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Toyota's FJ Cruiser is a very old school car. In a world of high-tech SUVs designed for the school run, the Toyota FJ Cruiser takes a retro approach to doing what was once the very reason for these cars in the first place – going off-road.
It may have ended production in August, however there are still plenty sitting in Toyota dealerships, patiently waiting to find a home. The FJ trades on the looks of the original Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40 with its near vertical windscreen and 'underbite' bumper bar. With the market looking ever toward new technology and a ‘jack of all trades’ personality, the FJ Cruiser was always going to be an oddball choice, a classic outlier floating in a sea of modernity.
Sometimes, though, you just don’t need all those new-fangled technological gadgets and space for seven people. Sure, today's modern SUVs are convenient – and comfortable – for the daily 9-to-5 hustle and bustle of every day life, but... well, there’s a reason you don’t see too many Klugers out in the bush.
So just how well does the 10-year-old design of the FJ Cruiser stack up in 2016? To find out, we picked up a Hornet yellow example in Adelaide and 'cruised' back to home-base in Melbourne.
And it’s not that far into the drive before we notice just how far behind the FJ has fallen in the high-stakes SUV segment. Jumping in through the suicide doors, you’ll find a very basic interior that includes levers to engage 4WD (yes, it’s that old) and a screen that looks like it was bought from JB HI-FI and added to the cabin in an attempt to keep up with the times.
The steering wheel features basic controls in the 10 and 3 position and, in keeping with the retro feel, there’s the 4WD equivalent of a spirit level (pitch and roll indicator) and a good, old-fashioned compass on the dash.
You can really tell it was built with the US market in mind, as there’s a lot of room in the cabin to wriggle around in. Reminiscent of the H1 Hummer, there’s an acre of space between passenger and driver and comfy arm rests on each seat for long drives. Yee-ha.
Australia only receives the five-speed automatic transmission (despite the US getting a choice between automatic and manual) and it's mated to a 4.0-litre quad-cam V6 producing 380Nm of peak torque at 4400rpm and 200kW of power at 5600rpm.
The lack of a diesel-powered engine bucks the usual Australian-style 4x4 tradition. While unconventional, it still manages to be a pretty serious off-road vehicle. Part-time 4WD, electrically operated rear-differential lock, active traction control and some of the best ground clearances in the Toyota range: 36-degree approach, 29-degree ramp over and 31-degree departure angle all contribute to the rough and ready Cruiser’s trail credibility.
But, seeing as we start our journey around Adelaide on a lazy Saturday morning, let’s talk about how it goes about town.
Around the city is where you definitely miss the punch of a forced induction engine in an SUV. Being two tonnes of high riding car, it takes time for the FJ Cruiser to build speed and jumping into traffic at a moment’s notice isn’t really an option.
It does become easier to live with once on the highway while bundling along at speed. There’s a decent amount of pull from the 1GR-FE engine and overtaking isn’t painful. On the combined cycle drive from Adelaide to Melbourne, the FJ Cruiser averaged approximately 14.4 litres per 100km, which was calculated manually as there are no digital readouts in the cluster apart from a basic trip computer and odometer.
You also can feel the massive bulk of the car during urban driving, comically characterised through the body roll indicator mounted on the dash, which measures pitch and lateral roll. It’s not too bad, but we found you have to brace yourself in your seat a little more than you’re used to in some more refined SUVs.
Navigating the city streets requires a bit more steering work than usual with 2.7 turns lock-to-lock which translates to a minimum 12.7 metre turning circle.
It’s not as hard to live with as it once was with older, big 4x4s, but you do feel that it has been left behind where others have evolved over time.
Case in point, the interior. It’s nice enough and quite functional, with washable floor mats and easy to clean surfaces, but there’s not much in the way of technological advancement. The parts bin special infotainment screen has been integrated into the centre stack, but at a downward angle that’s difficult to use – especially while driving. Mind you, it does have all that you need, satellite navigation, Bluetooth audio streaming and phone capabilities.
