Test Driven: 2011 Toyota FJ Cruiser

It won’t win beauty contests, but at least it looks like a proper truck, and has the credentials underneath.

Toyota is one of three major automakers still offering an off-road biased SUV, the other two being Nissan (the Xterra) and Chrysler (the Jeep Wrangler).  The FJ Cruiser calls up Toyota’s heritage of offering tough-as-nails trucks to go anywhere and do anything, no matter how hard the task or the climate.  The old FJ40 Land Cruisers are some of the most famous trucks in the world, but on the surface, the FJ Cruiser seems to be a different story.  When I first saw it on sale, I thought it looked like an oversized Tonka Truck, but thanks to the FJ40’s reputation, I figured it was worth a drive, so that’s exactly what I did.

So, what of this truck?  The Cruiser is a retro-styled throwback in the same vein as the Jeep Wrangler, but is more of a “form over function” vehicle on the outside, with wide B-pillars and a high step-in.  The front end looks impressively manly and imposing, and with a bull bar and fog lamps is a properly good-looking SUV.  The shut lines are nice and tight, and the general quality of the build is typical Toyota.  On the inside, Toyota has gone with a utilitarian philosophy, with large buttons and knobs for the HVAC and radio controls, cloth upholstery, and rubber floor covering for easier cleaning.  Due to the high step-in, the FJ Cruiser has plenty of grab handles to help the driver get into the seat comfortablyThe seating position is nice and high, with plenty of dials to keep an eye on.  Unfortunately, Toyota chose to put some of these in the center of the dash for style’s sake, forcing me to look away from the road to read them (compass, altimeter, and digital temperature gauge).

Toyota FJ Cruiser (rear)

Making matters worse is that visibility is heavily compromised.  For a vehicle designed to go off-road, the FJ’s design unfortunately emphasizes style over substance, something Jeep doesn’t do.  Like the original FJ40, three windshield wipers adorn the windshield, yet the windshield itself is short and rather narrow for a vehicle this size.  The huge, externally-mounted spare tire hinders rear visibility (although it is not as bad as one might expect).  But, the biggest visibility issue of all is the thick side pillars, which create enormous blind spots in the mirrors, causing me to constantly change the angle of the mirrors during the drive.  Thankfully, the seats are quite comfortable and the gauges in the instrument panel were all very easy to read.

Its off-road credentials are definitely there, though.  It uses a body-on-frame construction with a locking differential, and uses McPherson struts up front with a multilink suspension out back.  In fact, this is a similar platform to the world-famous Toyota Hilux (and the only vehicle available in the USA to share any chassis components with it), giving it serious credentials as well.  The FJ Cruiser comes with part-time 4WD (cannot be engaged on dry pavement) on the automatic, but uses full-time 4WD on the manual models.  A manual is standard, with automatic optional.  My test truck came with 4WD and the automatic gearbox, in a dark red color with a nice set of dark gray TRD-spec wheels.  The high seating position is nice, and the engine, a 4.0L V6 with about 260hp, pulls with plenty of low-end torque from a dead stop but feels overworked at higher speeds.  Gas mileage is, of course, tyical for an aerodynamically challenged vehicle of high curb weight (about 17/21 or so) and the 5-speed automatic behaves itself admirably, offering smooth shifting and prompt changes when directed.  That said, this thing is noticeably more ponderous than the Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited, feeling heavy in corners (more so than the others) and offering a choppier ride with more tire noise (although less wind noise).  The turning circle is also a pain in the neck–a truck with this size should not take up two and a half parking spots to perform a tight K-turn.

For the money, the FJ Cruiser isn’t my sort of truck.  It sacrifices too much in the name of heritage and style, has poor visibility, and manages to make the Jeep Wrangler look better on-road.  The one I drove cost over 30 large, a lot more than the equivalent Xterra or Wrangler Unlimited.  I don’t see the point of buying this over the other two mud-pluggers in its class.  The lack of a rear-view camera for the visibility issues and its uncomfortable ride don’t help its case despite Toyota’s reliability credentials.  If one wants an off-roader, look elsewhere.

-Al

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