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Car reviews - Toyota - FJ Cruiser - 5-dr wagon

Launch Story

9 Mar 2011

IT SAYS ‘TOYOTA’ up front (the first vehicle without the company’s familiar bull’s horn logo since the early 1990s). But for all we knew – before actually driving the FJ Cruiser – it may as well have read ‘TONKA’.

Big, brash, and not even in the bloom of youth (US sales commenced in 2006), Toyota’s fifth SUV series to reach Australia did not fill us with anticipation, frankly.

Underneath that retro-meets-Rambo exterior lays the bones of two generations of Prado (2003’s 120 and 150 Series of 2009), complete with olde worlde ladder frame chassis, V6 petrol consumption, and a decidedly passé five-speed auto gearbox – all mated to a part-time 4WD system that is years behind Toyota’s other larger SUV offerings’ advanced terrain response hardware .

The joy of specs? Reading what the FJ Cruiser offers on paper, there are none. What we were afraid of was another lumbering Hummer-like anti-hero suitable only for Orange County high school brats whose mums couldn’t afford a BMW X6.

But then the big day arrived, when we could finally get behind the wheel – as well as behind the story – of the 15 Series FJ Cruiser. And you know what? We reckon Toyota might sell every single one it can get its hands on.

For starters, the design certainly stands out, infusing plenty of the much-loved (but not very Toyota in genesis – it was derived from the WWII Willy’s Jeep) FJ40’s style (round headlights set within a painted grille, white roof, boxy wheel arches, wrap around window, T-O-Y-O-T-A spelled across the nose – all that stuff) within a fresh, modern, and distinctive body.

Aided by a set of Mazda RX-8-style clap-hand doors, the FJ is sufficiently two-door-ish enough not to be confused with a Prado. And that’s a good thing for the intended youth market Toyota is trying to talk to.

However the interior is beginning to date a tad – a blocky symmetrical dash with a neat but unremarkable set of instruments ahead of the driver while the front passenger looks at a vast expanse of bluff plastic.

The rugged centre console – swathed in questionable body coloured painted plastic but otherwise disappointingly generic in execution – does suit the FJ’s off-road aspirations, but words like ‘stylish’, ‘lush’ or ‘exquisite’ would never enter the equation.

Yet the interior has great ventilation, good seats up front, surprisingly easy access out back (it is a five-seater) and a handily large cargo area that can washed out, lengthened via split/fold rear seats, or completely opened up through the (somewhat fiddly) removal of said back bench altogether. Handy.

Several oversights do remain, however.

The rear doors (that require the front ones to be open before they can be operated) have windows that do not lower, crack or slide the tailgate is set to open up towards the traffic (i.e. Toyota has not re-engineered it for right-hand drive), meaning that it could be a. dangerous and b. prone to swinging open onto an unsuspecting person/object if the car is parked on a slight left-bias incline kerbside. Getting out from the rear seat requires somebody to open the door for you if you’re not tall enough to reach the front door handle yourself there’s limited rear-seat knee room there is no cargo shelf to shield from prying eyes or road-noise intrusion and the driver’s overhead grab handle intrudes so far that a head strike over bumps is a very painful possibility.

Being a car originally meant solely for US customers, Toyota did not bother engineering a diesel engine, so we have to make do with the familiar 200kW 4.0L petrol unit seen in the Prado and HiLux.

Now this is no chore, since the V6 is fairly smooth and punchy, with a willingness to rev without sounding too breathless (it is hauling a 2.5 tonne behemoth, after all).

The default-choice five-speed auto makes the most of the available torque on offer, dealing out the gear ratios with requisite speed and smoothness. Too bad there’s no separate sequential shift gate for spirited manual pulling and pushing, while the lever itself looks like an escapee from a 1971 VH Valiant Regal – retro but from another era to what the FJ is trying to emulate.

On the road, the steering is light and easy to control, but not exactly ultra responsive or oozing feel or feedback. This is one of those aim-and-shoot systems that encourages a laidback attitude that is rewarded with surefooted and steady progress. But the turning circle might be a little large for urban dwellers, we fear.

Besides some very accomplished off-road abilities, the single most impressive thing about an FJ Cruiser on the move is how absorbent the ride is. Now we only had the ancient and magnificent Wilpena Pound National Park and surrounds to assess this car’s bitumen behaviour, but there were loads of 4WD tracks for us to tackle, and never did we have reason to curse the ride engineers’ work.

Being Prado based, the slightly ponderous on-road dynamics translates to terrific off-road transportation, with excellent wheel articulation from the all-coil suspension, handily short overhangs for fording dry river beds and incredibly steep rocky paths, and a lockable rear diff aided by low gearing and other 4x4 gubbins. We were certainly convinced.

Some of the more off-road focussed journalists complained that the FJ Cruiser lacks the Prado’s more sophisticated electronic terrain response systems, and we are sure there would be many people out there who would scoff at this vehicle as a result.

But by Toyota’s own reckoning, you cannot get a more off-road capable Toyota for anywhere near the FJ Cruiser’s all-in-one $44,990 plus on-roads pricing. It’s a bargain!

Throw in plenty of equipment, like six airbags, the holy trinity of safety acronyms (ESC, ABS with EBD and Brake Assist), active front-seat head restraints, rear parking sensors, cruise control, a reverse camera with display in the rear-view mirror, air-con, privacy glass, rear fog lamps, and an eight-speaker CD stacker/USB/iPod/Bluetooth phone connectivity audio, and the FJ’s value-for-money argument looks compelling.

Indeed, as whole, the latest Toyota SUV is a much more interesting alternative to something like a Dodge Nitro or Jeep Wrangler than initial on-paper impressions suggested.

It does ache for a diesel, and a manual gearbox would probably be preferable for some, but by and large there is plenty of style, character and non-bogus 4x4 heritage for larger SUV buyers to consider.

So forget the TONKA toy looks and take the FJ Cruiser seriously. We now do!

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