The Toyota FJ Cruiser is the most capable of all Toyotas when the pavement gives way to gravel, sand and rocks. That's saying something, given the capabilities of the 4Runner, Land Cruiser, and Tacoma. All of these Toyotas are among the best in their respective classes for travel over rugged terrain.
The FJ Cruiser seats five. The front doors are standard, front-hinged units. Rear-hinged rear side doors provide access to the back seat; beginning with 2011 models, the right front seatback folds a little flatter, which makes squeezing in a little easier than it was before. Main access to the cargo area is through a door hinged on the driver's side of the vehicle instead of a typical roof-hinged hatch-style closure.
An Off-Road option package further enhances the FJ's capabilities, with BFGoodrich Rugged Trail tires, trail-tuned Bilstein shock absorbers, and a rear differential lock that works in conjunction with Toyota's A-TRAC off-road traction control system; with this setup, the FJ Cruiser can hang with the Jeep Wrangler crowd. It also includes a multi-information display with a goofy floating ball inclinometer and compass.
The biggest change for 2012 is to the Trail Teams Special Edition, which sheds its army-olive paintwork for a new and exclusive shade called Radiant Red. Bumpers, grille, and door handles are still blacked out, and the package has been expanded to include even more off-road equipment.
The 4.0-liter V6 engine makes 260 horsepower and 271 pound-feet of torque. It has dual Variable Valve Timing with intelligence (VVT-i), which means variable valve timing for both intake and exhaust. We found the FJ Cruiser superb in rugged terrain yet comfortable on the road. Its V6 engine delivers more than ample power and torque for any foreseeable situation.
Toyota FJ Cruiser 2WD automatic ($25,990); 4WD automatic ($27,580) 4WD manual ($27,170)
The Toyota FJ Cruiser is the rebirth of the original Toyota FJ 40, known in North America as the original Land Cruiser. It was a rugged, go-anywhere vehicle, a sport utility vehicle decades before the genre had a name.
The FJ Cruiser was designed in Southern California. The design evokes the heritage of the FJ40 and other early Land Cruisers without being retro. This is no simple cloning of a nearly half-century old design. Instead, what Toyota wanted to do was to project how the original Jeep-like FJ would have evolved had it remained in production all these years. The engineering and manufacturing of the Toyota FJ Cruiser are done in Japan.
Early FJs and Land Cruisers were patterned on the World War II Jeep. Rugged and reliable, Toyota FJs and Land Cruisers became the vehicles of choice for explorers, ranchers, missionaries, United Nations peacekeepers, merchants or anyone else who needed to drive through places such as Australia's Outback, Africa's plains, across Asian steppes, through South American jungles or anywhere else where roads were virtually nonexistent, with trails as harsh and challenging as the natural environment.
Exterior styling cues from the original FJ brought forward on the FJ Cruiser include a narrow slot of a second grille built into the front lip of the hood, the trio of windshield wipers at the base of an upright windshield, the round headlights and the metallic-colored enclosure that frames them and the main grille (with Toyota in simple gothic letters, instead of the interlocking oval emblem that adorns the face of other modern Toyotas), the white roof, the wraparound rear windows and the spare tire mounted on the back of the vehicle.
The FJ Cruiser shares much of its under structure with the Toyota 4Runner four-door SUV and Tacoma pickup truck, but you'd never guess that to look at the FJ with its wide, turtle-shell body design.
Short front and rear overhangs allow serious off-road maneuvering. The 4x4 versions offer 9.6 inches of ground clearance, with optional underbody armor to provide extra protection against rocks and other obstacles met on unpaved trails.
Viewed in profile, the most noticeable aspects of the FJ Cruiser are its upright windshield, tall and protective body sides, short windows and very wide C-pillar on either side of the cargo area.
Though it may look like a two-door, the FJ Cruiser actually has four doors, with the rear side doors opening rearward to create a good-sized opening for access to the back seat and cargo area. The rear door also opens wide, and features a backlight glass that can be flipped up when the door itself is closed.
The FJ Cruiser features an interesting color palate. Depending on the trim level and equipment, you can still order the authentically drab Army Green, a desert-warrior dun called Quicksand, the suitably rousing Cavalry Blue, or the tech-stark Silver Fresco Metallic; in addition to basic Black and Iceberg White. The paint color covers only the hood, fenders, body sides, C-pillars and rear door. In homage to the old FJ40s, all FJ Cruisers (except the monochromatic-red Trail Teams model) have white roofs, helping keep the cabin cool under a blazing sun.
Like the exterior, the interior of the Toyota FJ Cruiser reflects the character of the early FJ 40s, especially when equipped with the optional body-colored door panel inserts. The standard dashboard looks like an extruded aluminum beam, with audio and climate controls set into a body-colored panel in the center.
If you want leather seats, you don't want an FJ Cruiser, which comes only with water-resistant cloth upholstery and rubberized floor and cargo mats. The expectation is that people who drive FJ Cruisers will get them dirty, and want the easy cleanup provided by such materials.
The seats have active headrests. In certain rear collisions, a cable-actuated mechanism in the headrest moves it upward and forward to help limit the movement of the occupant's head, potentially reducing whiplash injuries. Folding rear headrests help with rearward visibility.
Switches for various mechanical systems are set in a panel just ahead of the shift lever. Not only are they conveniently placed, but there are dummy switches to ease installation of aftermarket equipment such as auxiliary lighting or locking axles for extreme off-road use.
The driver faces white-faced gauges that are easy to read (speedometer, tachometer, engine temperature, voltage and fuel level). In addition to the regular glove box ahead of the front passenger seat, there's a smaller covered storage box on top of the instrument panel in front of the driver. This area can be fitted with an accessory Garmin Quest 2 navigation unit that can be removed from the vehicle for hiking or other activities.
