2010 Toyota FJ Cruiser 4 x 2 Review
By Roger Boylan
In my recent review of the 2010 Toyota 4Runner, a fine vehicle but (I thought, regretfully) a boring one, I made reference to the deep and irrevocable blandness of most Asian cars. However, at the time I’d never driven a Toyota FJ Cruiser. Whatever the FJ Cruiser is, it isn’t bland. In fact, it proves that Japan can make cars with as much personality and oomph as any other nation’s: Britain’s, for instance, or Italy’s, to name but two. And cars made in Japan, or by Japanese firms, tend to be a lot more reliable, not only than British or Italian ones, but than pretty much any others. So, if you can combine reliability and personality, what’s not to like? Throw in a distinguished heritage and you have a winning combination.
And the modern FJ Cruiser has a most distinguished heritage. It descends from the Korean War-era BJ prototype, developed in January 1951 in response to the U.S. military’s demand for utilitarian military vehicles to send into combat. Shipping hundreds of Willys Jeeps from the U.S. to Korea would have been cost-prohibitive, so the Japanese family firm of Toyota Motors, Ltd., just recovering from WW2, was subcontracted by Uncle Sam to build Jeep-like vehicles for use in Korea, result: The Toyota BJ, shortly afterward christened “Land Cruiser” in a (successful) attempt to evoke a Japanese Land Rover. It evolved into the FJ 20 in 1955 and, in 1960, into the FJ 40 of beloved memory, the classic Japanese Jeep.
Today’s descendant may look more like a turtle than a Jeep (weird at first, it acquires a definite quirky cuteness on further exposure), but take a close look and the bloodlines are obvious. Like its ancestor, it boasts round headlights, the name “TOYOTA” spelled out across the slat-like front grille, a nearly vertical windshield with three wipers, and–no matter what color the body is (my car’s was Iceberg White)–-a white roof, in remembrance of those bygone days before air conditioning when a white roof to deflect the rays of the sun was the best you could do to keep cool, along with winding the windows down to circulate the hot Kalahari breeze.
Structurally, the FJ is a body-on-frame design based on the platform of the Hilux/Tacoma pickup. The only powerplant it comes with is a spirited 258-horsepower 4.0-liter V6, with 270 lb.-ft. of torque, a great engine with a healthy, yet not dipsomaniacal, thirst: I averaged a not-too-bad 18.5 mpg with a lot of city driving. (EPA estimates are 17/22/19, city/highway/combined.) But put the boot down and the engine catapults the FJ from 0 to 60 in just a tick over 7 seconds; that’s as fast as my Jaguar S-Type, for goodness’ sake. Imagine the chagrin on the face of the driver of that rental-fleet Mustang I left choking in the dust of my wolf in turtle’s clothing. It makes the FJ fun to drive, no doubt about it. It also gets you out of trouble in time, a prime consideration on I-35 at rush hour. The steering, although a tad twitchy until you get used to it, keeps things well poised, and the brakes do a stellar job of bringing things to a halt, as I found out, involuntarily, a few times in heavy traffic, on rain-slicked roads, in the midst of herds of road hogs (it was spring break).
Another comment I made in my 4Runner review was in the form of a question: What’s the point of an SUV without 4WD? Little, I thought, and generally still think so; but, again, the FJ Cruiser is the exception to the rule. The one I drove was a RWD version, but it didn’t look it, and with its traction and stability control, 18-in. wheels, BF Goodrich all-terrain tires, and a thorough complement of underbody skid plates, I had no compunction in taking it for an up-and-down jaunt along a rough local gravel road, and it had no compunction in eagerly complying. If an unpaved trail or a bumpy field is the extent of your off-road needs, this configuration should be perfectly adequate; plus, it saves a mile or so per gallon on the road over the 4WD model–which, judging by other reviews I’ve read, is pretty much unbeatable in the bracken, but if I acquired an FJ Cruiser, I’d be happy enough with the RWD version. (Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.)
