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Retro COOL!

12 December 2011

road Test                                                                                                                          TOYOTA FJ DESERT CRUISER



Retro-styled vehicles of recent times have met with mixed sales results. BMW’s Mini Cooper has been a hit. Volkswagen’s Beetle has not. Chrysler’s PT Cruiser was cool for a brief period, and then passed on. So what about Toyota’s retro-styled FJ Cruiser? Well, it’s been selling well on the international front for five years. Now we (finally) can get to grips with it


Don’t judge a book by its cover… that’s the bottom line when it comes to the Toyota FJ Cruiser. It would be a serious mistake to dismiss it as merely a retro-wannabe, trading on the long and outstanding heritage of the FJ generations of the Land Cruiser.

No, what Toyota has created is a vehicle with genuine ’Cruiser bundu-bashing credentials, combined with a distinctive look and persona, which is appealing whether you know or care about what it actually stands for.

Toyota isn’t the first manufacturer to use retro to sell today, though most readers will no doubt be aware that the FJ comes to SA well into its life span. This is largely the result of delays in right-hand drive production because of the high demand in left-hand drive markets — in other words in the US, where it has been around for five years.

You have to accept that this is an old-school product, but things tend to move slowly in the SUV market, so the FJ isn’t really lacking in the technological sense.

The FJ is tested here in Desert Cruiser guise, which means Sandstorm paintwork, nudge bar with spotlights and a towbar. The vehicle incorporates a number of traditional FJ cues, such as the trademark white roof, close-set headlights inside an uncomplicated mesh grille design, and simple, telephone dial wheels in a smoky finish.


Features and equipment


Under the distinctive skin it is modern, if not state-of-the-art. The engine is an all-aluminium DOHC V6 with variable valve timing on both inlet and exhaust, the gearbox has five speeds, and it has all the braking and driving aids you could desire.

Like every Cruiser-branded Toyota, the FJ is built on a ladder-frame chassis, onto which the body is mounted — a method to ensure a tough and rugged platform for the suspension to work from, while keeping the delicate bits out of harm’s way. There’s a solid rear axle incorporating a lockable differential, suspended on coils, as is the front end.

Adding to its off-road credentials is 245mm of ground clearance, though we measured quite a lot more – 26mm more, to be exact.

The geometric nature of the FJ’s sheet metal bodes well for the interior space, and the good news is that it is a genuine five-door five-seater, despite what the profile might suggest at a glance. Yep, there are two doors on each side of this wagon, and closer inspection reveals a pair of partly-hidden rear openings, which can be unlatched once the associated front door is open, hinging rearward for access to the rear. The fifth door, which carries a 17-inch spare, opens sideways (the wrong way for a right-hand drive vehicle) and operates with surprisingly little effort despite its considerable weight.




Clamber up into the cloth-covered driving pew and you may at first feel slightly claustrophobic. The narrow glasshouse (requiring three stubby wipers to sweep the screen properly) and wide B- and C-pillars are the reason for this, and you soon realise that rear park distance control and a reversing camera are essential features – as are the large exterior mirrors. The FJ also feels wide, which at 1905mm it certainly is.

Getting comfortable relative to the steering wheel is easy enough, though a reach adjustment on the column would afford taller drivers a little more legroom. The seat is relatively flat but plush in terms of its firmness. Fold-down inner armrests make for a relaxed approach to cruising.

Controls are chunky, some of them to the point of being truly oversized, especially the door release levers. Not that it really matters in warm and sunny SA, but this is so that you can operate things even with gloves on.

Cabin accoutrements include a sound system with Bluetooth and Aux/iPod inputs, steering wheel controls for phone and sound, and speed control.

The various ancillary controls – whether they be the buttons mounted relatively low on the centre console for the likes of diff lock, traction control, or park distance control (PDC) override, or those on the leather-rimmed steering wheel – are very easy to find.

Three rotary dials and the A/C and recirculate buttons for the straightforward heating and ventilation systems are set in a body-coloured background panel, the colour mimicked on the front and rear doors. Adding to an ambience which can best be described as “industrial chic” is the absence of any carpeting. The cabin has tough-looking rubber mats throughout.

Stalks are standard Toyota fare, which means they operate with pleasing accuracy and precision, but wipers and lights don’t have “auto” settings – perhaps a clue to the FJ’s increasing vintage.

More irritating is the absence of one-touch “up” for the driver’s window and the lack of a driving computer with range and consumption data. Some owners may also feel that a proper climate control system wouldn’t be too much to ask for at a price of R450 000.

Detracting from the touchy-feely are the hard plastics and the dimpled plastic on the upper dash, doors and centre console. It does a good job of fooling the eye, but not the hand…

Access to the rear compartment is straightforward despite the size of the doors, and there’s no B-pillar in the way once they are open.

