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The Toyota FJ Cruiser is a retro-looking off-roader that's based on the modern-day Prado.
It was on sale in the US for some time before Toyota Australia decided to import it to help inject some much-needed 'cool' into the brand locally.
There's just one model of the Toyota FJ Cruiser available, priced from $46,490 and powered by a 4.0-litre V6.
While it's part 1960s FJ40 retro, the FJ Cruiser is mostly modern day contemporary, with a unique styling edge – it has a truck load of presence.
For a thoroughly niche vehicle, sales have been encouraging to say the least. In the US, the FJ Cruiser found 1500 new homes each month over the course of 2010 and 2011 has kicked off with equal success. Not bad for a sales market that is still reeling from the GFC.
The FJ Cruiser’s design origins lay in the hugely capable and highly successful off-road bush basher of the ’60s: the mighty FJ40. Successful, as in just over 1.1 million were sold throughout the world between 1960 and 1984, and 121,000 of those went to Australian buyers.
It was essentially Japan’s take on the American Jeep of the day. This was a seriously capable vehicle and quickly developed a reputation as a hardcore off-road contender that could take ridiculous amounts of abuse, and as such was considered by those in the know to be virtually indestructible, given its bullet-proof reliability.
You can see the similarities in key features such as the close-set round headlamps and the same shape grille with mesh insert, the almost bolt upright windscreen, wrap-around rear glass and the white painted roof. These are the giveaway signs to anyone familiar with the '40’ Series LandCruisers.
The FJ Cruiser designers have successfully incorporated all the standout design cues from the FJ40 in a uniquely contemporary package, with the same kind of distinction and edge that the modern MINI designers achieved with their current take on the diminutive '60s icon.
Jin Kin, the young Korean born designer who was a graduate of that famous automotive designer factory, the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, California, came up with the FJ Cruiser fresh out of school. Not bad for a first effort, and we can’t wait for his encore performance, which won’t be an SUV, he quietly whispered.
Actually, success came even sooner for Jin, as he also worked on the Scion t2B concept, which became the 2008 Scion xB in the United States, and eventually the Rukus in Australia.
Jin says he never set out to design a modern update of the classic FJ40, but rather a modern interpretation of a vehicle with such iconic off-road heritage and character as the 40 Series.
In fact, suitable homage was paid to this classic, when a mint condition FJ40 was shipped in to CALTY (California Toyota Design Studio), and remained on the studio floor throughout the entire design process for the FJ Cruiser.
Jin also told us that FJ Cruiser is “a dream come true” for him, and that his goal was simply to build a show car. Lucky for him, that show car, known as the ‘FJ Cruiser Concept’ caused such a stir at the 2003 Detroit Auto Show, that even the legendary Italian designer Giorgetto Guigiaro, lined up to congratulate the guy.
Within just two years, the FJ Cruiser would become a production reality, when it was revealed at the 2005 Chicago show to great fanfare.
He is also amazed and humbled by the fact that the final production ‘FJ’ is so similar to the show car, and says that whenever he sees one of on the road, “it feels a little like Pinocchio” in terms of bringing an inanimate object to life.
Inspiration for the muscular stance of the FJ Cruiser also came in the form of Jin’s pet dog, an American Pit Bull Terrier – with that hunkered down, forward leaning stance and broad shoulders. It’s intimidating, and to accentuate that look he tried to expose as much of the front tyres as possible. And yes, it works. Jin calls the design language ‘modern industrial’.
An “indestructible, fun, off-road SUV for young people with an active lifestyle” was the original brief for the design pitch that won Jin this project, and there is no question that the FJ Cruiser nails that brief with a bullseye.
It’s the same retro-modern treatment inside the new FJ, but it’s not the work of Mr Jin Kim, but rather William Chergosky, who had previously done time at Chrysler on Jeep interiors, and thus was well credentialed for the FJ Cruiser job.
