comfortably than the Hummer. Certainly cannot say that about past Wranglers.

    Each test drives was only 10-15 miles long, and I didn’t put gas in. So no idea about the mpg.

    I have read reports of leaking tops on a Jeep forum. No idea how common this is, but just looking at the top suggests it’s going to happen. The good news: the interior is designed to be hosed out. Just leave the drain plugs open…

    The list of capabilities in the brochure is impressive: ford 30 inches of water, go up a 60-degree grade… That last would scare the bejesus out of me. I’ve only taken Jeeps on the off-road courses set up at manufacturer drives. And when you can’t see over the hood I don’t like it.

  • avatar

    Martin Albright wrote:

    “Incidentally, with the multiple-configuration top, I’m guessing it’s only a short while before some enterprising company markets a hard “half cab”, panels for the back door slots and a tailgate kit that will allow an owner to tranform the Wrangler into a little pickup. Now that’s utility!”

    Done. Half-framed doors are an option, and every Wrangler has a tailgate. The rear window is always attached to the removable roof, not to the tailgate.

    If you haven’t seen photos of the new Wrangler Unlimited with the top and doors off, it’s bad to the bone. Go by a dealer and grab the brochure. There are probably more creative ideas in this one vehicle than in the rest of the Chrysler fleet put together.

  • avatar

    I guess you can find fault with any vehicle but I really like my 07 Titamium FJ Cruiser. I bought my first FJ40 in 1972 for $3750 put 200K miles on it and sold it in 1996 for $6500. No air, no power steering, no stereo, no power windows but one hell of a 4×4. I then bought a 1996 4runner and just sold it and picked up the FJ Cruiser. Now power everything and a non stopable 4X4. What more could I ask for. It is no mini 4×4. Next year it’s off to Moab.

  • avatar

    Thanks for the test! When the Toyota email machine linked me to the new TRD monotone edition last Thurs, I was in the Dealer’s on Saturday inking the deal!

    First Toyota I’ve ever owned. Wife is pleased, she always wanted a Toyota “Hardtop”, what they call the FJ40 in her country.

    But the sacrifice was, there went the money I was hunting for a 90’s Porsche Speedster with. sigh.

  • avatar

    @Wingnut:”Next time, please test-drive (or at least sit in) the car before you comment on it.”

    As was the case with many of your other comments, you made an incorrect assumption. I did go to a dealership to try the vehicle on for size. I am also 6’3″ and found the legroom in the vehicle completely lacking. The salespersons at the dealership claimed that this was a common problem. A friend who went with me is 5’4″. He said that the vehicle was just right for him, but that he would not want to be much larger and try to fit.

    With regard to rear-seat room, “Commuter” (above) got it about right: ” . . . its just not practicle if you ever need to put anything but an inanimate object in the back seat.”

    With regard to your comments about the vehicle being a compromise, you got that right. It is a compromise. It’s for people who would do much better with a minivan, but might occasionally need a little ground clearance, or want a vehicle with a “macho” appearance. The vehicle is marketed as having a high degree of off-road capability, which it clearly does not. If you think that being able to ford 2′ of water is really doing something, or that getting the vehicle stuck in 2’6″ of mud is acceptable, then this is a great vehicle for you.

    For a person who actually needs/wants to count on a vehicle for use off the road, the FJ Cruiser is not a good choice.

  • avatar

    Supersition6 you are off base on this one. I have had my FJ in places a Jeep could not go. I have yet to get mine stuck. Yes I agree that the back seat is an issue but if I wanted to haul around a car load of people I would have purchased a Hummer. I do a lot of off- road exploring in Southeastern Utah and it easily does the job. I dare say you have never been off-road in one to see it work.

  • avatar


    “Supersition6 you are off base on this one.”

    Oh boy. Where to start. Okay, it seems to me that what may be going on here can be attributed to differing sets of expectations. If you examine the list of vehicles that I suggested as capable off-road equipment in my original posting — the Scorpion, Daimler-Benz Unimog, Steyr Pinzgauer, modified Jeep, or a Dodge M37 — you may notice that none of these have much in common with an FJ Cruiser. I’ve been all over the Arizona desert in various models of Jeeps, and own or have owned a ’48 Willys truck with a uranium core drill on the back, a 1990 full-size Blazer 4×4, 1999 Dodge Ram 4×4 et cetera. In the 1990s, I owned 1994 and 1995 Toyota mini-pickup trucks, a Dodge M37, and a Ford M151A1. The Toyotas were okay as light little trucks for mild off-road use and highway use, but they were production engineered, to be manufactured at the least possible cost. They were full of things like one-time-use fasteners. The CV joint axle boots got ripped open every time they met a cactus. In addition, their electrical and electronic systems could hardly have been engineered to a shoddier standard. By way of comparison, US M-Series military vehicles such as the M37, M151s, and the military Hummer have shielded and sealed electrical systems, which are waterproof, with fully-sealed connectors. In addition, they are modular, which means that they can quickly and easily be repaired in the field. In short, the Toyotas were designed to do one thing: Make Toyota a big profit. They were just consumer-grade throwaways.

    If you are happy with your FJ Cruiser and it takes you where you want to go, great! But its performance and durability are in no way comparable to vehicles designed from the ground up to be used off the road. I could write page after page about ways in which the Toyotas don’t measure up, but since I mentioned water in my original post, let’s just go with that single example. The M37 and M151A1 trucks with military fording kits have sealed breathers on the differentials. The air intakes and exhaust pipes are way up in the air. I think the M37 will ford about seven feet of water. In both vehicles, you can operate the engine via a throttle cable on the dashboard, which means that you can stand up on the floorboard or on the seats while driving with the roof down or discarded, and actually look out over the vehicle to see where its wheels are and what is around it. Further, you can bail out, if you lose the vehicle (instead of drowning, as is quite possible in an enclosed-cab vehicle like the Toyota). In this example, as in so many others, you are right to suggest that I should try an FJ Cruiser off-road “to see it work.” I’d love to! Once water got up above the level of the dashboard while fording, what do you think would happen? Is there a throttle cable attached to the accelerator pedal, or is it a position sensor? If it’s a position sensor that sends a radio signal to the fuel injection, would that work underwater? Once the air vents in the interior filled up with silty river water, would the heater core and blower motor ever work again? Would switch contacts ever work again? Would any of the electronic chips that control everything ever work again?

    Please don’t think I’m singling the Toyota out, though. The new Ford Raptor, for example, looks like an amazing vehicle in many respects, but it would suffer from the same drawbacks in the fording situation as described above. The Jeep and the no-longer-manufactured Land Rover Defender are two of the rare civilian vehicles that are worth anything. Both will break from time to time. In the case of the Defender, repair will be at terrifyingly high cost, and may also involve a lengthy wait time for parts.

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