With its compact wheelbase (at 2690mm it is 100mm shorter than a Prado), rear space isn’t especially generous but it is more than adequate for three normal adults, especially as the FJ measures an impressive 1905mm across. But it’s the wide pillars and non-opening windows which will take the shine off a long journey as a rear passenger, and it can start to feel a little too cosy on a hot day.

The seat, which also has Isofix attachments, is split 60:40 and with the cushion section tilted forward and the backrest folded, there’s a fairly low – but not completely flat – floor, with a plastic surface which is reasonably scratch resistant. Total luggage volume is a middling 1288 litres, the short rear overhang being the limiting factor in achieving true greatness.

The rear glass can be opened independently of the tailgate so that smaller, lighter parcels can be loaded. However, the aperture is quite narrow and the height of the window won’t win vertically-disadvantaged fans.




At 2040kg as tested by our colleagues at CAR, the FJ isn’t a shrinking violet, and coupled with its bluff countenance and brick-like aerodynamics, we weren’t expecting too much in the performance department. But with 200 kW and surprisingly fast reactions through the gearbox, it steps away from standstill with some urgency, reaching 100 km/h in very respectable 8,6 seconds.

It is also an assured overtaker, its swift (but unobtrusive) kickdown and generous torque of 380 Nm being a boon. The torque peaks at 4400r/min, but this statistic doesn’t tell the whole story. It is clear that there’s a good supply from a lot lower down, so those drivers planning on towing need not worry unduly.

The engine and gearbox combo is a very happy one and the combination of punch and refinement is hard to fault. But an equation based around 200 kW, two tons and a 0.40 drag coefficient can only provide one outcome: the FJ Cruiser is a thirsty beast. Don’t expect much better than 14 litres per 100 km, and somewhat more if you have a heavy right foot.

While you’ll have to pull over at the pumps more often than is ideal, the FJ makes a good job of stopping in a hurry. Ventilated discs are fitted all round and as well as having good pedal feel, it stops very quickly, albeit with a fair degree of suspension dive and some mild tail-wagging in extremis.


Ride and handling


Getting a large SUV’s ride/handling balance right without the expensive benefits of air suspension remains a real challenge, but we think Toyota has found a good compromise here. Sure, its plushness borders on the mushy when you try to throw it into a corner, but why would you want to squeal the tyres of an SUV?

The good news is that it does change direction obediently when called upon to do so, both the rate and amount of body roll being less severe than we thought it would be. The 265/70 Dunlop Grandtrek rubber proves pretty resolute on tarmac. The tyres are quiet, too.

As mentioned, there is some fore/aft pitching if you’re harsh on the brakes, and the steering isn’t big on feedback. It has even less in the way of feel – which can make positioning it accurately disconcerting at first – but you’ll acclimatise quickly. It isn’t any more challenging in suburbia than a hundred other SUVs.

Take it off road and the combination of short wheelbase, minimal overhangs and impressive ground clearance work well, the only criticism being a turning circle which is on the large side. Its 4×4 hardware is well-proven (a secondary lever handles shifts between 2 High, 4 High and 4 Low in an identical manner to the Hilux drivetrain), and a combination of mechanical and electronic aids ensures traction when the going gets especially tough. With the rear diff lock engaged and off-road traction control acting like a limited slip differential at the other end, an FJ is a willing and entertaining companion in the dirt.




Despite its bulk and thirst (neither of which are deal-breakers, in our opinion), an FJ Cruiser is a vehicle you can live with every day. After all, a Hilux is half-a-metre longer overall and has nearly as much extra metal in the wheelbase, so why not?  It is extremely comfortable in terms of ride quality and seating, and while the cabin disappointments in a couple of small ways, there’s nothing serious enough to warrant condemnation.

More than four months after its local launch and more than five years since its international debut, the FJ Cruiser still makes jaws drop, necks swivel and eyeballs glaze. It’s a lot of fun to own, too, and not just because of its looks. The driving experience is actually one of the better ones in the SUV market.


Team talk:

“The more I drove it the more I enjoyed it. The plush ride coupled to the auto ’box/big six powertrain made it totally effortless, and once my mood was in synch with the natural pace of the FJ, it was perfect.” – Adrian Burford.

“I fell in love with the FJ’s retro look and character, its on-road performance and ride, its off-road ability and the three windscreen wipers. There are some practical challenges though, such as the limited space for rear-seat passengers and the very cool but not very practical rear-hinged doors. Driving on a rough dirt road in 2WD, the FJ tends to be skittish but engaging 4WD high range mends this tendency. Oh, and there is the matter of fuel consumption. Still, every great sport has its injuries.” – Danie Botha.


“The FJ Cruiser is great. It is comfortable, powerful and fun to drive. It also turns heads wherever it goes. If you’re looking for a practical overlander, though, a diesel Fortuner or Hilux are probably more sensible options. The FJ, with its thirsty engine and quirky suicide doors, lacks the versatility of the Fortuner and Hilux.” – GG van Rooyen