Toyota’s FJ Cruiser is an off-road champ, an in-town challenge |

Toyota’s FJ Cruiser is an off-road champ, an in-town challenge

special to the Daily
Special to the DailyThe 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser borrows some styling cues from its ancestor, the FJ40, but adds a whole new level of California-inspired looks. The venerable machine proved its worth on trails near Bond, but proved to be a bit difficult for in-town use.

The total combination – popular, as you’ve probably noticed from the number already on the road, many tricked out with the lift kit and shiny black wheels – is an offering that takes the SUV (suburban underutilized vehicle) concept and turns it on its ear. The FJ is an automobile that, like its direct ancestor, the iconic and virtually indestructible FJ40, is truly unstoppable in offroad situations. Tricked out with rockcrawling-ready low gear ranges, a clutch start cancel button and locking rear differential switches, as well as nearly 10 inches of standard clearance and almost eight inches of wheel travel, you truly can tackle backcountry trails. We took the FJ up on some twisting red soil and Pinon pine stretches around the State Bridge Lodge area on the weekend – after almost a decade of hanging out there, the fire damage was absolutely horrific to see, by the way – but the offroad stuff served as a way to brighten one very sad experience. I have my fingers crossed for a swift rebuilding project out there.

Throw the FJ into its lowest range and you can very comfortably maneuver switchbacks and steeps (34 degree approach and 30 degree departure angles help); the broadly-set, 74-inch-wide stance makes the machine a little wide for some trails but … well, you’ll be folding in the mirrors and getting your buddy to walk ahead as a spotter anyhow, so the size is just about right for backcountry adventures.

However – and here’s the big however – when the FJ is on dry pavement, it’s a bit of a moose. That’s an understatement, actually: The FJ Cruiser borders on being a challenge to drive in urban situations, with rear blind spots that make it seem like an original Hummer H1 with cardboard taped to the side windows.

I first noticed this when I drove the FJ during a debut event in Palm Springs about a year and a half ago, when I missed a gas truck by about three feet while changing lanes on I-10. The FJ’s low roofline has necessitated a small, short windshield (complete with three wiper arms, like an MG Midget) and nearly vertical A-pillars; a pair of suicide doors in the back feature small porthole windows and then there’s a gigantic space in the mid-cabin. Cap that with tiny rear side windows and a tail-mounted spare (plus upright side mirrors about the size of a Kleenex box) and you have visibility issues that require three turns of the head, a back and forth look and a bit of prayer each time you move around in traffic. It’s definitely a driving situation you have to get used to. Having an observer/navigator on board like you do on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle might make things a little easier; left to your own devices, you’ve got be particularly vigilant.

And while the 239 horsepower 4.0 liter V-6 provides loads of grunt (278 lb-ft of torque) for non-pavement excursions, you’ve got to run the FJ pretty hot to keep it rolling on the steep parts of the tunnel approaches. Even with a six-speed transmission, the FJ’s 4,295 pounds make it a chunky beast. You will occasionally see one flying by you on the highway but rest assured they’re running it at the max, as well as paying the price: It’s rated at 19 miles per gallon, at most, and the machine requires premium fuel, to boot.

Much as the exterior is a wild agglomeration of California-inspired, Japanese-based styling cues – celebrating the vehicle’s heritage, but still making it look unlike anything else on the road – the interior is also chock ablock with hyperstylized elements. The vertical dashboard, framed between two tubular forms, looks like an aggressive Sony boombox from the 1990s, complete with a metal-faced stereo unit; mine was topped with a slightly goofy multi-info display which contains a floating compass and inclinometer. The whole interior has more textured plastic than a worksite lunchbox but is still compelling, in an odd sort of way; cloth seating is washable and stain resistant and the plastic flooring and rubberized floor mats allow you to hose out the mud, if your travels take you that way.

Access to the back seat is via the aforementioned rear-opening doors and served to be a bit inconvenient, even when loading the dog along for the ride.

You do get plenty of cargo room – the rear seats fold 60/40 and are plastic backed – allowing almost 67 cubic feet when the seats are dropped.

So – if you’re planning to actually do a lot of backcountry exploring, the FJ’s one of the best choices out there (and pretty affordable, as well). Those with a more urban agenda might find themselves a bit blindsided.

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