The FJ comes as one model with two doors and two half-doors, or rear clamshells, as you find on extended-cab pickups. There are three available drivetrains: RWD with 5-speed A/T (sticker, $23,680), which is what I drove for a week; part-time 4WD with A/T ($25,270), or full-time 4WD with 6-speed manual ($24,860). Along with the standard equipment (A/C, tilt steering, power windows and locks, eight-way manually-adjustable driver’s seat, 6-speaker AM/FM/CD audio, a limited-slip rear differential, and a full-size spare tire mounted on the back door), my test vehicle was equipped with the Convenience and TRD Sport Packages, which added keyless entry, cruise control, daytime running lights, power mirrors with “image lights” (tiny headlights on top of the mirrors), privacy glass, a rear-window wiper, a (very useful) backup camera and auto-dimming rearview mirror, and 18-in. wheels. This sent my test FJ out the door with an MSRP of $30K; I’d skip the TRD package and keep the overall price to around $25K. Safety is a top priority, with the aforementioned stability control and traction control, as well as ABS, front-seat side airbags and rollover-sensing side curtain airbags; the IIHS awarded the FJ its top-ranking score of “Good” (they don’t get carried away, those guys) for frontal-offset and side-impact collisions (http://www.iihs.org/ratings/ratingsbyseries.aspx?id=578).
Overall, this trucklet was full of surprises. Not only was it much peppier than I expected, and much smoother on the highway, but the rear seats, which at first blush look like glorified versions of the jump seats that used to be the bane of compact pickups, can actually accommodate two adults in reasonable comfort, once the slow Kabuki ballet of the door-opening ceremony has taken place: open full-size forward door; open clamshell rear door by reaching inside and pulling the handle; assist passenger on board; close clamshell door; settle self behind wheel; close full-size door. It sounds tedious, and might become so, but in fact I found the whole procedure pretty intuitive, after a couple of tries. “It’s cozy back here,” enthused my passengers. Whether these expressions of approval might turn into moans of distress after a couple hundred miles, I couldn’t say; but in any case the FJ isn’t meant as a full-size family vehicle. For a couple, or a couple plus kid, it’s ideal. Storage space is respectable, too: 67 cu. ft., with the rear seats folded forward (you have to remove the headrests first). Loading from the rear, you have to swing open the heavy rear gate, but at least it opens away from the curb, unlike the RAV4’s.
One of the most appealing aspects of the FJ, to me, is its simplicity. It has everything I need–safety features, power, a good sound system–and nothing I don’t. Leather, for instance, can’t be had; the seats are in tough, water-resistant fabric. (And, by the way, they’re about as comfortable as car seats come.) There was no Sat/Nav screen in my test car, nor any Bluetooth connectivity or MP3/WMA playback capability (the latter are available as options), and I liked it that way, remnant of the Pleistocene age that I am. Controls are utterly idiot-proof: big, easy-to-read knobs and gauges. The dashboard is a riot of gray plastic, but it’s logically laid out, with a pop-up cubby in front of the driver. Above the driver’s and front passenger’s windows are side sun visors, a simple but brilliant feature: a mere detail, but it’s details like this that clinch a deal. Visibility, not surprisingly, is compromised by the looming spare tire on the back window and the tiny second-row side windows, but with the back-up camera I was less inconvenienced than I expected to be, even in a crowded lunchtime parking lot where people seemed to be behind the wheels of their cars primarily to converse on their cell phones. The huge rear-views help, but for maximum protection just pop on a couple of adhesive fish-eye mirrors, available for 99¢ each at Wal-Mart.
If you gather that I really liked this odd little truck, you gather right. It’s unique, personable, and reasonably priced, and it has just the right combination of machismo and quirkiness. Its performance is punchy and well-controlled, it’s comfortable and roomy enough inside, and although it’s hardly an econocar, the fuel mileage is acceptable, especially set against the high value retention and low maintenance costs of a vehicle with such sterling reliability. And these days your Toyota dealer really wants to be your friend.
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