When Toyota pulled the sheets off its FJ Cruiser concept at the 2003 Detroit auto show, we wondered how much of its pugnacious, deliberately overwrought design would make it to production. Lots of it would, as it turned out. Captivating design details that made it from the show floor to the street include the decorative lights in the sideview mirrors, the suicide-style rear doors, and the metal-look bumper extensions. The FJ Cruiser also succeeds in evoking the spirit and design of the original–and iconic–FJ40 of the 1960s. It manages to be unique in Toyota’s range, a character actor among a rank of worthy but anodyne players.
On sale now for a year, the FJ has been considerably more successful than Toyota anticipated, with more than 70,000 finding homes. And, surprisingly, given the FJ’s tough-guy stance, half of all two-wheel-drive models have been sold to women. The FJ is based on a shortened 4Runner platform, and power is provided by Toyota’s 4.0-liter V-6, which puts out 239 hp and a hefty 278 lb-ft of torque. The standard transmission is a six-speed manual, but the FJ also is available with a five-speed automatic.
Without question, the most controversial option we specified for our Four Seasons FJ Cruiser turned out to be that automatic gearbox. It’s smooth and responsive and works well enough, but it’s paired with a part-time four-wheel-drive system. And when this particular four-wheel-drive system is engaged, stability control is deactivated. This is less of an issue when you’re driving an FJ in Florida, but it’s a rather more notable problem when you’re in the depths of a Michigan winter. The full-time four-wheel-drive system paired with the manual transmission, on the other hand, has a Torsen limited-slip center differential that works happily with stability control.
A scan of our filled-to-bursting logbook (the FJ Cruiser elicits opinions from everyone and his dog) reveals that the FJ’s styling was the biggest talking point among drivers and passengers. In the main, people really warmed to its toylike design. “Toyota product planner Ben Mitchell was telling me that Toyota had to break a lot of its own rules when creating the FJ–rules regarding windshield angle and outward visibility, to mention two,” said senior editor Joe Lorio. “But that’s how you get a vehicle that breaks out of your own homogenized box.”
“It’s the Japanese Hummer with a piquant hint of VAZ/GAZ [Russian car companies],” wrote technical editor Don Sherman. Assistant editor Sam Smith added: “Finally, someone has built an SUV/trucky thing that makes no excuses and is just good old trucky good. It reminds me of an old Series I/II Land Rover or a Jeep CJ.”
So, we were nearly unanimous in the view that Toyota hit a home run with the FJ’s exterior styling. Logbook comments like “Duplo Lego” and “fun” were a recurring theme. The interior’s chunky, utilitarian styling garnered similar reactions, with most people enjoying and complimenting the FJ’s unique cabin ambience.
But, and here’s the rub, you pay a price for all that style. Everyone who drove the FJ commented on the big blind spot at the rear and on the fact that you have to lean forward and tilt your head to the side to see traffic lights, thanks to that upright windshield and the resultant mailbox-slot view. Rear-seat accommodations aren’t great for adults, and the view of the outside world from those seats is impeded by the suicide doors and their small windows.
There was somewhat better news on the performance front. The FJ’s acceleration is more than acceptable for a vehicle that has the aerodynamic profile of a Pizza Hut. Throttle response is excellent, and maintaining high-speed cruising is easy enough. All of us found, though, that the FJ is particularly susceptible to crosswinds. Combine that tendency with a dead spot in steering feel around the straight-ahead position, and you’ve got a truck that demands considerable driver input to cruise in a straight line. We did observe, however, that the FJ’s ride quality is quite good, especially under a load.
The FJ’s cabin comfort is compromised when the front windows are down (the rear windows don’t open), because buffeting is a big issue at higher speeds. During hot weather, we ended up treating the FJ as a windows-closed, air-conditioning-only truck. That made the experience a bit less fun–the FJ’s character somehow demands a windows-open driving style. Also, many drivers commented about excessive engine noise at highway cruising speeds.
So, is the FJ simply a style statement that demands painful compromises, like a tight pair of leather pants (a reference for those readers of a particular age)? Well, no, not really, since the Toyota acquitted itself rather well when it was called upon to haul.
“The ability to tow a 3000-pound trailer was superb,” observed Sherman. “There is ample power, sure braking, and good stability.”
The FJ also was, to no one’s astonishment, a more than competent off-roader. Creative director Richard Eccleston subjected it to a real challenge: “To get to our vacation cottage on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, we had to drive ten miles along a soft sand beach and clamber up a sand dune. It was a hoot. The FJ goes anywhere without a fuss. Our friends struggled up the beach in their aged Chevy Tahoe, and they were amazed we’d found it to be so easy.”
Other drivers found the FJ equally surefooted in snow, especially once we mounted a set of Bridgestone Blizzak snow tires. “For all the things the FJ doesn’t do well, boy, it’s awesome in the white stuff,” enthused Web producer Stuart Fowle. “It’s completely invincible.” It’s worth noting that his comments were made after he drove the FJ in deep snow at relatively low speeds with four-wheel drive engaged. Driving quickly over snow and ice without having the stability control engaged (which, as noted earlier, is deactivated in four-wheel-drive mode) is less confidence inspiring.
Not surprisingly, the FJ proved to be quite reliable, with nothing more to speak of in the way of quality issues than a rattling speaker grille and poor sound quality from the radio, which was replaced under warranty. The biggest issue was the upright windshield, which was susceptible to stone chips. We had the windshield replaced twice in the course of our year, and the second time, the FJ was off the road for more than a month while we waited for replacement glass. Not good.
But the ultimate question is this: is the FJ Cruiser‘s flamboyant style and the sense of occasion it engenders when you climb aboard enough to outweigh all of the compromises made in pursuit of that style? For most of us, the answer is no. But we also accept that the vast majority of trucks in the FJ’s segment are outright dullards and that this Toyota has more personality and a greater sense of fun than any of them. As Smith says: “It reminds you of a time when everything–not just sports cars and sedans–was supposed to have an element of fun. And it reminds you that the definition of ‘fun’ wasn’t held to any one constant.”