The design of the interior was said to be inspired by childhood memories of adventure and off-roading, and it’s not hard to see why. We certainly felt at home in the spacious cabin, with the old gauges and dials, and the rumbling gear stick to engage 4WD like the Mitsubishi Pajeros and LandCruisers of old.
There’s liberal use of plastic throughout the interior and hard surfaces all round, but that’s par for the course in a proper off-roader – especially since it's so easy to clean and you don’t have to be precious with it. The body-coloured accents in the interior are a love-or-hate affair, but we think it’s a good use of colour to break up the rest of the interior’s black surfaces.
Speaking of dark surfaces, the design of the exterior does the interior no favours in terms of ambient light. The upright-windscreen and huge C-pillar blocks light compared to more conventional designs, resulting in a darker cabin.
The FJ Cruiser’s boot eats up our excessive amount of luggage, with the side-mounted hinge providing easy access to the boot – unless you're parked up against a wall! The square shape of the rear end makes the best possible use of its plastic-lined boot space, with the rear seats folding down to further increase its load capacity.
Jumping into the back through the reverse-hinged doors, the small aperture that you have to squeeze through isn’t the most elegant form of entry. There’s ample room for your feet and enough for your knees, but the rear door is difficult to close if fully open due to the odd angle of opening.
You’d expect there to be sturdy grab handles above the windows, but alas there is no such thing in the second row to grab onto when attacking trails – apart from the seat in front of you. There’s just enough storage space to stow your items but there are no frills throughout the cabin, it’s strictly a utilitarian affair.
Saddling up in the front seats before the trek from Adelaide to Melbourne, the seats are quite cushy and comfortable on first impression. They’re more closely related to armchairs than bucket seats, with very little bolstering and armrests above the centre console.
We opted for the coastal route bypassing Robe and Mt. Gambier, trying to hit as many tourist traps as possible. Touring on the road at freeway speeds, there’s relatively little wind noise to report thanks to Toyota Australia’s involvement in local tuning. Elements of the power steering have been improved to match our course-chip road surfaces and the noise, vibration and harshness is dulled compared to the offerings of international markets.
The ride wallows and bounces about while touring more than we’re used to, but this shows that the car is still geared more toward off-road driving rather than on the black top. Same too, the FJ’s steering feel. It’s quite heavy and more laborious than you’d expect, perhaps trading off that old school 4WD vibe.
Sand, dirt and rock – you name it and the FJ Cruiser has it sorted. There was never any need to shift to anything beyond 4WD in our short off-road stint, but should you need to, the FJ Cruiser offers low range, a lockable rear differential, active traction control and Toyota’s CRAWL system. The latter was added in the model's most recent update in 2013.
One of the major drawcards of buying a Toyota is the reliability and serviceability. With the engine based off its LandCruiser brother’s, the ongoing reliability is a proven aspect of ownership. Not to mention should you get in trouble, Toyota dealerships are like McDonald’s restaurants out in the country – every town’s got one.
Capped price servicing is offered for the first three years or 60,000km, whichever comes first, with six visits included costing $220 each. That’s pretty cheap motoring when compared with its competition like the Jeep Wrangler, not known for their affordable running costs…
Eating up country miles at a leisurely pace resulted in an arrival just after nightfall. The low-mounted high beams could have thrown out a larger spread of light, and the lack of a digital speedometer was annoying when trying desperately to keep to the speed limit after crossing the Victorian border.
The FJ Cruiser is certainly a left field choice for an off-roader, but for all its quirks and retro throwbacks, it’s actually quite cool. Function leads form in this car but there’s just enough design hallmarks to retrospectively reimagine the FJ40’s design.
We consider it one of those “you have to drive it to understand it” kinds of cars, especially all those who question it on face value. It may not be the what the SUV market is currently into, but for those who enjoy the old school of off-roading and 4WD, it’s a fun throwback to another era.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.