South Australia’s Flinders Ranges is tough country. Steep goat tracks, laden with razor sharp rocks of all shapes and sizes, means you need a proper low range-capable off-roader if you want to explore these parts without getting into trouble.
While the scenery is spectacular, it’s a very unforgiving place with difficult terrain and very little water in parts. Explorers Bourke and Wills lost their lives around here in 1861 due to what amounted to starvation and exhaustion.
The irony is that despite the harshness of these ranges, it’s all a bit too easy going in the Toyota FJ Cruiser, and the ride comfort along these rock-infested tracks is ridiculously good.
By that, I mean you can’t feel the rocks that litter every one of these trails, as the FJ’s suspension simply flattens out any coarseness for what can only be described as a supple if not prestige quality ride. For what is a highly capable 4X4 under fifty grand, it really shouldn’t be this good, but it just is!
Toyota engineers have certainly done their homework when it comes the FJ Cruiser. Suspension set-up on the FJ has been specially tuned for Australian conditions after chief engineer, Akio Nishimura, personally did extensive testing here with the vehicle on both city roads and difficult off-road tracks, to enable the best possible set-up.
Nishimura, along with vital input from the local Toyota engineering team, made important changes to the suspension tune, despite the fact that the chassis, engine, transmission and suspension have all been proven in Prado. The FJ’s shock absorbers were stiffened by 10 percent on the American settings for better driveability, but it hasn’t compromised the remarkably compliant ride the FJ Cruiser delivers on- and off-road.
Engineers shortened the Prado’s chassis by 100mm in the interest of better on-road handling and shorter front and rear overhangs, which has meant outstanding approach and departure angles.
That’s something that doesn’t quite register in the FJ, unless you’re pointing nose-first down a bloody steep track leading onto a riverbed. Remarkably, the Cruiser managed to clear the ground as we levelled out, after I was absolutely sure that we would gouge the under-body scuff plate.
That wasn’t the only surprise. We then crawled along the dry bed and managed to climb over what could only be described as a decent-sized boulder. While the FJ Cruiser was left balancing on three wheels during the manoeuvre, the whole event was all a bit uneventful given the ease of this task, as well as the outstanding ride comfort.
With pedigree like the FJ40 and a contemporary drivetrain from Prado, there are few compromises when it comes to the FJ Cruiser’s off-road ability.
For starters, there’s a ladder-frame chassis, heavy-duty coil suspension all round, and a part-time four-wheel drive system with two-speed transfer case. Not that you need this kind of 4×4 grunt much of the time, at least in this part of the Flinders.
While the FJ Cruiser is happy to motor along dirt trails in two-wheel drive (more on that later) it’s worthwhile shifting into 4-High, as the car feels significantly more planted at speed. What’s more, you can do that on the fly with little more than finger tip effort.
For the really rough stuff, especially those steep rocky inclines and descents that are a common site throughout the Flinders terrain, simply move the transfer case shifter into 4-Low while in neutral, and this thing will pretty much do anything you ask of it.
But if you’re still struggling to gain enough traction to climb these slippery rocky slopes, then you have the option of manually engaging (by that, I mean, pushing a button) the rear diff lock and/or the A-TRAC (Active Traction Control) for tank-like climbing ability.
It’s not just the FJ Cruiser’s ability to conquer some pretty serious off-road tracks with a fair amount of ease that surprises, it’s as much about how comfortable the ride is while doing so that will amaze you even more.
Even when climbing some seriously steep hills, 4-Low meant absolutely no wheel slip whatsoever, but in fairness, the ground was particularly dry.
The FJ’s turning circle is also surprisingly tight for a vehicle of these proportions as proven when we came across what I would call a nasty sharp right hand turn, down a slippery track. There was precious little room for error, or you faced an uncertain future down what was essentially a cliff face. With only 2.7 turns to lock and direct steering, the Cruiser turned in early allowing plenty of run-off space in the event that the front wheels pushed on under the loose stones that littered the track.
This is a vehicle that inspires a great deal of confidence in off-road conditions. After a while, you get the impression that it’s all too easy, and that the Flinders Ranges doesn’t provide enough of a challenge for the FJ Cruiser. We got so cocky that we shoved it back in two-wheel drive and drove up one of these rocky slopes without so much as a single wheel slip.
Interestingly, the FJ cruiser makes do without much of the current suite of off-road electronic nannies, such as Crawl Control, KDSS and multi-terrain monitors, for what is a more engaging off-road experience. That said, once you engage Low-4 in first gear, you can pretty much take your foot off the brake and rely on engine braking for a similar effect, shifting up through the lower gears for increased crawl speed.
There will be many who will buy an FJ Cruiser on badge and style alone, but what you get is so much more that even at $44,000 it’s a lot of car for the money. My only regret on this test, was that we didn’t get the chance to use either the rear diff lock, or the A-TRAC assistance.