One of the first things that hits you when you climb into the FJ’s cabin is the exposed sheet metal in the same colour as the exterior and the industrial-style piping that is covered in vinyl and laid horizontally along the dashboard. It’s a very industrial look, which conveys that ‘unbreakable’ image of a rugged go-anywhere vehicle.
That’s not surprising either. A picture of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry and a movie poster from Raiders of the Lost Ark were just two of several images that inspired Chergosky on the FJ Cruiser project.
There’s more colour-coded sheet metal on the door trim too, but it doesn’t look budget or cheap, as the rest of the materials and features are the usual Toyota quality look and feel.
The seats are not only comfortable and sufficiently well bolstered, but are also kid-proof, mud-proof, and water-proof, due to a special water-repellent resin that has been applied to the back of the fabric.
Even the rubber-look flooring of the FJ Cruiser is specially grooved to channel water, so I guess that means it can be hosed down after a day in the mud. Either way, the whole interior treatment is dirt friendly.
Rather than follow the two-door design of the FJ40, but wishing to maintain a coupe style, a far more practical approach uses smaller rear-opening doors which are relatively easy to open and offer far better access to the rear seats.
The FJ is very wide, so there’s a heap of elbow space between driver and front passenger, as well as excellent legroom on both sides. It’s not exactly limo class in the rear, but our 178cm passenger throughout the launch route reported a comfortable ride - for an hour or two.
There’s also excellent access to the rear luggage compartment with a swing door, or you can pop the glass window open if you want to throw something light and small in the back.
It’s loud but without a lot of bling, looks cool, and is exceptionally comfortable - but how does the FJ Cruiser go?
You won’t believe how good this thing drives on the dirt, and how it irons out the rough stuff. There are very few vehicles with this kind of off-road competence that provides passengers with this level of comfort, and the Range Rover Vogue is one of them.
Under the bonnet sits a 4.0-litre V6 petrol engine lifted straight out of the Toyota Prado. It’s a wonderfully smooth and free-revving powertrain that develops 200kW and 380Nm of torque.
While that may not seem terribly impressive, especially when lugging around 1955 kilograms of FJ Cruiser, 310 of those Newton-metres are available from a staggering 1200rpm. Remember, this is petrol power, not a diesel. There’s oodles of punch from the very instant you tap the throttle and the power is put to ground in an utterly silk smooth fashion through a five-speed auto. Six forward ratios would be better and provide even more fuel efficiency on the tarmac, but having said that, the ratios are well spaced and the shifts are seamless.
Not only that, it’s quiet too and you won’t know if the engine is ticking over on a warm idle, such is its refinement. All three of us in the test vehicle were surprised by how little engine noise there was in the cabin of the FJ, even under heavy acceleration.
Drivers can shift manually too, and while it’s not quite a sequential shift, the movement is effortless.
Given the FJ Cruiser’s substantial width and weight, I wasn’t expecting such composed ride and handling on the tarmac, but there’s a good reason why the suspension set-up on this vehicle is so well sorted, and it involves the ‘Toyota Technical Centre in Australia (TTCA) and its intimate knowledge of local conditions.
Firstly, the engineering team benchmarked the Toyota Prado, which has a solid reputation for ride and handling, but after twelve months of testing off road and in the cities, made some important changes to the suspension tuning on the FJ.
Rather than go with the softer set up from the United States, the chief engineer on the FJ Cruiser project decided to stiffen the shock absorbers by 10 precent and reduce the hydraulic power assistance on the steering.
The end result is nicely weighted steering from dead centre that tightens up when traveling at highway speeds, but is also light enough for those parallel parking in suburbia.
The other change is that the wheel and tyre package has increased by one inch from the Prado to 17-inch alloys, which is part of the reason why the FJ Cruiser delivers such extraordinary all round comfort in different terrains.
Read Part Two of the FJ Cruiser review – which covers the vehicle’s off-road capability in more detail.