There had been warnings about money-grubbing Mexican cops, so the deft U-turn by two Nogales motorcycle patrolmen, just as we were pulling away from the curb, made us reach for our pesos. Lieutenant Antonio Lopez Aguilar dismounted his Kawasaki and thrust forward his square jaw. "Why did you park here?" he demanded in English. "What are you doing over here?" I showed my driver's license, while the garrulous photographer Martyn Goddard offered his British passport. We had only taken some pictures and eaten lunch. "Where did you eat lunch?" the lieutenant asked. Neither of us could remember the name of the hole-in-the-wall joint that served pulled pork on freshly made tortillas and, upon request, mercifully withheld the tripe.
Lieutenant Lopez scrutinized the registration of our prototype 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser. It was nothing but a photocopy, and it lacked a VIN. "Do you have drugs, guns, liquor? Do you mind if we look inside the vehicle?" He and Officer Jorge Armando Pineda Cervantes flipped open the clamshell doors and gawked at the dash-mounted multi-information display with compass, inclinometer, and temperature gauge. Officer Pineda pointed to the gear lever and reverently uttered, "Seis cambios." Hearing this-"six speeds"-I realized they'd only wanted to check out the sportiest SUV yet seen in Mexico.
We then related how, by way of testing the FJ Cruiser, we were traveling the U.S.-Mexico border, from California to the Gulf of Mexico, running Mexico's Route 2 when possible and also poking around in large, bustling cities such as Nogales, Sonora. Along with everybody else, these cops figured the FJ would sticker at $50,000 and were wowed by the base price of $22,890. Goddard posed them with our dark cherry whoopee wagon. Then Lieutenant Lopez handed over his card bearing the name Trio Nuevo Amanecer. Translation: New Dawn Trio. His partner chided him for being a romantic balladeer. Bidding farewell, the lieutenant invited us to call for anything we needed. And one last thing: "Use our picture!"
Somewhat earlier, the driver of an Audi A3 2.0-the nicest car amid all the crazy Nogales Saturday early afternoon traffic-gave the FJ a thumbs up. This reaction, along with beans, dust, and razor wire, was a consistent element of our trip. People snapped photos, went out of their way to make inquiries, and devoted extra time to our case at ports of entry. (Crossing the one-lane bridge over the Rio Grande between El Porvenir, Chihuahua, and Fort Hancock, Texas, we repeated our mission statement to a curious customs agent, who responded with the name of this magazine's founding editor, as though it were the password.)
Such widespread interest created the impression that the FJ will be another of the supposed niche vehicles from a Japanese automaker-like the Honda Element, the Toyota Prius, or the whole Scion brand-ostensibly aimed at youthful buyers but much more broadly coveted, and that sales could explode. There's nothing special about driving it, any more so than there is about Toyota's 4Runner, which is similar from the knees down except for a wheelbase that's 3.9 inches longer. More specifically, the FJ is derived from the Land Cruiser Prado, which isn't sold in America. The 4.0-liter V-6 produces plenty of power and torque and is very refined, the rack-and-pinion steering is a pleasure, and the ride is as supple and the handling as agreeable as anyone could expect from a ladder-type chassis with a solid rear axle.