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Marketers are tripping over themselves these days trying to differentiate one SUV from another, which in my mind is becoming increasingly difficult, as each automaker learns from the other, and what's 'revolutionary' this year is standard fare the next.

Want to get noticed? You won't in most SUVs. They're as ubiquitous as minivans and about as original when it comes to style.

Enter Toyota's FJ Cruiser. It's bold and brash. It stands out in a sea of sameness. When the concept was revealed at the North American Auto Show in 2003, it generated a lot of interest, and to Toyota's credit, they didn't mess with the design.

The 2007 FJ Cruiser is a modern take on the original Land Cruiser FJ40, which debuted in 1960 and stuck around for 24 years. During its time, The FJ40 was, for many, the expedition vehicle of choice, and still enjoys collector car status. I recently saw an old '74 listed for $15,000 - not bad for a 32-year-old beater.

What people saw then, and see now, is a no-nonsense, off-road vehicle that embraces its ruggedness. The original, at least, didn't have to be pampered. Scuffs and scratches, as well as the occasional ding, were badges of honour. The old FJ was as much at home being buffed and detailed as Charles Bronson would be getting a pedicure.

Today's FJ, while including today's technology, still honours its past. The white roof is a nod to its predecessor, as are the round headlamps that are tied into the front grille.

The wrap-around rear windows are another signature FJ element, and while you'd think they would enhance rear visibility, the huge side pillars they tie into prove otherwise. Thankfully, the FJ comes with big-rig side mirrors that stick out like Dumbo's ears, and help with the massive blind spot.

With optional roof racks installed, the FJ Cruiser stands an imposing 79 inches high. It's also wide at 75 inches, but takes up half a foot less on the driveway than the mid-sized 4Runner, which shares the same platform. Good luck, however, parking underground.

Large front doors and rear-hinged back doors open wide to an interior that continues the FJ's theme of off-road utility. Seat fabrics are a combination of water-repellant and waterproof materials, with a breathable urethane film underneath to prevent dampness. The material is comfortable and attractive, and makes sense whether you're transporting your muddy off-road buddies or a couple of ice-cream covered kids.

Front seats offer plenty of butt and shoulder room, and the seatbacks have been carved out to enhance knee room in the rear.

The flooring is made of a tough, moulded plastic, as are the backs of the rear 60/40 split folding seats, giving you an easy-to-clean and damage-resistant surface for mucky boots and cargo. Door panels are also a tough plastic. Just about everything below the window line is a dark colour to help hide the dirt you haven't yet wiped or hosed off.

Despite the abundance of gray and charcoal, the optional metallic, body-coloured centre console and door inserts liven up the dÈcor and add to its retro feel. These are complemented by silver metallic trim.

From heater controls to the audio system, knobs and buttons are big, beefy and easy to operate - even while wearing gloves.

Other interior amenities, which are standard on the base FJ (beginning at $29,990 for the 6-speed manual) include air conditioning with air filter, power windows and locks, and AM/FM/CD/MP3 six-speaker audio system with two speakers in the headliner to create a "sound shower". Sound quality is excellent, although wind and road noise is noticeable at highway speeds.

Not that I'm complaining. With big off-road tires and a boxy profile, the FJ can't be expected to slip through the wind. Push the accelerator and climb through the gears using the FJ's long-throw shifter, and you are rewarded with the growl of its exhaust. This is a truck, not a crossover. If you want a silky, quiet ride, there are plenty of other vehicles to choose from.

The FJ's squarish shape also makes it reasonably good at carrying boxes and other large objects. Pull the strap behind each rear seat cushion and it tumbles forward. Seatbacks then fold flat, giving you a continuous, plastic-lined cargo floor and 1.89 cubic metres of space.

In the cargo area you'll find storage trays and boxes on both sides, grocery bag hooks and tie-down rings in the floor. There's also an optional 115V, 400W AC electrical outlet.

The rear hatch is side-hinged to open like a massive fridge door. It has a relatively small rear window, which thankfully opens, allowing you carry long objects.

Still, if you regularly have a lot to haul, opt for the "B" package, which includes a massive tubular steel roofrack that could probably accommodate enough gear for a two-week safari. This one's truly functional, unlike the wimpy rails you see on some SUVs and sure beats wrecking an expensive paint job with a few bucks worth of lumber.

Also included in the "B" package is Active Traction Control, cruise, power remote mirrors, rear window washer/wiper and keyless entry. A handy feature is the clearance and backup sonar, which helps make up for poor rear visibility. This package brings the FJ Cruiser to $33,440 (manual), and $34,440 (automatic).

My tester included the "C" package, which tops out the FJ at $35,985 for the manual version and $37,080 for the automatic. At this level you get the FJammer audio system with in-dash, six disc CD changer and two extra speakers in the D-pillars; leather-wrapped steering wheel with built-in audio controls; front seat mounted side airbags and front and rear head/side curtain airbags; colour keyed interior trim; and a multi-mode display that includes a good, old-fashioned analogue compass and inclinometer.

Standard power for all FJ Cruisers is a 4.0-litre, DOHC, 24-valve V6 with variable valve timing. This is the same powerplant found in the Tacoma pickup and puts out a solid 239 horses and 278 lb/ft of torque at 3,800 rpm.

A lot of off-roaders today are, surprisingly, opting for automatic transmissions, and on the FJ you can get a five-speed auto tranny with gated shifter and lock-up torque converter delivering part-time 4WD.

My tester included the six-speed manual - which I believe is the only way to go - delivering full-time 4WD and featuring both centre and rear differential locks. I kept it in 4-Hi most of the time, but you can lock the centre differential on the fly (for wet or slippery roads) or stop and shift into 4-Lo for some serious rock climbing.

The FJ Cruiser is a bit thirsty, consuming 13 litres of fuel per 100 km, combined city/highway driving with the manual, and about a litre less with the automatic. Still, that's typical for a many SUVs.

The FJ is not for everybody and although it may be comparably priced to less rugged competitors, like the Honda Element and Ford Escape, or even its sibling RAV4, it offers fewer creature comforts. The FJ is a lifestyle choice, and if you're into fording rivers, climbing boulder-strewn hillsides, or even less treacherous outdoor pursuits, this may be the vehicle for you.
 

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Those prices seem high.
 

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Candian dollar
 

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I like CAD prices makes me feel like I got a great deal.
 

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"In the cargo area you'll find storage trays and boxes on both sides, grocery bag hooks and tie-down rings in the floor."

Storage trays and boxes in the cargo area? Uhmmm I don't think American FJ's come with those. Or am I missing something?
 
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