Off-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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Crowds 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.]