Cup holders are provided in the center console and all four doors. A 12-volt outlet is mounted on the switch panel ahead of the shifter; and a three-prong, grounded 115-volt power outlet in the cargo area with a switch for either 100 or 400 watts of output (the higher figure available when the vehicle is at idle).
The rear seatback splits 60/40 to optimize cargo carrying options. The rear-seat cushion tips forward and can be removed to provide a few more inches of cargo area behind the front seats. Rear-hinged rear side doors give easy access to the back seat and cargo area, helped by front seatbacks that fold forward. Perhaps appropriately, the front seatback folds a little further forward on the right (curb) side.
The standard audio system includes a CD player and iPod and MP3 capability as well as two ceiling-mounted speakers designed to enhance the sound experience within the FJ Cruiser. The Upgrade Package increases the speaker count from six to ten and includes a pair of 2.6-inch speakers mounted on the rear pillars.
Because the FJ Cruiser has wide C-pillars that may interfere with the driver's rearward vision, a rear sonar system and a rearview camera are included in the Convenience Package, to warn the driver of the proximity of objects when the transmission is in Reverse. We had no trouble parking the FJ in urban settings on our test drive, nor did we have to move into strange positions to see stoplights through the upright windshield.
Powering the FJ Cruiser is Toyota's 4.0-liter V6 engine, well-proven in the 4Runner, Tacoma and Tundra. In the FJ Cruiser it develops 260 horsepower and 271 pound-feet of torque, the sort of grunt that comes in handy when traveling off-road or when towing.
The FJ Cruiser is rated to tow as much as 5,000 pounds. It would work fine for ATVs, snowmobiles and personal watercraft. Though the 4Runner is rated to tow the same 5000 pounds on paper, for a variety of reasons we would consider it a much better tow vehicle.
The Toyota V6 not only is strong, but clean and fuel-efficient as well. It earns the FJ Cruiser a LEV-II (low-emission vehicle) rating from the federal government.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 17/21 mpg City/Highway for a 4WD automatic, 15/19 mpg for a 4WD with 6-speed manual gearbox, and 17/22 mpg for a 2WD automatic.
The Toyota FJ Cruiser is quite capable off road, even more so than the highly capable 4Runner on which it is based. The FJ offers better approach and departure angles, a shorter wheelbase, and a higher ground clearance.
Of the three drivetrains available, those primarily interested in the unique design statement made by the FJ Cruiser will likely opt for the two-wheel-drive setup. This is not the setup we would choose.
Those planning to do serious off-road driving will want the full-time 4x4 with the manual transmission, which features a clutchless starting feature that can come in handy for rock-crawling maneuvers. With the manual transmission, the drivetrain is a full-time four-wheel-drive setup with H4, H4L (locked Torsen center differential) and L4L (low and locked) settings. The H4 mode usually sends 60 percent of power to the rear wheels, but can send as much as 53 percent of power to the front wheels or 70 percent to the rear wheels as needed. An electronically locking rear differential is available with either automatic or manual transmission, or even in the two-wheel-drive version. With the manual transmission, the FJ Cruiser has an off-road crawl ratio of 41.84:1 and has proven itself capable of traversing California's rugged and world-famous Rubicon Trail.
Those looking for an automatic likely will select the part-time 4x4 with its automatic transmission. It's a good choice regardless of road and weather conditions. It's also a good choice for rugged terrain and is available with Toyota's A-TRAC off-road technology. It's our choice, unless we were planning to do organized off-road adventures. With the automatic transmission, the four-wheel-drive system offers shift-on-the-fly selection with H2 (2WD High range), H4 (4WD High range) or L4 (4WD Low range) settings for the torque-splitting transfer case.
The Upgrade Packages include Toyota's computer-controlled A-TRAC, for Active-TRACtion. This system, which also makes steering easier in rugged terrain, can be turned on or off via a switch on the dashboard control panel. In severe off-road situations, drivers may need to engage the locking rear differential, but we found the A-TRAC system ideal for negotiating a series of serious and deep moguls in steep terrain when we did our off-road test drive.
The Vehicle Stability Control system works with the roll sensor to try to stop lateral skids before they can lead to a rollover. Failing that, the sensor deploys both the side-impact and side-curtain airbags. VSC comes standard on all models.
Toyota anticipates that many FJ Cruiser owners will want to explore away from pavement, but most miles will be racked up on city streets and suburban highways, where we found the FJ Cruiser to be comfortable, even when we sat in the back seat. One thing we did notice, however, was that the big roof rack that's available as an accessory can create a lot of wind noise at Interstate speeds. This is true with all safari-style roof racks, something many Land Rover owners know. We still think lots of people will want one, however, if for no other reason than it looks so cool. We'd order one for ours.
The FJ Cruiser is Toyota's most capable sport utility vehicle when it comes to getting where you want to go when there's no pavement beneath your tires. Not everyone will appreciate its heritage, whether in the iconic design cues brought forward in a thoroughly modern vehicle or in the way this vehicle lives up to the Land Cruiser's much deserved reputation for getting across deserts, up mountains and through swamps and jungles on continents around the globe. But for those whose lifestyles include exploring, whether it's sandy beaches, mountain trails, secluded lakes, busy ski hills or even the urban jungle, the FJ Cruiser provides Toyota quality at a competitive price and wrapped in a unique design, inside and out.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Larry Edsall filed this report after driving the FJ Cruiser in the hills west of Los Angeles and in the desert around Palm Springs, California. Additional material by John F. Katz.