Over the last decade, many companies decided to transform their sport utes into something a soccer mom could love. The move to the 'Crossover-SUV' has neutered quite a few vehicles that used to offer genuine off-road competence. Thankfully, not everyone has followed that drummer. The Toyota FJ Cruiser has remained faithful to the rugged standards set long ago in the Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser. Not only does it maintain that rugged reputation, it does so with greater sophistication, comfort and efficiency. And to emphasize its bloodlines, it uses retro design elements like the all-white roof, upright windshield, outside spare wheel mounting, three windshield wipers and round headlights of the original.
Prototype evaluation under the code-name RYU (Rugged Youth Utility) began in 2004 and involved testing the vehicle on the toughest off-road trails in the U.S. including Moab, the Mojave Desert and the famed Rubicon Trail. As a result, the FJ Cruiser has one of the toughest bodies and arguably the most sophisticated 4x4 system among mid-size SUVs.
The base model FJ Cruiser, starting at $33,44 is also available with optional Off-Road or Urban Packages. All models are powered by Toyota's 260 horsepower, 24-valve, DOHC V6 with variable valve timing and Multiport fuel injection matched to either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic Transmission.
The six-speed manual features a full-time four-Wheel Drive system complete with Centre Differential Lock and two-speed transfer case. Combined with standard Vehicle Stability Control (VSC) and Active Traction Control (ATRAC), it is ready to take on just about anything. The five-speed Automatic features a part-time four-Wheel Drive system including an Automatic Disconnecting Differential (A.D.D.) and two-speed transfer case. In addition to VSC and ATRAC, it also includes a Rear Differential Lock and - in the Off-Road Package - Four-Wheel Crawl Control to manage low range crawling over very rough or steep terrain. Four-wheel, power-assisted disc brakes with ABS, Brake Assist and Smart Stop are standard. The latter prevents roll back when starting on a hill and also overrides the accelerator when both brake and accelerator pedals are pressed at the same time.
ATRAC works in conjunction with the 4-Wheel Drive system. It senses when a wheel is about to slip and redirects torque to the wheels with grip. The Rear Locking Differential, activated by a dashboard switch, controls side-to-side torque control at the rear wheels.
It all adds up to superior grip and traction on any kind of loose, slippery or steep grades. With 9.6-inches of Ground Clearance, an Approach Angle of 34 degrees and Departure Angle of 31 degrees, you can confidently tackle steep inclines and clamber over obstructions with ease...if you go slowly. One hard-learnt lesson is that you only have 9.6-inches of Ground Clearance while parked. The minute you start driving, the body starts to move up and down and that ground clearance can disappear very quickly. Fortunately the FJ's underside is well protected with skid plates for transmission, engine and fuel tank.
Our tester featured the Off-Road Package with upgraded front and rear Bilstein shocks and hefty front and rear anti-sway bars. The system keeps the wheels vertical and with 7.87-inches of compliance at the front and 9.0-inches at the rear, you can get up and over serious obstacles off-road while enjoying a firm, stable ride on the highway. The robust P265/70R17 Dunlop GrandTrek tires are a nice compromise between off-road grip and highway comfort.
The Retro look is carried into the cabin where the emphasis is on function rather than fancy. The main instrument cluster features gauges for speedometer, tachometer, engine temperature, fuel level and voltmeter in bold, easy-to-read black on white numerals. A separate group of gauges sits atop the dashboard for compass, ambient temperature and inclinometer. I liked the body colour metal faceplate for the instrument panel. It emphasizes the robust character of the vehicle and features bold switchgear for audio and climate controls that can be managed with gloved hands. The audio system comprises AM/FM/CD with MP3/WMA player and 6 speakers including Tweeters in the instrument panel and 2 thin-profile exciters in the ceiling. Six months complimentary XM Satellite Radio is included. But the audio display screen - grey with bright red backlighting - lacks the clarity of the other instruments. The three-spoke tilt steering wheel, with control buttons for audio and Bluetooth connectivity, has a nice, chunky feel that adds to the feeling of control in off-road situations while the main gearshift and secondary gearshift for the low range transfer case (H4, H2, Neutral and L4) are comfortably within reach.
The manually adjustable front buckets are nicely contoured to keep you comfortably in place and feature a charcoal grey, durable, water-repellent cloth.
A unique feature of the FJ Cruiser are the 'half doors' that open - after the front doors have opened - to provide access to the rear seats. The rear tailgate with mounted spare, opens wide, allowing easy access to the flat cargo area featuring a removable, washable mat and numerous tie-downs and hooks to secure loads. In addition there are storage boxes on both sides of the instrument panel, centre console storage, large pockets in the doors, and a concealed compartment in the rear deck trim. Safety is addressed with Toyota's Star Safety System including front seat active head restraints, dual-stage front airbags, front seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags. Child seat anchor points are also standard.
Standard equipment includes keyless entry, power door locks and windows, power outside mirrors with integrated image lamps, multi-information display, auto-dimming rear view mirror with integrated back-up camera and rear privacy glass.
"The FJ Cruiser is a true off-road vehicle, but is still practical for everyday driving," says Reid Hugh of Nanaimo Toyota. "It's a great fit for anyone needing the versatility to deal with life's responsibilities during the week and outdoor fun on weekends."
Alan McPhee is a Canadian automotive journalist and is former editor of Carguide Magazine. His articles appear each week in this space.
Type: mid-size 4WD SUV
Engine: 4.0-litre V6
Horsepower: 260 @ 5600 rpm
Torque: 271 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Fuel economy: 12.7 L/100 km; highway - 9.5 L/100 km
Base price: $32,725
Price as tested: $40,155
Vehicle provided by Nanaimo Toyota
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